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, who socially ostracized John Eaton, the Secretary of War, and his wife Peggy over disapproval of the circumstances surrounding their marriage. The affair had a radical impact on the Jackson administration and led to the resignation of several cabinet members, and Jackson's subsequent reliance on an informal "Kitchen Cabinet". It aided in Martin Van Buren's rise to the presidency, and was in part responsible for John C. 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 boardinghouse 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. Future Postmaster General, William T. Barry wrote "of a charming little girl... who very frequently plays the piano, and entertains us with agreeable songs." 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." Her reputation was already under scrutiny because she worked in a bar frequented by men and casually bantered with the boardinghouse clientele.
Having failed to elope on three occasions, in 1816 the 17 year old Peggy married her first husband 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 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 Andrew Jackson, who liked them both, Peggy and Eaton married in 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. Their actions scandalized respectable people of the capital, especially upper-class women. Second Lady Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, led the wives of other Washington political figures, most notably the wives of 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, Jackson felt that Calhoun and other anti-Jackson officials were fanning the flames of the 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 minister to England, but Calhoun engineered an unfavorable vote on his confirmation by the Senate. This act of retaliation by Calhoun 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."
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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.