Peggy Eaton, Andrew Jackson, and the Petticoat Affair
Few were surprised when the military leader and war hero Andrew Jackson won the presidency of the United States in 1828. The biggest surprise that came out of his presidency was that his authority and reputation could be threatened by such an inconspicuous event as the wedding of two of his friends, John Eaton and Margaret O’Neale Timberlake. How could this cause a political conflict? It all started when Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, and the wives of Jackson’s cabinet members refused to socialize with John and Peggy Eaton, accusing them of dubious morality. Rumors were circulating that the couple had an adulterous affair while Peggy’s first husband was still living.
Although it began with harmless gossip among the members of Jackson’s cabinet, the Petticoat affair turned into a real feud between Andrew Jackson, Calhoun, and their respective supporters. Andrew Jackson had to devote a considerable amount of energy to manage the effects of the scandal and eventually was forced to dismantle the cabinet to settle the issue. An infamous episode of history, the Petticoat affair ruined many solid relationships and shook American politics.
Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake Eaton was the daughter of William O’Neale, an Irish immigrant who owned Franklin House, a tavern and boarding house in Washington D.C. Ever since she was a child, Margaret spent a lot of time in the company of influential men since her father’s clientele was mostly formed of politicians. As she grew up, Margaret started to work in the bar and to entertain the guests by playing piano for them. Bright and charming, she often took part in conversations that were otherwise off-limits to women. Rumors began spreading about her ever since she was a young teenage girl, although few of the rumors were true. As a beautiful and assertive girl, she attracted a lot of attention from men, which made her parents look forward to seeing her married, especially after her attempt to run away with a military officer. In 1817, dismissing all her other suitors, the 17-year-old Margaret O’Neale married John Timberlake, a U.S. Navy purser, who had the reputation of a drunkard and was also in heavy debt.
In 1818, Peggy and John Timberlake met John Eaton, a wealthy lawyer who had been recently elected U.S. Senator and was a good friend of Andrew Jackson. Acquainted with Timberlake’s financial difficulties, Eaton paid Timberlake’s debts and found him another more lucrative position within the U.S. Navy. Rumors about John Eaton and Peggy O’Neale Timberlake slowly emerged during this period. Many believed that Eaton was trying to send Timberlake away from Washington only so he could spend time with his wife. In April 1828, Timberlake died while on a ship off the coast of Spain – some say it was suicide due to his wife’s dalliances. Only eight months after his death, without conforming to the mourning customs of the time, Peggy married John Eaton. Andrew Jackson himself had advised them to get married as he was fond of both of them.
After Andrew Jackson formed his Cabinet and appointed John Eaton Secretary of War, rumors about Peggy and John Eaton began to circulate in the inner circles of the administration. The rumors implied that Peggy’s past was marked by sexual promiscuity and that while working at her father’s tavern, she had had affairs with the clients. The gossip was further aggravated by the fact that Peggy had married John Eaton shortly after the death of Timberlake, which made many believe that she had been unfaithful to her first husband. Rallied around Floride Calhoun, the wife of John C. Calhoun, the wives of the other Cabinet members refused to invite John and Peggy Eaton to social events or parties. They called Peggy an “indecent little thing” and argued that her presence among them was an attack on morality.
Upon hearing all the complaints, Andrew Jackson refused to believe that the rumors were true. Because of the political dissensions between him and John Calhoun, Jackson believed that the vice president and all his supporters wanted to undermine his authority using the rumors about John and Peggy Eaton as an excuse. Jackson saw the scandal as a personal attack upon himself, a conspiracy aimed at weakening his administration. The idea of being told whom to accept in the Cabinet angered him. Moreover, the scandal had touched a personal nerve, as Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had also been a victim of malicious rumors. To undermine his candidacy for the presidential office, Jackson’s opponents had repeatedly attacked his wife, accusing her of adultery and bigamy because her divorce from her first husband had not been officially completed when she married Andrew Jackson, although she believed that it had. Jackson thought that the constant attacks caused Rachel incredible distress and affected her health, leading to her untimely death just before Jackson took office. The Eaton affair reminded Jackson of the offensive behavior his beloved wife had received and perceiving a similar occurrence in the case of Peggy, he felt a strong need to honor the memory of his wife by defending Peggy.
To settle the issue, Jackson summoned the Cabinet members to a meeting where he threatened to take their jobs if their wives would not change their brash behavior towards the Eatons. The strong influence that the women exerted on their husbands made the conflict escalate quickly into an administrative disaster because, despite Jackson’s threats, the cabinet wives refused to let go of the issue. They argued that by her sexual promiscuity before marriage and her disrespect for the sanctity of marriage, Peggy Eaton had broken a moral code that guided the lives of all American women. They also claimed that it was their responsibility to restore honor in the cabinet. Historians believe that there was also a tinge of jealousy in the ladies’ hostile behavior towards Peggy. After spending her youth in the company of men and as a highly inquisitive woman, Peggy was familiar with topics that were considered inadequate for women and was intelligent enough to have her own opinions.
John Eaton was not fazed by the scandal that involved him and his wife but sought revenge on John Calhoun. In 1830, Eaton played a major role in having some important reports revealed, in which it was clearly stated that in 1818, as Secretary of War, Calhoun wanted to chastise Jackson for invading Florida without an official order. This discovery angered Jackson and thus the political rift between him and Calhoun grew into hostility. Moreover, from his position as vice president, Calhoun was in constant opposition to Jackson’s policies and was seeking to stop Jackson’s reelection in the following presidential campaign.
The desired nature of the President’s Cabinet was to have all the appointed statesmen collaborate efficiently, but the Petticoat affair made this impossible for Jackson’s Cabinet. In an attempt to solve the issue, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, who was one of Jackson’s closest advisors and confidants, and who had his own feud with Calhoun going on, made his own coalition against the vice president, his wife, and their supporters. Jackson appreciated immensely that Martin Van Buren sided with him.
As a widower, Van Buren was able to play a mediating role in the affair, without causing further discord between the statesmen and their wives. He suggested to Jackson to smother the conflict by dissolving the cabinet. Jackson invoked the need of a reorganization and asked for the resignation of his entire cabinet. To avoid accusations of favoritism, Van Buren resigned his position as well. This settled the Petticoat affair, but by now, many political and personal relationships were ruined.
The Petticoat affair was also the reason behind the emergence of the “Kitchen Cabinet”, which was an unofficial group of advisors and supports of the president, meant to counter the fact that the president had problematical relations with his official Cabinet.
In the aftermath of the Petticoat affair, the animosity between Jackson and Calhoun turned into a full-scale hostility, while Van Buren found a new enemy in Calhoun. Jackson decided to appoint John Eaton to positions outside Washington. Eaton became governor of Florida and later minister to Spain. He and Peggy lived in Madrid from 1836 to 1840. Jackson continued to believe that Peggy had been the victim of his opponents’ attempt to offend him by seeking fault in the people he surrounded himself with.
In 1832, just months before the end of his term, John C. Calhoun resigned as vice president and was elected to the U.S. Senate. Soon he found an opportunity of revenge on his political opponents when Andrew Jackson proposed Van Buren for the position of minister to Great Britain. Calhoun cast his vote against the nomination and the proposal was rejected by a narrow vote. He was convinced that this defeat would terminate Van Buren’s political career but it actually had the opposite effect. Not only that Van Buren remained one of Jackson’s most important advisors, but he gained a great sympathy that eased his way towards vice-presidency. Moreover, Van Buren became Andrew Jackson’s successor for the presidency.
For years after the Petticoat affair, Peggy Eaton continued to lead a controversial life. After John Eaton passed away in 1856, Peggy found herself in the possession of a small fortune as his widow. At age 59, she married an Italian dancer, who had been her granddaughter’s tutor. Five years later, Peggy’s third marriage ended abruptly when her younger husband ran off with Peggy’s granddaughter and her money. Margaret O’Neale Timberlake Eaton spent her last years in poverty, living in a home for destitute women in Washington D.C. She died in 1879.
History Brief: the Peggy Eaton Scandal
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West, Doug. Andrew Jackson: A Short Biography: Seventh President of the United States. C&D Publications. 2018.