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Eaton Affair


EATON AFFAIR. In April 1828 John B. Timberlake, a U.S. Navy purser, committed suicide at sea. Rumors quickly spread that he had done so because his wife, Margaret, was having an affair with Senator John Henry Eaton, a boarder at her father's Washington, D.C., inn. When Margaret Timberlake and Senator Eaton married on 1 January 1829, the new Mrs. Eaton, long an accused violator of society's norms because of her outspokenness and forward behavior, came under new attacks for not observing the required mourning period after her husband's death.

John Eaton was a close friend of President-elect Andrew Jackson, whose own wife had been the subject of gossip during the 1828 presidential campaign. Jackson blamed the death of his wife in December 1828 on the viciousness of his political opponents. When he appointed John Eaton secretary of war, most of the cabinet wives joined Washington society women in ostracizing Margaret Eaton, and Jackson was furious. He saw Mrs. Eaton, like his recently deceased wife, as unfairly wronged and defended her vociferously.

Jackson made the Eaton affair a major issue in his administration. Vice President John C. Calhoun and his wife supported Washington society, while Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, a widower, befriended Margaret Eaton. In April 1831 Jackson forced his cabinet's resignation over the dispute, and the controversy was among the major reasons why Van Buren replaced Calhoun as vice president in 1832. In reality, however, the Eaton affair was a battle over women's proper place in society.


Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Marszalek, John F. "The Eaton Affair: Society and Politics." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55 (Spring 1996): 6–19.

———. The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Wood, Kirstin E. "'One Woman So Dangerous to Public Morals': Gender and Power in the Eaton Affair." Journal of the Early Republic 17 (1997): 237–275.

John F.Marszalek

See alsoJacksonian Democracy .

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