Drama. Backstabbing. Rumor-mongering.
Welcome to Washington, D.C., 1829.
The Petticoat Affair
“She [Margaret (Peggy) Eaton] will do more to injure your peace and your administration than one Hundred Henry Clays.”
-Ezra Stiles Ely to Andrew Jackson, 11 March 1829
On January 1, 1829 Tennessee Senator John Eaton married recently-widowed Margaret O’Neale Timberlake. Newly-elected President Andrew Jackson arrived in Washington in February and began to build a Cabinet. The following month, he appointed John Eaton to his cabinet as Secretary of War. Andrew Jackson and John Eaton’s relationship went back decades, its roots in Middle Tennessee; Jackson was guardian to John Eaton’s deceased first wife, and Eaton had served as military aide to Jackson during the Creek War and the War of 1812. Childless himself, Jackson came to view Henry Eaton as a sort of surrogate son. With Eaton’s appointment to Secretary of War in March 1829, the full fury of the vitriol-storm broke loose across Washington.
Gossip surrounding Margaret—called Peggy by her adversaries—Eaton spread its venom quickly up the eastern seaboard and across America. Rumors claimed that Mrs. Eaton was a loose and immoral woman who had taken many lovers outside of marriage, that her Timberlake children were actually Eatons, and that she had miscarried another man’s child while her husband, John Timberlake (who was in the Navy) was away at sea. The crescendo was the claim that Mr. Timberlake had killed himself after learning that his wife was having an affair with John Eaton. John Timberlake really did die at sea in 1828…from pneumonia.
Many of Jackson’s closest friends and advisors voiced their concerns to Jackson to no avail. On March 11, Rev. Ezra Ely, a Presbyterian minister and confidant, penned a lengthy letter to President Jackson, in which he laid bare the rumors and allegations he had heard surrounding the Eatons and begged President Jackson, for his deceased wife Rachel’s sake, to take heed. Jackson was convinced the rumors came from his political rival, Henry Clay, and that John and Margaret Eaton were assaulted innocents who needed defending. Doubtless the scandalous gossip that had plagued Rachel Jackson during the 1828 presidential campaign also came to mind.
Washington women shunned Margaret Eaton in public and refused to include her in social invitations. The ringleader of this public shaming was Floride Calhoun, the wife of Jackson’s Vice President, John C. Calhoun. Before becoming Vice President, Calhoun had served as Secretary of War, and I can’t help but think Floride Calhoun saw Margaret Eaton as her sub-par replacement. Floride Calhoun was a very persuasive woman, and quickly the wives of Jackson’s entire Cabinet were towing her party line concerning “Peggy” Eaton. Even Jackson’s own niece and acting-First Lady refused to act nicely toward Margaret Eaton, infuriating Jackson. Rev. Ely had warned Jackson that “Their husbands [Jackson’s Cabinet] have said they will support their wives in this course, if it should cost them their places.” But it is likely few of them expected it would. Little did they know…
The Eaton scandal drove a wedge between Jackson and his Cabinet, with the exception of Martin Van Buren (who was probably thanking his lucky stars for his bachelorhood). Van Buren made a calculated move and supported John and Margaret Eaton, which would prove to be a career-smart move.
Indian Removal, and the Eatons come to Franklin
In the middle of all of this social upheaval (which dragged on for two years) Jackson’s administration still had to get work done. The big topic of Jackson’s agenda was Indian removal. In 1829, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole (known as the Five Civilized Tribes, in reference to President Jefferson’s policy of civilization vs. removal for the Indian nations) occupied thousands of acres of land across the American Southeast and the Deep South. Jackson’s vision was to see these lands cleared of Native Americans and made available for white settlement.
In late May 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. In late August, Jackson, John Eaton, General John Coffee, and several other government officials arrived in Franklin, Tennessee to negotiate the U.S. Government’s first Indian removal treaty, which was with the Chickasaw nation. (To learn more about the Masonic Hall and the Treaty of Franklin, go here.)
Margaret Eaton traveled along with her husband. Middle Tennessee provided a break from the tense environment of Washington, D.C. In Middle Tennessee, the Eatons enjoyed a warm reception and many social calls. Shortly before her death many years later, Mrs. Eaton told a newspaper reporter that she went to the McGavocks’ often in her time here and found them very kind. In Franklin, they stayed at Eaton’s house, on Main Street and 2nd Avenue South, a stone’s throw from the Masonic Hall. Throughout their marriage, the Eatons continued to vacation in Franklin.
The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back
In 1831, Jackson’s Cabinet dissolved. Martin Van Buren, in another career-making maneuver, resigned, allowing Jackson to remake the Cabinet. The Petticoat Affair, an embarrassment which had plagued Jackson’s entire first term as president, had essentially ended. (It didn’t end for John Eaton, who continued to fight duels over his wife’s honor.) In 1832, John C. Calhoun returned to Washington on the state level (not the national level) as a senator from South Carolina. Though John Eaton went on to hold several posts outside of Washington, including Governor of Florida (a term which was fraught with problems surrounding Seminole removal) and Ambassador to Spain, his reputation had been permanently ruined.
There was one person whose career the Petticoat Affair made: Martin Van Buren. In 1832, Martin Van Buren returned to Washington, D.C. as Vice President in Jackson’s second term, and in 1836, he was elected eighth President of the United States.
For some scintillating first-hand reading, see the Library of Congress’ 97-page manuscript of correspondence to and from Andrew Jackson pertaining to the Petticoat Affair: https://www.loc.gov/item/maj025099/
To learn more about Jackson and Van Buren’s administrations and their roles in Indian removal, come hear Dr. Mark Cheatham speak at the Masonic Hall on Thursday, August 15th, at 7 P.M. Dr. Cheatham is the editor of the Martin Van Buren Papers. Check out his website.
Andrew Jackson Papers: Series 7, Miscellaneous Correspondence, 1789 to 1845 (337), Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/maj.07169_0033_0129 (Accessed 14 Aug 2019), p. 10.
 Ibid, p. 8.