Andrew Jackson came to Washington wearing a mourning band. His beloved wife Rachel had died only weeks before his inauguration in 1829.
Jackson believed his sixty-one-year old wife was killed by the poisoned arrow of slander and calumny. (That she had a bad heart condition did not matter to him.) The hapless Rachel had been divorced before she became Mrs. Jackson, and their marriage had questionable overtones: Her divorce from an abusive and violent husband had not been finalized before their marriage. The scandal was revived regularly throughout the next thirty five years.
Peggy O’Neale Timberlake
One of Jackson’s young political supporters was John Eaton, a fellow Tennessean and who had penned Jackson’s “official” campaign biography. Prior to Jackson’s election, Eaton had been named Senator from Tennessee at the strong urging of his mentor. A widower in his thirties, he boarded at a local tavern in Washington while Congress was in session. Margaret (Peggy) O’Neale Timberlake (1799-1879) was the tavern-keeper’s daughter, a vivacious and outspoken young woman.
Peggy’s reputation had been badly flawed by the time she was in her teens, due to her flirtations with any number of Washington men, including some in prominent government positions. At sixteen she married a young sailor after a brief courtship, and it was expected that she would become a respectable matron, albeit of a lower station. But her husband, John Timberlake, was a purser on a ship, away for long periods of time, so she continued to live at her fathers’ tavern. Into that setting moved Senator Eaton, who was charmed by Peggy and happy to befriend her family. When Timberlake’s accounts were found to be irregular (either from incompetence, misjudgment or design), it was Senator Eaton who helped quell the situation and find another purser position for Peggy’s husband. Tongues wagged.
Again at sea, and again with faulty records, Timberlake died. Rumors abounded as to the cause: disease, accident, murder – but particularly suggesting that he committed suicide in despair over his wife’s alleged adultery with Senator Eaton. Nothing was ever confirmed; indeed, modern research suggests that Timeberlake died of natural causes.
The Andrew Jackson Connection
Andrew Jackson was slightly acquainted with Peggy O’Neale Timberlake. He had stayed at her father’s tavern on occasion.
The questionable relationship between Senator Eaton and the now-Widow Timberlake had become common gossip, despite claims by both parties that nothing untoward had occurred. Peggy’s already tarnished reputation was now further sullied. The rumors reached the ears of Candidate Jackson, who strongly advised Eaton to either marry Mrs. Timberlake or change his residence. Eight months after Timberlake’s death, Eaton married Peggy. President Jackson then named Eaton as his Secretary of War. Washington socialites were aghast. Yet another war was beginning for Andrew Jackson.
Socio-political Washington was thrown into an uproar. No decent wife, daughter or sister of officialdom could dare be seen anywhere near the beauteous and morally flawed new Mrs. Eaton. Peggy’s social calls went unreturned. Her parties were unattended save for bachelors and foreigners. The snickering became grist for the gossip mongers. An incensed Peggy appealed not only to her husband, but directly to the President.
Andrew Jackson, an expert at defending a lady’s honor, saw in the Peggy Eaton Affair a replication of all the scurrilous attacks on Rachel (although Peggy was far less an innocent victim). Always the chivalrous knight to any damsel in distress, the aging President dusted off his armor and gallantly charged into the fray, and for the next two years, most government business was in some way or other focused on the social acceptance (or non-acceptance) of the wife of the Secretary of War.
The Notorious Mrs. Eaton
Jackson took unprecedented steps. He gave Peggy his arm as escort. She sat beside him at White House dinners. He showered her with public attention. Washington matrons were unmoved. Mrs. Eaton was totally unfit for their company. Neither side would give an inch.
While the gentle Rachel Jackson would have been more than content to retire to her rooms, Peggy was vociferous and obnoxious, talking about her wrongful treatment to anyone and everyone in Washington who would listen. Vice President John C. Calhoun’s sanctimonious wife returned to her South Carolina plantation rather than nod to the scarlet woman. Other Cabinet wives stood firm in their refusal to associate with the scandalous Mrs. E. Cabinet officers supported their wives.
Even Rachel’s beloved nephew and niece, Jack and Emily Donelson, who served as the President’s secretary and hostess, shunned her. An angry Jackson banished the Donelsons back to Tennessee. He openly supported the Eatons, relying more and more on his “kitchen” cabinet of advisors than on his official appointees.
Peggy continued to exacerbate her own cause. Infuriated at her isolation, she badgered her husband into defending her “honor,” insisting on social acknowledgement, if not acceptance. Ongoing accounts of the “Petticoat Affair” as it came to be called, were regularly printed in the newspapers. Finally one prominent clergyman announced he had “proof” of Mrs. Eaton’s wantonness, and proceeded to accuse her of an assortment of immoral indecencies, including having had children out of wedlock – a fact she fulsomely denied. Slander followed slander, snub followed snub. Peggy demanded a public apology and vindication. Neither was forthcoming.
In an extraordinary act, the President of the United States summoned a Cabinet meeting specifically to discuss the character and social standing of Mrs. Eaton. He went so far as to declare himself personally and absolutely certain of Peggy’s virtue. Cabinet members resigned, ostensibly for other reasons, but the Eaton marriage had contaminated the Cabinet, and no one doubted on which side the President stood.
The cause célèbre dominated the first Jackson Administration. It would be years before the gossip finally abated, and then only because an exhausted Eaton had been dispatched as Minister to Spain, taking his notorious wife with him – where she became a minor celebrity.
Burstein, Andrew, The Passions of Andrew Jackson, Borzoi/Knopf, 2003
Marzzalek, John F. The Petticoat Affair, The Free Press, 1997
Meacham, Jon, American Lion in the White House, Random House, 2008