The Petticoat Affair Rocks the Jackson White House


The Petticoat Affair was a social and political scandal that took place during the first administration of President Andrew Jackson. It helped create a rift between Jackson and John C. Calhoun that contributed to the Nullification Crisis.

Peggy Eaton Cigar Box

This cigar box artwork depicts Peggy Eaton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Summary of the Petticoat Affair

The Petticoat Affair — also known as the Peggy Eaton Affair — was a political scandal that took place from 1829 to 1831. It involved President Andrew Jackson, First Lady Emily Donelson, the members of his cabinet, and the wives of his cabinet members. The conflict was largely between the wives of the cabinet members, who refused to associate with Secretary of War John Henry Eaton and his wife, Peggy Eaton, due to rumors the two of them had carried on an affair while Peggy was still married to her first husband. Jackson believed the rumors were started by his political enemies and supported the Eatons. The conflict between the Eatons and the cabinet members spread through social circles in Washington, D.C., and made its way into the newspapers. Eventually, Jackson retaliated against the cabinet members who continued to shun the Eatons by firing them. This led Jackson to establish his “Kitchen Cabinet.” an unofficial group of supporters that Jackson relied on for advice and support. More importantly, it widened the political rift between Jackson and John C. Calhoun, which contributed to a standoff over the Tariff of 1828 and the Nullification Crisis.

Quick Facts About the Petticoat Affair

  1. The Petticoat Affair was a social scandal that took place from 1829 to 1831, in the early days of Andrew Jackson’s first term as President.
  2. The scandal spilled over into the political arena and divided the members of Jackson’s cabinet.
  3. The affair escalated the political rivalry between Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun.
  4. Martin Van Buren positioned himself as the successor to Andrew Jackson, by siding with Jackson during the Petticoat Affair.
  5. Jackson established his “Kitchen Cabinet” in order to surround himself with political allies who were not influenced by social circles in Washington.
Andrew Jackson, Portrait, Painting
President Andrew Jackson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

A Short History of the Petticoat Affair

Who was Peggy Eaton?

Peggy Eaton was born Margaret O’Neal, but everyone called her “Peggy.” Her father, William O’Neal, was an immigrant from Ireland who owned a tavern and boarding house in Washington called “Franklin House” — a popular spot for politicians. 

Growing up, she spent a significant amount of time around the rich and powerful men in Washington. She worked for her father, tending the bar and entertaining guests by playing the piano for them. By all accounts, she was a very pretty young woman and attracted the attention of the men, especially those who came to her father’s establishment.

Because so many people in Washington knew about her, and she was known to indulge in activities that other women saw as inappropriate, she had a less-than-stellar reputation. Some of it was her own fault, considering she tried to run off with an officer from the military at one point.

Peggy Timberlake Meets John Eaton

In 1816, Peggy was 17 and she married John B. Timberlake, a payroll officer in the United States Navy. Timberlake was 39, an alcoholic, and deep in debt. Two years later, the Timberlakes met Senator John Henry Eaton, a widower from Tennessee, who also happened to be a wealthy lawyer — and good friends with Andrew Jackson. 

Learning of Timberlake’s financial troubles, Eaton helped pass a resolution in the Senate that allowed the government to pay off Timberlake’s debts — at least those he accrued while he was employed by the Navy. Soon after, Timberlake was hired by the Mediterranean Squadron. It was a lucrative job for Timberlake, but the Squadron was stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, requiring Timberlake to be away from his young wife for long periods of time. 

Eaton also played a role in helping Timberlake acquire the position with the Mediterranean Squadron. As a result, rumors started to spread in Washington that Eaton helped Timberlake so he could have him out of the way while he pursued Peggy.

John Eaton, Ambassador to Spain
John Eaton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Election of 1828 Sends Andrew Jackson to the White House

Fueled by his success during the War of 1812, especially the victory at the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1824 but lost to John Quincy Adams. He ran again in 1828 and defeated the incumbent Adams. The elections took a toll on Jackson’s wife, Rachel.

Jackson’s political enemies, especially John Quincy Adams, questioned his character — specifically his famous temper and “lack of self-control.” In 1828, a newspaper ran an article that questioned Jackson’s integrity and referred to Rachel as a “convicted adulteress.”

When Jackson and Rachel met in 1788, she was separated from her husband, and actually thought he had secured a divorce. Believing her previous marriage was over, Rachel wed Jackson in 1793, but soon after learned the divorce in her first marriage was never granted. Rachel was accused of adultery and abandoning her first husband. On those grounds, her first husband, Lewis Robards, was granted the divorce. Andrew and Rachel were wed a second time in 1794, at her parents’ home in Nashville.

Over the course of the 1828 Presidential Campaign, she started to suffer from depression. Not long before Jackson was scheduled to leave Nashville and go to Washington to be sworn in as President, she died suddenly, of a heart attack, on December 22, 1828. 

Jackson blamed his political enemies for her death and said at her funeral, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers…I never can.” Rachel Jackson was laid to rest on Christmas Eve of 1828.

John C. Calhoun Stays On as Vice President

Calhoun served as Vice President for John Quincy Adams from 1825 to 1829. However, the two of them disagreed over some key issues, including the tariffs that were designed to protect northern manufacturers. As a result, Calhoun told Jackson he would support him during the 1828 election. Although Jackson and Calhoun were not close, and never truly trusted each other, Jackson chose Calhoun as his running mate.

John Eaton Marries Peggy Timberlake

In April 1828, Timberlake died while he was away from home, on a ship at sea off the coast of Spain. Nine months later, John Henry Eaton and the former Peggy Timberlake were married on January 1, 1829. Per the social and religious customs of the time, it was considered far too soon for a widow to remarry.

Jackson Appoints John Eaton as Secretary of War

On February 11, 1829, Andrew Jackson arrived in Washington and his first order of business was setting up the members of his cabinet. Including Calhoun, the cabinet consisted of:

Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State
Martin Van Buren. Image Source: Wikipedia.

The Petticoat Affair Begins

Even before Jackon was sworn in on March 4, 1829, the scandal was underway. Calhoun’s wife, Floride, was furious that Jackson would allow someone of questionable character to be a part of his cabinet. Mrs. Calhoun set about making sure that women in the social circles of Washington — including the wives of the cabinet members — were aware of the allegations against the Eatons. Further, she made sure the Eatons were banned from many public and social events and were shunned at the events they were allowed to attend.

Emily Donelson, who performed the duties of the First Lady due to the death of Rachel Jackson, was caught in the controversy. Emily was close to Jackson because she was his niece, and her husband, Andrew Jackson Donelson, was one of Jackson’s close advisors. Over time, only Catherine Barry, William Barry’s wife, remained cordial to the Eatons.

Martin Van Buren was a widower and the only unmarried member of Jackson’s first cabinet. With no social repercussions due to his marital status, Van Buren aligned with Jackson and also supported the Eatons. This placed Van Buren in the good graces of Jackson and set him on a path to be his successor.

Jackson supported the Eatons, due in large part to criticism that he and Rachel had suffered through. However, Emily Donelson was persuaded to side with Calhoun as part of the “anti-Peggy” coalition. Jackson was incensed and replaced Emily with his daughter-in-law Sarah Yorke Jackson.

Jackson, Calhoun, and the Tariff of Abominations

Ultimately, Jackson saw the Calhouns as the driving force behind the entire affair, which dragged out until 1831. To Jackson, it was an attack on the power of his office. It was an attempt by the wives of lower-ranking officials to dictate to him who was worthy of serving in his cabinet. The longer the affair dragged out, the more contempt he and Calhoun held for each other.

However, there was another issue — a political one — that drove them further apart and led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832. The issue was the Tariff of 1828, which was passed by Congress and signed by John Quincy Adams. The tariff was highly controversial, especially in the South, where it was called the “Tariff of Abominations.”

John C Calhoun, Portrait
John C. Calhoun. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Van Buren and Jackson supported the tariff, while Calhoun opposed it. While Calhoun’s supporters wanted to see him run for office, Van Buren’s alignment with Jackson  — on the Eaton Affair and the Tariff of 1828 — made him the likely successor to Jackson as the head of the Democratic Party, and therefore the party’s presidential candidate in 1836.

For Calhoun, the controversy over the Tariff of Abominations and the Eatons made him the focal point of the opposition to Jackson’s policies.

The Petticoat Affair Leads Eaton to Expose Calhoun

Rumors spread that Eaton was working to have Samuel D. Ingham and John Branch — who sided with Calhoun — removed from office. Eaton responded by uncovering Calhoun’s role in an incident related to Jackson’s conduct during the First Seminole War in 1818. 

Jackson led American forces into Florida, captured a Spanish fort, and then occupied Pensacola. This was all done under orders from the Secretary of War — John C. Calhoun. However, Jackson took things further when he had two British agents who were working with the local Seminole tribes executed, leading to protests from Great Britain. Further, the United States was forced to evacuate the territory and return it to Spanish control. Calhoun was furious and wanted Jackson censured. Jackson was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by Congress, but he was never aware that Calhoun had been behind it. Jackson always believed it was William H. Crawford, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time, under President James Monroe.

On May 12, 1830, Jackson received a letter from Crawford in which he explained it was Calhoun who was responsible for the investigation. Eaton was involved in orchestrating the delivery of the letter to Jackson. The letter infuriated the President and widened the divide between him and Calhoun.

End of the Petticoat Affair

In the spring of 1831, attempting to end the Petticoat Affair in Jackson’s favor, Martin Van Buren suggested he resign from office, providing Jackson the opportunity to reorganize the entire cabinet. It would also bring an end to the Petticoat Affair.

Jackson called a meeting of the cabinet members and asked for the men who were opposed to Eaton and his wife to resign. Ingham, Branch, and Berrien all resigned. Surprisingly, so did John Henry Eaton.

Postmaster William T. Barry was the only one who remained from the original cabinet.

Outcome of the Petticoat Affair

The Petticoat Affair led to the establishment of Jackson’s so-called Kitchen Cabinet. It also contributed to the political rivalry between Jackson and Calhoun, which led to the Nullification Crisis. Calhoun resigned from office on December 28, 1832, during the crisis, where South Carolina issued the Ordinance of Nullification and threatened to secede from the Union. The Civil War may very well have started in 1833 if not for the Compromise Tariff that Calhoun and Henry Clay devised at the last minute.

The Kitchen Cabinet

Jackson essentially ignored his cabinet and relied on a group of informal advisors to help make policy decisions. The group was referred to as the “Kitchen Cabinet” and included men who supported Jackson.

  • Martin Van Buren
  • Francis Preston Blair
  • Amos Kendall
  • William B. Lewis
  • Andrew Jackson Donelson
  • John Overton
  • Isaac Hill
  • Roger B. Taney

The name came from the fact that the men met in the kitchen at the White House, and the phrase was coined by Nicholas Biddle, President of the Second Bank of the United States. Further, Biddle said the “kitchen” was more influential than the “parlor.” The “Parlor Cabinet” referred to the members of Jackson’s regular cabinet.

Key People Involved in the Petticoat Affair

John Eaton — Eaton and Peggy returned to Tennessee, but he remained involved in politics. He served as the Governor of the Florida Territory from 1834 to 1836. From 1826 to 1840, he served as the Ambassador to Spain. He returned to the United States in 1840 and supported William Henry Harrison in the election of 1840, instead of Martin Van Buren. He died in 1856 in Washington.

Peggy Eaton — Three years after John died, Peggy married Antonio Gabriele Buchignani, an Italian music teacher and dancing instructor — with a poor reputation. Once again, Peggy was the subject of rumors and gossip. During their marriage, she essentially supported him, but also caught him stealing from her. They moved to New York to escape the controversy of Washington. In 1866, he threatened to leave her unless she signed everything she owned over to him. She responded by giving him nearly all of her real estate holdings, including valuable land in Washington. Buchignani left her and they divorced in 1869. Peggy was poor, and destitute, and lived at Lockiell House in New York. She died in 1879. In 1939, a movie based on her life called The Gorgeous Hussy was released. Joan Crawford played Peggy and Lionel Barrymore played Andrew Jackson.

Joan Crawford as Peggy O'Neal
This illustration depicts Joan Crawford as Peggy O’Neal in The Gorgeous Hussey. Image Source: New York Public Libray Digital Collections.

Samuel Ingham — On June 17, an article was published in a Washington newspaper that said there was proof the families of Ingham, Branch, and John M. Berrien refused to associate with the Eatons. Eaton sent letters to all three, demanding they explain themselves. The letter led to Eaton challenging Ingham to a duel, which Ingham declined. Eaton accused him of being a coward. For a time, Ingham kept a bodyguard with him and was certain Eaton was waiting for the right moment to physically assault him. Eventually, Ingham left Washington and returned to his home in Pennsylvania.

Floride Calhoun — After her husband resigned as Vice President, she returned to their plantation — Fort Hil — in South Carolina. John C. Calhoun died in 1850 and she sold the plantation to their son, Andrew Pickens Calhoun, in 1854. In 1855, she moved to Pendleton, South Carolina. She died on July 25, 1866, and was buried in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Pendleton.

Significance of the Petticoat Affair

The Petticoat Affair is important to United States history because of how it affected the relationship between Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun. The affair helped make the two of them bitter political rivals. It also led to Jackson establishing an informal group of advisors known as the “Kitchen Cabinet.”

Petticoat Affair AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Petticoat Affair, the key people involved, and the Jacksonian Era for the AP US History (APUSH) Exam.

Petticoat Affair APUSH Definition

The definition of the Petticoat Affair for the AP US History (APUSH) exam is a social and political scandal that took place during the first administration of President Andrew Jackson.

Petticoat Affair Video

This video from History Brief covers the controversy and the fallout of the Peggy Eaton Scandal, also known as the Petticoat Affair, during Andrew Jackson’s first term as president.

Learn More About the Jacksonian Era on American History Central

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Petticoat Affair Rocks the Jackson White House
  • Date 1829–1831
  • Author
  • Keywords Petticoat Affair, Eaton Affair, Andrew Jackson, Peggy Eaton, John Eaton, Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, Nullification Crisis, Kitchen Cabinet
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 21, 2023