On March 27, 1829, President Andrew Jackson defies Washington society matrons and appoints scandal-plagued John Eaton as his secretary of war.
Earlier that year, Eaton had married a former tavern maid with a supposedly lurid past. Margaret Peggy Eaton had been raised in a boardinghouse frequented by Washington politicians and became an astute observer of politics, as well as an accomplished musician and dancer. She charmed many of the boardinghouse’s tenants, including then-Senator Andrew Jackson and his friend John Eaton, and was suspected of having many illicit affairs before her first marriage. She was 23 and the wife of a Navy sailor when she first met Jackson and Eaton. Eaton enjoyed Margaret’s wit and intelligence and escorted her to social functions when her husband was at sea.
When Margaret’s first husband died unexpectedly, rumors abounded that he had committed suicide over his wife’s alleged affair with Eaton. Both Eaton and Margaret denied the affair, claiming to be nothing more than friends. In addition to Margaret’s sullied reputation, her passionate nature, flirtatiousness and outspokenness irked Washington’s society matrons at a time when those qualities were considered unseemly in women. When Eaton and Margaret married shortly after her first husband’s death, the ladies of Washington society ostracized the new couple.
Jackson sympathized with and supported his friend Eaton. Jackson’s late wife Rachel—whom he had unwittingly married before her divorce from her first husband was final—had also been the victim of social gossip when she first came to Washington. When someone advised Jackson against making Eaton his secretary of war because of Margaret’s reputation, Jackson barked, do you suppose that I have been sent here by the people to consult the ladies of Washington as to the proper persons to compose my cabinet?!” Secretary of State Martin Van Buren also sided with Eaton. It was Vice President John Calhoun’s wife who led Washington’s elite in snubbing the Eatons at social gatherings. For the rest of Jackson’s first term, his opponents used the Eaton Affair or Petticoat Affair, as it was known, to attack the president’s moral judgment and, by extension, his administration’s policies and appointees.
By 1831, the Eaton Affair had proved immensely divisive and politically damaging to Jackson. In response, Eaton and Van Buren resigned in order to give Jackson the opportunity to overhaul his cabinet with new members and protect his presidency from further scandal.