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CONNECTIONS: Affairs of state, or state of affairs

Were we simpler and purer then; were the scandals? Were we more sensitive to over-stepping and wrong-doing, less willing to overlook it and quicker to condemn? Perhaps, but explicit details rouse emotions then and now.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

To get in shape for what 2019 might bring, we can revisit earlier scandals in American political life – evil doings in bygone days.

Born in 1799, Margaret (Peggy) O’Neal was the daughter of a barkeep in Washington, D.C. Her father’s boarding house and bar were steps from the White House—neighbors of presidents, but not in the same social circle. In 1815, when Peggy was 16, she married her first husband. He was 39. In 1828, while her husband was away in the Navy, word came that her husband was dead. Some reports said it was suicide.

Mere months later, in 1829, Peggy married President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War, John Eaton. They married so soon after her husband’s death that it shocked sensibilities. Even before her first marriage, Peggy’s reputation was questioned. After all, as a young girl, hadn’t she worked in a bar?

At 30, Peggy was an intoxicating blend of outspoken, vivacious and opinionated Washington belle. To some, her personality was infectious; to others, it was inappropriate for a good woman and indication of “easy virtue.” Peggy’s marriage to Eaton brought her into the circle of Cabinet wives. Florida Calhoun, wife of the vice president, took an interest. Florida’s interest in Peggy was not kindly.

They called it the Petticoat Affair – that is, the petticoats of the Cabinet wives. Whipped into a unified front of distain by Florida, Peggy was ostracized. Florida and her cohorts spread rumors about alleged love affairs. They also whispered that so sudden a marriage must indicate an affair with Eaton that began while Peggy’s husband was still alive. It was an easy step from supposition to supposition: Perhaps her husband found out about the affair. Then suppose a betrayed and bereft husband resorted to suicide. In that case, wasn’t Peggy a murderer?

The Petticoat Affair raged on for two years. In 1831, President Jackson, sympathizing with Peggy, took an interest. He spoke on Peggy’s behalf, produced witnesses to her good character, and himself pronounced Peggy “as chaste as a virgin.”

Just when you think this isn’t a petticoat affair, it is a petty affair that has nothing to do with politics, the president called a special Cabinet meeting. He prevailed upon his Cabinet to prevail upon their wives. But ostracizing and rumors persisted, and Jackson became convinced it was indeed political—a plot against him to sow discord in his administration. Jackson fired his entire Cabinet. The relationship with his Vice President John C. Calhoun was irretrievable, and in his second term, Jackson chose Martin Van Buren.

An 1859 engraving in Harper’s Weekly of Philip Barton Key II from a photograph by Mathew Brady

Tame stuff compared to explicit photographs and “sexts” on the front page of a grocery store tabloid or payments to hush sexy ladies. Were we simpler and purer then; were the scandals? Were we more sensitive to over-stepping and wrong-doing, less willing to overlook it and quicker to condemn? Perhaps, but explicit details rouse emotions then and now.

It was 1859. The son of Francis Scott Key, nephew of Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, was a U.S. attorney. He was said to be the most handsome man in Washington, D.C. Moreover, he was a widower and fond of the ladies.

His choice, Teresa Sickles, was a dalliance, not a future bride because she was already married. Her husband, Dan Sickles, was reputed to be a serial adulterer and a very jealous husband. He was also much older than his wife. The five-year marriage was, therefore, stormy.

An 1859 engraving in Harper’s Weekly of Teresa Sickles from a photograph by Mathew Brady

Sickles frequently accused Teresa of adultery with different men, but she always denied the charge, evidently in candor.  Sickles never suspected her affair with Key. Then, one day, Sickles received the letter, the one with the explicit details.  He confronted his wife, who admitted the truth of the accusation. He forced her to write and sign a confession. And then…

One detail had particularly enraged Sickles: Key waved a white handkerchief—out his own window or under hers—when he wanted Teresa. Sickles waited for Key to sit on a bench outside his house and wave the handkerchief. He rushed out and confronted Key.

Reputedly Sickles said, “Key, you have dishonored my home; you must die.” With that, Sickles shot the unarmed Key repeatedly.

Laying-in-wait aside, Sickles was acquitted due to temporary insanity: The letter made him do it. In an interesting turn, Sickles was declared “a hero who saved women from Key.”

Did I forget to mention Dan Sickles was an American diplomat—yup, Minister to Spain? He was elected and re-elected to Congress. At the battle of Gettysburg, he lost his leg. Oh, and that bench Key was sitting on, the one where he was shot repeatedly? It was in Lafayette Park across from the White House.

Etching of William Blount by Albert Rosenthal

William Blount was a representative to the Continental Congressman and signed the Constitution. On the other hand, in 1796, while senator from the new state of Tennessee, Blount tried to help England. If the British could seize Spanish-held Louisiana and Florida, gain a foothold in the new USA, Blount could make a fortune. Good grief.

The plan called for the Cherokee to attack the Spanish and, with the help of frontiersmen, drive the Spanish into the sea. The area would become a British colony. England would open it to settlers, and Blount, who owned a huge swath of that land, would become rich selling lots.

It’s those darn letters. One surfaced and found its way into the wrong hands—the hands of President John Adams. The plot unraveled and Blount became the first politician to be expelled from the United States Senate.

Oh, well: this is America, the land of second chances, Blount’s political career boomed. An unwelcome scoundrel in Washington, D. C., he was a successful politician in Tennessee.

At their core, scandals were, are and will always be all about sex and money.


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