The Petticoat Affair

Peggy O'Neal Cigar Box Lid

A cigar box depicting Peggy O'Neal being introduced to Andrew Jackson on the left, and two men fighting a duel over her on the right.

Correspondence - Bound Volume - Letters to and from Andrew Jackson regarding Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale Eaton, nee Timberlake.

Excerpt of a letter from Andrew Jackson to a Reverend Campbell defending John Eaton's character.

Correspondence - Bound Volume - Letters to and from Andrew Jackson regarding Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale Eaton, nee Timberlake.

Excerpt of a letter from Andrew Jackson to a Reverend Campbell in which Jackson says Peggy Eaton has endured injustice.  "I was convinced in my own mind...(Campbell) would see the cruelty of this charge...and the injustice done Mrs. Eaton, and would so declare to Mrs. Eaton and all others."

Correspondence - Bound Volume - Letters to and from Andrew Jackson regarding Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale Eaton, nee Timberlake.

Excerpt of a letter from Andrew Jackson to a Reverend Campbell, further defending the marriage and morals of John and Peggy Eaton.  "It was well known I had been long and intimately acquainted with Major Eaton, knew his worth, and was satisfied that a blemish did not rest upon his moral character...they entirely acquitted Major Eaton of the charge of improper or criminal conduct...Why this persecution of Mrs. Eaton--of the motives which induce to such conduct and leave to the decision of the moral and christian world. Mrs. Eaton is the wife of Major Eaton, which is the strongest evidence he can give in her virtue."

Older Peggy Eaton

Peggy Eaton in later life.

Floride Calhoun

Portrait of Floride Calhoun, who led the social shunning of Peggy Eaton.

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.”

Footnotes

(1): Clemson University, “Floride Bonneau Colhoun Calhoun.”