The Petticoat Affair: Scandalous Peggy Eaton Causes the Dismissal of a Cabinet

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The scandalous history of Peggy Eaton caused the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson to fall apart, thus furthering the Jackson-Calhoun split and delaying the Civil War.

Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc…Peggy Eaton? When thinking of women who changed history, Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale Timberlake Eaton is not one who comes to mind; however, she may have altered history and the course of events in ways that she must not have realized.

Born on December 3, 1799, Peggy married Senator John Eaton in 1828, during President Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Senator Eaton later became President Jackson’s Secretary of War. Peggy Eaton’s past was colorful and she was rumored to been unfaithful to her first husband, John Timberlake. When she married Eaton, she received a cold reception from the other cabinet-member’s wives due to her assumed sordid past.

The Petticoat Affair and Continued Tension between Jackson and Calhoun

This conduct was especially offensive to President Jackson as it reminded him of the treatment received by his treasured and recently deceased wife Rachel, whom he had married amid rumors of an elicit affair. The shunning of Peggy was led chiefly by Vice President John C. Calhoun’s wife: Floride. Despite sharing the White House with Jackson, Calhoun led the assault against the re-election of Jackson and was in constant opposition to the President in many matters of state. The attitudes of his wife did not help personal matters between the two men.

Called the Petticoat Affair, the behavior of the ladies and their influence upon their husbands created such a disaster that the cabinet fell apart (Jackson dismissed them all), unable to conduct state business because such a scandalous woman was in their midst.

Martin Van Buren

The lone survivor was widowed Martin Van Buren who was able to openly praise and cater to Mrs. Eaton without wifely intervention. Van Buren suggested that the cabinet dissolve over the issue, which it did.

President Jackson rewarded Van Buren by choosing him for his running mate for the 1832 election. Van Buren was then elected president in the following election of 1836 with Jackson’s support.

Peggy’s Life after being a Washington Politician’s Wife

John Eaton resigned from office in 1831 and served as a minister in Madrid, Spain from 1836 to 1840. When he passed away in 1856, Peggy married an Italian dancer who eventually ran away with her money and granddaughter. Peggy died November 8, 1879 in Washington, D.C.

Peggy Eaton changed the course of history by further distancing the Jackson and Calhoun camps: the Democratic Republicans and the Whigs; those against and for the Second Bank of the United States; for and against the protective tariff. Jackson was able to win re-election and in 1831 stomped the South Carolina attempt to nullify the tariff and secede from the Union, which delayed the Civil War for thirty years. Who knows what would have happened if the scandalous Peggy Timberlake had not married Senator Eaton!