My good friend leia131 on Livejournal has been posting this really interesting series on the First Ladies of the United States. I’ve been really tempted just to reblog what she wrote, but I think you guys deserve some original content for once (I’ve really been slacking this summer). So I’m going to do a full post on something she’s referenced in passing in a couple of her entries: the Petticoat Affair.
The Petticoat Affair, also known as the Eaton affair, was a U.S. political scandal from 1829-1831, and it completely shook up Andrew Jackson’s cabinet to the point that it heavily contributed to Martin Van Buren being elected in the next presidential election.
In short, there was a woman named Peggy O’Neill (later Peggy Eaton), whose father owned a boarding house and bar really close to the White House. This led it to be a popular pit stop for politicians. Peggy was supposedly very pretty, charming, talented, and well-educated as a young girl, leading her to be the local pet for the high-ranking regulars there. Unsurprisingly, as she grew up, she got a lot of male attention (no longer just of the paternalistic type) and her reputation came under scrutiny because she was a woman who spent a lot of time in a bar (a sign of loose virtue at the time, even if it was the bar her family owned).
At 17, after her father already managed to stop Peggy from eloping with a dashing young Army officer, Peggy married a Navy purser more than 20 years her senior named John Timberlake. He turned out to be heavily in debt and an alcoholic. John Timberlake became friends with a handsome, wealthy 28-year old widower named John Eaton, who was newly elected as a senator. Eaton was also a good friend of Andrew Jackson, who was not yet president.
After hearing about Timberlake’s financial issues, Eaton managed to get him a well-paying posting in the Navy’s Mediterranean squadron. Because Eaton had been so chummy with the Timberlakes, and due to Peggy’s beauty and reputation, naturally the gossips in town said that Eaton only got Timberlake the posting so he’d be far away for months or years at a time–leaving him and Peggy alone in Washington together.
John Eaton, giving his best bedroom eyes.
When Timberlake died (of pneumonia, the doctors at the time reported), the rumors continued: he had killed himself because he had found out about an affair between his wife and best friend. As far as I’m aware, there is nothing to substantiate that rumor. Eaton and Peggy did, however, marry with undue haste after Timberlake’s death (almost 9 months to the day, whereas it was standard practice for a widow to wait at least one year and a day, out of respect for her late husband, before remarrying). Some sources say they were pushed into it by Andrew Jackson, who was really rooting for the couple.
In addition to Peggy’s lowly background, tainted reputation, haste in remarrying, and her beauty (which no doubt sparked some jealousy), she also was very outspoken and flouted convention. She notoriously “didn’t know her place” and discussed things thought to be unseemly for a woman to even know about, let alone bring up in public.
So when Andrew Jackson–Peggy’s good friend–was elected president, and her husband Eaton was elected Secretary of War, a lot of the upper crust of Washington were NOT. HAVING. IT. In particular was a woman named Floride Calhoun, who was Vice President John C. Calhoun’s wife and therefore the Second Lady of the U.S.
Floride Calhoun, with a face like a slapped ass.
She went so far as to call an “Anti-Peggy Coalition”, in which she and several others decided to snub the Eatons as publicly as possible. The Eatons were to be ignored on the street and no one was to invite them to any events or respond to any of the Eatons’ invitations. Even Andrew Jackson’s niece and First Lady, Emily Donelson (Jackson was a widower) sided with the Calhouns.
The only person apart from Andrew Jackson who sided with the Eatons was Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State at the time. This drastically raised Van Buren in Jackson’s esteem–in part because Jackson’s own late wife, Rachel, had herself been the subject of nasty gossip in Washington. The strain of Jackson’s presidential campaign had been too much for her, and she died of a heart attack only ten weeks after he was elected. He never forgave Washington society for being so cruel, hence his fury over the pettiness of the Eaton affair. Jackson was once recorded as saying, “I [would] rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation”.
Peggy O’Neill Eaton’s image on a cigar box, illustrating her beauty and salacious past (the two men are supposedly fighting a duel over her).
As things escalated over the course of two years, a massive schism broke between President and Vice President, with Calhoun overtly setting himself up to be Jackson’s primary competitor in the next election. There were a lot of machinations, both political and personal, at this time, but everything was finally resolved when Martin Van Buren told Jackson that he would resign as Secretary of State, if it would make things easier. By doing that, it would allow all the pro-Calhoun, anti-Eaton members of Jackson’s cabinet to resign, too, and allow them to save face; Jackson, meanwhile, could then reorganize his cabinet more to his liking and everyone could just part ways before the next election.
Despite this, the pro-Calhoun, anti-Eaton faction kept starting shit, but it just made them look pettier and pettier as things went on. When Martin Van Buren was nominated as Jackson’s running mate for the upcoming election, it really weakened Calhoun’s position. Both Jackson and Van Buren appeared to the public as the victims of political bullying and nonsense. Jackson won the election against Calhoun, becoming president for a second term. Calhoun resigned as Vice President before his term was even up, and returned to South Carolina.
Martin Van Buren’s political career gained a huge boost, to the point that he was seen as Jackson’s natural successor to the presidency–which he was.