The Petticoat Affair
Shortly after Andrew Jackson became president, his Secretary of War, John Eaton, married Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake. Peggy’s first husband, John Timberlake, died in 1828 while at sea, and Peggy married John Eaton in early 1829. Peggy and Timberlake had known Eaton for a decade by the time of Timberlake’s death, and it was rumored that Peggy and Eaton had been having an affair while Timberlake was gone on a four-year voyage.
When Eaton and Peggy entered Washington society, they were snubbed by society ladies, led by Floride Calhoun, wife of vice president John C. Calhoun. Peggy’s social calls were not returned, and society ladies would not attend events at which Peggy would be present. Floride and the other society ladies would not associate with Peggy because they believed she had had an affair with Eaton during her first marriage, and they also were critical of the fact that Eaton and Peggy had married before a proper mourning period for her first husband had passed. In her youth, Peggy’s father owned a tavern, and there were rumors that Peggy had been sexually promiscuous and perhaps even a prostitute. The women of polite society believed they had to remain separate from Peggy Eaton in order to protect their own reputations. (1) For these reasons, the Eatons were shunned in polite society.
Andrew Jackson took the Eatons’ side during the “Petticoat Affair,” privately and publicly defending the couple. In various letters, Jackson emphasized Peggy’s virtue, and defended Eaton’s character. Jackson, reminded of what he and his wife Rachel had endured during the Election of 1828, saw history repeating itself, and was determined to prevent another woman from meeting the same fate. Vice president John C. Calhoun, who believed he would one day be president, ended up becoming more and more estranged from Jackson, and significant rifts in Jackson’s cabinet resulted from the “Petticoat Affair.”
(1): Clemson University, “Floride Bonneau Colhoun Calhoun.”