Episode 6: Andrew Jackson’s Slut-Shaming Evolution


Slander might wound but could not dishonor.

Cigar box cover of Peggy O’Neill

In our first season finale, we trace Andrew Jackson’s feelings about women’s honor from his early days as a rowdy outhouse-mover to his tragic relationship with Rachel and finally to the Petticoat Affair – the scandal surrounding Margaret “Peggy” Eaton that almost took down his entire administration.

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Young law student Andrew Jackson was a cockfighting, outhouse-moving hooligan, so of course he was put in charge of Salisbury, North Carolina’s Christmas ball. Just to see what would happen, he invited two women of ill-repute, Molly and Rachel Wood. What happened was they were laughed out of the place and Jackson was scolded. This was his first formal lesson about slut-shaming, and how society felt about women who operated outside its strict rules.

Andrew Jackson by James Tooley

Jackson ran into the same societal judgment with his wife Rachel Jackson, a woman whose divorce to her abusive husband Lewis Robards wasn’t exactly finalized when they married. Accusations of immorality led Jackson to challenge multiple men to duels and even kill one.

Those same accusations played a role in Rachel’s death, after she suffered a heart attack following her realization of just how much her husband’s political opponents had attacked her honor.

Jackson headed to the White House a widower, and he soon found another woman whose honor he could defend – Margaret “Peggy” O’Neill Timberlake Eaton. Plagued by rumors of infidelity and worse, Margaret found herself ostracized by polite Washington society. This made things awkward for Jackson, as she was the wife of a Cabinet member. He became obsessed with proving her innocence, and for many months it was his top priority as President.

In Jackson’s Cabinet, this came down to a war between two men. One was the distinctive Vice President John C. Calhoun, who became an ardent defender of state’s rights and neck hair.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

The other was Secretary of State and master politician Martin Van Buren.

Martin Van Buren AKA Old Sandy Whiskers AKA The Little Magician

Jackson tried evidence and intimidation to end this social standoff, but this was one fight he could not win. Margaret Eaton didn’t take these accusations sitting down, either; she tracked down her accusers (two pastors) and interrogated the lies right of out of them. But only Van Buren, “The Little Magician,” could find a way out of the Petticoat Affair and rides its ruffles all the way to the presidency.

Margaret "Peggy" Eaton

Margaret “Peggy” Eaton

 


Sources:

The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson’s White House by John F. Marszalek
Life of Andrew Jackson by James Parton

 

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