THE PEGGY EATON AFFAIR
|Margaret O'Neale Timberlake Eaton was not the focus of the first sexual scandal in American history, but she was at the center of one of the most interesting ones. Daughter of a popular Washington tavern keeper, Peggy was an attractive, vivacious young woman who attracted the attention of some of the most powerful men in America, including Senator John Eaton, a close friend of Andrew Jackson. As a young woman Peggy had married John Timberlake, a Navy purser who spent considerable time at sea. It was said that his untimely death in a foreign port was a suicide brought about by Peggy's infidelity, a charge never proven. Whether true or not, Peggy got married again, this time to John Eaton, who soon became a Secretary of War in Andrew Jackson's cabinet, whom she had met in her father's establishment.|
Soon after Jackson's inauguration it became apparent that the wives of the other members of Jackson's Cabinet did not approve of Mrs. Eaton's allegedly lurid past. She was snubbed at White House receptions, and Washington political society refused to accept or return social visits from Mrs. Eaton, and pronounced themselves scandalized that Mrs. Eaton was even invited to participate in polite Washington company.
Jackson had known Peggy Eaton for some time and liked her. Perhaps more important, Jackson had lost his wife, Rachel, just months before his inauguration, and he blamed her death in part on what he saw as slanderous attacks on Jackson's own marriage. (When Andrew and Rachel Jackson first married, questions arose about the timing of her divorce from her first husband, a situation that led to the charge that the Jacksons had been living in sin.) Always one to take offense at any attack on his personal honor, Jackson naturally sided with Peggy and John Eaton and became furious with the allegations. He fumed: "I did not come here to make a cabinet for the ladies of this place, but for the nation!"
The situation deteriorated to the point where it became a difficult even for Jackson's cabinet to conduct its regular business, so preoccupied were the members with the Eaton affair. Martin Van Buren, Jackson's Secretary of State, was a widower and therefore safe from wifely criticism of Mrs. Eaton. Van Buren could therefore afford to be kind to Mrs. Eaton, which gratified Jackson. Finally, as a way out of the "Eaton malaria," Van Buren offered to resign and suggested that the rest of the cabinet do so also. Jackson gratefully accepted his offer and promised to aid Van Buren, which he did, naming him Ambassador to Great Britain.
There was more to this story, however. The attack on Mrs. Eaton had been led by Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun. Calhoun had been elected vice president both in 1824 and 1828 and had run separately from Jackson, and there was some old animosity between Jackson and Calhoun dating back to the time when Calhoun was Secretary of War under President Monroe and Jackson was chasing Indians in Florida. Van Buren's appointment to the Court of St. James had to be approved by the Senate, and because of growing opposition to Jackson's policies in the Senate, the vote for approval turned out to be a tie. Vice President Calhoun, presiding over the Senate, cast the deciding vote against Van Buren. Henry Clay, a savvy politicians himself, remarked to Calhoun that he had destroyed an ambassador but created a Vice President.
And so it was. In 1832 Andrew Jackson asked Van Buren to join him on the Democratic Party ticket as his running mate and candidate for vice president. Jackson and Van Buren were elected, and Van Buren succeeded President Jackson in the election of 1836. Thus the Peggy Eaton affair, the story of a woman scorned, rather than remaining a low-level scandal, altered the course of American political history, not the first time nor the last in which a woman would play that role.
Peggy's colorful life did not end there. Some years later John eaton died, leaving his widow a small fortune. But she was not destined to live a quiet retirement—at age 61 she married twenty-one year old Antonio Buchignani, her granddaughter's dancing teacher and deeded all her belongings to him. Less than a year later he eloped to Italy with her granddaughter, and Peggy was forced to work as a dressmaker to support herself. She died in 1879 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in a grave next to that of John Eaton. At had her funeral a large floral piece of white roses sent by President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes was placed on Peggy's grave.
In her own autobiography Peggy Eaton wrote, "My likes and dislikes are not small. The fact is I do not believe I ever did exactly like or dislike anybody. I think they always hated everybody I did not love and always loved everybody I did not hate."
The literature on Margaret O'Neale Timberlake Eaton Buchignani is considerable.
Age of Jackson