When Andrew Jackson became president of the United States in 1829, he chose John Henry Eaton, his biographer, leading political adviser, and Tennessee friend, to be secretary of war.
Just a few months earlier, Eaton had married Margaret “Peggy” O'Neale Timberlake, the recent widow of navy purser John B. Timberlake. She was the daughter of the proprietor of one of Washington's leading boarding houses/taverns, the establishment where well-known politicians like Jackson and Eaton stayed. When her navy husband went away to sea, rumors spread that she was carrying on an illicit affair with Eaton. Their marriage only nine months after Timberlake took his own life fueled the gossip.
In the Washington of the 1820s and 1830s, women enforced strict societal standards on each other. Purity was an essential requirement for any proper woman, and since Peggy Eaton was believed to be immoral, she could not be accepted into society. No proper woman could exchange visits with her, invite her to social functions, or be seen exchanging pleasantries with her. Her Irish-American boarding house background and her forward cordiality and open conversations with men were other problems. She might be the wife of the secretary of war, but she was still a suspect woman and had to be snubbed.
Jackson's own wife had earlier been the subject of similar attacks. She died in December 1828, and he believed it was the gossip that killed her. When Eaton came under attack, therefore, Jackson immediately rose to her defense. He saw the attacks against her as part of a conspiracy led by his longtime rival Henry Clay to thwart his administration. He had to change his mind, however, when he noted that his supporters, among them his niece Emily Donelson, were also snubbing Mrs. Eaton. Two Presbyterian ministers, including the pastor of his own church in Washington, urged him to rid himself of her moral blight. Most of his cabinet, the wife of his vice-president, John C. Calhoun, and friends and political associates in Tennessee also refused to have anything to do with her. Jackson soon turned his anger on John C. Calhoun.
The Eaton Affair, therefore, began as an issue of societal etiquette, but it quickly expanded beyond that. Jackson, always a defender of women and especially agitated because of his wife's recent death, jumped to the defense of his friend whom he considered a wronged woman. There was already a rivalry between Vice-President Calhoun and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren over who would be Jackson's successor, and this tension widened the issue. Jackson came to see Calhoun as the secret instigator of the affronts to Eaton. Martin Van Buren, being a widower, and developing a closeness with Jackson, refused to snub Eaton, and in fact invited her to all his social functions. When Calhoun and Jackson battled over nullification and their roles in the 1818 Seminole War controversy, Van Buren benefited. He solidified his position with Jackson in 1831 when he volunteered to resign from the cabinet, thus giving the president an opportunity to force a mass resignation. In the controversy over this unique event in American history, Eaton was the center of the debate and name-calling. All the principals in the controversy blamed her in their printed defenses. In early 1832 Calhoun cast the tie-breaking vote preventing Van Buren from remaining as minister to Great Britain, where Jackson had sent him. Calhoun's action, however, only helped Van Buren ensure his position as Jackson's presidential heir apparent.
The Eaton Affair, therefore, was a societal issue that helped influence the politics of the first several years of the Jackson presidency. Peggy Eaton was not the sole determinant of the period's politics, but it was the debate over her virtue that provided the focus for the political disagreements that shaped the direction of the Jacksonian coalition and demonstrated society's attitude toward women during these important years.
John Marszalek, The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jacksons White House (1998) and “The Eaton Affair, Society and Politics,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55 (1996): 6-19