Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Andrew Jackson and The Petticoat Affair
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History, Andrew Jackson entered the American presidency in 1829 as a new kind of public figure. He was a frontiersman, uneducated, rough around the edges, and determined to govern without assistance from political elites. His would be a populist administration anchored in genuine participatory democracy. Despite his predecessors’ claims to employ only the “best men,” Jackson would appoint loyal public servants to do his bidding. He intended to ignore the effete aristocracy that had directed the executive department before his accession.
During his initial bid for the presidency in 1824, Jackson had endured all manner of insults and humiliation. He was an uneducated bumpkin, a blasphemer, a fraudulent land speculator, and even a murderer. As horrible as these charges were for him, the slander against his wife’s name was infinitely worse. Jackson had lost his heart to a woman whose reputation was suspect, and her supposedly tainted past became a potent political issue.
During the acrimonious 1824 contest, Rachel Jackson was labeled an adulteress and a bigamist. It was a simple insult, while the truth was complicated. She had married a Kentucky businessman, Lewis Robards, in 1785. After five years, the jealous Robards believed that his wife had been unfaithful, and he sought a divorce. Rachel thought the divorce was final. In 1791, she married a promising young attorney, Andrew Jackson, whom she had met at her mother’s Nashville boardinghouse. It was only two years later that she learned that the divorce had not been finalized. Much to her dismay, she, and the man she thought was her second husband, had been living in sin. The Jacksons hastily renewed their vows.
Jackson’s opponents wasted no time in attacking his relationship with Rachel, gleefully circulating all manner of invective to slander the woman’s good name. The personal attacks took their toll. The 1824 election was close, although Jackson initially appeared to have won. Undaunted, his political enemies engaged in a series of seemingly unending machinations. When all was said and done, Jackson narrowly lost to John Quincy Adams after the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Bitter at what he believed was a fraudulent election, Old Hickory vowed to return four years later to avenge his loss. He knew that his enemies would assail his marriage to Rachel if he ran a second time, but he would not relent. Andrew Jackson was never a man to run from a fight.
Predictably, the blistering attacks recommenced as the 1828 election drew near. Partisans decried the general’s propensity to engage in duels. He was a hothead who did not possess the judgment and temperament to serve as the chief magistrate of the nation. Even his female relations did not escape notice. His mother was a whore, critics alleged. As for Rachel, the old charges reappeared, this time with a harder edge. One anti-Jacksonian newspaper did not mince words. “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?”
Jackson was enraged by the assaults on his wife’s virtue, but his rage soon turned to grief, for Rachel did not share her husband’s intestinal fortitude. The harsh words wounded her deeply, and she visibly showed her apprehension. “The enemies of the General have dipped their arrows in wormwood and gall and sped them at me,” she said during the bitter campaign season. “Almighty God, was there ever anything equal to it?”
On December 17, 1828, as President-elect Jackson sat outside the house handling his correspondence, Rachel collapsed in her sitting room, screaming in pain. When Jackson learned of her collapse, he rushed to her side. She lived for five days before she died from the effects of an apparent heart attack on December 22, three days before Christmas.
In what should have been a celebratory season—the holiday after his victory in the hard-fought presidential election—Jackson was immersed in grief. He had loved Rachel for almost four decades, and he could not imagine a life without her. Although they had been separated for long periods during his military campaigns, he had been secure in the knowledge that she waited patiently for him at home. Now she was gone as Andrew Jackson prepared to shoulder the responsibilities of high office without a trusted partner at his side.
He arrived in Washington with relatives in tow, ensuring that he was not alone. Yet he never forgot—or forgave—Rachel’s loss. He was not a man who avoided conflict, but now, more than ever, he was combative. He would not allow Rachel’s death to go unpunished. His political enemies must be vanquished.
Still grieving his dead wife, Jackson experienced the so-called “Petticoat Affair,” a sexual scandal that threatened to derail his presidency. It involved a charming young woman, dark-haired, blue-eyed Margaret “Peggy” O’Neill (sometimes spelled O’Neale or O'Neal) Eaton, who became the wife of the new president’s secretary of war. Under ordinary circumstances, Peggy Eaton’s plight would have escaped a president’s notice. Yet these were hardly ordinary circumstances, for Rachel’s death was still too fresh. Rachel’s demise, Jackson believed, was hastened by scurrilous rumors; wagging tongues and heartless snubs had killed his true love. Watching similar rumors swirl around Peggy Eaton, Jackson dug in his heels. He was hell bent on saving a good and noble woman who reminded him of his Rachel.
Jackson’s choice for secretary of war was questionable. John Henry Eaton, a United States senator from Tennessee, was a mediocre talent, at best. Moreover, he had established a “late unfortunate connection” with Peggy O’Neill, a woman viewed by many society dames as immoral. Her humble origins were not the issue. Her outspoken nature and audacious actions were the source of her—and, as it turned out, Andrew Jackson’s—woe.
She was born in 1799. Her father, William O'Neale, an Irish immigrant, owned a prosperous boardinghouse and tavern, the Franklin House, in Washington, D.C. The oldest of six children, young Peggy came of age among the politicians who frequented her father’s establishment. She heard riveting tales of legislative debates, international intrigue, and societal gossip that were the currency of the ruling classes. Beautiful and vivacious, the girl quickly learned to navigate among the powerful men who could not resist her charms. “I was always a pet,” she would recall from those formative years.
In an era when women were expected to be demure appendages of their fathers or husbands, seldom uttering an unsolicited opinion, Peggy was an aberration. She had long inhabited the coarse world of men, reveling in their ribald tales and bawdy reminiscences, real and imagined. She felt free to join in the conversation when it suited her. To counterbalance this rude upbringing and instill a sense of propriety in their daughter, her parents sent her to an excellent school in the capital. There she acquired a first-rate education, studying English and French grammar. She also excelled at dance and piano-playing. On one notable occasion, twelve-year-old Peggy O’Neill performed for First Lady Dolley Madison.
As she grew to maturity, this high-spirited woman who seemed afraid of nothing, including rumors about her reputation, invited attention from every man who encountered her. Perhaps she knew her virtue would always be called into question, regardless of the choices she made, for no woman of fine breeding would labor in a tavern, even if her father were the proprietor. The social mores of the era placed her in an awkward position. She knew many congressmen and senators by name, but the taint of her upbringing ensured that she would have an exceedingly difficult time parlaying her connections into a respectable position in high society.
The stories of this unconventional young woman were delightful in their salaciousness. In most versions, Peggy was an enchantress, virtually impossible to resist. One infatuated young man, when rebuffed by the object of his amorous advances, was thought to have ingested poison, preferring the afterlife to a world without his love. The son of President Jefferson’s treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, reputedly enjoyed frequent visits with the young woman. Peggy’s father supposedly dragged her back into the house when she was climbing out of her bedroom window to elope with an aide to General Winfield Scott. These tales, true or not, portrayed Peggy as a wanton free spirit, unencumbered by middle class mores.
Andrew Jackson met the young woman in December 1823, half a decade before he entered the presidency. As a junior senator from Tennessee, he boarded at the Franklin House. The accommodations had been recommended by the state’s senior U.S. senator, John Henry Eaton. Jackson found that he liked his hosts, especially their 23-year-old daughter. By this time, Peggy O’Neill had married a navy purser, John Bowie Timberlake. She eventually bore him three children, two of whom survived infancy. Jackson described Peggy as the “smartest little woman in America,” a sentiment echoed by the general’s wife, Rachel, when she accompanied him to Washington in 1824. Jackson did not pursue Peggy Eaton as a lover. Instead, he saw her as a spirited “niece” who flattered him. It was little wonder that he enjoyed her company.
John Eaton met Peggy in 1818, and he heard the stories of her uninhibited behavior. He also came to know her husband, John Timberlake. In fact, Eaton unsuccessfully lobbied his Senate colleagues to reimburse the desperate purser for losses he suffered while he was away at sea. Peggy Timberlake told one and all that Senator Eaton was “my husband’s friend,” and “he was a pure, honest, and faithful gentleman." The words might have been taken at face value but for the rumors that circulated among the close-knit Washington community. John Timberlake, they said, constantly sailed away from home to escape both financial setbacks as well as knowledge of his wife’s infidelity. Spotted in the widower Eaton’s company on numerous occasions while her husband was absent, Peggy Timberlake was thought to be the senator’s lover.
John Timberlake conveniently died of “pulmonary disease” while serving aboard a ship, the USS Constitution, in April 1828. The timing of his death and the vague circumstances left tongues wagging. Perhaps the seaman had not succumbed to disease after all. Perhaps he could no longer close his eyes to his wife’s dalliances. More than a few Washingtonians surmised that John Timberlake had killed himself to avoid his creditors or because he could no longer endure tales of his wife’s infidelity. Whatever the reason, the man’s disappearance from the scene cleared the way for Senator Eaton, the “pure, honest, and faithful gentleman,” to declare his love for the widow.
Jackson rewarded his friend by appointing Eaton to serve as his secretary of war in the incoming presidential administration. Shortly before he assumed his new duties, Eaton married Peggy O’Neill Timberlake. She had been a widow for only nine months, but Eaton was anxious to bring her fully into his life.
As a new cabinet officer, Eaton, accompanied by his bride, expected to receive a slew of invitations to social events in and around Washington City. The capital was still a small, southern town in the 1820s. Elected officials and their wives were tight knit, sharing friendships and social camaraderie despite partisan wrangling over affairs of state. Yet so great was the stain on Peggy Eaton’s reputation that the society dames of Washington blacklisted her from most events.
It started at Jackson’s inauguration, when “virtuous and distinguished” attendees scampered away from the couple to avoid engaging in conversation. Some women, upon learning that Jackson’s “little friend Peg” would attend a specific inaugural ball, boycotted the event. Even in Jackson’s family, Peggy Eaton became a persona non grata. Emily Donelson, the president’s niece and official hostess following the death of Rachel Jackson, reluctantly consented to visit with Peggy Eaton once, but she emphatically refused to meet with the woman again. Donelson said she was “so much disgusted with what I have seen of her that I shall not visit her again.”
A few discourtesies might be ignored, but it became evident that Peggy Eaton was to be shunned indefinitely. When the Eatons paid a call on the vice president’s wife, she accepted the call. According to the etiquette of the time, the Calhouns were expected to reciprocate, but Floride Calhoun steadfastly refused to perform her duty. The vice president could not dissuade his wife from her plan, leaving him to muse over the difficulties he would encounter with the president, who was not a Calhoun ally.
Upset at the indignities, the president resolved to lay the matter to rest. On September 10, 1829, he invited everyone in the cabinet, save for John Eaton, to the executive mansion to lay out the evidence showing that his war secretary’s wife had been viciously maligned. John C. Calhoun was out of town, and his absence, Jackson hoped, would help smooth over relations. Two priests, Reverend John N. Campbell and Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely, were present as well. Jackson laid out affidavits attesting to Peggy Eaton’s good conduct. He would brook no dissent about the evidence. When one minister offered an objection, Jackson overrode him. “She is as chaste as a virgin,” he exclaimed. As the mother of two surviving children, the woman was less sexually innocent than the president claimed, but his point was that he wished to close off debate.
Vice President Calhoun and President Jackson enjoyed an uneasy relationship. The South Carolinian had helped to elect Jackson, but everyone knew that Calhoun was politically ambitious and was quick to change positions and loyalties if he believed a change would advance his interests. Floride Calhoun had led the opposition to Peggy Eaton, and Jackson could not believe that she had acted without her husband’s tacit approval.
If anyone benefited from the imbroglio, it was the secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. Calhoun, in his second term as vice president—he had served under John Quincy Adams during the preceding administration—had been Jackson’s heir apparent before the Eaton affair arose. As he became suspicious that his vice president was disloyal, Jackson looked to Van Buren as a potential successor.
A former New York governor, Van Buren was sometimes known as the “little magician” for his uncanny ability to work behind the scenes to secure political advantage. He was a widower, which became a definite political advantage in the Jackson administration. With no spouse to hinder his efforts, the secretary of state wasted no time in extending every courtesy to John and Peggy Eaton. An appreciative president took note of who had supported him in the Petticoat Affair, and who had insulted his friend’s new wife. Jackson was not a man to forgive his enemies.
No matter how much he insisted that Peggy Eaton was a good woman, the affair would not die. For two years, critics and reporters criticized Jackson’s refusal to abandon the Eatons. The president became so intractable on the issue that he even sent his nephew and private secretary, Andrew Donelson, and Donelson's wife, Emily, away since they would not reconcile with the secretary of war and his wife. It was a difficult decision, but Jackson would not yield to his critics, even when they were family members.
The always ingratiating Van Buren suggested a solution in April 1831. The president had contemplated removing cabinet members who would not embrace the Eatons, but this maneuver promised more heartache and negative press, especially if other cabinet secretaries resigned in protest. Van Buren’s plan was simple. The secretary of state offered to resign, allowing the secretary of war to follow suit. The president could then request that his entire cabinet resign so that he could reorganize without identifying the Petticoat Affair as the cause. Loyal cabinet officers could be invited back into the government and opponents could be replaced with loyal men.
Events unfolded as Van Buren had foreseen, but the public reaction was far more severe and hostile than he or Jackson had anticipated. No one was fooled. Peggy Eaton’s ostracism obviously was the cause of the cabinet shakeup, and it suggested that Jackson could not govern effectively. One critic wryly compared the Jackson administration to “the reign of Louis XV when Ministers were appointed and dismissed at a woman’s nod, and the interests of the nation were tied to her apron string.” Still, perhaps the Eatons’ departure would put the issue to rest, and Jackson could get on with the business of governing. The popular toast of the day reflected the desire to see the affair ended: “To the next cabinet—may they all be bachelors—or leave their wives at home.”
To ensure that the couple would not continue to wreak havoc in the capitol, Jackson sent John Eaton to the Florida Territory to serve as governor. Two years later, the president appointed Eaton minister to Spain. John and Peggy Eaton spent four years in Madrid, far away from the insular society of Washington, D.C.
For his loyalty to the cause, Jackson appointed Martin Van Buren to be minister to Great Britain, but an embittered John C. Calhoun, as vice president, cast a tie-breaking vote against the little magician’s confirmation. Confident that the rejection “will kill him, sir, kill him dead,” Calhoun was chagrined when Jackson tapped Van Buren to serve as vice president during Jackson's second term. Later, Van Buren won the presidency in the 1836 election, although he served only a single term.
John Eaton remained out of sight, but not out of mind. In 1840, after President Van Buren recalled him to the United States for failing to carry out his diplomatic duties, Eaton threw his support behind the president’s rival in the 1840 election, William Henry Harrison. From retirement, Andrew Jackson learned of the betrayal, and he was enraged. “He comes out against all the political principles he ever professed and against those on which he was supported and elected senator,” the former president groused. He did not speak to John Eaton again until the two men reconciled in 1844, a year before Jackson died.
As for Peggy Eaton, she simply could not settle down to a comfortable middle-class life. After her husband died in 1856, she possessed the money to buy her way into high society. She created a new scandal at age 59 when she married her granddaughter Emily’s 19-year-old dance tutor. Five years later, the tutor ran off with Emily and his wife’s fortune, leaving Peggy impoverished in her old age.
She died in 1879 at a home for destitute women and was buried next to John Eaton in Oak Hill Cemetery. Surrounded as she was by many prominent Washingtonians, Peggy Eaton had finally joined the society figures she had sought to impress. One newspaper observed that as “cordially as they may have hated her, they are now her neighbors.”