John Eaton (politician)

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John Henry Eaton
John Eaton.jpg
United States Minister to Spain
In office
March 16, 1836 – May 1, 1840
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by William T. Barry
Succeeded by Aaron Vail
Governor of the Territory of Florida
In office
April 24, 1834 – March 16, 1836
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by William Pope Duval
Succeeded by Richard K. Call
13th United States Secretary of War
In office
March 9, 1829 – June 18, 1831
President Andrew Jackson
Preceded by Peter Buell Porter
Succeeded by Lewis Cass
United States Senator
from Tennessee
In office
September 5, 1818 – March 9, 1829
Preceded by George W. Campbell
Succeeded by Felix Grundy
Personal details
Born (1790-06-18)June 18, 1790
Scotland Neck, North Carolina, U.S.
Died November 17, 1856(1856-11-17) (aged 66)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political party Democratic-Republican (1815–28)
Democratic (1828–40)
Spouse(s) Myra Lewis
(m. 1810; her death 1818)

Margaret O'Neill
(m. 1829; his death 1856)
Alma mater University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Profession Lawyer, soldier
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Rank Major
Battles/wars War of 1812

John Henry Eaton (June 18, 1790 – November 17, 1856) was an American politician and diplomat from Tennessee who served as U.S. Senator and as Secretary of War in the administration of Andrew Jackson. He was 28 years old when he entered the Senate, making him the second-youngest U.S. Senator in history after Armistead Thomson Mason. Eaton resigned as Secretary of War as part of a strategy to resolve the Petticoat affair, a social scandal that involved Eaton and his wife, Peggy, and hindered the effectiveness of the Jackson administration.

Early life[edit]

John Eaton was born on June 18, 1790 near Scotland Neck, Halifax County, North Carolina to John and Elizabeth Eaton. His father was a coroner and member of the state legislature, while his uncle, Major Pinkerton Eaton, had been killed in the Revolutionary War.[1] Eaton's father owned a large amount of land in middle Tennessee, and the 1790 census lists him as the owner of 12 slaves. The younger Eaton attended the University of North Carolina from 1802 to 1804.[2]


After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Eaton became a lawyer. He served in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812.

Public service[edit]

From 1815 to 1816, he was a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. In 1818, he was elected Senator from Tennessee, serving until 1829. His age of 28 at the time of his entry to the Senate was notable; it contradicted the US Constitution's requirement that all Senators be at least 30 years old.

Unlike many Southerners, Eaton supported the Missouri Compromise of 1820. On March 11, 1820, in a letter to Major General Andrew Jackson, a fellow Tennessean, he claimed that "it has preserved piece and dissipated angry feelings, and dispelled appearances which seemed dark and horrible and threatening to the interest and harmony of the nation."[3]

Eaton was a close personal friend of Jackson, and while in the Senate supported the Jacksonian movement. He urged Jackson to accept appointment as Governor of the newly-acquired Territory of Florida in 1821.[4]

Secretary of War[edit]

Eaton resigned his Senate seat in 1829 to accept appointment as Jackson's Secretary of War, and served from 1829 to 1831. Respectable women in Washington social circles led by Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, snubbed the Eatons because they married soon after her husband, John B. Timberlake's, death, rather than waiting for the usual mourning period; there were rumors that they had been having an affair prior to her first husband's death. The disruption penetrated the Cabinet as wives and cabinet member ostracized the Eatons, which angered Jackson. The controversy, known as the Petticoat affair, contributed to the political rise of Martin Van Buren, a member of Jackson's cabinet who supported the Eatons. It also led to the creation of an informal circle of advisors; Jackson detractors called them his "Kitchen Cabinet". (Apparently this group did, in fact, frequently meet in the White House kitchen.)

After Van Buren resigned as Secretary of State to help Jackson resolve the controversy, Jackson was able to end it by asking for the resignations of most of his other cabinet members. Eaton resigned as Secretary of War on June 18, 1831.

Later life and death[edit]

Following his resignation, he received appointments that took him away from Washington, DC, first as Governor of Florida Territory from 1834 to 1836, and then as ambassador to Spain from 1836 to 1840.

Upon returning from Spain, Eaton made the surprising announcement that he was unwilling to support Van Buren's campaign for reelection to the presidency in 1840. The declaration deeply upset Jackson, who accused him of having "apostatised and taken the field with the piebald opposition of abolitionists, antimasons and blue light federalist."[5]

Eaton died in Washington, D.C. on November 17, 1856. He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C.[6]

Personal life[edit]

His first wife was Myra Lewis, who died before 1818. Eaton married his second wife Peggy O'Neill Timberlake (1799–1879), a longtime friend and newly bereaved widow, in 1829, years after meeting her and her husband in Washington, DC.


Eaton County, Michigan, is named in his honor.[7]


  1. ^ Marszalek, John F. "John Henry Eaton". The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved April 5, 2017. 
  2. ^ Copeland, J. Isaac (1986). "Eaton, John Henry". NCpedia. University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved April 9, 2017. 
  3. ^ Remini 1977, p. 391.
  4. ^ Remini 1977, p. 400.
  5. ^ Remini 1984, pp. 466-467.
  6. ^ "EATON, John Henry, (1790 - 1856)". United States Congress. Retrieved April 6, 2017. 
  7. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 113. 

See also[edit]


  • Youngest Senator in history -
  • Remini, Robert V. (1977). Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767–1821. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8018-5911-3. 
  • Remini, Robert V. (1984). Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833–1845. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-0-06-015279-6. 

External links[edit]

United States Senate
Preceded by
George W. Campbell
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Tennessee
Served alongside: John Williams, Andrew Jackson, Hugh Lawson White
Succeeded by
Felix Grundy
Political offices
Preceded by
Peter Buell Porter
U.S. Secretary of War
Served under: Andrew Jackson

Succeeded by
Lewis Cass
Preceded by
William P. Duval
Territorial Governor of Florida
Succeeded by
Richard K. Call
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
William T. Barry
U.S. Minister to Spain
Succeeded by
Aaron Vail