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In 1829, Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States, moved into the White House to begin his term of office. Unlike all of America’s former presidents, Jackson was not of the landed gentry. He was the son of Irish immigrants who had settled in the Carolinas. As an adult, Jackson made his home in Tennessee, trained for a career in law, served heroically in the War of 1812 and various Indian campaigns, earning the nickname “Old Hickory” because his men said he was as tough as hickory. He served as governor of the Florida Territory, then was elected to the House of Representatives and served in the Senate. Most importantly, Jackson was a Democrat, who wanted everyone, regardless of class, to be able to participate in America’s government.
Jackson, who saw himself of the middle class, an average man, did not respect the rules and restrictions of upper class Washington society. In North Carolina, he had invited local prostitutes to the Salisbury Christmas Ball, pretending to be surprised when the ladies of society threw them out. After his inauguration in 1829, he opened up the White House for a public reception. So many people came and helped themselves to furniture, wallpaper and knickknacks (some even tried to get to Jackson, himself), that the White House was seriously damaged. The only way to get all the people to leave was to serve great bowls of punch out on the front lawn.
Most of all, Jackson disrespected the hypocrisy and cruelty of members of the upper class. He knew the pain that society could inflict upon a person. As he wrote before he started his term, “My heart is nearly broke.” Jackson had just lost his beloved wife Rachel, whom he had loved and defended throughout their life together.
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Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson, had been married previously to an extremely jealous man. Their marriage was a failure almost from the start. In 1790, Rachel fled from her husband’s jealous rages with the help of Jackson, who had come to know and admire her the year before. Robards sought a divorce from the Virginia Legislature, which granted only a bill stating that he could go to court and ask for a divorce. Robards did not follow through, but led people to believe that the divorce was granted. Rachel and Jackson, misled, moved to Nashville and were married in August of 1791.
In 1793, Robards finally sued for divorce, claiming that Rachel was an adulteress. Once Jackson and Rachel discovered this, they quickly remarried on January 17, 1794. But Rachel was labeled by all society as a bigamist and an adulteress.
From that moment on, Jackson worked passionately to protect and defend his Rachel from the slanderous tongues of society. No insult went unanswered, and, even while he was running for and serving in Congress, the Senate and the Presidency, Jackson fought duel after duel, receiving injury after injury, killing several opponents in defense of his Rachel. He made it his life’s work to shield her from the pain the accusations and slanders would cause her.
During the 1828 campaign for the Presidency, the attacks aimed at Rachel became even more vicious than before. Jackson successfully shielded her from all assaults until after his election, when she traveled alone to Nashville for a shopping trip in December of 1828. There she discovered a pamphlet brutally attacking her morals and ethics. She was so distressed by the accusations that she suffered a severe heart attack. Several days of illness later, she had another heart attack, which killed her.
Jackson was devastated by her death, and moved to Washington in full mourning, leaving his Rachel buried at their Nashville home, The Hermitage. At her funeral he said, “I can and do forgive all my enemies. But those vile wretches who have slandered her must look to God for mercy.” Her epitaph was written by Jackson’s long-time friend, fellow politician and biographer, John Henry Eaton, “A being so gentle and so virtuous, slander might wound but could not dishonor.”
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One of Jackson’s first presidential duties was to choose his Cabinet. John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, “The Voice of the South,” who had served as Vice-President under John Quincy Adams, had been elected Vice-President again, and was virtually guaranteed to succeed Jackson. Jackson’s Secretary of State was Martin Van Buren, the widowed former governor of New York, who, though he had never held national office before, had strongly supported Jackson in his unsuccessful run for the Presidency in 1824. Samuel D. Ingham as Secretary of Treasury, John M. Berrien as Attorney General and John Branch as Secretary of the Navy were Calhoun Supporters. William T. Barry of Kentucky was made Postmaster-General, and to serve as Secretary of War, Jackson chose John Henry Eaton.
All of Jackson’s Cabinet choices were not only men he knew well and trusted, but they were acceptable to Washington society. All except John Henry Eaton, who was considered an improper choice for the job, because of his recent marriage to a woman many considered of questionable character and virtue. This woman was Margaret O’Neale Timberlake Eaton, known as Peggy.
Peggy was the charming and attractive daughter of a well-established tavern keeper in Washington, D.C. One admirer described her “well-rounded, voluptuous figure, peach-pink complexion…large, active dark eyes, …[and] full sensuous lips, ready to break into an engaging smile.” She worked as a barmaid and made friends with the congressmen and senators who stayed at her father’s tavern, The Franklin House.
Because of her liberal upbringing, Peggy was forward and open with members of the opposite sex. She did not conduct herself within the expected limits of feminine behavior of the time, but spoke her mind freely.
When Peggy was fifteen years old, she fell in love with Major Francis Smith Belton. The two decided to elope and devised a simple plan. Peggy was to climb out of her bedroom window, then step down to a water pump, and into the arms of her waiting lover. But in the course of this plan, Peggy knocked over a flower pot, which woke up her father, who prevented her escape.
Another suitor quickly followed Belton. Peggy’s new admirer was Captain Richard R. Root. Peggy’s father was afraid of another elopement, so he sent Peggy off to a boarding school. But Root followed her there and though the couple planned to run away, they constantly argued and so the relationship ended. Peggy’s days at school also ended when she wrote to her father, begging him to let her come home. She wrote “Dear Father: for the Lord’s sake come and take me home; and if you will do so I will promise to be the best girl you ever saw, and I assure you that under no circumstances shall either Root or Branch take me away from you.” Her father let her come home.
In 1816, John Bowie Timberlake, a 39-year-old former navy purser was riding with a friend outside the Franklin House When he saw 17-year-old Peggy through the window, he exclaimed: “My Lord! What a pretty girl that is!” Timberlake made an excuse to go inside and meet her. By eleven o’clock that evening he had asked for and received permission to marry her. They were married on July 18, 1816.
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The couple lived in a house provided by Peggy’s father, across the street from his tavern. Timberlake, already in debt from his time in the navy, opened a store, which was not a success, which added to his financial problems. Peggy gave birth to a little boy, whom she named William after her father. But the child died in the first six months of his life.
In 1818, the Timberlakes met John Eaton, then a widowed senator who was staying at Franklin House. Timberlake and Eaton became good friends, even to the point that Timberlake confided his financial woes to Eaton. Eaton helped his friend write and introduce a petition to the Senate, asking for relief from his naval debts. But the petition was refused, and Timberlake went further and further into debt. His only option was to go back to sea. Peggy and her new daughter, Mary Virginia, were left behind. Peggy went back to helping her father with his tavern.
This is the time when Peggy gained her reputation for being too bold. She openly discussed politics and other matters with the gentlemen staying at Franklin House. She expressed her opinion frankly, which was unusual behavior for a young wife with a husband away at sea. One gentleman who enjoyed her discussions was Andrew Jackson, who stayed at the tavern whenever Congress was in session. He was quite taken with Peggy, and wrote to his Rachel about her constantly.
While Timberlake was away, John Eaton was frequently Peggy’s companion, serving as escort for Peggy and her daughter, and talking with Peggy on the porch of the Franklin House until late into the evening. These activities led to gossip hinting that Peggy and Eaton were having an affair.
Timberlake was able to come home only for short, occasional visits. In 1825, Peggy gave birth to their daughter, Margaret Rosa. Timberlake went to sea again, this time on a four-year voyage on the U.S.S. Constitution. He wrote to his wife that if anything happened to him, “there is one man to whose hands I should be willing to entrust you, and that is John H. Eaton, the noblest work of God, an honest man.”
Timberlake, suffering from anxiety and depression, died at sea in April of 1828. Peggy was told that he had contracted and died of pulmonary disease. But his death was really a suicide. Gossip spread that Timberlake had killed himself while in a drunken stupor, supposedly unable to bear his wife’s infidelity with his friend, John Eaton.
No one is sure whether the rumors were true. Eaton and Peggy had certainly developed feelings for one another. But Eaton was unsure about asking Peggy to marry him. He confessed his hope to someday “tender to her the offer to share my life and prospects with her” to President-Elect Jackson, who encouraged Eaton to make his feelings known to Peggy. Eaton did, and he and Peggy were married on January 1, 1829, less than a year after the death of Peggy’s first husband. This went against all the customs of society, where women were expected to wait at least a year before remarrying. The marriage produced even more slanders about Peggy. One newspaper wrote: “J.H. Eaton has made an honest woman of his mistress.” People were also afraid that Peggy, with her outspokenness and her unguarded political opinions, would shape John Eaton’s decisions in the Cabinet.
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It was the custom for all Cabinet Members' wives to call on one another and leave a calling card. After their honeymoon, the Eatons returned to Washington and immediately paid a visit to Vice-President Calhoun’s house. When they arrived at the Calhoun residence, the Vice- President was not at home, but his wife Floride was. She entertained the Eatons during their brief visit, but the next day she did not return the call. Floride Calhoun set the precedent for all the other Cabinet Wives to slight Peggy.
It was understood that the men ruled the government, but the rules of society were set and maintained by the ladies. They felt it was their duty to defend proper behavior and morality, and to cast out anyone who did not follow their code. Their husbands were expected to stand with them in all matters concerning these issues, and bow to their opinions.
Therefore, the ostracizing of Peggy Eaton continued. All the Cabinet Wives, the ladies of society, and even Jackson’s nephew and secretary, Andrew Jackson Donelson and his wife, Emily, slighted her. They called her “that hussy,” and pretended to look through her when she was in the same room with them.
Emily Donelson, Rachel Jackson’s cousin and wife of Jackson’s nephew, served as Jackson’s official hostess in the White house. When she and her husband first arrived in Washington, she had been very pleasant to Peggy. But as Emily socialized more and more with the Cabinet Wives, she tolerated Peggy less and less, until she refused to associate with her at all.
Hurt and angry, Peggy often refused to attend social events with her husband, rather than face being shunned and ignored by her hostesses. But she refused to change her ways, and continued to be outspoken in her opinions on politics. Eaton, who loved Peggy very much, attempted to defend her in all matters. Peggy complained to her friend Andrew Jackson about the spreading gossip. He replied: “I tell you, Margaret, I had rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.”
Jackson had always believed that it was his duty to protect all women, whom he saw as the weaker sex and in need of defense. The years of defending and fighting for his beloved Rachel had made him intolerant of gossip and slanders of any woman. More than that, Jackson saw an attack against any woman he knew as an attack against himself and his Presidency. Always ready for a fight, Jackson quickly jumped to loudly defend his “little friend Peg.”
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One of his supporters, the Reverend Ezra Ely, tried to warn Jackson about Peggy and the bad influence she could have on her husband, and therefore on Jackson’s Cabinet. Her accused her of lacking morals, and said she was too forward with men before, during, and after her marriage to Timberlake. He made a list of her sins, including the testimony of one man who claimed he had been intimate with Peggy. Ely also said that a clergyman had informed him that Peggy had suffered a miscarriage during a time when her husband was at sea, which meant that the child could not have been Timberlake’s.
Jackson retaliated with a lecture for Ely. “Female virtue is like a tender and delicate flower,” Jackson said, “let but the breath of suspicion rest upon it, and it withers and perhaps perishes forever.” Jackson traced the story of Peggy’s miscarriage, discovering that Timberlake had indeed been in Washington long enough to father the lost child, but Ely refused to back down.
In defense of Peggy, Jackson exclaimed, “She is as chaste as a virgin.” Henry Clay, Jackson’s constant political opponent, promptly commented at a party, “Age can not wither her nor custom stale her infinite virginity.”
John Eaton was so enraged at the abuse of his wife that he began to demand satisfaction from anyone who tried to slander his wife, but his demands were either ignored or refused.
Not everyone in the Cabinet was against Peggy. Martin Van Buren, a widower who was not under the command of any woman, came to Peggy’s defense and continued to enjoy socializing with her. He was constantly seen visiting at the Eaton home or helping Peggy in and out of her carriage. Postmaster General William T. Barry and his family, indebted to Peggy who had nursed their sick child, also stood by her side.
Vice President John C. Calhoun and the other members of the Cabinet, prompted by their wives, would have nothing to do with Peggy, which infuriated Jackson and began to interfere with the running of the government. The continued attacks on Peggy and Jackson’s heated defense of her reputation caused a massive split in the Cabinet.
Calhoun and Van Buren both wanted to succeed Jackson as President. They were intense rivals who disagreed mostly over states rights, with Calhoun supporting state nullification, where a state had the right to nullify any federal law it believed was oppressive. Calhoun was jealous of Van Buren’s growing closeness to Jackson, including the fact that Van Buren was the only legitimate Cabinet Officer to be a member of Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet, an informal group of friends and advisors who influenced Jackson in his decisions more than the Official Cabinet did.
Until the Eaton Affair began to erupt, John C. Calhoun had been a strong-minded Vice-President, but had generally supported Jackson’s policies, and was the expected successor to the Presidency. As Jackson’s rage over Peggy’s rejection grew, Calhoun’s position began to slip, and Martin Van Buren, known as “the Little Magician,” because he was so manipulative in politics, saw an opportunity to improve his own standing.
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In April of 1831, Van Buren informed Jackson that he was resigning from the Cabinet. Eaton, following Van Buren’s lead, gave up his post as Secretary of War. Jackson used their resignations as an excuse to ask the rest of the Cabinet to resign so he could “reorganize.” Now rid of the members who were against Peggy and supportive of Calhoun, Jackson named a new Cabinet made up entirely of his own supporters. Jackson appointed Van Buren U.S. Minister to Great Britain, but the nomination was blocked by Calhoun’s tie-breaking vote of refusal in the Senate. Calhoun gloated over the effect this would have on Van Buren’s career. “It will kill him, sir, kill him dead.”
Calhoun was wrong. When Jackson decided to run for President again in 1832, he was told by his Kitchen Cabinet about letters written by Calhoun criticizing Jackson’s past military career, implying he was incompetent as a military leader. This, combined with Calhoun’s block of Van Buren’s appointment and most of all, with the attacks on of Peggy, were too much for Jackson. Calhoun was forced to resign his Vice-Presidency and return to the Senate. Martin Van Buren became Jackson’s next Vice-President and the unexpected heir to his Presidency.
Peggy Eaton never escaped the contamination of scandal in her life. Though her husband was made governor of Florida in 1834, he was not able to regain his seat in the Senate in that same year due to his wife’s stained reputation and continued concern over her influence on his decisions. Even when he was appointed Minister to Spain in 1836, the gossip and disapproval of her character followed them. In 1840, the Eatons stubbornly retired to Washington, D.C., where they were only grudgingly admitted into the social world.
In 1845, Andrew Jackson died. He was buried beside his Rachel at their home the Hermitage. In 1856, John Henry Eaton followed Jackson, leaving Peggy a widow once again.
One more scandal rocked Peggy’s life, when on June 7, 1859, 59-year-old Peggy married the 19-year-old dancing master of her grandchildren, Antonio Buchignani. Once again, Peggy was ostracized, but reporters and writers still came to her for stories of her famous past and her thoughts on Jackson’s administration. They still found Peggy admirable and fascinating, still outspoken. One reporter wrote “when at all excited, her beautiful, fiery eyes gleam and sparkle with original fire.” Another said, “...she held that powerful influence over men that requires a master mind no less than a lovely face.”
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Peggy’s last marriage was a bitter failure, ending when Buchignani stole all of her money and ran off with her granddaughter, Emily, with whom he had two children. Peggy later divorced him, but he never married Emily.
Peggy lived the remaining years of her life with her grandson, John. Near the end of her life, she said, “I am not afraid to die, but this is such a beautiful world to leave.” On November 9, 1789, after a long illness, Peggy died. She was buried next to John Eaton in Oak Hill Cemetery, among the graves of other leaders of Washington society. The New York Times reported, “Doubtless among the dead populating the terraces are some of her assailants and cordially as they may have hated her, they are now her neighbors.”
Peggy Eaton was an individual; a woman of passion and beauty; a woman who simply spoke her own mind and showed what she felt, not out of a desire to change or influence politics, but because she was open and honest. Because she was unlike the other women of her time, these qualities were translated to mean she was lacking morals and virtue, and that she was attempting to control her husband’s political decisions. She was ostracized from society. But she was defended by Andrew Jackson, who had seen his Rachel snubbed and hurt the same way Peggy was wounded, and who saw the attacks on Peggy, as he had seen the attacks on Rachel, as attacks directed at himself.
It is ironic that the Cabinet Wives who criticized Peggy’s influence on her husband did not hesitate to compel their own husbands to publicly injure Peggy’s reputation in society, causing Jackson’s fierce defense of her and the eventual breakup of the Cabinet, the resignation of his Vice-President and paving the way for Martin Van Buren to take over the Presidency in 1836. Jackson’s “little friend Peg” did not change the society that shunned her, but she changed the history of a nation.
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