The Petticoat affair (also known as the Eaton affair) was an 1829–1831 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 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. Peggy 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 Peggy 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."
After her father intervened to prevent her elopement with an Army officer, 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 until the end of a longer mourning period.
|Booknotes interview with John Marszalek on The Petticoat Affair, March 8, 1998, C-SPAN|
Historian John F. Marszalek explained his view of the real reasons 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. Duff Green, a Calhoun protégé and editor of the United States Telegraph, accused Eaton of secretly working to have pro-Calhoun cabinet members Samuel D. Ingham (Treasury) and John Branch (Navy) removed from their positions.
Eaton took his revenge on Calhoun. In 1830, reports had emerged accurately stating that Calhoun, while Secretary of War, had favored censuring Jackson for his 1818 invasion of Florida. These infuriated Jackson. For reasons unclear, Calhoun asked Eaton to approach Jackson about the possibility of Calhoun publishing his correspondence with Jackson at the time of the Seminole War. Eaton did nothing. This caused Calhoun to believe that Jackson had approved the publication of the letters. Calhoun published them in the Telegraph. This gave the appearance of Calhoun trying to justify himself against a conspiracy to damage him, and further enraged the President.
The dispute was finally resolved when Van Buren offered to resign, giving Jackson the opportunity to reorganize his cabinet by asking for the resignations of the anti-Eaton cabinet members. 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.
On June 17, the day before Eaton formally resigned, a text appeared in the Telegraph stating that it had been "proved" that the families of Ingham, Branch, and Attorney General John M. Berrien had refused to associate with Mr. Eaton. Eaton wrote to all three men demanding that they answer for the article. Ingham sent back a contemptuous letter stating that, while he was not the source for the article, the information was still true. On June 18, Eaton challenged Ingham to a duel through Eaton's brother in law, Dr. Philip G. Randolph, who visited Ingham twice and the second time threatened him with personal harm if he did not comply with Eaton's demands. Randolph was dismissed, and the next morning Ingham sent a note to Eaton discourteously declining the invitation, and describing his situation as one of "pity and contempt." Eaton wrote a letter back to Ingham accusing him of cowardice. Ingham was then informed that Eaton, Randolph, and others were looking to assault him. He gathered together his own bodyguard, and was not immediately molested. However, he reported that for the next two nights Eaton and his men continued to lurk about his dwelling and threaten him. He then left the city, and returned safely to his home. Ingham communicated to Jackson his version of what took place, and Jackson then asked Eaton to answer for the charge. Eaton admitted that he "passed by" the place where Ingham had been staying, "but at no point attempted to enter ... or besiege it."
In 1832, Jackson nominated Van Buren to be Minister to Great Britain. Calhoun killed the nomination with a tie-breaking vote against it, claiming his act would "...kill him, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick." However, Calhoun only made Van Buren seem the victim of petty politics, which were rooted largely in the Eaton controversy. This raised Van Buren even further in Jackson's esteem. Van Buren was nominated for vice president, and was elected as Jackson's running mate when Jackson won a second term in 1832. Van Buren thus became the de facto heir to the presidency, and succeeded Jackson in 1837.
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. Quickly elected to the U.S. Senate, he returned to Washington not as a national leader with presidential prospects, but as a regional leader who argued in favor of states' rights and the expansion of slavery.
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." To Jackson, Peggy Eaton was just another of many wronged women who over his lifetime he had known and defended. He believed that every woman he had defended in his life, including her, had been the victim of ulterior motives, so that political enemies could bring him down.
According to historian Daniel Walker 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.
The 1936 film The Gorgeous Hussy is a fictionalized account of the Petticoat affair. It featured Joan Crawford as Peggy O'Neal, Robert Taylor as John Timberlake, Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Jackson, and Franchot Tone as John Eaton.
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