By Dr. Melissa Walker, George Dean Johnson Jr. Professor of History at Converse College and 2007 S.C. Professor of the Year (named by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education).
Political sex scandals are nothing new, and their impact reaches far beyond those immediately involved to the larger public. In that sense, the saga of Gov. Mark Sanford is nothing new.
As the e-mails published in The State suggest, over the course of the past year, when he should have been giving the lion’s share of his attention to navigating the economic crisis, he was pining for his mistress. His conduct has provided his political enemies, most from his own party, with powerful fodder as they jockey to control state policy-making. The governor we entrusted with the leadership of our state went AWOL for six days and has been too distracted to give his job full attention for at least a year.
No matter what happens now, South Carolina will be rudderless until early 2011. If Mr. Sanford resigns and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer is sworn in as chief executive, he’ll spend the rest of his term assembling a new staff, learning the ropes and running for governor. If Mr. Sanford stays, he’ll be haunted by this scandal. Having lost whatever confidence the Legislature and the citizens of South Carolina had in him, he’ll be little more than a figurehead.
Students of history should find our dilemma no surprise. You don’t have to look far for examples of how government can be crippled by a sex scandal. Although the parallels may not be immediately obvious, bear with me, and you’ll understand the lessons from the Eaton Affair.
The episode, dubbed the Petticoat Affair by some historians, rocked President Andrew Jackson’s first term. It had its roots in the 1829 marriage of Jackson friend and political ally John Eaton to Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake, the daughter of a Washington innkeeper and a woman of questionable virtue. Beautiful, vivacious and flirtatious, Peggy met the rising young politician when she served him at her father’s establishment.
At the time, Peggy was married to a U.S. Navy purser. Soon afterward, Mr. Timberlake died at sea. Some accounts say he committed suicide after learning that Peggy had engaged in an affair with John Eaton, though others suggest that he died of illness. Within months, John Eaton married the young widow, with the president-elect’s hearty blessing.
Soon after his 1829 inauguration, Jackson appointed Eaton secretary of war, shocking many experienced politicians who believed that Eaton, like many Jackson appointees, was inexperienced and unqualified. The insiders resented the influence that Eaton and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren wielded over the president.
Political jealousies and sex scandals forged a rift in the Cabinet. The nasty rumors about Mrs. Eaton persisted. The wives of Vice President (and S.C. native) John C. Calhoun and Cabinet members ostracized and publicly insulted Mrs. Eaton. The president saw the attacks on Peggy Eaton’s character as similar to earlier assaults on the reputation of his own wife, Rachel, by political opponents. He devoted hours to gathering evidence intended to clear Mrs. Eaton’s