The Petticoat Affair
Margaret O'Neill (Her maiden name is also recorded as O'Neale and O'Neil.) is better known as a footnote of history as Peggy Eaton, although She preferred to be called Margaret and claimed until the day she died that only her enemies referred to her as Peggy.
Peggy, noted for her beauty, wit and vivacity, was born and raised in the District, the oldest of six O'Neale children, probably living at 19th and K Streets Northwest for most of her early life. Her father was William O'Neale, an Irish immigrant and the owner of Franklin House, a popular high-end social center, tavern/ hotel for politicians. (It was actually more like a huge boardinghouse) located on 2007 I Street NW. (Others place the hotel at the northeast corner of Penn and 21st)
Peggy, middle aged
Away from home and family, the politicians who lived at the hotel (Lafayette was a guest there once) spoiled Peggy with attention. "I was always a pet," she later remarked.
She was educated one of the best schools in the District, studied French, English, grammar, needlework and music and was a noted pianist. Andrew Jackson once wrote to his wife, Rachel, "Every Sunday evening [Peggy] entertains her pious mother with sacred music to which we are invited." She had such a talent for dance by the age of 12 she performed for First Lady Dolley Madison.
In 1816, when she was only 17, the blue eyed and dark haired O’Neale married John Bowie Timberlake, a 39-year-old purser in the United States Navy. Her parents gave them a house across from the hotel.
By then, stories of Peggy’s romances were DC legend, most of it was pure rumors and gossip, which included tales of how one suitor-swallowed poison after she refused him, another was that she had been involved with the son of President Jefferson's treasury secretary; and that she had almost eloped with a young aide to General Winfield Scott. In that story, Peggy was said to be claiming out of her bedroom window to run off with the young man when she kicked over a flowerpot during her climb, awakening her father, who dragged her back inside.
Most of these stories weren’t true but Peggy was a forward young girl and openly flirtatiousness, who worked in the family tavern, was known to tell an off color joke and quick to offer her political opinions. The result was, by many who didn’t know her, that Peggy was a wanton woman.
In 1818, they met and befriended John Henry Eaton, (1790-1856) the handsome, wealthy 28-year-old widower and newly elected senator from Tennessee who was a guest at the Franklin House. He had become a confidant of John Timberlake, so much so that upon learning that Timberlake was heavily in debt, Eaton tried to get the Senate to pass a petition to pay debts accrued while Timberlake was in the Navy, but was unsuccessful. Eaton also, foolishly, escorted Peggy around town when Timberlake was away at sea.
Eaton’s close friend, Andrew Jackson, had met Peggy in December 1823, when he arrived in Washington as the new junior senator from Tennessee and boarded at the Franklin House. Like most elected representatives, Jackson had not intended to relocate to the capital which was a muddy, scattered sleepy southern town still reeling from the British invasion of 1814.
The Franklin had been recommended to Jackson by John Henry Eaton, Tennessee's senior senator and the author of a biography on Jackson that highlighted Jackson’s heroism as the general who defeated the British army at New Orleans in 1815.
Jackson, the son of Irish immigrants, took a liking to the Celtic William O'Neale and his "agreeable and worthy family." and was said to have a special fondness for Peggy, then 23-years-old and married to John Bowie Timberlake, with who she bore three children (one of them dying in infancy). Peggy was, Jackson said often, "the smartest little woman in America." and his wife Rachel Jackson was equally impressed when she travelled to Washington in 1824.
Timberlake died in 1828 while at sea in the Mediterranean, in service on a four-year voyage aboard the USS Constitution. The cause of death was pulmonary disease.
Peggy married Senator Eaton shortly afterwards in a candle-lit ceremony held at the O'Neale residence on January 1, 1829.
According to the social mores of the day, they probably should have waited longer and the rumors about them started immediately, the Maryland politician and later secretary of the treasury and state in Jackson's second cabinet, Louis McLane, sniped that the 39-year-old Eaton had "just married his mistress--and the mistress of 11-doz. others" and Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington society maven whose husband was president of the local branch of the Bank of the United States, declared that Eaton’s reputation "totally destroyed" by the marriage.
The cruelest rumor was that Timberlake had committed suicide because of despair at an alleged affair between his wife Peggy and Eaton and this rumor was probably started with Lieutenant Robert Beverly Randolph was a naval officer from Fredericksburg, Virginia, who had been dismissed in disgrace under direct orders from President Jackson.
In 1828, Randolph was appointed purser aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, assigned to take John B. Timberlake’s place. An auditor's report and subsequent investigation 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. Regardless, and based on the investigation, President Jackson dismissed Randolph from the navy. Randolph argued that he had done nothing wrong and that it was Timberlake who actually embezzled the money and had funneled some of that money to John H. Eaton, then secretary of war.
In 1833 Randolph, now a disgraced former naval officer was back in Fredericksburg where Andrew Jackson was visiting to lay the cornerstone at a monument to George Washington's mother. Jackson would make the trip by boat. When the boat made a stopover in Alexandria, Randolph boarded and made his way into Jackson’s cabin where Jackson was seated, surrounded by several members of his party. According to one version of what happened next, Randolph approached the aged Jackson with "timidity" and "humility." and "thrust one hand violently into the President's face" or that Randolph “struck him (Jackson) in the face.” and that “ Jackson immediately thrust the dastardly assailant from him" and stood up.
As a group of men rushed in to restrain Randolph, the sixty-six-year-old Jackson grabbed his cane, demanded that everyone move away, and leave him free to wreak vengeance on his attacker. "Let no man stand between me and the villain" and later chastised the men 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 someone 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." Jackson later wrote Martin Van Buren that if he had been prepared for the assault he would have killed Randolph.
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.
Eaton was a close friend of President Andrew Jackson, who knew and liked the couple, encouraged their marriage (The then President-elect told Eaton "If you love the woman, and she will have you, marry her at once and shut their mouths.. . . and restore Peggy's good name.”) and in 1829 appointed him Secretary of War, which elevated Peggy into the closed world of Cabinet social circle.
However, the rumors about her and Eaton followed (mostly the rumor was that Peggy was promiscuousness and that she miscarried pregnancy by Eaton prior to their marriage) and the wives of the cabinet officials, led by Floride Calhoun, (Below) the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, led the other Cabinet wives to shut Peggy out.
It seems that Floride Calhoun accepted a social call from the Eaton’s after their wedding but she steadfastly refused to pay a return visit, which the tiny universe of Washington’s polite society interpreted as a calculated snub.
Jackson was angered by the snubbing but tried, unsuccessfully, to coerce the women into accepting Peggy into their rarefied world. According to 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."
Jackson believed that rumors were the cause of her heart attack and death December 22, 1828, several weeks after his election, of his wife Rachel because her first marriage had not yet been legally ended at the time of her wedding to Jackson. Even Rachel's niece Emily Donelson, whom Jackson called on as his "First Lady", sided with the Calhoun faction and turned a chilly shoulder to Peggy, claiming that Mrs. Eaton's elevation to the cabinet had given his wife airs that made her "society too disagreeable to be endured."
Jackson's advisors, worried about the political fallout caused by the Peggy rumors, tried to dissuade him from naming Eaton to his cabinet but Jackson reportedly said "Do you suppose that I have been sent here by the people to consult the ladies of Washington as to the proper persons to compose my cabinet?”
Jackson appointed Eaton as his Secretary of War, hoping to limit the rumors, but the scandal intensified mostly because Jackson many political opponents, especially those around Calhoun, were feeding the controversy.
"Eaton Malaria." (A term Secretary of State Martin Van Buren coined) had taken grip of the Jackson administration, putting off Jackson’s plan to replace corrupt bureaucrats in the government. Jackson decided to delay his formal post-inaugural cabinet dinner because tensions between Peggy Eaton and the rest of the political wives was so prevalent.
On September 10, 1829, Jackson decided to kill the issue once and for all. With Vice President Calhoun at home in South Carolina and John Eaton not invited, Jackson summoned his cabinet, plus Reverends John N. Campbell and Ezra Stiles Ely who had recently criticized Margaret's morals, to a meeting at the White House. Ill with dropsy, chest pains, and recurring headaches, the 62-year-old Jackson proceeded to make a cases for Peggy Eaton, including affidavits from people who had known her and absolved her of misconduct. When someone in the room argued the case, Jackson bellowed that Peggy (The twice-married mother of two) was “...as chaste as a virgin!"
Assuming the issue was resolved; Jackson held his overdue cabinet dinner in November 1829. However, as Van Buren recalled the affair had "no very marked exhibitions of bad feeling in any quarter" but the entire evening was tense and awkward and the guests “rushed through their meals in order to avoid discussion of or with the Eaton’s, who had found places of honor near Jackson.”
The next state party, hosted by Van Buren was attended to by every member of the cabinet but not their wives who found various reasons not to show.
For two years, the press and pundits savaged the administration over Jackson's support for the Eaton’s. The rumors about the couple spread grew worse. One declared as a fact that Eaton had fathered a child with a "colored female servant." 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 Eaton’s. 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."
In the spring of 1831, Jackson almost completely reorganized his cabinet, an event referred to as the Petticoat affair. Postmaster William T. Barry would be the lone member to stay. The worst effect of the incident fell on the political fortunes of the vice-president, John C. Calhoun because Jackson transferred his favor to the widower Martin Van Buren, the Secretary of State and the only unmarried member of the Cabinet. Van Buren had taken the Eaton’s' side in the quarrel and his elevation to the vice-presidency and presidency through Jackson's favor as related to this incident.
The situation almost came to gun play when Samuel Delucenna Ingham, a Quaker, paper manufacturer and Secretary of the Treasury (1829-1831) called Peggy “impudent and insolent.” After his resignations, Ingham and Eaton exchanged tempestuous notes and Eaton challenged Ingham to a duel. Ingham declined.
When President Jackson heard about it he advised Eaton “If he won’t fight, you must kill him.” Stalked through the streets of Washington by Eaton and his three companions Ingham gathered an armed escort and fled Washington in the dead of night. Ingham, Van Buren, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun and Jackson county Counties Michigan were all named for members of Jackson’s cabinet. Neither Ingham nor Eaton ever saw the counties named in their honor.
Elected to a second term, Jackson was eager to end the Peggy O’Neil fever that had threatened to bring down his first administration. He sent John Eaton and his wife off to the Florida Territory as governor. Two years later Jackson appointed Eaton minister to Spain in 1836, and she was a court and social favorite in London and Paris.
An older Peggy O'Niel
Amazingly, 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, "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 eleven years later, in 1856, leaving Peggy a small fortune. Peggy continued to live in DC and her two daughters married into society. On June 7, 1859, Peggy, then 59, married an Italian music teacher and dancing master, Antonio Gabriele Buchignani, who was 19. In 1866, after seven years of marriage, Buchignani ran off to Europe with the bulk Peggy’s money as well as her 17-year-old granddaughter Emily E. Randolph, whom he married after he divorced Peggy in 1869. She was unable to recover her financial standing.
Peggy in old age
She died in poverty in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 1879 at Lochiel House, a home for destitute women. She is buried in the 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."