The Petticoat Affair – the Scandalous Story of Margaret ‘Peggy’ Eaton and Andrew Jackson’s White House

Monica Lewinsky wasn’t the first woman to almost take down a Presidency. In many ways, Washington DC is a small town where gossip spreads like wildfire. In 1830’s Washington, Margaret O’Neale Timberlake Eaton almost took down the Presidency of Andrew Jackson all because the women of Washington society would not accept her It came to be known as the ‘Petticoat Affair’ and it caused the resignation of Jackson’s entire cabinet, changed the direction of John C. Calhoun’s political career, and led to the rise of Martin van Buren as a serious candidate for the office of President.

Margaret’s behavior had excited Washington gossip for years. Born in 1799, Margaret had grown up around the politicians that frequented her family’s boarding house. As a small child, they had dangled her from their knees, as a pretty and vivacious teenager she had flirted with them, practicing her feminine wiles. She would listen to the lively talk of the men at the dinner table and in the tavern, eventually she began to join in, voicing her own opinions.

At the age of fifteen, she had almost eloped with Major Francis Smith Belton, an attempt that was foiled when she accidentally knocked a plant off the roof while escaping. A year later she was spied by John Timberlake who contrived to make her acquaintance. Within a month they were married. Although a year ago, when she was fifteen, her father had considered her too young to get married, a year later perhaps he realized that it was probably a good idea to have her safely married. The newly wedded couple moved into a townhouse near her parents, and Timberlake set up a store. But soon the store floundered, and without a pension from the government, Timberlake felt he had no choice but to go back to sea. By this time, the couple had two little girls. By all accounts, Margaret was a devoted and loving wife while her husband was still at home but that didn’t stop tongues wagging, implying that Margaret was doing more than pouring drinks at the tavern.

While Timberlake was at sea, Margaret was escorted around town by John Henry Eaton. Gossip started that the two of them were lovers. Margaret had known Eaton for years, like Jackson; he had often stayed at Franklin House, the boarding house that her parents ran. He was also a good friend of John Timberlake, had tried to help him with his petition for a pension from the Navy. As a matter of fact, Timberlake had left a letter stating that if anything happened to him, he wanted Eaton to take care of Margaret and their two daughters.

Margaret also continued to work at her parents’ boarding house, as well as serving in the tavern. Although Margaret was distraught to find out that her husband had committed suicide, and hadn’t died of a pulmonary embolism as first reported, he had been gone for several years, and Margaret had gotten used to living without him. After less than a year of mourning, Margaret married Senator John Henry Eaton of Tennessee, a good friend of Andrew Jackson, and the future Secretary of State in Jackson’s cabinet. Eaton’s friends in the Senate tried to convince him to wait to marry Margaret, convinced that she would ruin his career, but Eaton didn’t care. Andrew Jackson had given his approval for the two to marry. Of course, Jackson was grieving for his beloved wife Rachel’s death just before Christmas and probably wasn’t thinking clearly. On New Year’s Day 1829, Margaret and Eaton were married.

Immediately tongues started flapping. There were rumors that Margaret and Eaton had to marry because she was pregnant. Margaret Bayard Smith, a leading member of Washington Society, called Margaret ‘a lady whose reputation, her previous connection to him, both before and after her husband’s death, has totally destroyed.’ And that was being kind! When Margaret and Eaton returned from their honeymoon, they paid a call on Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, as protocol dictated. After the Eaton’s left, Floride confided to her husband that she had decided not to return the call which amounted to a resounding snub. Floride’s reasoning was that as she hadn’t planned on spending a great deal of time in the capitol, she would leave it to those who knew better what the correct judgment was, regarding Margaret Eaton. In other words, let others worry about it. But where Floride Calhoun went, others were sure to follow. Although Margaret continued paying her calls, none of the women made the same gesture. She was frozen out.

19th Century manners and morals
In the 19th century, a cottage industry blossomed around the idea of manners and morals. For the first time, women could read etiquette manuals that told them what to do and when to do it. Everything from the correct period of mourning, to the proper way to pay social calls was included in these books. Add to them the bourgeoning list of books on household management like Mrs. Beeton’s book in England, and Catherine Beecher’s in the United States. Women were constantly worried about putting a foot wrong, not just for their social standing but for that of their husband and family. Society was ruled by women, and there are no harsher critics when it comes to a woman who steps out of bounds which Margaret Eaton found to her detriment.

What had Margaret done that made her unacceptable to the cabinet wives and the women of Washington society? She had violated the rules of mourning which stated that women wore black for the first year, and then they were allowed to wear white. They didn’t remarry after less than a year of mourning. Well for one thing, she was the daughter of a tavern keeper, and she’d grown up in a boarding house. She was also forward and outspoken, violating every rule of 19th century behavior, where women were supposed to be demure, soft-spoken, pious and feminine. Their natural sphere was considered to be the home, where they were to raise their children to moral and good citizens. If they had any opinions of their own, it was their husband’s opinions. They certainly didn’t spend their time talking politics with men. When Jackson went to Tennessee to negotiate with the Chickasaw Indians, Margaret had her piano brought out to the porch to play for the guests. She also ended up smoking the peace pipe with them. Stories like this spread through Washington like wildfire, further damaging her reputation. And Margaret didn’t just sit back and let the men defend her, she confronted her accusers personally. Jackson’s support of Margaret didn’t help either. Jackson was considered by many in Washington to be a backwoods rube with a violent temper and crude manners.

The matter should have ended there but for Andrew Jackson. Jackson was known for his gallantry towards women. He considered them the weaker sex that needed to be protected at all costs. Margaret’s snubbing by the women in Washington as well as the malicious gossip reminded the President of the way his beloved wife Rachel had been treated during the 1828 Presidential campaign which had been vicious. Like Margaret, Rachel had been beautiful and vivacious. Jackson blamed the negative campaign for causing Rachel’s death from a heart attack. Jackson also prized loyalty above all other virtues. Orphaned at the age of 14, Jackson took any opposition as being disloyal. Eaton had stood by his side and supported and him and as far as Jackson was concerned deserved his loyalty and his cabinet appointment as Secretary of War. Anyone who thought otherwise was disloyal and that included his niece and nephew.

Rachel Robards Jackson (1767-1828) met Andrew Jackson when her parents rented out a cabin to Andrew Jackson and his friend John Overton. She was married at 17 to Lewis Robards, a jealous and vindictive man, who constantly accused Rachel of being unfaithful to him. Rachel finally left him and moved to Natchez, escorted there by Andrew Jackson. When Robards filed for divorce, Rachel and Jackson thought that they were free to marry. What they didn’t know was that Robards hadn’t filed the appropriate paperwork. They didn’t find out until they had been living in sin for two years. They hastily remarried but the fact that they had inadvertently committed bigamy was used against Jackson through out his public life. Jackson was devoted to her, calling her his ‘beloved Rachel,’ and fighting several duels defending her honor. The Jacksons had no children of their own, but they adopted one of her nephews, as well as an Indian baby who had been orphaned. During the campaign of 1828, the press attacked Rachel Jackson unmercifully, accusing her of bigamy and adultery. Jackson tried to keep the attacks as much from Rachel as possible, but she heard enough to be anguished by it. She died of a heart attack in December of 1828, never getting to see her husband sworn in as President.

The first year of Jackson’s presidency seemed to be devoted solely to defending Mrs. Eaton’s good name. Jackson’s nephew by marriage, Andrew Jackson Donelson and his wife Emily, although they had been friendly with Margaret and Eaton early on, decided to bow to society’s dictate that Mrs. Eaton was ‘not one of us.’ This was particularly galling to Margaret because Jackson’s wife, Rachel, had been friendly towards her when they met while Rachel was visiting Washington. While there were some who weren’t afraid to buck the tide, the majority of Washingtonians had declared Mrs. Eaton persona non grata. Even Andrew Jackson’s minister had gotten involved.

Martin van Buren (1782-1861)
The first President to actually be born in the United States (he was born after the revolution) the dapper Secretary of State and former Governor of New York was the consummate politician. He took advantage of Vice President Calhoun’s absence from the capital to schmooze with Jackson, furthering his political career. They took long horseback rides daily where they talked about politics and the ostracism of Margaret Eaton. Along with Postmaster General William Barry, he took up Margaret Eaton’s cause. He took had spent time with the lady and found her company congenial, but his championship of Margaret and Eaton was also political. When Jackson fell out with his Vice President, John C. Calhoun, van Buren was ready to take his place as Jackson’s potential successor.

While Congress was out of session, the problem of Margaret’s snubbing by Washington society could be contained. The refusal of society women to return Margaret’s visits was a private matter and could be kept discreet. However it was noticed that at the inauguration receptions that the wives of Jackson’s cabinet and women in Washington society as a whole had avoided Margaret. There was a protocol to party-giving in Washington in the 19th century. It was the custom for first the President to have a dinner for his cabinet, and then the Vice President on down. When Jackson gave his first dinner, it was a rushed affair as guests sped through the evening so that they didn’t have to spend anymore time socializing with the Eatons.

Soon the Eaton affair became about more than just the refusal of the cabinet wives and the women of Washington society snubbing her. The President was convinced that anti-Jacksonian members of Congress were spreading the rumors about Margaret Eaton. At first he thought it came from the supporters of Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. However, he soon suspected his own Vice President and members of his own cabinet were responsible. He confronted the three members, Samuel Ingham in the Treasury department, Secretary of the Navy, John Branch, and Attorney General John M. Berrien. He threatened to fire them. However they convinced him that they were not the ones responsible but they couldn’t force their wives to accept Margaret. Jackson was willing to concede that he couldn’t force them to socialize with Margaret, but the crisis was not over it was just dormant.

Jackson began to realize that he and his Vice President had fundamental differences. While they both advocated state’s rights, Calhoun believed that the states should be able to nullify any federal law they felt was unjust. Jackson felt that would weaken the Union, if a state could pick and choose which federal laws they liked. He also learned that Calhoun had not supported and defended him the way he had thought when Jackson went into Spanish Florida against the Seminoles and had killed two British officers. He began to suspect his Vice President of plotting against him. After all it was Calhoun’s wife Floride who had been the first to refuse to visit Margaret, after the Eaton’s had paid a call on them. Things couldn't go on the way they were much longer. Jackson's friends in Tennessee who had tried to get him to remove Eaton from his cabinet were slowly being pushed aside.

At first it was decided that perhaps it might be best for Margaret to stay in Tennessee but she refused. Matters came to a head when Martin van Buren decided to resign his cabinet post as Secretary of State, claiming that it was for the good of the nation. Soon John Henry Eaton resigned his post as Secretary of War. Finally Jackson, since the his cabinet was no longer the harmonious unit it once was, asked his Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, and Secretary of the Navy to all resign, which they did reluctantly. Calhoun resigned as Vice President to run for the Senate. However the resignations just convinced the gossips that Margaret Eaton controlled Jackson and the Cabinet.

Andrew Jackson never quite understood that politics and society in Washington was the same thing. He believed that they should be separate. He never quite understood that the women of Washington felt that they were protecting against an attack on the morality of the time. Margaret was just too forward, too brash, to be accepted by the women at that time in Washington. If Jackson had only understood that, and not believed that it was a conspiracy against him, the whole affair could have been avoided. But his stubbornness and his demands for absolute loyalty almost brought down the government, and made people question his judgment.

Calhoun had the last word when he successfully blocked van Buren’s appointment as Minister to England, but his career as a potential Presidential candidate was over. When Andrew Jackson ran again for President in 1832, Martin van Buren was his Vice-President, eventually succeeding him as President. After losing his bid to return to the Senate due to the whole ‘Petticoat Affair’ Eaton was appointed Governor of the Florida territory and then Minister to Spain. He returned to Washington in 1840, where he ran his law practice. Ironically, Margaret was now accepted by Washington society. They lived quietly until Eaton’s death in 1856.

Soon Margaret was making waves again. In 1859, she married an Italian dancing master named Antonio Buchignani who was only nineteen. She had been convinced by her own mother that marrying him would be good for the sake of her four grandchildren who she was raising after the death of their parents. For a few years the marriage seemed stable, Margaret was smart enough to get him to sign a pre-nuptial agreement that kept her fortune in her hands. Antonio worked at the Library of Congress during the war, but in 1866, he demanded that they move to New York at that Margaret give him $20,000 to start a business. The business failed and Antonio told Margaret that unless she signed over her entire fortune to him, he would leave her and go back to Europe. Foolishly she agreed only to discover that he left her anyway, running off with her seventeen year old granddaughter Emily.

Emily and her lover managed to run through all of Margaret’s money leaving her dependent on one of her grandson’s, John Randolph, who cared for her for the remaining years of her life. Margaret finally passed away in 1879 at the age of eighty. She is buried beside her husband in Franklin, Tennessee. It was a sad end for a woman who had caused so much controversy during her lifetime.

The Gorgeous Hussy – MGM, 1936, starring Joan Crawford as Margaret O’Neale, Robert Taylor as ‘Bow’ Timberlake, Franchot Tone as John Eaton, Melvyn Douglas as John Randolph and Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Jackson. Based on a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams. This movie bears very little resemblance from the plot description on Wikipedia to events in the life of Margaret Eaton. In this film Margaret falls in love with John Randolph who rejects her because she’s too young, so she marries ‘Bow’ Timberlake who conveniently dies while onboard the Consititution. Rachel Jackson asks Margaret to take care of Jackson in Washington which she does, becoming his hostess, which causes the political wives and hostesses to snub her. She and Randolph reunite and make plans to marry but Margaret realizes that the Washington wives will never accept her. So she agress to marry Eaton who has long been in love with her, hoping that it will make her respectable. Randolph fights a duel in her honor and dies. Margaret begs Jackson to send her and Eaton abroad to Spain. Unfortunately its only available on VHS.

Sources include:

The Petticoat Affair - John F. Marszalek, Simon & Schuster, 1997
Wild Rose: The True Story of a Civil War Spy – Ann Blackburn, Random House, 2006
A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans: Pirates, Skinflints, Patriots, and Other Colorful Characters Stuck in the Footnotes of History Michael Farquhar, Penguin, 2008


dave hambidge said…
On a very boring technical point, my RSS feed by XML missed this post. I have switched to using myyahoo and will let you know.

Geri O'Hara said…
Hi Think your blog is brilliant really interesting Thanx
Thanks Geri. I hope you come back to read more! Thanks also Dave about
kriswaldherr said…
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