Petticoat affair

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Margaret O'Neill Eaton later in life

The Petticoat affair, also known as the Eaton affair, was an 1830–1831 U.S. scandal involving members of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet and their wives. Although starting over a private matter between Margaret O'Neale, John B. Timberlake, and John Eaton, it affected the political careers of several men and resulted in the informal "Kitchen Cabinet". The 1936 film The Gorgeous Hussy is based on the affair.


Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale was one of six children born to William O'Neale, owner of The Franklin House, a boarding house and bar. The Franklin House, located half way between the Capitol and Georgetown at 2007 I Street, in Washington, D.C., was only a short distance from the presidential mansion, and therefore a popular social center for politicians. The O'Neale family resided in the boardinghouse until 1810, when they moved into a house across the street. Margaret was well-educated; she studied French, among other subjects, and was known for her ability to play the piano.[1] Future Postmaster General, William T. Berry wrote about "of a charming little girl... who very frequently plays the piano, and entertains us with agreeable songs.[2]" An elderly Margaret reminisced that as a child, "I was still in pantalets and rolling hoops with other girls I had the attention of men, young and old, enough to turn a girls head".[3] Her reputation was already coming under scrutiny as she worked the bar and cajoled with the boardinghouses clientele. She was to remain with her family until 1816.

In 1816, with her reputation already in question, and having failed to elope on three occasions, she married her first husband John B. Timberlake at the age of 17. John Timberlake - a purser in the United States Navy, drunkard, and heavily indebted - was 39 years old at the time of his marriage.[4] The Timberlake couple had been friends with Tennessee Senator John Henry Eaton since 1818, when Eaton was a 28-year-old widower, newly elected U.S. Senator and long time friend of the future President Andrew Jackson. After Timberlake told Eaton about their financial problems, Eaton unsuccessfully attempted to get the Senate to pass a petition to pay Timberlake's debts accrued while in the Navy. Eventually, Eaton would pay Timberlake's debt and procure a lucrative posting to the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean Squadron. While stationed in the Mediterranean, Timberlake died in North Africa, possibly by his own hand.[4] Eventually medical examiners concluded that Timberlake died of pulmonary disease in 1828.[1]


Following the death of John Timberlake, Margaret continued to spend her time at The Franklin House, assisting her mother and father with the running of the establishment as she had done during her marriage.[2] Her continued employment in her parent's boardinghouse was a non-stop source of irritation to the social elite in Washington D.C., for it was seen as improper for a woman attempting to climb the social ladder to continue in such a vocation. It was here, too, that she continued to associate with John Eaton.[3] Rumors spread that Eaton and Mrs. Timberlake were having an adulterous affair as she continued to see John Eaton.[5] Their bond grew closer as he consoled her over the death of her husband.

Following her husband's death, in 1828, John Henry Eaton and Andrew Jackson spent an extended period at The Hermitage in Tennessee often discussing the widow Mrs. Timberlake.[2] Eaton wanted Jackson's opinion on marrying Mrs. Timberlake. He told Jackson, that he would "at a proper time...tender to her the offer to share my life and prospects with her.[2]" To this Jackson gave his support, and on New Year's Day, 1829 the two were married.[3]

This marriage did not quiet the rumors of the now Mrs. Eaton's infidelities, nor did it help her social standing. On the contrary, having not waited the socially acceptable mourning period between her first husband's death and her remarriage, she further offended the social elite in Washington. There was an ornate ritual that widows were to follow that indicated respect and an acceptable manner of grieving for the deceased. By not adhering to these customs, the widow Timberlake showed an imputed lack of character and gentility that was expected of the bereft by Washington's social elites. So the wedding resulted in a schism in the Washington social scene, with prominent wives refusing to attend. Margaret Bayard Smith, an established Washington socialite, stated to her sister that several women who were invited "declare they will not go...and if they can help it will not let their husbands go.[3]"

The Eatons' actions caused a sensation among Washington's elite, especially many women. Second Lady Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, led a phalanx of other Cabinet wives in an "anti-Peggy" coalition. Andrew Jackson's late wife, Rachel, had a niece, Emily Donelson, whom Jackson called on as his surrogate "First Lady"; she sided with the Calhoun faction. Martin Van Buren, a widower and the only member of the Cabinet whose spouse was not alive at the time, allied himself with the Eatons. The most important supporter of the new Mrs. Eaton was the sitting President, Andrew Jackson, who having felt the wrath of society towards his own marriage sympathized Mrs. Eaton's plight .

In a letter from Kentuckian John Waller Barry, an attorney, public servant and close personal friend of President Andrew Jackson to his daughter on 25 February 1830 describes the events in Washington. He describes the situation during a Cabinet dinner Washington on February 23,"All were present but Mr. Berrien, who was sick...A few men and women of our own party, stimulated by the coalition, still are busy with Mrs. Eaton's character. She however is sustained by the Foreign Ministers; indeed, a favorite with some of them because of her [persecution], and by many members of Congress of both houses and their families. Society is unhappy and divided about her but [her] circle of acquaintance is large and respectable. My family visits all parties, and will continue to do so. I will not join the band of calumniators and will stand by and sustain Major Eaton against such vial assaults; but his and Mrs. Eaton's difficulties are not mine, nor do they desire to consider them so. I my course has endeared me to General Jackson; it has to Mr. E., and some of Mr. Calhoun's are jealous of me, but utterly without cause, for I like Mr. C and Mr. Van B..." [6] This excerpt gives a brief look into the thoughts of those supporting the Presidents and his choice of Mr. Eaton.

Jackson was sympathetic to the Eatons, in part, perhaps, because his own beloved late wife, Rachel Donelson Robards, had been the subject of innuendo, as it was revealed that her first marriage had not yet been legally ended at the time of her wedding to Jackson. Jackson believed such rumors were the cause of Rachel's heart attack and death on December 22, 1828, several weeks after his election. The new scandal with Mrs. Eaton had erupted long simmering opponents of Andrew Jackson, but it was believed that these detractors could be easily contained.

Jackson appointed Eaton as his Secretary of War, hoping to limit the rumors, but the scandal intensified. Jackson felt political opponents, especially those around his Vice President Calhoun, were feeding the controversy.[2] Upon announcing his cabinet Jackson was queried, in private, by War of 1812 hero and U.S. Army Paymaster Colonel Nathaniel Towson about the assignment of John Eaton to the position of Secretary of War by advising, "there is one of them your friends think it would be advisable to substitute with the of some other person," referring to Eaton. To this Jackson replied, "Mr. Eaton is an old close personal friend of mine," he continues by mentioning, "and prey, Colonel, what his wife will have to do with the duties of the War Department?"[2] Colonel Towson replied,"but she is a women that the women with whom the ladies of this city do not associate, She is not and probably never will be, received into society here, and if Mr. Eaton shall be made a member of the Cabinet, it may become a source of annoyance to both you and him".[2] "Colonel," Jackson returned," do you suppose that I have been sent here by the people to consult the ladies of Washington as to the proper persons to compose my Cabinet?"[2] After Colonel Towson exited the room Jackson was quoted by his secretary as stating in disgust, "How fallen the military character, the protector of female character-to become the circulator of slander against a female upon mere rumor.[2]" The controversy had suddenly become one of masculinity.

The men of the Jackson administration in support of the Eatons and the President ridiculed the notion of females as wielding political power. John Eaton went as far to state that the notion of a single woman being, "so dangerous to public morals, and so formidable in influence and power, as to require all this strong array of cabinet counselors" to tackle her. Andrew Jackson furthered this emotion when he mentioned the Margaret Eaton as a victim, "a virtuous and much injured female[3]". This presented the public the idea that women were weak and incapable of defending themselves. John Eaton went as far as to comment that men should be held responsible for the actions of their wives going as far as challenging several men for the actions of their wives in regards to shunning his wife.[3] Thus to the supporters of Mrs. Eaton the controversy clearly presented themselves as the defenders of female virtue.[3]

In the end, the infighting brought an end to the first Cabinet of Andrew Jackson's administration. This infighting for political supremacy was settled by the supreme arbitrator of political power in the United States Andrew Jackson and those feeling his wrath knew what was going to happen. Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham, in a letter to John M. Berrien the Attorney General clearly stated that he believed that President Jackson had three objectives, "1. His reelection, 2. to avenge Mrs. E., 3. to destroy Mr. Calhoun, 4. to have Mr. V. B.". The controversy finally resulted in the resignation of almost all members of the Cabinet over a period of weeks in the spring of 1831.[4] Postmaster General William T. Barry would be the lone member to stay.


Jackson elevated Van Buren as his favorite and replaced Calhoun as vice presidential running mate in his re-election campaign. Van Buren thus became the de facto heir to the Democratic Party. In regard to these events, Jackson remarked:

Although Emily Donelson had supported Floride Calhoun, Jackson kept his niece as his official hostess.

John Calhoun and his wife returned to South Carolina. In 1832, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. He advocated states' rights, slavery, and economic issues affecting the South, eventually including secession from the Union.


  1. ^ a b "Andrew Jackson: The Petticoat Affair, Scandal in Jackson's White House", History Net, accessed August 4, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Marszalek, John L (1997). The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House. New York: Free Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Wood, Kristen E. (March 1997). "One Woman so Dangerous to Public Morals". Journal of the Early Republic 17 (2): 237–275. doi:10.2307/3124447. 
  4. ^ a b c Jr, Royce McCrary and S. D. Ingham (April 1976). "The Long Agony Is Nearly Over". Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 
  5. ^ Good, Cassandra A. (2012). "Relations: Situating Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic, 1780–1830.". Gender & History 24 (1): 18–34. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2011.01666.x. 
  6. ^ Conover, Cheryl (1983). [<> "Kentuckian in "King Andrew's" Court: The Letters of John Barry, Washington D.C., 1831-1835"]. Kentucky Historical Society 81 (2): 168–198. 
  7. ^ Widmer, Edward L. 2005. Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series, The 8th President, 1837–1841. Time Books. ISBN 978-0-7862-7612-7

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