Lonely lawmakers and womanly wiles: the power of Peggy O'Neale

On Maryland History

November 26, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

TO MEMBERS of Congress, little Peggy O'Neale, the daughter of tavern owner William O'Neale, was a joy. She was the extra-added attraction at the popular tavern on Pennsylvania Avenue that kept a "post coach and four horses" to haul tired legislators to and from Capitol Hill. They could have a night's lodging for 25 cents, fire and candle extra; a smooth toddy or two brandies with bitters for the same price. In their cups, they could gaze at the exquisite girl with a voluptuous form, dark brown curly PeterKumpahair, merry blue eyes, an apple complexion and the widest smile and prettiest white teeth in the city.

She was a natural coquette and flirted furiously with lonely lawmakers. By her own confession, Peggy O'Neale was, "the wildest girl who ever wore out a mother's patience," and was, "gay as a lark, full of fun and nonsense," and "sometimes, maybe, a little original and lawless."

Just how fun-loving she was as a youngster, once crowed Queen of Beauty by Dolly Madison, or how "lawless" she was, and what sort of reputation she had, all became matters of national controversy. It was a deep division in Washington society over her conduct that caused President Andrew Jackson, in time, to fire most of his cabinet. That housecleaning opened the way for a Maryland lawyer, Roger Brooke Taney, to enter national politics as attorney general and then become the chief justice of the United States, succeeding John Marshall.

Before she was 15, little Peggy left a trail of romantic adventures behind her. A nephew of a highly placed Navy official had killed himself over her. Her allure caused two young Army officers to duel. An elderly general was said to be in a continual "state of distraction" over her. An elopement with a major was frustrated only because Peggy knocked over a flower pot while climbing out a window and woke her father. It took her a full week to recover from that love affair, and just one evening to fall madly in love with John B. Timberlake -- a tall, blond Navy purser whom she married in 1816, when she was a sweet 16. Timberlake proved to be both a bore and a drain on the O'Neale family budget.

It was Sen. John Henry Eaton of Tennessee who arranged to have Timberlake shipped out to sea. Peggy Timberlake went back to romance, according to one Virginia congressman, "a lady who dispensed her favors wherever she took a fancy." And the fancy was often for the senator; "Eaton's connection with [her] was notorious." When Timberlake died at sea in 1828, some in Washington believed he had committed suicide because by then his wife, Peggy, was "living in sin" with Senator Eaton. By official version, he died of a pulmonary disease.

Eaton had a problem. What to do with his love? One of his closest friends, a fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, then on his way to victory in a presidential campaign, said he should go beyond his talk of "honor and justice" and marry the girl if he truly loved her. Jackson himself had suffered from social ostracism over his marriage to his beloved Rachel Donelson because of a question of whether her divorce had been final or not. He advised Eaton that with marriage, all the pernicious gossip would stop. Jackson was wrong.

John and Peggy exchanged vows on Jan. 1, 1829. And it was like a declaration of social warfare on the part of the proper ladies of Washington. The group was soon to include most of the wives of the cabinet members when Eaton was named secretary of war. From the start, Peggy Eaton was snubbed by the wives and the daughters of officials who would not call on her, invite her to their homes and simply had nothing to do with her whenever possible. Peggy Eaton did shine at the affairs of diplomats and a few Jackson loyalists, but otherwise she was snubbed, black-balled, ignored.

When two clergymen, the reverends John N. Campbell and Ezra Stiles Ely, questioned Peggy Eaton's reputation in letters to President Jackson, Old Hickory called for evidence and a showdown. Aside from rumors of her easy virtue, the best evidence they could produce was that of a miscarriage by the then Mrs. Timberlake when her husband had been out at sea for too long. When the dates of Timberlake's sea time proved wrong Jackson, in meetings with the clergyman, cleared Peggy O'Neale Timberlake Eaton. "She is chaste as a virgin," he declared.

She certainly wasn't, and the matter didn't go away but marred the social scene for two years. The Washington "season" at that time started with the president giving a formal dinner for his official family, led by the Cabinet. Then each Cabinet member, starting with the secretary of state, would in turn host dinners for their fellows and friends. In 1829, cabinet wives simply declined these invitations. They gave their own parties without inviting the Eatons or the few loyalists like Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, a widower. The Eatons and their circle tried harder for more glittering affairs.

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