Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Just finished reading - The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House by John F. Marszalek, 1997

Scandals in Washington D.C. seem quite common these days, and it probably won't surprise anyone that they have been a part of life in that city since the reclaimed swampland was turned into the nation's capitol.

In the early 1830's a scandal rocked Washington that had far reaching historical repercussions and involved the highest heads of state. When it was said and done Andrew Jackson's cabinet had resigned in mass, political ambitions were dashed, and lives and ways of life, were threatened.

Margaret O'Neale was born to innkeeper William O'Neale and his wife Rhoda on December 3, 1799, in the then just-emerging city of Washington D.C. Margaret grew up as a precocious child in the inn keeping and boardinghouse business. She helped serve the boarders at their Franklin House Inn - most often men - their meals and drinks, provided musical entertainment by singing and on the piano, joked with the guests, and played the role of surrogate daughter to many.

Margaret was by all accounts a beautiful girl, and later a lovely woman. By age fourteen she had already become the matrimonial target for several men. At fifteen she attempted to elope, but was caught by her father sneaking out her window after breaking a flower pot. Apparently she was not too upset by her father's intervention because it was only a short time later that two different men were found fighting outside the family house over the opportunity to court her.

In 1814 William O'Neale sent his daughter to New York to receive an education and hopefully keep her out of trouble (although New York seems like and odd place to send a teenager to keep them out of trouble). One of her beaus had followed her to New York and Margaret and he planed an elopement but the relationship came apart after the man fell from her favor. She returned to Washington promising her father she would behave.

In 1816, at 16 years old, she met John Timberlake, a purser in the United States Navy. He asked for her hand in marriage the day they met and were married within a month. Two years later John Henry Eaton, a senator from Tennessee came to board at Franklin House. Eaton and the Timberlakes quickly became fast friends. In the early 1820s, Timberlake went back to the navy after failing in a business attempt. Timberlake's navy duties took him away from home for long stays, and with Timberlake's consent, Eaton served as Margaret's escort to many social events. Timberlake trusted Eaton with his wife even to the point of signing over a power of attorney to the senator. Sharing time with a man outside of her marriage made Margaret become the subject of unrelenting Washington gossip. After all, the gossips said, she had grown up working in a boardinghouse hotel where she had served men alcohol and discussed issues that were not meant for women's ears, surely she must be scandalous. Margaret was never one to hold her tongue, and her beautiful appearance led people to insist that she must be a loose woman. As historian Barbara Welter has explained in her "Cult of True Womanhood," in the 19th century women were expected to be pious, submissive, pure, and domestic. Margaret refused to fit the traditional mold of womanhood and she and those closest to her suffered for that decision.

Timberlake went down hill fast upon returning to the navy. There were reports that he drank too much and did not take care of himself. He died while at sea in 1828. Instead of waiting the normal mourning period of a year or more, Margaret married Eaton. They couldn't know the issues this would cause incoming President Andrew Jackson or themselves.

Jackson had lost the election in 1824 due to what he considered a "corrupt bargain" conspiracy, and when he won in 1828, his enemies attacked him and his family mercilessly. His wife Rachel had married him while technically still married to another man long ago, but the issue resurfaced to detract from Jackson's victory by his political foes. Rachel died before he was inaugurated and Jackson emphatically blamed her death on his political attackers.

Jackson and Eaton had been friends and mutual admirers for years in Tennessee, and Jackson was happy to see the newlyweds enjoying their marriage in Washington. Jackson liked the friendly company of Margaret and she became like a daughter to him. When she started becoming the target of gossip in society Jackson immediately identified with her plight and compared it to his dead wife Rachel's. Jackson named Eaton Secretary of War early in his administration and he would stick by John and Margaret Eaton throughout the ordeal. He felt that as a woman wrongly labeled, Margaret had to be defended by honorable men

Much like the present, Washington in the 19th century was a social city. All of the movers and shakers went to parties and receptions as was expected of their class. Due to the gossip and the insinuations of being a "bad woman" though, Margaret was shunned by society. None of the other cabinet members' wives would associate with her and this caused a serious rift in the administration. On a couple of occasions Eaton suggested duel to those that slandered his wife and all would eventually come apart with the resignations of Jackson's cabinet. Jackson saw the scandal as a conspiracy to unseat himself as president by his chief enemies; Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.

The scandal would eventually become old news, but not before it had altered the lives of many of the politically important individuals involved. It has been suggested, that if not for the scandal, Martin Van Buren would probably not have followed Jackson into the White House. Marszalek sums up Margaret's situation by writing that "Margaret Eaton dared to live her life in a way that contemporaries found improper for a woman. She was no saint and she was not crusader; but she was not the sinner rumor made her out to be, either. Using modern lexicon, she was 'brazen,' 'uncouth,' 'pushy,' and 'upitty,' the opposite of what a woman was supposed to be. Such unwomanly behavior, not impurity, was her major sin. She just did not know her proper place or her proper role, and she thus represented a threat to those who thought they did."

Professor Marszalek's writing style makes this much more than just a common political history. He has explored the Petticoat Affair from every angle and keeps it interesting reading throughout. This episode is just one of many that troubled the Jackson administration, but it is one that certainly makes for a good story.

1 comment:

  1. Tim, if you want to read about it as a historical novel, see "The Breath of Suspicion" on Kindle.