Petticoat affair

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Margaret O'Neill Eaton later in life

The Petticoat affair was an 1829–1831 American political scandal involving President Andrew Jackson's entire Cabinet and their wives.

Secretary of War
John H. Eaton

Jackson was intensely devoted to upholding his "honor". The crisis came when ugly sexual rumors circulated about the wife of a senior cabinet member, stories that if true would besmirch the honor of his entire administration.

Jackson and honor[edit]

Jackson spent half his time on the matter for two years.[1] In the Petticoat affair gossip had long circulated concerning Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton. It was said that Peggy was loose in her morals while working at her father's tavern when her naval officer husband was away at sea. Less than a year after the husband died, men joked, "Eaton has just married his mistress, and the mistress of eleven dozen others!"[2] Allowing a prostitute in the official family was unthinkable—but for Jackson, after losing his own wife to horrible rumors, the rumormongers comprised the guilty party who brought dishonor to his administration. Christopher Bates finds that, "when he defended the honor of Peggy Eaton, Jackson was also defending the honor of his recently deceased wife."[3] Jackson was a patriarch who expected to control his cabinet; he expected his cabinet members would control their wives. It was a matter of authority: Jackson told his Cabinet that "She is as chaste as a virgin!" Meanwhile, the Cabinet wives insisted that the interests and honor of all women was at stake. They believed a responsible woman should never accord a man sexual favors without the assurance that went with marriage. A woman who broke that code was dishonorable and unacceptable. Howe notes that this was the feminist spirit that in the next decade shaped the woman's rights movement. The aristocratic wives of European diplomats shrugged the matter off; they had their national interest to uphold, and had seen how life worked in Paris and London. Martin Van Buren was already forming a coalition against Calhoun; he could now see his main chance to strike hard.[4]

Both Jackson and Van Buren defended the Eatons. However Calhoun's wife Floride and the wives of other cabinet members publicly shunned both Eatons, giving a visible signal to the nation that he and she were not honorable. Van Buren found the solution in 1831: the entire cabinet had to resign. Jackson concluded Calhoun was responsible for spreading the rumors. Van Buren grew in Jackson's favor and was nominated to be Minister to England. Calhoun's supporters in the Senate blocked the nomination, But that gave Jackson every reason to magnify Van Buren's leading role in the unofficial Kitchen Cabinet. He became Jackson's running mate in 1832. Jackson also acquired the Globe newspaper to have a weapon for fighting the rumor mills.[5][6]

The 1936 Hollywood film The Gorgeous Hussy is based on the affair.

O'Neill's honor[edit]

Margaret O'Neill, nicknamed "Peggy" by her father, was one of six children born to Rhonda Howell and William O'Neale. Her father owned The Franklin House, a popular boarding house and bar in Washington D.C. It was located half way between the Capitol and Georgetown at 2007 I Street, making it a very popular social center for politicians and army officers. The O'Neale family resided in the boardinghouse until 1810, when they moved into a house of their own across the street. Margaret was well-educated; she studied French, music, dance, arithmetic, Catholicism, history, and topography, along with many other subjects. Out of all of her studies, music and dance were by far her favorite as she performed very well in them. Future Postmaster General, William T. Berry wrote "of a charming little girl... who very frequently plays the piano, and entertains us with agreeable songs."[7] Although she enjoyed some of her studies, for a while she begged her father to let her stop them. However, her father "wouldn't let her because he wanted his daughter to learn to talk like a lady."[8] When Margaret grew older, she returned to work for The Franklin House just after her father had confined the clientele strictly to congressional members. Her reputation was already coming under scrutiny as she worked the bar and cajoled with the boardinghouse's clientele. She would often state, "I had the attention of men, young and old, enough to turn a girls head".[9]

In 1816, with her reputation already in question, and having failed to elope on three occasions, Margaret, 17, married her first husband John B. Timberlake, a purser in the United States Navy, who was 39 years old at the time.[10] As written by Queena Pollack, "Peggy O'Neale, who took homage from men as a matter of course, now impetiously adored one. She was an impulsive bride, binding her love to the loveliest being she'd set eyes on."[8] Shortly after the marriage, the Timberlake couple had their first child. Unfortunately, their baby died after a short 6 months, leaving the couple's relationship very tender. However, later on the couple had another child by the name of Virginia. John Timberlake became a drunk, failed at his business causing financial problems, and began to feel as though Margaret no longer respected him.

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. On April 2, 1828, while at sea, John Timberlake died. Surgeons reported that he died of pulmonary disease, but rumors spread that his cause of death was a suicide after finding out about Margaret's infidelity.[11]


The scandal which ultimately tore apart Andrew Jackson's Cabinet began with Margaret O'Neale's actions. After being married for a short time, John Timberlake decided he needed to go back to sea and serve more time in the Navy. While Timberlake was gone, the rumors, scandals, and infidelities started. While her husband was gone, Margaret spent a lot of time at the Franklin House assisting her mother and father.[7] Her employment in her parents' boardinghouse was a non-stop source of irritation to the social elite in Washington D.C., as 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.[9]

As Margaret and John Eaton saw more and more of each other at the boardinghouse, their relationship grew. While they both claimed it was just a friendship, townspeople claimed they went on trips together and it was even recorded in hotel logs that they were man and wife.[8] It was even said that, "In her husband's absence, he took her driving, to parties and to balls. Best of all, they both liked the walks in the woods where renascent spring convinced their all too credulous sense of supernal marvels. It was the return on spring for them, for the two now saw the season with the eager eyes of a new love, unuttered but acknowledged by double signs."[8] After hearing of such rumors said to be true, Margaret Timberlake and John Eaton became the talk of the capitol.

Margaret's husband, John Timberlake, was supposed to return after a trip out to sea, but unfortunately died before his return. After his death, even more controversy arose over Margaret. While she was extremely upset about the death of her husband, she continued to work at the boardinghouse and increased contact with John Eaton. Margaret and Eaton's bond grew closer as he consoled her over the death of her husband. John Henry Eaton and Andrew Jackson spent an extended period at The Hermitage in Tennessee often discussing the widow Mrs. Timberlake.[7] Eaton wanted Jackson's opinion on marrying Mrs. Timberlake. Jackson and his late wife, Rachel Donelson Robards, fell into the same situation that John Eaton and Margaret were now in. When Rachel married Jackson, she was still married to her previous husband because the divorce was not yet official. Due to Jackson's past experiences, he was able to relate to Eaton's situation. He told John Eaton in response to his question as to whether or not to marry Margaret Timberlake, "If you love Margaret Timberlake go and marry her at once and shut their mouths."[12] With this Jackson gave his support, and on New Year's Day, 1829 the two were married.[9]

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."[9]

The newlywed Eaton couple caused many issues among Washington's elite, especially the women. Second Lady Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, led an "anti-Peggy" group of other Cabinet wives. Each member of Jackson's Cabinet had a wife in the group except for Martin Van Buren. Because of this, Van Buren allied himself with the Eatons. However, their biggest supporter was the sitting President Andrew Jackson who, having felt the wrath of society towards his own marriage, sympathized with 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, he describes the events in Washington. He depicts 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 for me to consider them so. I believe 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..."[13] This excerpt gives a brief look into the thoughts of those supporting the Presidents and his choice of Mr. Eaton.

Jackson appointed Eaton as his Secretary of War, hoping to limit the rumors, but the scandal intensified. Jackson felt political opponents, especially those around Vice President Calhoun, were feeding the controversy.[7] 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 who think it would be advisable to substitute with some other person," referring to Eaton. To this Jackson replied, "your friends think it would be advisable to substitute with some of mine," he continues by mentioning, "and prey, Colonel, what his wife will have to do with the duties of the War Department?"[7] 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."[7] "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?"[7] 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."[7] 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 so far as to mock 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 Margaret Eaton as a victim calling her, "a virtuous and much injured female."[9] John Eaton went on to comment that men should be held responsible for the actions of their wives, even challenging several men for the actions of their wives in regards to shunning his wife.[9] Thus to the supporters of Mrs. Eaton the controversy clearly presented themselves as the defenders of female virtue.[9]

After hearing all of the fighting within the Cabinet, Martin Van Buren realized that his own Democratic party was being affected by this scandal and decided something needed to be done to stop the outrage. He also had a slight hope that if he were to fix the issues, his own career would be enhanced. Seeing Eaton in the Cabinet as a huge source of the problem, Van Buren successfully convinced John Eaton to resign from Secretary of War, taking Margaret out of the scene. Following Eaton, Van Buren resigned, as well as other Cabinet members at Jackson's request. "[12] In the spring of 1831, with the resignation of everyone except for General William T. Barry, Jackson was able to replace every member and start a brand new Cabinet saying, "To the next Cabinet may they all be bachelors or leave their wives at home."[12] The new Cabinet was referred to as the "Kitchen Cabinet" consisting of an unofficial group of advisers whom President Andrew Jackson would consult with.


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:

I [would] rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.

— Jackson [14]

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. ^ Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Andrew Jackson's Honor." Journal of the Early Republic (1997): 1-36 in JSTOR
  2. ^ Richard B. Latner, "The Eaton Affair Reconsidered." Tennessee Historical Quarterly (1977) pp: 330-351 in JSTOR
  3. ^ Christopher G. Bates (2015). The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. Routledge. p. 315. 
  4. ^ Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought? (2007) pp 337-39
  5. ^ Meacham, pp. 171–75;
  6. ^ Kirsten E. Wood, 'One Woman so Dangerous to Public Morals': Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair." Journal of the Early Republic (1997): 237-275. in JSTOR
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Marszalek, John L (1997). The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House. New York: Free Press. 
  8. ^ a b c d Pollack, Queena (1931). Peggy Eaton Democracy's Mistress. New York: Minton, Balch & Company. ISBN 978-1434413987. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Jr, Royce McCrary and S. D. Ingham (April 1976). "The Long Agony Is Nearly Over". Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 
  11. ^ Nevins, D. (May 1992). "To The President, Peggy Eaton was chaste indeed". Smithsonian 23 2. 
  12. ^ a b c "White House History Classroom". White House History Classroom. Retrieved October 11, 2014. 
  13. ^ Conover, Cheryl (1983). [<> "Kentuckian in "King Andrew's" Court: The Letters of John Barry, Washington D.C., 1831-1835"] Check |url= scheme (help). Kentucky Historical Society 81 (2): 168–198. 
  14. ^ Widmer, Edward L. 2005. Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series, The 8th President, 1837–1841. Time Books. ISBN 978-0-7862-7612-7

Further reading[edit]

  • Latner, Richard B. "The Eaton Affair Reconsidered." Tennessee Historical Quarterly (1977): 330-351 in JSTOR
  • Marszalek, John F. The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House (LSU Press, 2000)
  • Mulders-Jones, Declan. "'Petticoat Government': The Eaton Affair and Jacksonian Political Cultures." (2012 thesis, University of Sydney) online with detailed bibliography.
  • Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832 (1981) pp 203–16, 239-40, 301-14
  • Wood, Kirsten E. "'One Woman so Dangerous to Public Morals': Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair." Journal of the Early Republic (1997): 237-275. in JSTOR
  • Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. "Andrew Jackson's Honor." Journal of the Early Republic (1997): 1-36 in JSTOR

External links[edit]