Peggy O' Neal, became the wife of the Secretary of the Navy under Andrew Jackson. The vignette on the left shows President Jackson giving her flowers after the Washington wives snubbed her. The vignette on the right shows her husband killing a man in a duel after insulting her. Approximately 6 inches by 10 inches.
Eaton, Peggy 1796 - 1879: She was the daughter of William O'Neale, an Irish immigrant and owner of a commodious Washington, D.C., boardinghouse and tavern, the Franklin House on I Street. The tavern was especially popular with congressmen, senators, and politicians from all over the growing United States. Margaret, the name she apparently preferred over "Peggy," was born at those lodgings in 1799, the oldest of six O'Neale children.
(listed in the Concise DAB as Margaret O'Neale;
best known as Peggy Eaton, though only detractors called her Peggy, according
to her) An inkeeper's
daughter, first married to John Timberlake, purser of the ship Constitution, who committed suicide. Shortly after that, she married John Eaton. She was
accused of promiscuousness and of having a miscarried pregnancy by Eaton prior to their marriage, and was socially ostracized by the women of official
Washington, which helped bring about the fall of Andrew Jackson's first cabinet.
Events and Dates in 1829-January, 1829, John Eaton
marries the widow Peggy O'Neale Timberlake, whose husband had just that
Fall committed suicide aboard the Constitution, where he served as Purser.
(Source: Freehling, Prelude to Civil War, p188)
(Peggy O'Neill), c.1796-1879, wife of John Henry Eaton, U.S. Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson. She was the daughter of a Washington tavern keeper and married John Timberlake, a purser in the I.S. navy. After his death, she became (1829) the wife of Eaton, who soon afterward entered the cabinet. The wives of the other cabinet members refused to accord her social recognition because of the alleged intimacy between Major Eaton and Peggy O'Neill before their marriage and because of her humble birth. President Jackson, a close friend of Eaton, tried in vain to ensure Peggy Eaton a place in society. The attempt almost disrupted the cabinet and worsened the relations between the President and the Vice President, John C. Calhoun, whose wife was a social leader. As a result, Jackson transferred his favor to Martin Van Buren, who as a widower was better able than others to recognize Mrs. Eaton. She was well received at the court of Spain, to which her husband was appointed minister in 1836, and was a social favorite in London and Paris. Her maiden name is also recorded by historians as O'Neale and O'Neil.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.
(Peggy O’Neill), c.1796–1879, wife of John Henry
Eaton, U.S. Secretary of War under President Andrew Jackson. She was the
daughter of a Washington tavern keeper and married John Timberlake, a purser
in the U.S. navy. After his death, she became (1829) the wife of
Eaton, who soon afterward entered the cabinet. The wives of the other cabinet
members refused to accord her social recognition because of the alleged
intimacy between Major Eaton and Peggy O’Neill before their marriage and
because of her humble birth. President Jackson, a close friend of Eaton,
tried in vain to ensure Peggy Eaton a place in society. The attempt almost
disrupted the cabinet and worsened the relations between the President
and the Vice President, John C. Calhoun, whose wife was a social leader.
As a result, Jackson transferred his favor to Martin Van Buren, who as
a widower was better able than others to recognize Mrs. Eaton. She was
well received at the court of Spain, to which her husband was appointed
minister in 1836, and was a social favorite in London and Paris. Her maiden
name is also recorded by historians as O’Neale and O’Neil.
See biography by L. Phillips (1974).
Andrew Jackson 7th President (1829-37)
January 1, 1829: Almost two months before President-elect Andrew Jackson's inauguration to his first term of office, his chosen Secretary of War John Eaton, marries Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale Timberlake. Eaton's suspected affair with the already married Peggy led to the suicide of her husband John Timberlake; this tragedy occurred shortly before her marriage to Eaton. The President-elect approves of their marriage, stating to Secretary Eaton, "If you love the woman, and she will have you, marry her . . . and restore Peggy's good name."
First Ladies of Florida 1834-1835
Peggy O'Neale Timberlake Eaton
Kenneth S. Greenberg, Honor and Slavery (1996)
An Excerpt on Nosepulling and Shame
This brings us to the nose. For Southern men of honor, the nose was the part of the face that preceded a man as he moved in the world. It was the most
prominent physical projection of a man's character, and it was always exposed to the gaze of others. Little wonder that men of honor should regard the nose as
the most important part of their bodies. As one antebellum Southern writer described it in a humorous, but also deadly serious, article on noses, "No organ of
the body is so characteristic as the nose. A man may lose an eye or an ear without altering his features essentially. Not so with the nose." He went on to
describe a man with "a most extravagantly protuberant nose"-a nose that "moved to and fro like a pendulum"-who had decided to have it trimmed by a doctor.
"I saw him afterwards," he wrote, "and did not recognize him. I do not recognize him now, nor do I intend to. His individuality, his whole identity is lost .... The
features do not fit; they become incongruous; he is himself no more; for, in truth, the individuality of a man is centred in his nose. Hence it is that nature, to
indicate its great importance, has granted us but one nose, while all other organs are supplied in pairs." That this writer had it wrong-not all organs come in
pairs-is another illustration of the focus of a man of honor. Clearly, he was comparing the nose to the eyes and the ears. The liver, the heart, the penis, and the
stomach were not even considered. A man's character was expressed in what could be publicly displayed, not in what was hidden under clothes or skin. And
the man of honor demanded respect for this display. Men of honor do not trim their noses. If P T. Barnum, a man outside the tradition of honor, had a nose that
drew laughs, he might have charged admission; Cyrano de Bergerac, on the other hand, fought duels with those who mocked his protuberance.
One of the greatest insults for a man of honor,
then, was to have his nose pulled or tweaked. Actually, nose pulling was
just another, more aggressive form of
accusing a man of lying. It was the ultimate act of contempt toward the most public part of a man's face, an extreme expression of disdain for a man's projected
mask. The meaning of nose pulling for men of honor is clear in one well-documented incident of the 1830s: when Thomas Walker Gilmer pulled the nose of
William C. Rives.
The pulling of Rives's nose had its origin in a friendship and political alliance gone sour. Rives and Gilmer had long been close associates in Virginia politics as
well as neighbors who frequently met socially. During the 1820s, they worked together as opponents of the administration of John Quincy Adams, and Rives
had hopes that Gilmer might one day succeed him in Congress. Rives helped advance Gilmer, and Gilmer did the same for Rives. With the enthusiastic support
of Gilmer in the state legislature, Rives returned home in 1832 after serving as ambassador to France and was immediately elected to the United States Senate.
When other legislators raised doubts about Rives's soundness on the tariff issue-they feared that he might not take the position that it was unconstitutional, and
that he might not support South Carolina's attempt to nullify the law-Gilmer assured his skeptical colleagues that they could rely on his friend."
But relations began to deteriorate within a few
months when it became clear that Rives would not live up to the expectations
created by Gilmer. Contrary to
what Gilmer had indicated, Rives did not view the tariff law as unconstitutional. Moreover, he voted for the much hated Force Bill Andrew Jackson's
heavy-handed attempt to coerce the South Carolina nullifiers into submission. This betrayal became intertwined with more specific grievances detailed in letters
exchanged between the two men. Gilmer had several complaints. First, he had given his word to other men that Rives could be trusted on the tariff issue.
Rives's vote on the Force Bill meant that these men had come to regard Gilmer as a liar. "I have been taunted more than once," Gilmer wrote Rives, "of having
abused the confidence of those who listened to my appeal on your behalf." In fact, shortly after he pulled Rives's nose, Gilmer tried to show the public that he
had legitimate grievances against Rives by publishing all the relevant correspondence. He included letters solicited from his colleagues in the legislature attesting
that they "distrusted" him because his words about Rives had been shown to be false. In short, Gilmer stood in the same relation to Rives as Richard Yeadon
did in relation to the Feejee Mermaid. Both men became identified with the object for which they spoke.
Gilmer had a second major grievance. Rives himself,
like his colleagues in the legislature, had begun to denounce Gilmer as
a liar. Rives accused Gilmer of
appearing to be a friend on the surface while actually working against him in devious and hidden ways. Rives believed (erroneously, it turns out) that Gilmer was
the author of an anonymous and highly critical article sent to the Richmond Enquirer; that, writing under the name "Buckskin" in the Charlottesville Advocate,
Gilmer had viciously attacked him in print; and that Gilmer was behind a legislative attempt in Virginia to instruct Rives on how to vote on the Force Bill when it
came before the
Senate. Gilmer defended himself by acknowledging that he and Rives disagreed over the tariff issue but maintained that he had never tried to give any other
impression. In other words, while Rives said that Gilmer's appearance differed from his reality Gilmer argued that the two were in complete conformity. Gilmer
claimed he had always been open and honest about their differences, and that these differences existed within the context of their friendship.
Rives had parallel grievances against Gilmer.
He was disturbed that Gilmer pretended friendship and yet betrayed him
behind his back. Rives also objected to
Gilmer's insinuation that it was Rives who was the liar in the dispute-that he had misled Gilmer about his position on the tariff issue in order to win his support in
the Senate election, and that he had secretly joined with his brother in a conspiracy to destroy Gilmer's reputation and career. Rives singled out for special
mention Gilmer's accusation that "he had betrayed the principles of the party to which he falsely professed to belong."
After months of festering distrust and hatred,
the Rives-Gilmer dispute reached its climax at the courthouse in Charlottesville,
Virginia, in early July 1833. The
two men's deteriorating relations up to that point could be followed in the salutations Rives used in his letters to Gilmer: first "Dear Gilmer," then "Dear Sir," then
"Sir." By the time Rives began to call Gilmer "Sir" it must have looked as if they were close to some violent outbreak-perhaps even on the edge of fighting a
duel. In Virginia in the 1830s, a duel was a logical result of this kind of dispute. By shooting at each other, men accused of lying could show the world that they
would rather die or kill than allow the charge to stand.
But the Rives-Gilmer dispute did not reach the
stage of a duel. Instead, Gilmer approached Rives on the terrace of the
tavern next to the courthouse in
Charlottesville. They began to go over their charges and countercharges, deciding first to move into the public room of the tavern and then into a more private
back room. They could agree on nothing. Words between the two men became increasingly heated. Gilmer called Rives a "hypocrite," and Rives retorted that
Gilmer was a "scoundrel." There are two versions of what happened next. As Gilmer described it:
I then applied my right hand gently to his nose.
He instantly disengaged himself from me, either by drawing back or pushing
me from him, and having a
horsewhip in his hand, struck me several times with the butt end of it. While I parried these blows with my right arm, I attempted to catch him by the collar of
his coat with my left hand, and in this effort the fore-finger of my left hand got into his mouth and was severely bitten. In the attempt to extricate it, my right
thumb was painfully injured. While my finger was thus in his mouth I struck him two blows in the face with my right hand.
Gilmer then pulled the whip from Rives and used the "smaller end" to inflict "several stripes with it on his legs and shoulders and . . . one on his forehead." At
that moment a crowd rushed in and separated the two struggling men.
The account of the fight offered by Rives and
his supporters agreed with this description in all respects but one. The
pro-Rives account emphasized that Rives
was attacked completely by surprise and that he was seated while Gilmer stood and assaulted him. Gilmer denied this version of the attack. He preferred to
portray himself and Rives as equals in combat. He also stressed that it was not his intent to draw blood or to hurt Rives in any way. He meant to apply his right
hand "gently" to Rives's nose. The rest of the scuffle was in self-defense. As he stated, "My purpose throughout has been to vindicate myself-not to injure Mr.
Several features of this nose-pulling incident
are worthy of emphasis here. Just as in the Feejee Mermaid episode, the
dispute that led up to the attack was
essentially about the proper treatment to be accorded the word of a gentleman. At its heart were accusations of lying. It is easy to miss this point. One might be
tempted to say that the conflict was really a disagreement about the tariff issue or nullification. In one sense this would be correct, because it is impossible to
imagine this series of events without the political dispute that gave rise to it. Similarly, it is impossible to imagine the Feejee Mermaid incident without a
mermaid. But it is also clear from the angry letters in both cases that, at least in this context, the men involved did not focus on the substance of the matter that
gave rise to the dispute. In the same way that Yeadon "care[d] not a whit" about the mermaid, Gilmer and Rives never discussed the substance of the tariff
issue or nullification in their correspondence that led to the nose pulling. Many men disagreed over the tariff and nullification, but those disagreements did not
lead to nose pullings or duels unless a man's character came under attack. This point is essential if one is to understand why the pulling of a nose seemed the
appropriate remedy here. Gilmer had been accused of lying-of putting forth a projection of himself that was false. He pulled Rives's nose to show his contempt
for the projection of his accuser. It was his way of invalidating the words of his enemy. The nose pulling was not primarily part of a conversation about the
merits of the tariff or nullification. It was part of a conversation about lying.
Another remarkable feature of this nose-pulling
episode is the evidence it offers that the community seemed to regard the
nose as a sacred object. In the
newspaper reports, virtually the only person who uses the word
"nose" is Gilmer. But his use of the word is a kind of extension of his pulling of it; it is part of the way he humiliates Rives. Newspaper editors found ways of
avoiding direct reference to noses, or labelled the act of nose pulling a "Lieutenant Randolph outrage." The reference here, well understood by every Virginian
of the time, was to another extraordinary nose-pulling incident, worth describing because it even more dramatically illustrates the symbolic nature of the nose.
The "Lieutenant Randolph outrage" was an attack on perhaps the most highly venerated nose of the age-that of President Andrew Jackson.
Lieutenant Robert Beverly Randolph was a naval
officer from Fredericksburg, Virginia, who had been dismissed in disgrace
under direct orders from Jackson.
His attack on Jackson had causes and consequences extending over nearly ten years and involving some of the most prominent political leaders and events of
the Jacksonian era. In 1828, Randolph had been appointed purser aboard the U.S.S. Constitution after the sudden death of the former purser, John B.
Timberlake. An auditor's report and subsequent investigation had found that Randolph's accounts did not balance and that he was in debt to the government,
but that there was no evidence of intentional wrongdoing. However, on the strength of this investigation, Jackson dismissed Randolph from the navy, noting that
"the facts which appear in this case, and the conduct of Lieut. Randolph throughout the investigation, prove him to be unworthy the Naval Service of this
Republic, and an unfit associate for those sons of chivalry, integrity, and honor, who adorn our Navy.
Randolph felt himself unjustly treated by Jackson
on several counts. He had interpreted the investigative report as a vindication
of his conduct because it found
no intentional wrongdoing. Moreover, he believed that the man who actually embezzled the money was his predecessor. He also believed that Timberlake had
funneled some of that money to John H. Eaton, a man who had become the secretary of war by the time the controversy became a major public issue.
Randolph probably suspected an even greater conspiracy, but was too discreet ever to describe it for the public record. The famous socialite Peggy O'Neale
had been Timberlake's wife; upon his death she married John H. Eaton with the kind of unseemly haste that excited the Washington rumor mill. For complex
reasons, probably rooted in associations with his own wife, Jackson felt some need to protect Peggy O'Neale. His dismissal of Randolph may have been part
of a defense of the good name of O'Neale's first husband and thereby of her good name.
At any rate, by 1833 Randolph was a disgraced
former naval officer who perceived Jackson's unjust actions as the cause
of his misery. Since no sitting United
States president would possibly condescend to fight a duel with a dismissed naval officer, Randolph saw only one route open for
vindication--an attack on Jackson's nose. What better occasion for the assault than President Jackson's trip on May 6 to Randolph's hometown of
Fredericksburg in order to lay the cornerstone at a monument to George Washington's mother? One can imagine Randolph's sense of outrage-to have the very
man who had humiliated him come to Randolph's own town to be honored. Jackson made the trip by boat. When the boat made a brief stopover in
Alexandria, Randolph boarded, along with many others wishing to offer their greetings to the president. After most of the well-wishers had left, Randolph made
his way into a cabin where Jackson was seated, surrounded by several members of his party.
There are two versions of what happened in the
cabin. The version used in virtually all newspaper accounts of the assault
was the one most favorable to the
dignity of the president. According to this story, Randolph approached the aged Jackson with "timidity" and "humility." His hands trembled as he tried to draw
off his glove, and the president, supposing that Randolph wished to shake his hand, said it was not necessary to remove the glove. The pro-Jackson accounts
use several different expressions to describe what happened next. Most say that Randolph "thrust one hand violently into the President's face" or that Randolph
"struck him in the face. Hardly any account mentions Jackson's nose as the object of either the intended or the actual attack.
Descriptions of Jackson's reaction to the assault,
however, clearly indicate that Jackson and all the bystanders understood
that it was the president's honor, not
just his body, that was under attack. Jackson immediately "thrust the dastardly assailant from him" and stood up. As men rushed in to restrain Randolph, the
sixty-six-year-old Jackson grabbed his cane and demanded that everyone move away and leave him free to wreak vengeance on his attacker. "Let no man
stand between me and the villain," an eyewitness reported Jackson saying. Another witness, perhaps with a bit more embellishment, claimed that the president
said "Let no man interfere between me and this personal insult; I am an old man, but fully capable of defending myself against, and punishing a dozen cowardly
assassins. Jackson himself later wrote Martin Van Buren that if he had been prepared for the assault he would have killed Randolph. He disliked the
interference of friends who "interposed, closed the passage of the door, and held me, until I was oblige [d] to tell them if they did not open a passage I would
open it with my cane."" In fact, when one friend offered to kill Randolph immediately, the president rejected the offer: "I want no man to stand between me and
my assailants, and none to take revenge on my account." Several years later, after Jackson had left office and Randolph was finally apprehended for the assault,
Jackson also rejected the interference of the courts in what he regarded as an affair of honor. He asked President Van Buren to pardon Randolph. Such
an act, he told Van Buren, would be in conformity with the wishes of his mother, who had long ago advised him to "indict no man for assault and battery or sue
him for slander."" A personal attack on the body could only be countered by a return attack on the body.
There is another version of this episode that
received virtually no mention in the newspapers. This account did not linger
over Jackson's spirited reaction to the
assault. It went to the heart of the matter and focused on the one event that overwhelmed all others in significance. Andrew Jackson had had his nose pulled.
This is what Randolph understood he had intended and accomplished, for as Randolph approached Jackson, he announced "that he came to take his revenge
of him for the disgrace imposed upon him, by pulling his nose."" A few months later, during the dispute between Rives and Gilmer, a "Lieutenant Randolph
outrage" had become another name for a nose pulling. Jackson himself, although denying that he had actually been touched on the nose, certainly understood
that his nose was the object of the assault. In her autobiography Peggy O'Neale-a woman with an extraordinary understanding of the minds of men of
honor--recounted Jackson's sensitivity on the subject of his nose:
When the President was on visits to my father's,
and I wished to tease him, for I could take any of those childish liberties
with him, as he regarded me only as a
child-l would suddenly change whatever conversation was going on by looking upon the floor shaking my head mournfully, and saying, "Ah! General, it was
very bad in you to let R. pull your nose." To this day I shake with laughter when I recall the violence with which he would always repel it. He invariably sprang
to his feet, shook his fist, and said, "No; by the eternal God, madam, no man ever pulled my nose." Perhaps not. But certainly whether or not it actually
happened, Jackson would not permit anyone to think that his nose had been pulled. He understood the full meaning of the act in the language of honor.
Although men who cared about noses no doubt also
dreamed about them, few recorded their nightmares. But one Southern man's
nose nightmare did reach
print in an 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. It is the tale of a man who lay awake and restless, unable to sleep while crowded in with other
bodies on a steamboat. Men with large noses snored loudly all around him as he pondered the prophecy of his aunt Deborah that unless he learned to practice
prudence and economy "his nose must come to the grindstone." Suddenly two slaves (men he
recognized as workers from a local tobacco factory) grabbed him by his arms and dragged him to the deck of the ship toward a grindstone being turned by a
"black urchin." The slaves "forced my head downward, until my proboscis rested upon the revolving stone, and I felt its horrid inroads upon that sensitive
member. While the wheel did its work the slaves began to sing:
De man who hold his nose too high
Mus' be brought low:
Put him on de grinstone
And grind him off slow.
Wheel about, and turn about,
And wheel about slow;
And every time he wheel about
De nose must go.
The man of honor, held down by black slaves, slowly
felt his nose disappear. "The friction of the stone upon my cheeks," he
wrote, "gave fearful evidence that
what had been a nose, existed no longer, and brought the horrid reflection that I was noseless! That the pride of my countenance was gone, and forever." Here
was a nightmare well understood by those who spoke the language of honor. It gave expression to their worst fears. To deprive a Southern man of honor of his
nose (with the added humiliation of having it removed by slaves) was to threaten his appearance and thus his very self.
We who live in a post-Freudian age smile knowingly
at these men who dreamed about the loss of their noses. We think we know
what they really feared to
lose. But if we are to explain why they acted as they did we must dig deeper and recognize the importance they attached to the most "superficial" and visible
part of their bodies. We must move beyond their genitals-to their noses.
New General Catalog of Old Books and Authors
Author names starting with Ea
Margaret L Timberlake EATON, nee O'NEALE/O'NEILL (F: 1796 - 1879)
232 i. Philip Grymes11 Randolph Dr. was born 1801.
Philip died about 1836. He married Mary B. O'Neale. Mary was born about
1801. Sister of Peggy
O'Neale Eaton. Philip was Acting U.S. Secretary of War.
Southern Women and Their Families in the 19th
Century, Papers and Diaries, Series A, Holdings of the Southern Historical
Collections, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 1851-1859: 1852,
Henry P. Randolph, J. W. French, Dr. H. F. Condict, relatives. 1854, H.
P.Randolph about death of John B. Randolph. 1855, a cousin recommends a
nursery governess; Smith Thompson, C. J. Ingersoll; J. R. Ingersoll. 1856,
Margaret's stepmother, Lucy Patterson Randolph; C. J. Ingersoll (several);
J. R. Ingersoll; Mrs. M. A. T. Thompson on her new home in Maryland, and
her son, Dorsey, a student at St. John's College; Ellen Harvie from Richmond.
1857, Mrs. Thompson, C. J. Ingersoll, J. M. Mason, J. R. Ingersoll, commission
of Edward A. Dickens (not identified) as captain in Virginia militia; Mrs.
Frances Brockenbrough. 1858, 12 January, copy, Francis to Albert S. White,
the estate of St. George Randolph and the chances of their wives inheriting
from it; Mrs. Thompson; Mrs. Brockenbrough. 1859, H. P. Randolph, his broken
leg and its treatment, wants information on Dansas, where he may move to
practice law; J. M. Mason, trustee; 9 June, F. A. Dickins to H. P. Randolph,
has received the deed, business matters, marriage of Mrs. Eaton to a 22-year-old
dancing master (Mrs. Eaton [Peggy O'Neale] was the mother-in-law of John
Brockenbrough Randolph and had custody of his orphaned minor children.
The matter of the trusteeship and deed may have related to these children.)
Also in 1859, several notes from Smith Thompson, who is unable to pay his
debt to F. A. Dickins. 27 August 1859, Margaret (O'Neale) Timberlake Eaton
Buchignani, bitter letter to Margaret (Randolph) Dickins about the children
of John B. Randolph, defending herself and her husband from criticism.
Louis E. Harvie, a cousin, two letters in September about the Randolph
children and efforts to remove them from Mrs. Buchignani's care and about
the trusteeship of money left to the children by his aunt, probably Mrs.
Gabriella (Harvie) Randolph Brockenbrough; also news of his family. December
1859, C. J. Ingersoll.
From Through A Fiery Trial: Building Washington
1790-1800. Madison Books, 1991
A complication in the commissioners' sale was that they were offering lots Morris and Nicholson had used to secure loans. They could raise only $80 on those lots for which scrip had been issued. The rest of the purchase money would go to the scrip holder. The men who held those lots as security were loath to see them bought by others. Such an event would force them to come up with new security for the loans. Tingey urged the board not to sell scrip lots. But the board needed money and feared being accused of favortism, since Scott himself held scrip. [This is complicated, but in an effort to save Morris and Nicholson from bankruptcy the
community tried various expedients which only made the ownership of the many lots involved more convoluted. The earlier portion of my book develops this at length.]
The sale began normally. William O'Neale bought
a lot near 19th and K Streets Northwest for $86. Hugh Densley, the contractor
plastering the president's house, bought a lot near the Capitol for $400,
and then Stoddert bought sixty-five lots, all but five for more that $200,
seven for $400 or more. On the next day he bought another seventy-six lots,
and Forrest bought fiftenn on his own account. Forrest and Stoddert were
protecting Forrest's security. [Hence the high price offered for lots that
otherwise would not have even be bid on.] http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/swamp1800/book81.html
When President Andrew Jackson defended the honor
of the wife of his secretary of war,
the resulting scandal broke up his first cabinet and threatened to make his administration a laughingstock.
By J. Kingston Pierce
President Andrew Jackson was irate, convinced that he was the victim of "one of the most base and wicked conspiracies." For him, the scandal known as "the petticoat affair'' was a social matter that his enemies had exploited and blown out of proportion. It was true that the situation had taken on a life of its own. "It is odd enough," Senator Daniel Webster wrote to a friend in January 1830, "that the consequence of this dispute in the social world, is producing great political effects, and may very probably determine who shall be successor to the present chief magistrate."
Always eloquent, in this case Webster also proved prophetic. For the imbroglio to which he referred--involving the young wife of the secretary of war, a woman much favored by Jackson but snubbed by Washington's gentility for her outspokenness and allegedly sordid past--did ultimately help decide the fortunes of two powerful rivals eager to follow "Old Hickory" into the White House. the cause of the turmoil was the young and vivacious Margaret "Peggy" Eaton, although she was still Margaret Timberlake when Jackson initially made her acquaintance. She was the daughter of William O'Neale, an Irish immigrant and owner of a commodious Washington, D.C., boardinghouse and tavern, the Franklin House on I Street. The tavern was especially popular with congressmen, senators, and politicians from all over the growing United States. Margaret, the name she apparently preferred over "Peggy," was born at those lodgings in 1799, the oldest of six O'Neale children. She grew up amidst post-prandial political clashes and discussions of history, international battles, and arcane legislative tactics. Margaret observed the nation's lawmakers at their best and at their worst, and the experience taught her that politicians were as flawed and fallible as anybody else. Far from home and family, these gents were easily charmed by the precocious and beautiful girl and did their best to spoil her rotten. "I was always a pet," she later remarked.
It was a curious upbringing for a girl in those days, when women were expected to be submissive and demure, domestic and irreproachably virtuous, and utterly uninterested in politics, much less able to argue governmental issues with anything approaching insight. Margaret's parents could only try to balance her exposure to the often coarse world of men by sending her to one of the best schools in the capital, where she learned everything from English and French grammar to needlework and music. When she showed a talent for dance, Margaret took private lessons, becoming skilled enough by the age of 12 to perform for First Lady Dolley Madison. Moreover, many a guest at the Franklin House remarked on Margaret's piano-playing prowess. Jackson once wrote to his wife, Rachel, at home in Nashville, Tennessee, that "every Sunday evening [she] entertains her pious mother with sacred music to which we are invited."
Jackson met Margaret in December 1823, when he traveled to Washington as the new junior senator from Tennessee and boarded at the Franklin House. Like so many others in federal service, Jackson had had no intention of relocating to the capital. At that time it was a scattered, muddy, and manifestly Southern town that had recovered from the British invasion of 1814 but remained short of municipal conveniences. Furthermore, the wickedly humid weather in the spring and summer prompted lawmakers to complete their sessions by early April, then escape to cooler climes.
The Franklin had been recommended to Jackson by John Henry Eaton, Tennessee's senior senator and the author of a biography that affirmed Jackson's heroism as the general who vanquished the British army at New Orleans in 1815. Jackson had taken a liking to hotelier O'Neale and his "agreeable and worthy family." He was especially fond of Margaret, the 23-year-old wife of navy purser John Bowie Timberlake, with whom she bore three children (one of them dying in infancy). She was, Jackson said, "the smartest little woman in America." Rachel Jackson was equally impressed by Margaret when she accompanied her husband to Washington in 1824.
It was Old Hickory's friend Senator Eaton, however, who appeared most thoroughly bewitched by the dark-headed, blue-eyed, and fine-featured tavern-keeper's daughter. A handsome and wealthy widower nine years older than Margaret, Eaton had known her ever since he began staying at the Franklin House as a newly appointed senator in 1818. That was long enough for him to have heard all the rumors about Margaret's premarital teenage romances. The gossip included tales of how one suitor swallowed poison after she refused to reciprocate his affections; how she had briefly been linked with the son of President Jefferson's treasury secretary; and how her elopement with a young aide to General Winfield Scott had gone seriously awry when she had kicked over a flowerpot during her climb from a bedroom window, awakening her father, who dragged her back inside.
Such stories--coupled with the fact that Margaret Timberlake tended toward flirtatiousness, enjoyed serving men in her family's tavern, and shared her opinions and jokes too loudly and liberally--led others in the capital to presume that she was a wanton woman. Eaton, though, saw her quite differently. He had become a confidant of John Timberlake and even fought, though unsuccessfully, to have his Senate colleagues reimburse the often financially troubled purser for losses Timberlake sustained while at sea. Moreover, when Timberlake was away, Eaton was glad to escort his wife on drives and to parties, enjoying both her humor and intelligence.
Margaret called Eaton "my husband's friend . . . he was a pure, honest, and faithful gentleman." Rumormongers, however, credited the relationship between the Timberlakes and Eaton with far less innocence. They slandered John Timberlake as a drunk and ne'er-do-well and claimed that the real reason he kept sailing away from home was because he couldn't face either his financial woes or his wife's patent philanderings.
This talk grew uglier when, in April 1828, Timberlake died of "pulmonary disease" while serving in Europe aboard the USS Constitution. Amidst the widow's grieving, rumors spread that the purser had not perished naturally at all but had committed suicide in despair over his wife's behavior. The situation caused distress not only to Margaret and Eaton, but also to Jackson, whose recent memories of defending his own wife against malicious murmurs made him all the more sympathetic to Margaret's plight.
Jackson's first campaign for the White House in 1824 ended with his winning the bulk of the national popular vote but losing the presidency when his failure to gain a majority in the Electoral College threw the race to the House of Representatives, which preferred John Quincy Adams. It was a particularly dirty contest, as Adams' backers strove to undercut Jackson's appeal in any way possible. Their tactics included ridiculing his lack of education and accusing him of everything from blasphemy to land frauds and murder. They even resurrected allegations that Rachel Jackson had been a bigamist and adulteress.
Those last charges stemmed from Rachel's first marriage to a rabidly jealous Kentucky businessman named Lewis Robards. The pair had wed in 1785, but Robards believed that his wife was unfaithful and sought a divorce in 1790. A year later, assuming that she was once more a free woman, Rachel married Andrew Jackson, an ambitious, red-headed young attorney whom she'd met when he boarded at her mother's home in Nashville. Not until 1793 did the Jacksons learn that Robards had only just been granted a divorce and that they'd been living very publicly in sin for more than two years.
To quash further scandal, the Jacksons promptly retook their vows. Yet claims of Rachel's immorality haunted the couple. Early in the 1828 presidential race, rumors arose again in pro-Adams newspapers, one of which asked in an editorial, "Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?" Jackson went on to win that election, becoming the first president from the emerging West and creating what is today the Democratic Party. Yet when Rachel died of a heart attack less than three months before his inauguration, Jackson blamed the political defamers for hastening her demise. "May God forgive her murderers," the president-elect said at his wife's funeral, "as I know she forgave them. I never can."
Even if Rachel had survived, Jackson would likely have supported Margaret Timberlake against character assaults; he had a long record of precipitant gallantry. Following Rachel's death, however, Jackson became still more stubborn in championing the hotelier's daughter, equating her with his late mate as a woman unjustly scorned. When John Eaton told Jackson of his wish to do what was "right & proper" by marrying Mrs. Timberlake, the president counseled swift action. Damn the gossipers, he insisted, "if you love Margaret Timberlake go and marry her at once and shut their mouths."
Unfortunately, the candle-lit nuptials held at the O'Neale residence on January 1, 1829, only incited fresh criticism of the couple. Louis McLane, an eminent Maryland politician (who would hold the positions of secretary of the treasury and state in Jackson's second cabinet), sniped that the 39-year-old Eaton had "just married his mistress--and the mistress of 11-doz. others!" Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington society maven whose husband was president of the local branch of the Bank of the United States, proclaimed Eaton's reputation "totally destroyed" by this union with a woman who hadn't even waited a respectful period of time before marrying again.
Floride Calhoun, wife of John C. Calhoun--the South Carolinian who had served John Quincy Adams as vice president and would hold the same office under Jackson--accepted a social call from the Eatons after their wedding. Nevertheless, she steadfastly refused to pay a return visit, which in the protocol-bound world of Washington could only be interpreted as a calculated snub. This left John Calhoun to ponder "the difficulties in which [such a rebuffing] would probably involve me."
Worried that fallout from this fracas might wound the president-elect, some of Jackson's partisans tried to dissuade him from naming Eaton to his cabinet. It was the wrong approach. Jackson had said many times, "when I mature my course I am immovable." Since Rachel's death, he had found greater need of his friend Eaton's advice, and he wasn't apt to abandon the man simply because of attacks by "malcontents" on Margaret's propriety.Jackson reportedly thundered at one Eaton detractor: "Do you suppose that I have been sent here by the people to consult the ladies of Washington as to the proper persons tocompose my cabinet?" Jackson soon announced the appointment of Eaton as his secretary of war.
Hopes that this prestigious position might help to rehabilitate Margaret's reputation were dashed as early as Jackson's inauguration in March 1829, when the spouses of other cabinet members and politicos obviously slighted the seventh president's "little friend Peg."
According to modern Jackson biographer Robert V. Remini, at a grand ball on inauguration night, "the other ladies in the official family tried not to notice as Peggy Eaton swept into the room and startled everyone with her presence and beauty." Even Emily Donelson, Jackson's beloved niece and his choice as the new mistress of the White House, turned a chilly shoulder to Margaret. She claimed that Eaton's elevation to the cabinet had given his wife airs that made her "society too disagreeable to be endured."
During his early months in office, Jackson had intended to concentrate on replacing corrupt bureaucrats. Instead he was plagued by what Secretary of State Martin Van Buren dubbed the "Eaton Malaria." Jackson decided to delay his formal post-inaugural cabinet dinner, fearing bad blood between Mrs. Eaton and the rest of the political wives. The president was continually distracted from the nation's business by having to defend Margaret--despite her protestations that she did "not want endorsements [of virtue] any more than any other lady in the land."
On the evening of September 10, 1829, Jackson concluded that if this flap was to end, he must take decisive action. With Vice President Calhoun at home in South Carolina and John Eaton not invited, the president summoned the balance of his cabinet, plus Reverends John N. Campbell and Ezra Stiles Ely who had recently criticized Margaret's morals. Though ailing from dropsy, chest pains, and recurring headaches, the 62-year-old president proceeded to proffer evidence--affidavits from people who had known Mrs. Eaton--that he said absolved her of misconduct. When one minister dared to disagree, Jackson somehow forgot that Margaret was the mother of two surviving children from her marriage to John Timberlake as he shot back: "She is as chaste as a virgin!"
Thinking the matter was settled, Jackson finally held his overdue cabinet dinner in November 1829. While it provoked "no very marked exhibitions of bad feeling in any quarter," recalled Van Buren, the event was nonetheless awkward and tense. Guests rushed through their meals in order to avoid discussion of or with the Eatons, who had found places of honor near Jackson. The next party, hosted by Van Buren (who had neither daughters nor a living spouse to inhibit his societal intercourse), drew every member of the cabinet--but their wives contrived excuses for staying away.
By the spring of 1830, Jackson had come to believe that the situation did not result merely from connivances among the gentry, but from scheming by his political foes. Initially he imagined the plot was led by his renowned Kentucky rival Henry Clay, who would doubtless benefit from his administration's "troubles, vexations and difficulties." As the president watched his cabinet split over this petticoat affair, however, he couldn't help noticing that those advisors most opposed to the Eatons were also the strongest followers of John Calhoun--a man he was coming to distrust.
Tall, wiry, and earnest, Calhoun had helped elect Jackson to the White House, and many assumed that he'd be Old Hickory's successor. Nevertheless, the vice president eschewed the capital during most of the Jackson administration's tumultuous first year, and what the president remembered from Calhoun's brief time there--notably, his wife Floride's refusal to reciprocate Margaret Eaton's social call--rubbed him the wrong way. One historian, J.H. Eckenrode, argued a century later that it was Calhoun's "vain and silly wife" who, by spurning Margaret, ruined her husband's career "at its zenith." Certainly Floride Calhoun's obstinacy, when combined with policy differences between her husband and Jackson--especially on the question of whether states should be allowed to nullify federal laws--drove a deep wedge between the nation's two highest-ranking officials.
At the same time that Calhoun was falling from
grace with the president, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren's fortunes
were rising. The former governor of New York, charming in person and a
skilled behind-the-scenes strategist (allies and enemies alike called him
"the Little Magician"), Van Buren had won the president's regard by showing
respect for John and Margaret Eaton. He became Jackson's "dear friend,"
someone the president felt was "well qualified" to one day fill his shoes.
Calhoun's backers realized that Jackson's dwindling faith in the vice president
played to Van Buren's advantage. Daniel Webster wrote thats ince Jackson
had become so dependent on his secretary of state, "the Vice President
has great difficulty to separate his opposition to Van Buren from opposition
to the President."
Calhoun could only pray that his public approval or a Van Buren slip-up would still propel him into the presidency.
For two years the press and pundits savaged the administration over Jackson's support for the Eatons. The nastiest rumors about the couple spread with impunity. One even averred that the war secretary had fathered a child with a "colored female servant." Van Buren saw as well as anybody how Margaret Eaton had become a liability for the Democrats and a personal burden to Jackson. The president had even sent his nephew and private secretary, Andrew Jackson Donelson, and his wife, Emily, back to Tennessee when they refused to associate with the Eatons. Andrew Donelson expressed his sadness in parting from his uncle, "to whom I have stood from my infancy in the relation of son to father." Harmony needed to be restored within the administration. Yet if the president discharged the anti-Eaton minority from his cabinet, he risked alienating Calhoun's contingent of the party, and if he dumped his secretary of war after all this time, he would seem to have caved in to his critics.
The solution was presented to Jackson in April 1831 by Van Buren, when he offered to resign and suggested that John Eaton do likewise. This would permit the president to ask the remainder of the cabinet to do the same and allow for a reorganization. Though a few members resisted, later protesting their departures in print, they all relinquished their seats.
The capital reeled at this turn of events, and some people predicted that it portended governmental collapse. Newspapers were quick to trace the cause of the cabinet's fall to Margaret Eaton. One publication likened the event to "the reign of Louis XV when Ministers were appointed and dismissed at a woman's nod, and the interests of the nation were tied to her apron string." Henry Clay figured Calhoun could now "take bolder andfirmer ground against the president," dooming Jackson's chances of reelection in 1832 and maybe improving Clay's own chances of winning the White House. Others hoped that John Eaton's resignation would finally end talk of his blackballed wife, giving rise to that season's most popular toast: "To the next cabinet--may they all be bachelors--or leave their wives at home."
Elected to a second term, Jackson was eager to end the debate that had threatened to bring down his first administration. He hustled John Eaton and his wife off to the Florida Territory, where John became governor. Two years later Jackson appointed Eaton as the United States' minister to Spain, and Margaret and John enjoyed life in Madrid for four years.
Bitter over the decline of his political fortunes, Vice President Calhoun sought revenge against Martin Van Buren. In 1832, Calhoun cast the tie-breaking vote against the New Yorker's confirmation as U.S. minister to Great Britain. This rejection, Calhoun told a colleague, "will kill him, sir, kill him dead." On the contrary, it won Van Buren sympathy with the American public. In 1832 Van Buren became Jackson's running mate for the upcoming presidential election, and in 1836 he was voted into the White House himself. Calhoun, meanwhile, resigned the vice presidency in 1832 to return to the Senate.
Amazingly, despite their history, Eaton eventually turned on Jackson. In 1840, when President Van Buren recalled Eaton from Spain for failing to fulfill his diplomatic duties, Eaton announced his support for Van Buren's presidential rival, William Henry Harrison. Jackson was infuriated by Eaton's political disloyalty, claiming that "He comes out against all the political principles he ever professed and against those on which he was supported and elected senator." The two men didn't reconcile until a year before Jackson's death in 1845.
John Eaton died in 1856, leaving a small fortune to his wife. Margaret lived in Washington and, after her two daughters married into high society, finally received some of the respect she craved. She didn't enjoy it for long. At age 59, the once-vivacious and now wealthy tavern-keeper's daughter married her granddaughter Emily's 19-year-old dance tutor, Antonio Buchignani. Five years later, Buchignani ran off to Italy with both Emily and his wife's money.
Margaret died in poverty in 1879 at Lochiel House,
a home for destitute women. She was buried in the capital's Oak Hill Cemetery
next to John Eaton. A newspaper commenting on her death and on the irony
of the situation editorialized: "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."
J. Kingston Pierce is a Seattle resident currently working on a collection of essays
about that city's past.