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Peggy Eaton affair

Andrew Jackson

Peggy Eaton affair: Andrew Jackson was the 7th American President who served in office from March 4, 1829 to March 4, 1837. One of the key events that occured early during his presidency was the Peggy Eaton affair.

Definition and Summary of the Peggy Eaton affair
Summary and definition:
The Peggy Eaton affair (also known as the Petticoat affair) was a scandal that involved members of President Andrew Jackson's Cabinet and their wives. The Peggy Eaton affair surrounded Mrs. Peggy Eaton, the new wife of John H. Eaton, the Secretary of War.

The women of Washington society, led by Jackson's niece First Lady Emily Donelson and Floride Calhoun the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun,  would not accept Peggy Eaton. The scandal became known as the ‘Petticoat Affair’ and led to the resignation of Jackson’s entire cabinet and a serious rift with his First Lady.

The Peggy Eaton affair
The Peggy Eaton affair, also known as the Petticoat affair, scandalized the nation and changed the events of American history. Read about the life and loves of Peggy Eaton and the events surrounding the Peggy Eaton affair that led to the resignation of Jackson's entire cabinet, Jackson's informal "
Kitchen Cabinet", the downfall of some politicians and ultimately the election of Martin Van Buren as President of the United States.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: Her Childhood
Peggy Eaton biography - her childhood: Margaret (Peggy) O’Neale Timberlake Eaton was born in Washington D.C. on December 3, 1799. Peggy came from a working class background and was the daughter of Rhoda Howell and Irish immigrant William O'Neale. Her father was the proprietor of Franklin House, a large boarding house (also described as tavern or hotel). She enjoyed a liberal and sociable childhood as the daughter of the prosperous and popular inn keeper. At the age of 12 she performed a dance for First Lady Dolley Madison. Although her upbringing was a far cry from the social sphere of upper class Washington society, her father had money to provide Peggy and her 5 siblings with a good education and she was able to converse in French.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: Her Early Life
Peggy Eaton biography - her early life: Petted and spoilt by the hotel guests she grew into a confidant, vivacious, flirtatious girl who enjoyed playing the piano and serving drinks to the guests. The Franklin Hotel was a favorite boarding house and social center for military men and politicians (at the time few congressmen purchased second houses in Washington). She was highly attractive with dark hair and eyes, a well-rounded, voluptuous figure, peachy complexion and full sensuous lips. Not surprisingly, Peggy became an object of desire and the center of attention of many of the men who stayed at the hotel.  At the age of 15 she failed in an attempt to elope with Important Francis Smith Belton, an aide to General Winfield Scott.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: Marriage to John Timberlake
Peggy Eaton biography - her early life: In 1816, at the age of 17, she met John Timberlake, a 39-year-old purser in the United States Navy and within a month the couple were married. The hasty marriage must have brought a few surprises to her father. John Timberlake turned out to be in massive debt. William O'Neale father bought the newlywed Timberlake's a townhouse opposite the hotel. Timberlake turned his hand to running a store and the couple had a daughter, Mary Virginia Timberlake.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: John Timberlake's Debts
Peggy Eaton biography - John Timberlake's debts: As a purser in the US Navy he handled the ship's finances. He purchased groceries and other items to sell to the crew and the officers at a profit. He sold the goods on credit and subtracted what was owed on pay day. The first loss he encountered was on the USS United States when sailors deserted without paying off their credit. Then during the War of 1812 his ship, the President, was captured by the British. They seized all the ledgers containing details of the amounts owed on credit. Timberlake had no proof of the debts of the sailors and he ended up with a massive financial shortfall. His venture running the store resulted in even more debts.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: John Eaton
Peggy Eaton biography - John Eaton: The couple continued to socialize with the guests and two years later met Senator John Eaton. John Eaton was just 28 years old, handsome and ambitious with a glittering political career ahead of him. Her husband and Senator John Eaton became close friends and Timberlake confided about his massive debt problems.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: Timberlake's Senate Petition
Peggy Eaton biography - Timberlake's Senate Petition: In the spring of 1820 John Eaton introduced a petition from Timberlake to the Senate for relief from his naval debts, asking to be indemnified (covered) for his losses. The petition was referred to the Senate's Naval Affair Committee. His petition was refused on two counts. The losses from the sales of goods for profit was his own responsibility and secondly the Committee believed that Timberlake should have made copies of his ledgers and made more effort to recover them from the British. In 1821, after his petition was dismissed and his store business had failed, John Timberlake had no alternative but to resume his naval career. He returned for short periodic visits between voyages.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: The Gossip, controversy and scandal surrounding the Peggy Eaton affair
Peggy Eaton biography - the gossip, controversy and scandal surrounding the Peggy Eaton affair: With her husband away at sea Peggy played a high profile role in the running of the Franklin Hotel and as a grown woman participated with guests in their political debates. Peggy met Andrew Jackson in December 1823 when he was the new junior senator from Tennessee and boarded at the Franklin House. Jackson referred to her as "the smartest little woman in America." and his wife Rachel Jackson was equally impressed with Peggy when she met her in Washington in 1824. On March 16, 1825 Peggy gave birth to a daughter Margaret Rosa Timberlake. The relationship between her and John Eaton had grown even closer in the absence of her husband and Eaton often acted as Peggy's escort on social occasions. The gossips had a 'field day'. Peggy was viewed as a woman of loose morals who served in a bar and thrived on the attentions of the male guests. The rumors became uglier and there were suggestions that not only were Peggy Timberlake and John Eaton lovers but that she had also had a miscarriage from a pregnancy that could only have resulted from another man as her husband was away at sea - Timberlake had left for a 4 year voyage on the USS Constitution. Timberlake died of pulmonary disease on the voyage in April 1828 at the age of 51. Rumors then started that he had committed suicide, some said he was ashamed of his wife's behavior and alleged affair with John Eaton.

Biography of Peggy Eaton: The Marriage
Peggy Eaton biography - the marriage: The minimum acceptable period of mourning at the time was 1 year. But John Eaton married Peggy on New Year’s Day 1829. The couple had received the blessing of their close friend President Jackson. Andrew Jackson had recently lost his wife, Rachel Jackson and his niece,
Emily Donelson, had assumed the role of First Lady. President Jackson had appointed John Eaton Secretary of War. Friends of Jackson had counseled him not to make the appointment because of Eaton's scandalous association with Peggy. He ignored all the warnings. With her marriage to John, Peggy Eaton entered the highest society in America of the Cabinet social circle.

What year was the Peggy Eaton affair?
The Peggy Eaton affair exploded in 1830. The social etiquette of 'paying calls' was a firmly established ritual in polite society. As protocol dictated, John and Peggy Eaton paid a call on Floride Calhoun, the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun. Floride refused to return the call. This was a most terrible snub. The young First Lady
, Emily Donelson followed suit. She showed the greatest great respect and a strict sense of propriety when mixing with the older, wealthy women who were wives of Cabinet members. The women of the cabinet treated Peggy Eaton with disdain but had to mix socially with her at public events such as the inaugural ball and the state banquet held in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette.

The dispute escalated when Peggy Eaton greatly offended Emily Donelson by apparently remarking that Emily’s relationship President Jackson was inappropriate. Emily Donelson refused to ever associate with Peggy Eaton again. Emily Donelson and her husband left the White House during the summer of 1830 and refused point blank to ever to return to the White House again if she had to associate with Peggy Eaton. She only relented when John Eaton was appointed the U.S. Minister to Spain  when he and his wife were required to move to Spain to live. Emily Donelson returned to the White House as First Lady in September of 1831. The Peggy Eaton scandal didn't stop with the women...it led to a massive political controversy

The Peggy Eaton affair: The Political Controversy
The political controversy surrounding the Peggy Eaton affair erupted in the cabinet. The press made the Petticoat affair public and savaged the Jackson administration. The juicy, scandalous gossip was mulled over across the country. Andrew Jackson continued to support his Secretary of War. Andrew Jackson was furious at the way that he and the Eaton's were being treated. 
Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren realized that the affair had become a liability for the Democrats and a heavy burden to Jackson. In April 1831 Martin Van Buren offered to resign his cabinet position and suggested that John Eaton did the same. This action would allow the President to ask the remainder of the Cabinet to resign their seats. The President called a Cabinet meeting at the White House (without John Eaton). He got the resignations from all the members and completely reorganized his Cabinet. The capital and the country was shocked at this turn of events. Many believed it would result in the collapse of the government. It didn't. The press turned on the spiteful women of Washington and referred to the scandal as the 'Petticoat Affair'. Martin Van Buren remarked:

"I would rather have live vermin on my back, than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation."

Andrew Jackson replaced Vice President John C. Calhoun with Martin Van Buren as his vice presidential running mate in his re-election campaign and the history of the country was changed forever. Andrew Jackson then abandoned official cabinet meetings for meetings with his friends that was referred to as his Kitchen Cabinet.

The Significance of the Peggy Eaton affair for kids
The Peggy Eaton affair was extremely significant.

  • It reversed the political fortunes of several politicians

  • It resulted in Jackson's informal "Kitchen Cabinet" and the wide use of the Spoils System

  • Martin Van Buren was elected president, rather than John C. Calhoun

What happened to Peggy Eaton?
The controversy surrounding the Peggy Eaton affair continued. In 1840 John Eaton returned from Spain and despite all Jackson had done for him, he turned on him, showing the greatest disloyalty and supported Martin Van Buren's rival, William Henry Harrison. John Eaton died in 1856 leaving Peggy Eaton and extremely rich widow. Three years later, on June 7, 1859, Peggy Eaton hit the headlines again by marrying handsome, young Antonio Gabriele Buchignani, an Italian dancing instructor and music teacher. Peggy Eaton was 59 years old and Antonio Gabriele Buchignani was just 19 years old. The marriage did not last and within seven years her third husband and most of her money was gone. More scandal and controversy. Antonio Gabriele Buchignani had ran off with her 17 year old granddaughter, Emily Randolph, who he married after Peggy divorced him in 1869. Peggy O'Neill Timberlake Eaton Buchignani died penniless at a home for destitute women on November 8, 1879 at age of 79 years old.

Peggy Eaton: The Gorgeous Hussy
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The Gorgeous Hussy' a 1936 movie, starring Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor, was loosely based on the life of Margaret O'Neill Eaton and the Peggy Eaton affair. (The word 'Hussy' was used to describe a loose woman.) So the scandalous story of the woman that resulted in the resignation of an entire U.S. Cabinet continued to fascinate people - the movie grossed a total of $2,019,000. 

US American History
1829-1841: Jacksonian Era

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