|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (February 2012)|
The Petticoat affair (also known as the Eaton affair or the Eaton malaria) was an 1830–1831 U.S. scandal involving members of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet and their wives. Although it started over a private matter, it affected the political careers of several men and resulted in the informal "Kitchen Cabinet". The 1936 film The Gorgeous Hussy is based on the affair.
Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale (or O'Neill or O'Neal) was the daughter of William O'Neale, who owned a Washington, D.C., boarding-house called the Franklin House, a social center for many politicians. Margaret was well-educated; she studied French, among other subjects, and was known for her ability to play the piano. She was also renowned for having a "vivacious" temperament. In 1816, Margaret married her first husband John B. Timberlake, a purser in the United States Navy. She was 17, and he was 39. Timberlake had been heavily in debt for years. They had three children together, with one dying in infancy.
The Timberlake couple had been friends with Senator John Henry Eaton since 1818, when Eaton was a 28-year-old widower and newly elected U.S. Senator. After Timberlake told Eaton about their financial problems, Eaton unsuccessfully attempted to get the Senate to pass a petition to pay Timberlake's debts accrued while in the Navy. While away on a four-year sea voyage on the USS Constitution, Timberlake died of pulmonary disease in 1828, although there were allegations he committed suicide.
With the encouragement of President Andrew Jackson, who liked them both, Peggy and Eaton married shortly after her husband's death, although according to the social mores of the day, it would have been more proper for them to wait for a longer mourning period. Their actions scandalized respectable people of the capital, especially many women. Second Lady Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, led a phalanx of other Cabinet wives in an "anti-Peggy" coalition. Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, had a niece, Emily Donelson, whom Jackson called on as his surrogate "First Lady"; she sided with the Calhoun faction. Martin Van Buren, a widower and the only unmarried member of the Cabinet, allied himself with the Eatons.
Jackson was sympathetic to the Eatons, in part, perhaps, because his own beloved late wife, Rachel Donelson Robards, had been the subject of innuendo, as it was revealed that her first marriage had not yet been legally ended at the time of her wedding to Jackson. Jackson believed such rumors were the cause of Rachel's heart attack and death on December 22, 1828, several weeks after his election.
Jackson appointed Eaton as his Secretary of War, hoping to limit the rumors, but the scandal intensified. Jackson felt political opponents, especially those around Calhoun, were feeding the controversy. The controversy finally resulted in the resignation of almost all members of the Cabinet over a period of weeks in the spring of 1831. Postmaster General William T. Barry would be the lone member to stay.
Jackson elevated Van Buren as his favorite and replaced Calhoun as vice presidential running mate in his re-election campaign. Van Buren thus became the de facto heir to the Democratic Party. In regard to these events, Jackson remarked:
|“||I [would] rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.||”|
— Jackson 
Although Emily Donelson had supported Floride Calhoun, Jackson kept his niece as his official hostess.
John Calhoun and his wife returned to South Carolina. In 1832, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. He advocated states' rights, slavery, and economic issues affecting the South, eventually including secession from the Union.
- "Andrew Jackson: The Petticoat Affair, Scandal in Jackson's White House", History Net, accessed August 4, 2009.
- Widmer, Edward L. 2005. Martin Van Buren: The American Presidents Series, The 8th President, 1837–1841. Time Books. ISBN 978-0-7862-7612-7
- "Andrew Jackson and the Tavern-Keeper's Daughter", Women's History
- Andrew Jackson on the Web: Petticoat Affair
- J. Kingston Pierce, "Andrew Jackson's 'Petticoat Affair'", The History Net, June 1999
- Booknotes interview with John Marszalek on The Petticoat Affair, March 8, 1998.
- 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.