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The Petticoat Affair, Peggy Eaton and Scandals in US History

Updated on May 6, 2018
Old Cigar box lid depicting Margaret O'neal who became the wife of the Secretary of the Navy under Andrew Jackson. On the left we can see the President Jackson offering flowers to Margaret O'neal after the scandal with the Washington wives. On the ri
Old Cigar box lid depicting Margaret O'neal who became the wife of the Secretary of the Navy under Andrew Jackson. On the left we can see the President Jackson offering flowers to Margaret O'neal after the scandal with the Washington wives. On the ri | Source

What was the Petticoat Affair?

Dubbed as “Peggy of Troy”, this one woman's moral standards and love life has been accused of being the main tool that toppled President Andrew Jackson's cabinet. She took up the first two years of his term, as he was continuously distracted by having to defend Margaret O'Neale Timberlake Eaton. Those that know of her simply refer to her as Peggy Eaton.

Who was Peggy Eaton?

Peggy Eaton was the daughter of an Irish immigrant, William O'Neale, who was the owner of a boardinghouse and tavern in Washington D.C. She spent much of her early life amongst politicians and as a striking little girl charmed them. These men were far from their homes and family and took to the little girl often spoiling her as she soaked up the conversations of politics, science and philosophy. She later remarked on the fact saying, “I was always a pet.”

Just as she charmed these men whilst she was just a child, with age she became even more striking, and at the age of fourteen, she had broke her first heart, a young man who attempted suicide out of unrequited love for her. A little later, her she tried to elope with an aide to a General Scott, but her father caught her as she climbed out the window. At age sixteen, she wrapped a naval man into her web, John Timberlake. He was so enchanted that he proposed to her the same day that he met her. Her parents were anxious to have her safely married, so they agreed.

The End of Peggy Eaton's First Marriage

The Petticoat war began when in April 1828 Timberlake died of “pulmonary disease” while he was on a ship off the coast of Spain. It eventually came out that he had cut his own throat. The reasoning most decided was because he was a drunk and kept sailing away on ships because he could not stand his wife's philandering.

Peggy Eaton Parody

The Scandal

Eight months after her first husband's death, Peggy married John Eaton, the man who had taken care of her in every way her late husband asked him to, plus a little bit more.

President Jackson had known and befriended Peggy way before she had became an Eaton, and it was actually by his advice that she and John Eaton had married. His wife Rachel had experienced similar scandals. Rachel had been accused of adultry, because a past marriage had not been officially ended, even though she believed that it had. She died shortly after her husband had won the election, and even after her death Jackson still fought off insults towards her. Because of these similarities between the two women, Jackson felt a strong draw to protect Peggy, perhaps since he was not able to protect his own wife from her scandal.

John Henry Eaton (1790-1856) was Jackson's Secretary of War. His marriage to Peggy Eaton, so close to her first husband's death was the catalyst for the drama surrounding their marriage.
John Henry Eaton (1790-1856) was Jackson's Secretary of War. His marriage to Peggy Eaton, so close to her first husband's death was the catalyst for the drama surrounding their marriage. | Source

The Petticoat War

The Washington women would have nothing to do with the “indecent little thing.” The problem was that they were all cabinet wives, and these women had to see each other quite a bit if their husbands jobs where to be done. In fact the scandal became official when Peggy called on Mrs John Calhoun, the Vice president's wife, and she did not return the call. This at the time was a blatant snub.

Things began to become so rough that Jackson postponed the post-inaugural cabinet dinner, fearing the behavior between the women. Jackson became paranoid about everyone, and believed all his enemies to be involved in the scandal, and his cabinet members would not, or could not, force their wives to befriend or become to civil to Mrs. Eaton. The final solution was the resignation of the entire presidential cabinet, for reorganization purposes in 1831, thus ending the Petticoat War.

Margaret O'Neill Eaton in later life
Margaret O'Neill Eaton in later life | Source

The End of Mrs. Eaton

In 1856, John Eaton died and left Peggy a small fortune. After she married her two daughters into high society she finally received some of the respect she had longed for, but it did not last long. At 59 years old, she married her nineteen year-old granddaughter's dance tutor. Five years later he ran off to Italy with both the granddaughter and Peggy's money.

Margaret O'Neale Timberlake Eaton died in 1879, in poverty in a home for destitute women named Lochiel House. A newspaper commented on the woman's death and on the irony of her being buried in the capitol's Oak Hill Cemetery next to John Eaton, “Doubtless among the dead populating the terraces [of the cemetery] are some of her assailants [from the cabinet days] and cordially as they may have hated her, they are now her neighbors.”


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      If you want to read a well-documented historical novel on the Petticoat Affair, read "The Breath of Suspicion" on Kindle.

    • joejagodensky profile image


      7 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Interesting story. Tidbits of history that add up to larger stories. One correction, I don't think you meant to say "bigotry."

    • Jenafran profile image


      7 years ago from Tampa Bay Florida

      I love history and this is a very well-written hub. I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning. Thanks!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      7 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


      hrymel....LOVED this hub. Voted up and away. I admire your talent, hrymel. A lot. You should write books. You are that good. I am so glad that I found YOU on hubs and I am glad to be able to read hubs written by a very creative person. Thank you. Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama, a small town in northwest Alabama that looks a lot like Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show.


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