EMILY DONELSON Emily Donelson was the social hostess and Surrogate First Lady for most of her uncle’s, Andrew Jackson, eight year tenure in the White House as this country’s seventh president (1829-1837). Andrew Jackson Donelson, her husband and the president’s nephew, was Jackson’s private secretary for almost all his two presidential terms. A note about Emily Donelson’s stature: of her and Andrew’s four children, three were born in the White House. All four were honored by presidential godfathers: Andrew Jackson twice; Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s vice president and successor to the presidency; and James K. Polk, a Jackson protégé, who became the eleventh U.S. President.

Margaret (Peggy) O’Neale, twice-married, once-widowed, was Emily’s foe. This controversial woman was a vortex whose eddies consumed the presidency, Washington political and social communities, and even the country for almost three years. Its intensity and longevity easily surpassed the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair of the late 1990s.

Peggy was the daughter of the prominent District boardinghouse and bar owner William O’Neale. His bar was a focus for the many unattached men who populated the Congress and the Government offices of early nineteenth century Washington. A frequent feature was the beautiful, entertaining, socializing even to the point of flirtatious, teen-aged Peggy. She became an item of rumor in Washington, although no instance of inappropriate sexual behavior was ever proven.

At age sixteen, Peggy married Navy purser John Bowie Timberlake after a very short romance. Although Timberlake was frequently at sea, he efficiently fathered two daughters with Peggy. Unfortunately for her, she was often alone during their ten year marriage. United States Senator John Henry Eaton, a boarder at the O’Neale’s establishment, was a close friend of Timberlake. Circumstances allowed him to become very attentive to the beautiful and charming Peggy; was her social escort when Timberlake was at sea. Consequently, her local reputation, buffeted by salacious innuendo, faltered even farther.

Timberlake died in 1828 while on duty in the Mediterranean . The circumstances of his death were somewhat murky, which permitted the local gossips to allege suicide as the cause, resulting from his wife’s unproven affair with Eaton. Subsequently, Peggy and John became romantically involved, and then married at the 1832 onset of the Jackson presidency.

John Eaton was a serving Senator From Jackson’s home state of Tennessee. Not only was Eaton a long-time friend of the incoming president, he was a prominent political supporter and had served under General Jackson during the Seminole campaign in Florida. Most significantly, he just agreed to become Secretary of War in the Jackson cabinet.

The social and political result was heated opprobrium directed towards Peggy Eaton. The so-called “Petticoat Affair” lasted almost three years, damaging the the Eatons, the president’s cabinet, Vice President Calhoun, official and unofficial Washington, local social networks, and especially the president and his Washington family.

Emily Donelson, niece and surrogate first lady, was an important actress in this. Her story will unfold in the next blog entry.


John F. Marszalek: The Petticoat Affair (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997)

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