The Petticoat Affair: Scandal in Jackson's Cabinet

President Andrew Jackson and his cabinet succumb to the charms of 'Celeste', a dainty figure representing Peggy O'Neil, the wife of War Secretary John Eaton.
President Andrew Jackson and his cabinet succumb to the charms of 'Celeste', a dainty figure representing Peggy O'Neil, the wife of War Secretary John Eaton.

MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

The Petticoat Affair was a political scandal that took place from 1829 to 1831, involving members of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet and their wives. Reportedly led by Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, the women involved went to great lengths to publicly ostracize and exclude Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, Peggy O’Neale Eaton, from Washington, D.C.’s elite society over details involving the Eatons’ marriage and what they deemed Peggy’s failure to meet the unwritten “moral standards of a Cabinet Wife.”

Key Takeaways: The Petticoat Affair

  • The Petticoat Affair was a political scandal involving members of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet and their wives that played out from 1829 to 1831
  • Led by the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, Floride, the women publicly ostracize and exclude Secretary of War John Eaton and his wife, Peggy O’Neale Eaton, from Washington society.
  • In the aftermath of the scandal, Jackson’s entire Cabinet, and Vice President Calhoun resigned, leaving Martin Van Buren to be elected vice president in 1832 and president in 1836.



The Petticoat Affair shattered the Jackson Administration, eventually leading to the resignation of all but one Cabinet member. The scandal also aided Martin Van Buren in winning the 1836 presidential election and was partly responsible for transforming Vice President Calhoun from a national political figure with hopes of winning the presidency into a defender of the practice of enslavement as a sectional leader of the Southern states.

Background 

In a campaign already dominated by smear attacks and accusations, Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. Less than a year after taking office, Jackson’s Secretary of War, John Eaton, married Margaret “Peggy” O’Neill, the daughter of William O'Neill, owner of the Franklin House, a popular Washington, D.C. boarding house and tavern. Located near the White House, Franklin House was a well-known social hub frequented by politicians. Well educated for a woman of the era, Peggy had studied French, played the piano, and worked at her father’s tavern. While still young, her reputation has suffered because of her employment in a business frequented mainly by men and her casual chatting with the tavern’s often influential patrons. In her memoirs, Peggy recalled, “While I was still in pantalettes and rolling hoops with other girls, I had the attention of men, young and old; enough to turn a girl's head.”

Old Cigar box lid depicting Margaret “Peggy” O'neal who became the wife of the Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson.
Old Cigar box lid depicting Margaret “Peggy” O'neal who became the wife of the Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The circumstances surrounding Peggy O'Neill’s marriage to John Eaton would lead to upheaval and scandal within Jackson’s Cabinet.

In 1816, then 17-year-old Peggy O'Neill had married 39-year-old John B. Timberlake, a purser (payroll officer) in the United States Navy. With a reputation as an alcoholic, Timberlake was heavily in debt. In 1818, Peggy and John Timberlake became friends with John Eaton, a wealthy 28-year-old widower who had recently been elected U.S. Senator from Tennessee. Eaton was also a long-time friend of Andrew Jackson. 

When Timberlake told Eaton of his financial troubles, Eaton persuaded the Senate to pass a resolution authorizing the government to pay all debts Timberlake had accrued while in the Navy. After paying off Timberlake's debts, Eaton arranged for him to be assigned to a lucrative position with the Navy's Mediterranean Squadron. The D.C. rumor mill hinted that Eaton had aided Timberlake as a way of removing him from Washington so that he could secretly socialize with Peggy. 

After John Timberlake, died at sea in 1828, his widow Peggy married Eaton. Rumors soon spread throughout Washington suggesting that Timberlake had taken his own life after learning of Peggy’s supposed affair with Easton. However, the Navy concluded Timberlake had died of pneumonia.

Scandal in Jackson's Cabinet 

With his term set to begin on March 4, 1829, President-elect Jackson reportedly encouraged Peggy Timberlake to marry John Eaton. The couple was wed on January 1, 1829, just nine months after the death of Peggy’s husband. According to custom, their marriage should have followed a longer “proper” mourning period.

After taking office, President Jackson appointed Eaton to his Cabinet as Secretary of War. This infuriated the Second Lady of the United States, Floride Calhoun. Floride rallied the wives of several Washington political figures, mostly Cabinet members, to form an “anti-Peggy” coalition that succeeded in shunning the Eatons both publicly and socially. They were welcome as visitors in few Washington area homes and were denied invitations to social events. President Jackson took the Eatons’ side during the “Petticoat Affair,” privately and publicly defending the couple.

One influential member of Floride Calhoun’s coalition, Emily Donelson, was the niece of Andrew Jackson's late wife Rachel Donelson Robards, and the wife of Jackson's adopted son adviser Andrew Jackson Donelson. Due to their close relationship, Emily Donelson was widely recognized as Jackson's “surrogate First Lady.” Emily’s Donelson’s decision to join with Floride Calhoun in snubbing the Eatons angered Jackson, leading him to replace her with his daughter-in-law Sarah Yorke Jackson as his official White House hostess. As the only unmarried member of the Cabinet, Secretary of State, and future president, Martin Van Buren, improved his status in the Jackson administration by siding with the Eatons against Floride Calhoun. 

During his presidential campaign, Jackson had been hounded by accusations that his late wife Rachel had married him illegally before her first marriage had officially ended. Partly explaining his sympathy for the Eatons, Jackson believed these baseless attacks were to blame for Rachel's sudden death from a heart attack on December 22, 1828, just weeks after he was elected president.

Eaton’s high-profile appointment as Secretary of War further chipped away at support for Floride Calhoun’s group. Worse yet, Floride’s husband, Vice President John C. Calhoun, had angered Jackson by leading the opposition to his election to a second term. Calhoun and his supporters wanted to see Calhoun elected president. Calhoun also opposed, while Jackson favored the 1828 protective tariff known as the “Tariff of Abominations.” This tax on imported goods generally favored industries in northern cities by limiting foreign competition but was vehemently opposed in the agricultural South.

In 1832, the dispute over the tariff boiled over into the nullification crisis, in which southerners—led by Calhoun—contended that the states had the right to refuse to obey federal laws they considered to be unconstitutional, even to the point of secession from the Union. Jackson, however, had promised to hold the Union together. As the most visible opponent to his presidency, Jackson publicly accused Calhoun and his wife Floride of ostracizing John and Peggy Eaton merely to gain political leverage in his attempt to win the presidency.

Finally in the spring of 1831, at the suggestion of Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, who, like Jackson, supported the Eatons, Jackson replaced all but one of his Cabinet members, thus limiting Calhoun's influence.

Easton retaliated against Calhoun in 1830. Letters published in newspapers revealed that Calhoun was Secretary of War, and Jackson was still a general in the U.S. Army, Calhoun had secretly pressed for Congress to formally denounce Jackson for his 1818 order to invade Florida in the First Seminole War. Enraged, Jackson correctly accused Calhoun of having had the letters published. 

Political Fallout 

The Petticoat Affair was resolved in 1831, when Van Buren and Secretary of War Eaton resigned their Cabinet posts, forcing Calhoun’s allies to do likewise. Jackson appointed a new Cabinet and sought to reward Van Buren by appointing him Minister to Great Britain. Vice President Calhoun, as President of the Senate, cast the deciding vote against the appointment, making Van Buren a martyr. Jackson gave Eaton appointments that took him away from Washington, first as governor of the Florida Territory, and then as minister to Spain. 

A political cartoon depicts President Andrew Jackson sitting stunned as his cabinet, represented as rats, run to escape his house crumbling from a political scandal surrounding Peggy O'Neale Eaton, the wife of a Jackson’s Secretary of War.
A political cartoon depicts President Andrew Jackson sitting stunned as his cabinet, represented as rats, run to escape his house crumbling from a political scandal surrounding Peggy O'Neale Eaton, the wife of a Jackson’s Secretary of War.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Calhoun resigned as vice president shortly before the end of his term and returned with his wife to South Carolina. Soon elected to the U.S. Senate, he returned to Washington not as a national leader with presidential aspirations, but as a southern sectional leader who argued in favor of states' rights and the expansion and protection of slavery.

Now affectionately known as the “Little Magician” Van Buren was elected as Jackson’s vice president 1832 and won the presidency in 1836.

When later asked his opinion of the Petticoat affair, Jackson remarked, “I would rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.”

Sources

  • Marszalek, John F. “The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House.” LSU Press, October 1, 2000, ISBN 978-0807126349
  • Watson, Robert P. “Affairs of State: The Untold History of Presidential Love, Sex, and Scandal, 1789–1900.” Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, ISBN 978-1-4422-1834-5.
  • Wood, Kristen E. “One Woman so Dangerous to Public Morals: Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair.” Journal of the Early Republic, University of Pennsylvania Press, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1997. 
  • Gerson, Noel Bertram. “That Eaton Woman: In Defense of Peggy O'Neale Eaton.” Barre Publishing, 1974, ISBN 9780517517765.
Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "The Petticoat Affair: Scandal in Jackson's Cabinet." ThoughtCo, Apr. 27, 2022, thoughtco.com/the-petticoat-affair-scandal-in-jackson-s-cabinet-5225390. Longley, Robert. (2022, April 27). The Petticoat Affair: Scandal in Jackson's Cabinet. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-petticoat-affair-scandal-in-jackson-s-cabinet-5225390 Longley, Robert. "The Petticoat Affair: Scandal in Jackson's Cabinet." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-petticoat-affair-scandal-in-jackson-s-cabinet-5225390 (accessed May 16, 2022).