Margaret (Peggy) OíNeal (who preffered to be called Margaret) was born in 1799 in Washington DC. She was the daughter of William OíNeal, who owned a thriving boarding house and tavern called the Franklin House in that same town. It was frequented by senators, congressmen, and all politicians. She was the oldest of six children, growing up in the midst of our nationís emerging political scene. She was always a favorite of the visitors to the Franklin House. She was sent to one of the best schools in Washington DC, where she studied English and French grammar, needlework and music. She also had quite a talent for dance, and was sent to private lessons, becoming a very good dancer. At the age of twelve, she danced for the First Lady Dolley Madison. Visitors of the Franklin House also commented on her piano playing skills.
During Margaretís teenage years, there were many rumors circulating about her romances. The stories included one of a suitor who swallowed poison after she refused to return his affections, one of her being briefly linked to the son of President Jeffersonís treasury secretary, and one of her botched elopement to a young aide of General Winfield Scott. As the story goes, she accidentally kicked over a flowerpot during her climb down from a bedroom window, which woke her father, who promptly dragged her back inside.
When Jackson first met Margaret at the age of 24, he took an immediate liking to her. The tavern had been recommended to him by his close friend John Henry Eaton, who would later marry Miss OíNeal and cause quite a scandal. Jacksonís wife, when meeting Margaret a year later, was equally taken with her.
Margaret married a navy purser named John Bowie Timberlake. They had three children together, one whom died while still an infant. When John was gone at sea, John Eaton entered the picture again, escorting Margaret on drives and to parties. The rumors flew around town of Margaret and Eatonís supposed affair, and of her husbandís drunkenness. The people around town were all saying that the reason Timberlake kept sailing was to avoid his wifeís obvious philandering. Timberlake was soon reassigned to the Mediterranean squadron. The Mediterranean was very hot and contained few friendly ports in those days, making it a less than pleasant assignment. Timberlake died while in the Mediterranean, the official cause was pulmonary disease. It is also reported that he committed suicide, some said because of his wifeís behavior. Eaton married Margaret shortly after Timberlakeís death, which caused a bit of a commotion. The real cause for the disapproval was that Margaret and Eaton had been living together before Timberlake was killed. There were also rumors that Margaret had miscarried Eatonís child before they were married, but it is hard to say if there is any truth in that.
All of the preceding events rose many eyebrows in Washington DC, especially among the elite politicianís wives. Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President John Calhoun, accepted a social call from the Eatons after their marriage, but refused to pay a return visit. This was viewed in Washington DC as a snub. Jacksonís advisors encouraged him not to appoint Eaton into his cabinet, saying that his reputation would damage Jacksonís chances for the Presidency. This only angered Jackson, who recalled the earlier mistreatment of his wife, Rachel, during his first run for the presidency. There had been a misunderstanding about her previous divorce, and it turned out that she and Jackson had not been married when they had thought, since her divorce was not yet final. They had in fact, been living quite publicly in sin for over two years. They quickly repeated their vows, but the political and personal repercussions had already taken effect. Rachel died of a heart attack less than three months before Jacksonís inauguration, and Jackson always blamed his competing party for her death.
Jackson was determined to have the Eatons accepted in polite Washington DC society. After dealing with the so called petticoat affair for a few months, Jackson called all of his cabinet, with the exception of John Eaton, to a special meeting. He produced many witnesses who testified to Margaretís character, and considered the matter over. He held his overdue cabinet dinner soon afterward. All of the cabinet members and their wives attended, but everyone ate very quickly in order to avoid conversation with the Eatons, whom Jackson had sat in places of honor at the head of the table. Van Buren held another party not much later which all of the cabinet members attended, while all of their wives found excuses not to attend.
Jackson soon began to believe that it was not only the members of his cabinet that were carrying on this affair, but also his political enemies in an effort to bring him down. It was also no coincidence that the cabinet members most opposed to the Eatons were loyal to Calhoun, whom Jackson was starting to distrust. Calhoun had helped to elect Jackson, assuming that he would become the next president. Van Buren was gaining Jacksonís approval at the same time that Calhoun was losing it. He had remained supportive and friendly with the Eatons since the beginning of the affair. Jackson began to look to him as his successor in the Presidency.
Nevertheless, the rumors still flew surrounding the Eatons. The press was merciless. One newspaper even claimed that Eaton had fathered a child with a black servant.
All events came to a head in April of 1831 when Van Buren offered to resign, and recommended that Eaton do the same. It was common protocol that if two members of the cabinet resigned, the rest would do so out of courtesy in order to allow the president to reorganize his cabinet. With some resistance, all of the cabinet members resigned, allowing Jackson to rename the members and hopefully end the affair once and for all. The newspapers attributed the cabinetís fall the Margaret Eaton, and everyone thought that Jackson had doomed any hope for reelection.
Jackson was reelected, with Van Buren as a running mate. He quickly sent Eaton to the Florida territory, where he became governor. Two years later, Jackson appointed Eaton as the United States minister to Spain. Margaret and John thoroughly enjoyed their lives in Spain for a period of four years.
John Eaton died in 1856, leaving Margaret a small fortune. She lived in Washington DC with her two daughters, both of whom married into high society. It seemed as though Margaret finally had the societal life and respect she had always wanted. She changed all of that when, at the age of 59, she married her granddaughterís 19 year old dance tutor, Antonio Buchignani. A mere five years later, he ran off to Italy with her money and her granddaughter.