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Gender and Morality in the 1800s

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Cigar box depicting the scandal that involved Peggy Eaton during the early 1800s.

Cigar box depicting the scandal that involved Peggy Eaton during the early 1800s.

Gender and Morality in the 1800s Examined

Throughout the 1800s, the concepts of morality and religious virtue were intricately connected to women of this time period. Women were considered by society as morally superior, as teachers of religious doctrine to their children, and the “molders of future men” (Christian Register, 1821). With this delicate sense of morality that was connected to women, however, also came a series of strict social beliefs that were placed upon females. Women were expected by society to maintain high moral standards and to abstain from sinful practices.

Women who contradicted these expectations were often seen as outcasts in society. As with the scandalous cases of Rachel Jackson and Peggy Eaton, both women’s past actions brought about the wrath of their fellow women citizens. In stark contrast to their male counterparts, double standards were often placed upon women. Whereas some actions were perceived as being only moderately bad for a man to perform, the very same action performed by a woman could result in drastic consequences. Thus, 19th-century American women were often the subject of unnecessary abuse and slander in a society that was largely sexist and that favored men.

Portrait of Rachel Jackson

Portrait of Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson

During the early 1800s, both Peggy Eaton and Rachel Jackson were the subject of heated debate amongst society. Accused of “living in sin” with Andrew Jackson, Rachel faced numerous attacks on her character and morality as a woman. Upon her first husband’s departure from their marriage, Rachel was, essentially, free of any moral obligation to remain with Lewis Robards. Quickly thereafter, Rachel married her second husband, Jackson, and remained with him for the rest of her life.

Unfortunately for the Jacksons, their marriage was later found to be null and void due to a problem with the divorce document between Rachel and Robards. Rachel and Andrew discovered, to their dismay, that “what they both had believed was a formal divorce decree was merely an authorization for Robards to sue for divorce in civil court” (Basch, 891). This honest mistake, however, proved to have devastating effects upon the Jackson family years later.

With morality and religion closely associated with one another, the idea of Rachel being with another man while still being “technically” married to Robards came across as a major blow to Rachel’s character. Attacks and charges of adultery were all too common, in the months and years that followed. Rachel was, in a sense, “depicted as not having been a lady at all, but as a loose, impetuous, and immoral woman who willingly cast off her lawful husband” (Basch, 891).

While much of the slander perpetuated against Rachel was a result of political “mudslinging” by Adamsites (opponents of Jackson), it nonetheless proved to be an extremely popular topic in American society during the time of Jackson’s campaign for President. All of this, in turn, was a direct result of the expectations of morality and religious virtues that were attached to women of this time. Women were expected to have a “taste for what is morally excellent and virtuous and lovely” (Christian Register, 8). John Quincy Adams and his followers, however, argued that this was certainly not the case with Rachel.

President Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson

Rachel Jackson's Former Husband

Ironically enough, however, very little negative attention was given to Rachel’s former husband and his role in the divorce mishap. Little attention was paid to his violent, abusive nature towards Rachel. Norma Basch describes Robards as a man who “alternated between fits of jealousy and periods of contrition,” a man full of “uncontrollable jealousy” and one who could turn “violently angry and abusive” (Basch, 909–910). Instead, most of the focus was given to Rachel and her “adulterous” crime. This double-standard that favored Robards was, essentially, the result of a sexist and male-dominated society.

The attacks on the Jackson family were so intensive that they eventually resulted in the death of Rachel Jackson by means of a broken heart. The vicious attacks on Rachel’s character, therefore, demonstrate the mentality of society during the early 1800s and how important it was for women to maintain a strict code of morality no matter what the circumstances. Even though Robards was mean-spirited, full of anger, and abusive it was not enough to justify Rachel’s leave of her husband according to societal norms.

Margaret "Peggy" Eaton in later life.

Margaret "Peggy" Eaton in later life.

The "Peggy Eaton Affair"

Similar to the scandal that surrounded Rachel Jackson, the Peggy Eaton controversy further demonstrated the double standards that existed in the 1800s and the importance of female morality. Following the death of her first husband, Peggy turned her attention to Senator John Eaton. Peggy, who was a tavern girl back in her hometown, proved to be a tremendous hindrance to Jackson’s cabinet members.

Peggy was, essentially, everything that a woman was not supposed to be. She was flirtatious, outspoken, and generally fond of men. This was in stark contrast to the notion (and belief) that women had been embellished “with virtues the most estimable and amiable” (Christian Register, 8). This promiscuous activity, in turn, resulted in great chastisement of Peggy by the cabinet wives, and the eventual collapse of Jackson’s cabinet. The entire scandal was a direct result of sexism and the perceived moral obligations of women.

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In violating everything that a woman should strive to be, Peggy brought about the unmerciful wrath of the female society. For one of the few times in world history, women had finally managed to gain a relatively good standing within society. They were by no means equal to men, but their influence and image were on the general rise. Therefore, it is no wonder why so many women chose to distance themselves from Eaton. To socialize with someone who was, essentially, immoral could have deleterious effects on one’s reputation. Thus, the women chose to shun Peggy as a means of guarding their own power and influence.

Peggy’s actions indicated a clear breach of morals and virtue. To women, like the cabinet wives, this idea of immorality was a direct attack on the female image and had to be dealt with in the harshest manner. Furthermore, the cabinet wives feared Eaton’s close proximity to the central government since they believed her “malign influence would surely corrupt the country’s leaders” (Wood, 238). This line of thinking was a direct result of the belief that women had a moral influence on their husbands.

"I had rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation."

— Andrew Jackson

The "Peggy Eaton Affair" (continued)

The Eaton affair also helps to further demonstrate the double standards that were present between men and women of this time. Whereas it was unacceptable for a woman to be flirtatious around lots of men, it was somewhat acceptable, in turn, for men to visit taverns and to “flirt” with the tavern women. Little was said about Peggy’s first husband, John Timberlake when he decided to marry her. Instead, upon his death, the main focus was put upon Peggy’s supposed infidelity and how her “looseness” had been a possible cause of her husband’s unforeseen death. As Kirsten Woods explains: “when John Timberlake died at sea” many gossiped that “he had killed himself upon learning of his wife’s infidelity” (Woods, 246).

Instead of Timberlake being criticized for marrying someone of a lower social status it would appear as though the only thing that truly mattered was Peggy’s perceived “immoral” character. Furthermore, nothing was really said about Senator John Eaton’s involvement with Peggy prior to her first husband’s death. Senator Eaton was, essentially, messing around with a married woman. Yet, Senator Eaton caught very little criticism. Instead, it was Peggy who bore the brunt of the attacks. Again, just like the controversy surrounding Rachel, double standards that favored men were very prominent.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, morality and virtues were virtually inseparable from women in the early 1800s. When women deviated from their moral obligations they were shunned and criticized to the fullest extent. Breaking away from moral expectations was viewed as an attack on women’s social standing and power within society. In a largely male-dominated society, women were further subjected to double standards in cases where men were not typically subject to criticism. Both Peggy Eaton and Rachel Jackson signify this concept exceptionally well and demonstrate the dire consequences associated with challenging moral standards promoted by the society at large.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brady, Patricia. A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011.

Remini, Robert V. The Life of Andrew Jackson. New York, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.

Works Cited


Basch, Norma. “Marriage, Morals, and Politics in the Election of 1828,” The Journal of American History Vol. 80 No. 3 (1993).

On the elevation of the condition of women by means of Christianity. 1821. Christian Register (1821-1835), August 24, 8.

Wood, Kirsten. “One Woman so Dangerous to Public Morals: Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair,” Journal of the Early Republic Vol. 17 No. 2 (1997).


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Larry Slawson

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