Andrew Jackson and the Affair of Mrs Eaton
In producing the complex of events that was to lead the Southern States from Union to Confederacy, Peggy Eaton – aggrieved wife of President Jackson's Secretary of War—played a small, but curiously dramatic, part.
On April 2nd, 1828, John B. Timberlake, a tall, blond and inefficient purser in the United States Navy, died on board the frigate Constitution. The ship’s record gives the cause of death as “pulmonary disease.” But long memories recalled that Timberlake had earlier attempted suicide, and rumour ran that his wife’s misconduct had sent the young officer to his grave. The matter was trivial enough; yet it coloured the course of American politics during the crucial opening years of Jackson’s first administration and for many years after.
Timberlake had won the hand of Margaret (Peggy) O’Neale, the eldest daughter of a Washington inn-keeper, in a whirlwind courtship during the summer of 1816. This vivacious, dark-haired girl was already considered a flirt at the age of sixteen when she married.
The purser was in trouble with the Navy, owing to a discrepancy in his accounts, but was assisted by his father-in-law. William O’Neale was a well-known Washington character and his tavern house, conveniently situated between Georgetown and the capital, had brought him a certain amount of influence as well as a comfortable income.
Peggy lived with her father and helped to entertain his guests. When her husband was at sea, the political gentlemen who stayed at the Franklin House found her a gay companion. It was noted that one of these, John Henry Eaton, the Senator from Tennessee, was most generous with financial aid, not merely to Mrs. Timberlake’s husband, but also to her father.
Eaton was one of the most prominent members of the Nashville Junto, the Tennessee group of politicians whose activities so worried Rachel Jackson. She wrote of her fears to her niece:
I do hope they will now leave Mr. Jackson alone. He is not a well man and never will be unless they allow him to rest. He has done his share for his country.