To the student of social history few careers surpass in interest that of Margaret O’Neill. Born of humble parentage, she ran the gamut of social possibilities, exercising more influence over the political destinies of her country than any other American woman has ever done.
Unlike other great belles who owe their fame to the universal admiration they evoke, Margaret O’Neill owed hers quite as much to the animosity she roused. Her cause hotly espoused by the President of the United States, her conduct made the subject of cabinet debates, she rose to fame as broad as the land of her birth, and later beyond the seas to a fame un-shadowed by enmity, though not dearer to her patriotic soul.
Born late in the last century, she came to be a belle in so far as having beaux makes a girl a belle in the days when the native Washington girl had few rivals. The shriek of Fulton’s steamboat had not yet startled the world. The stagecoach was the universal means of conveyance, though the daughters of some Southern and Western Congressmen, from districts unfamiliar even with its lumbering proportions, ambitious to taste the pleasures of a season at the capital, used frequently to make the tedious journey on horseback. Her girlhood belleship had well terminated, indeed she had married and brought children into the world, before the completion of the great canal in 1826, which made the more sanguine voyager of that day hopeful that eventually eight miles might be travelled in an hour!
Though she never knew the exact date of her birth, she had heard it frequently related that she was two weeks old at the time of Washington’s funeral, December 18, 1799. She was the eldest daughter of William O’Neill, a descendant of the O’Neill’s of Ulster County, Ireland, and himself a native of New Jersey, who had migrated to the capital with the hope of improving his fortunes. There he opened a tavern in the western section of the city, a short half-mile from the President’s house. He was a genial host, and his house soon attained popularity with the jeunesse doree, as well as with military men and Congressmen, though it was a long way from the Capitol. The Union Tavern, in Georgetown, however, which was also popular with our early law makers, was still farther away. From its door to the Capitol the old ‘bus known as the Royal George, one of Washington’s earliest institutions, made frequent trips, stopping at O’Neill’s and other taverns and boarding-houses along the route to pick up its patrons.
Margaret grew up in the unconventional atmosphere of the tavern, a type of undisciplined American girlhood, wayward, high spirited, full of generous impulses, her mind fed on impetuous and misguided admiration, and herself blessed with a magnetic soul that drew most men and many women irresistibly to her. She was a toast that stirred the hearts of the most phlegmatic of mankind and evoked unparalleled enthusiasm from those of more ardent temperament. Hers was the highest type of Irish beauty, a marvelously white skin, soft gray eyes, warm chestnut hair that curled above an expressive brow, exquisite features, a small round chin, a delicately beautiful figure of medium height, with an erect carriage and her spirited head nobly poised.
The “Health,” written by Edward C. Pinkney, whom Edgar Allen Poe placed first in his estimate of lyric poets of America, is said to have been inspired by her in 1824.
I fill this cup to one made up of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex the seeming paragon.
To whom the better elements and kindly stars have given
A form so fair that, like the air, ’tis less of earth than heaven.
Her every tone is music’s own, like those of morning birds.
And something more than melody dwells ever in her words
The coinage of her heart are they, and from her lips each flows.
As one may see the burthened bee forth issue from the rose.
Of her bright face one glance will trace a picture on the brain,
And of her voice, in echoing hearts a sound must long remain
And memory such as mine of her so very much endures.
When death is nigh, my latest sigh will not be life’s, but hers.
Affections are as naught to her, the measure of her hours
Her feelings have the fragrancy, the freshness of young flowers.
And lovely passions, changing oft, so fill her, she appears
The image of themselves by turns the idol of past years.
I filled this cup to one made up of loveliness alone,
A woman, of her gentle sex the seeming paragon.
Her health! And would on earth there stood some more of such a frame.
That life might be all poetry and weariness a name.
She went to school at Mrs. Hayward’s seminary, and later to Mr. Kirk. She also attended a dancing school that gave exhibitions of the grace and proficiency of its pupils in the parlors of the Union Tavern in Georgetown. At one of these exhibitions Margaret was crowned by Mrs. Madison, the wife of the President, as the prettiest girl and most graceful dancer in the room. Naturally ambitious, this first social triumph pointed out the possibility of greater ones, to be achieved only after bitter contests that would have crushed the spirit of a more sensitive woman.
Her father deeming her sufficiently well educated, in which opinion she concurred, she quitted school in her fifteenth year, and, being now a young woman of bewitching beauty and abundant leisure, she entered extensively upon her career as a belle.
Two young military men whom her fascinations had ensnared were at one time on the point of a duel. With one of them, Captain Root, she had planned an elopement, and was actually about to descend from her window when she accidentally overturned a flower pot: this crashing on the ground below, roused her father and put an end to her flight. More than that, her indignant parent carried her off to New York, where he left her under the wing of his old friend Governor De Witt Clinton, to go to Madame Nau’s school. Clinton was very severe with the spoiled little beauty, and the staid atmosphere of his home was not congenial to her. She wrote her father very homesick letters, in one of which she promised that if he would take her home “neither Root nor branch should ever tear her from him.” Her wit greatly pleased him, and after he had passed the bon mot around among his guests and his Peggy’s admirers, he went to New York and brought her home.
It has been said that she was not yet sixteen when from a window of her father’s tavern she for the first time saw John Bowie Timberlake, as he passed along Pennsylvania Avenue on horseback. Their acquaintance, engagement, and marriage followed within the space of a few weeks.
Several years of quiet happiness ensued, during which three children, a son, who died in infancy, and two daughters, were born to them.
Timberlake was a purser in the navy, and when he was ordered to sea duty he closed his little home, and his wife and children went to her father’s to stay during the time of his absence. He died of asthma aboard the “Constitution,” at Port Mahon.
His widow shortly afterwards married General Eaton, who was at that time a United States Senator and a guest at her father’s house. For the first time the little Peggy O’Neill, of triumphant dancing school days, felt that her foot was actually upon the rounds of the social ladder. John Quincy Adams was President at the time, and one of the bitterest Presidential campaigns this country has ever witnessed had just drawn to a close in the election of Jackson. One victim of the freedom of press and speech, everywhere indulged in, was the wife of the President-elect. Her gentle soul, stung by the breath of slander, which all the vigilance of a devoted husband had been powerless to avert, had passed un-regretfully from earth. Jackson came to Washington a bereaved and embittered man.
There was a puritanical tendency among the women who made up the society of that era, and to whom Margaret O’Neill appeared as the embodiment of a sport loving element that prevailed among men.
Life had a rural quality in those days which it has since lost. Horse racing was universal, and the great race between Eclipse and Sir Henry, run on Long Island May 27, 1823, for a purse often thousand dollars, was a national event. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been staked, and Peggy O’Neill no doubt was intimately acquainted with some of the heaviest winners and losers, among the latter of whom was John Randolph. Though she was far too young to remember the opening of the first race track in Washington, November 3, 1803, she was yet familiar with all the details of its inauguration, on which occasion both houses of Congress had adjourned, the Senate to have the ceiling repapered, and the House, which was apparently less resourceful, because it had no pressing business on hand.
Growing up in a public house, she was undoubtedly familiar with much in the lives of men of which other women of her day, leading more secluded lives, feigned ignorance. Yet she had become in no way contaminated by the liberal atmosphere she had breathed from infancy.
General Eaton and his bride returned from their honeymoon shortly before Jackson’s inauguration. A few of the Senators’ wives called upon her, but she was generally not well received, and slander had already begun its mischievous work when Jackson appeared in Washington and swore “by the Eternal” that his little friend, whom he had known all her life, should not be defamed.
Her name was already on every lip at the capital, and there is no doubt that as many went to Jackson’s inauguration ball to see her as to see the President. They stood on chairs and benches in their efforts to catch a glimpse of her, and she made a picture worthy of their endeavors, in her pink gown, with her headdress of nodding black plumes.
Eaton was made Secretary of War. He was Jackson’s old friend, and had labored unremittingly for his election. Moreover, thought the chivalrous old President, this would insure Mrs. Eaton’s triumph. The women of the cabinet, however, refused to recognize her. Though Mrs. Calhoun, the wife of the Vice-President, had called upon her as a Senator’s wife, she declined to associate with her as the wife of a cabinet minister. Calhoun, to whom an appeal was made, declared himself powerless, as “the quarrels of women, like those of the Medes and Persians, admitted of neither inquiry nor explanation.”
Van Buren, Secretary of State, and Barry, Post-Master-General, the former a widower and the latter a bachelor, stood aloof from the tempest in which their fellow officials were engulfed. That astute politician and prince of diplomats, Martin Van Buren, won Jackson’s undying friendship by the warmth with which he took up his friend’s cause. He had been a beau at evening functions when he was in the Senate, and he knew the social status of every one at Washington, and precisely what brought every stranger to the capital. While he admired Mrs. Eaton and desired to defend her, he also undoubtedly realized all the advantages to be gained by such a course.
The spirit of hostility gradually spread to every branch of society. The Diplomatic Corps became involved; Vaughn, the British minister, and Baron Krudner, the Russian envoy, both bachelors, ranged themselves beneath Mrs. Eaton’s standard. They feted and dined her, and gave her substantial evidence of their adherence to her cause. Huygens, the Dutch minister, having a wife who belonged to the opposition, was less fortunate. Finding herself placed next to Mrs. Eaton at dinner on one occasion, Mrs. Huygens took her husband’s arm and turned her back upon the assemblage. While all who witnessed the affront were appalled into an awkward silence, Mrs. Eaton, following the retreating form with critical eyes, commented admiringly upon her fine carriage.
Between her defenders and her defamers her Celtic blood bore her up and her sunny soul lost none of its serenity. One of Jackson’s biographers, however, states that when the matter reached the ears of the irate President, he threatened to demand Huygens’s recall unless he and his wife forthwith apologize to Mrs. Eaton.
The contest waxed warmer day by day, both houses of Congress furnishing recruits to one side or the other.
The cabinet was dubbed the “Petticoat Cabinet,” and Mrs. Eaton’s fame as Bellona, the Goddess of War, spread through the land. Calhoun attacked the President for retaining in his cabinet an element of so much discord. But Jackson was a true knight, and his friendship was stanch.
The bitter feeling, meanwhile, among the cabinet ministers had attained such a pitch that they could no longer come together amicably. Their resignations were tendered to the President and accepted, and a new cabinet was formed.
It was during a recess of Congress. Van Buren was sent as minister to England, where he was cordially received. When Congress reassembled, however, the Senate refused to confirm his appointment, Calhoun casting the decisive vote.
A letter of Daniel Webster’s, written about this time, reveals the seriousness of the situation. ” It is odd enough,” he wrote, ” that the consequences of this dispute in the social and fashionable world are producing great political effects, and may very probably determine who shall be successor to the present Chief Magistrate.” And they did. Jackson’s power and popularity were such that he was in a position to dictate to his party the choice of his successor. His choice fell upon Van Buren, who had undoubtedly labored for him in the days of his bitter fight for the Presidency, and who had further and effectually endeared himself to his chief by his zealous defense of Mrs. Eaton, who in Jackson’s eyes was not only a fair and beautiful woman, but the representative of oppressed womanhood. General Eaton was appointed governor to the Territory of Florida, and later he was sent as our minister to the court of Madrid.
This ended Mrs. Eaton’s social conflict. She was graciously received and universally admired in that land of aristocrats, and her long residence there and in Paris, whither she went before returning to this country, formed one of the happiest periods of her life. One of her daughters, the beautiful Virginia Timberlake, familiarly known among the men and women who were young with her, as “Ginger” Timberlake, married the Duke de Sampoyo and went to live in France, where, in turn, one of her daughters has recently married a son of the elder Rothschild. Margaret, Mrs. Eaton’s second daughter, married one of the Virginia Randolphs. To the children by this marriage, deprived by death of both parents, Mrs. Eaton devoted many years of her life. General Eaton died in 1859.
A third marriage contracted by his widow late in life, and subsequently annulled, was productive of much unhappiness in her home. On the 8th of November, 1879, reluctantly gave up her hold on life, whose volume had held for her so few blank pages.
In the presence of that foe which every woman fears most, slander, she had never retreated from the position she early determined to carry, and which circumstances proved she was well able to fill. She bore all with a sweet courage, feeling keenly, but not morbidly, the world’s sting.
Preserving to the end her wonderful elasticity of spirit, she went out from a life that had been one of alternate turmoil and triumph, beholding only its beauties and loving it to the last. “I am not afraid to die,” she said, “but it is such a beautiful world to leave.”