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. Led by Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, these women (the "petticoats") socially ostracized John Eaton, the Secretary of War, and his wife Peggy over disapproval of the circumstances surrounding their marriage and what they considered her failure to meet the moral standards of a cabinet wife. The affair shook up the Jackson administration and led to the resignation of all but one cabinet member. It facilitated Martin Van Buren's rise to the presidency and was, in part, responsible for Calhoun's transformation from a national political figure with presidential aspirations into a sectional leader of the slave-holding Southern states.
Margaret "Peggy" O'Neill was the daughter of William O'Neill, owner of The Franklin House, a boarding house and bar in Washington, D.C. which was only a short distance from the presidential mansion, making it a popular social center for politicians and military officials. Margaret was well-educated; she studied French and was known for her ability to play the piano. William T. Barry, who later served as Postmaster General, wrote "of a charming little girl... who very frequently plays the piano, and entertains us with agreeable songs." As a young girl, her reputation was already under scrutiny because she worked in a bar frequented by men and casually bantered with the boardinghouse clientele. An elderly Margaret reminisced that, "While I was still in pantalets and rolling hoops with other girls I had the attention of men, young and old, enough to turn a girl's head."
Having failed to elope with an Army officer, which was stopped by her father, in 1816 the 17 year old Peggy married John B. Timberlake, a purser in the United States Navy. Timberlake, then 39, had a reputation as a drunkard, and was heavily in debt at the time of the marriage. The Timberlakes became friendly with John Eaton in 1818; Eaton was a wealthy 28-year-old widower, newly elected U.S. Senator from Tennessee (despite not yet having reached the constitutionally-mandated minimum age of 30), and long time friend of future President Andrew Jackson. After Timberlake told Eaton about his financial problems, Eaton unsuccessfully attempted to get the Senate to pass legislation authorizing payment of debts Timberlake accrued while in the Navy. Eventually, Eaton paid Timberlake's debts and procured him a lucrative posting to the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean Squadron; rumormongers said Eaton aided Timberlake as a way to remove him from Washington so that Eaton could socialize with Peggy. While with the Mediterranean Squadron, Timberlake died in 1828; rumors in Washington suggested he killed himself as the result of Eaton's supposed affair with Peggy. (Medical examiners concluded that Timberlake died of pneumonia brought on by pulmonary disease.)
With the encouragement of President Jackson, who liked them both, Peggy and Eaton married on January 1, 1829, shortly after her husband's death, although according to custom, it would have been proper for them to wait for a longer mourning period.
Historian John F. Marszalek explained the real reason Washington society found Peggy unacceptable:
- She did not know her place; she forthrightly spoke up about anything that came to her mind, even topics of which women were supposed to be ignorant. She thrust herself into the world in a manner inappropriate for a woman.... Accept her, and society was in danger of disruption. Accept this uncouth, impure, forward, worldly woman, and the wall of virtue and morality would be breached and society would have no further defenses against the forces of frightening change. Margaret Eaton was not that important in herself; it was what she represented that constituted the threat. Proper women had no choice; they had to prevent her acceptance into society as part of their defense of that society’s morality.
Second Lady Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, led the wives of other Washington political figures, most notably Jackson's cabinet members, in an "anti-Peggy" coalition which shunned the Eatons in public, refused to pay courtesy calls on the Eatons at their home or receive them as visitors, and denied them invitations to parties and other social events.
Emily Donelson, the niece of Andrew Jackson's late wife Rachel, and the wife of Jackson's confidant Andrew Jackson Donelson, served as Jackson's surrogate "First Lady". Emily Donelson sided with the Calhoun faction, which led Jackson to replace her with his daughter-in-law Sarah Yorke Jackson as his official hostess. Martin Van Buren, the Secretary of State, was a widower and the only unmarried member of the Cabinet; he raised himself in Jackson's esteem by allying himself with the Eatons.
Jackson was sympathetic to the Eatons, in part, because his late wife Rachel had been the subject of innuendo when questions arose during Jackson's campaign for president as to whether her first marriage had been legally ended before she married Jackson. Jackson believed these attacks were the cause of Rachel's death on December 22, 1828, several weeks after his election to the presidency.
Jackson appointed Eaton as his Secretary of War, and Eaton's entry into a high-profile cabinet post helped intensify the opposition of Mrs. Calhoun's group. In addition, Calhoun was becoming the focal point of opposition to Jackson; Calhoun's supporters opposed a second term for Jackson because they wanted to see Calhoun elected president. In addition, Jackson favored and Calhoun opposed the protective tariff that came to be known as the Tariff of Abominations. U.S. tariffs on imported goods generally favored northern industries by limiting competition, but southerners opposed them because the tariffs raised the price of finished goods, but not the raw materials produced in the south. The dispute over the tariff led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832, with southerners including Calhoun arguing that states could refuse to obey federal laws to which they objected, even to the point of secession from the Union, while Jackson vowed to prevent secession and preserve the Union at any cost. Because Calhoun was the most visible opponent of the Jackson administration, Jackson felt that Calhoun and other anti-Jackson officials were fanning the flames of the Peggy Eaton controversy in an attempt to gain political leverage.
The dispute was finally resolved when Van Buren offered to resign, giving Jackson the opportunity to reorganize his cabinet by asking for other resignations. Postmaster General William T. Barry was the lone cabinet member to stay, and Eaton eventually received appointments that took him away from Washington, first as governor of Florida Territory, and then as minister to Spain.
Jackson named Van Buren as United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, but Calhoun engineered an unfavorable Senate vote on his confirmation. This act of retaliation further elevated Van Buren in Jackson's eyes, and was one of the factors that led to Van Buren replacing Calhoun as Jackson's vice presidential running mate for the 1832 election. Van Buren thus became the de facto heir to the presidency, and succeeded Jackson in 1837.
John Eaton lost favor with Jackson by declining to support Van Buren's reelection in 1840. Peggy and he lived in comfortable circumstances in Washington, and were considered part of the city's social elite. John Eaton died in Washington in 1856.
In 1859 Peggy married Antonio Gabriele Buchignani, an Italian music teacher and dancing master; she was 59 and he was in his mid-20s (contrary to some accounts which give his age as 19). Buchignani later ran off with Peggy's savings and her 17-year-old granddaughter; they married and lived first in Italy and later in New York City. Peggy died in Washington in 1879. In the 1930s her previously unpublished memoir was published as The Autobiography of Peggy Eaton.
Although Emily Donelson had supported Floride Calhoun, after the controversy ended Jackson asked her to return as his official hostess; she resumed these duties in conjunction with Sarah Yorke Jackson until returning to Tennessee after contracting tuberculosis, leaving Sarah Yorke Jackson to serve alone as Jackson's hostess.
John Calhoun resigned as vice president shortly before the end of his term, and returned with his wife to South Carolina. In 1832, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate, and became a high-profile advocate of issues considered important to the South, including states' rights, slavery, low tariffs, and eventually secession from the Union altogether.
In regard to the Petticoat affair, Jackson later remarked, "I [would] rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation."
According to historian David Howe, the episode influenced the emergence of feminism. The Cabinet wives insisted that the interests and honor of all women were 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 in Washington shrugged the matter off; they had their national interest to uphold, and had seen how life worked in Paris and London.
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- This American Life, #485 "Surrogates", Act One: Petticoats in a Twist, (January 25, 2013). Sarah Koenig talks with historian Nancy Tomes about the Petticoat Affair.