You’d better believe there have been "mean girls" since the beginning of time, or at least the early 1800s. Rigid social structures dictated the behavior of Jacksonian high society; it was the height of rudeness, for instance, if a lady did not return your call. However, in a social war that engulfed the beginning of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, society’s rules were discarded and the national government ground to a halt all for one woman: the beautiful and intelligent Margaret “Peggy” O’Neil.
Peggy, for all she rocked the nation with an old-timey sex scandal, wouldn’t have drawn more than a few looks today. She was born in 1799 to a popular innkeeper and grew up working in her father’s tavern. That was her first strike for Washington high society; hotels and bars and the like were supposed to be beds of ill repute and a lower-class occupation besides. Additionally, the vivacious Peggy had two attempted elopements under her belt by age sixteen. But we still haven’t touched the scale of what people found salacious about Peggy.
The trouble started in 1816 when she was seventeen and married a 39-year-old Navy purser named John Timberlake. Instead of sitting at home quietly and waiting for her husband to come home, Peggy continued to work at her father’s inn. She also continued to associate with the prominent male citizens staying there and even talked politics with them, which you know, women weren’t supposed to do. Appropriate behavior from Peggy at this point would have been nothing.
In 1818, Peggy and her husband met a 28-year-old widower, Senator John Eaton. They became good friends and Eaton even tried to help John Timberlake with some debts. When Timberlake was at sea, Peggy remained friends with Eaton. Rumors grew that the two were having an affair and the mysterious death of Timberlake in 1828 didn’t help anything. The capital was abuzz with malicious gossip that Timberlakeslit his own throat upon hearing of his supposedly adulterous wife.
The mean girls of D.C. felt vindicated in their low opinions of Peggy when she neglected to wait the standard year of mourning before marrying her next husband who was none other than Eaton. Many women refused to attend the wedding.
As a senator’s wife, Peggy was supposed to have a certain amount of social clout. But, as you might imagine, this didn’t happen. Nor did it happen when President Andrew Jackson — a good friend of both Peggy and Eaton — appointed the Senator as Secretary of War. More snubbing followed and since Cabinet ladies are only one step below First Ladies, it sent a pretty clear message.
Andrew Jackson was having none of it. The “Eaton Affair,” as newspapers sometimes called it, struck a personal chord in Jackson whose own wife, Rachel, had been mercilessly dragged through the mud during his presidential campaign in 1828. She died of a heart attack soon after his victory; Jackson always blamed the cruel gossips of Washington for her death. Now, watching history repeat itself in the form of Peggy Eaton, Jackson stood up for her and tried to better her reputation however he could.
So the conflict that began as a “Petticoat War” between the women of Washington, soon became a political controversy. The biggest complaint that society women had about Peggy was not only that they thought she was immoral, but that she had the ear of the president and could therefore influence the country with her evil ways. Supporters of Peggy, while arguing that she was a perfectly pure individual, also argued fiercely that women were irrelevant in the political process.
So either Peggy was a conniving “gorgeous hussy” or women had no place offering their opinions on the issues of the day, superior moral compasses notwithstanding. It was a pretty sad argument all around, especially since a fair amount of the debate was really a proxy war for political infighting and other issues.
The Eaton Affair engulfed the capital for over two years and only ended when everyone in Andrew Jackson’s cabinet resigned, either willingly or by force. John Calhoun, the Vice President whose wife had been one of the leading critics of Peggy, fell deeply out of Jackson’s favor and lost his chance at presidential candidacy. On the other hand, supporters of Peggy, either bachelors or widowers like Martin van Buren, went up in the world. (You might recognize Martin van Buren as being Jackson's successor, and the eighth president of the United States.)
It would be nice to say that Peggy lived a pleasant life after all this dreadful business, but it’s not really the case. After Eaton’s death in 1856, she remarried three years later at the age of 59 to a 19-year-old Italian dancing instructor who stole her fortune and ran away with her granddaughter. The infamous Peggy Eaton, who had so influenced politics (contrary to the claims of her supporters), died in poverty in 1879.
For more on Peggy Eaton, check out the "Surrogates" episode of the This American Life radio program from our friends at WBEZ.
"Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency," Website accessed July 30, 2013.
Clark, Allen C. “Margaret Eaton (Peggy O’Neal).” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. Vol 44/45. (1942/1943). Web. 2013.
Mcray Jr, Royce C. and S.D. Ingham. “The Long Agony is Nearly Over: Samuel D. Ingham Reports on the Dissolution of Andrew Jackson’s First Cabinet.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Vol 100.2. (1976). Web. 2013.
Wood, Kristen E. “One Woman so Dangerous to Public Morals: Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair.” Journal of the Early Republic. Vol 17.2. (1997). Web. 2013