Book Review: “A Perfect Union” by Catherine Allgor

Here’s the first of two book reviews I should have published before the holidays…

In continuing my do-it-yourself survey of American history by reading about people who weren’t presidents, I picked up Catherine Allgor’s biography of Dolley Madison.  In A Perfect Union, Allgor meticulously details the life of Mrs. Madison, from her unusual Quaker youth, to her young adulthood in Philadelphia, through the tragedies of her first marriage, and on to her fascinating partnership with James Madison, a marriage that would present her with opportunities and privileges never before available to an American woman.

Make no mistake, A Perfect Union is a long and dense read, but it never feels tedious.  Allgor expertly crafts a captivating narrative from the facts of Mrs. Madison’s life.  It helps tremendously that Dolley had a very interesting and unique existence.  Allgor highlights this by painting a clear picture of what life was like for a woman in Revolutionary times.

Allgor’s main thesis (if there can be such a thing in a biography) is to prove that Dolley Madison was the most influential woman in America during the nation’s formative years.  Thanks to Allgor’s exhaustive research, that claim seems hard to deny.  The Madisons came to the city of Washington when it was little more than a dirt road lined by ramshackle office buildings and boarding houses.  As James worked to stabilize the government for which the city was created, Dolley undertook a parallel mission to bring culture to the mud-covered capital.  By creating the Washington social scene, Dolley was able to place herself at its center, and soon began to make use of her advantageous position.  Washington society became an alternate conduit to power, and Allgor argues that the nation, and its way of doing business, have never been the same since.

Hello, Dolley!

Of course, Allgor gives Dolley the benefit of hindsight, and never sees her actions as morally corrosive or anti-democratic, as some of Dolley’s own contemporaries did.  For some people, including Thomas Jefferson, the creation of an American aristocracy was fundamentally counterintuitive to the republican experiment; but as Allgor details, plenty of what Jefferson and his supporters did ran counterintuitive to the ideals of the Revolution.

Still, she does not shy from Dolley’s faults.  While a consummate hostess and ideal patron, Dolley was also a terribly possessive sister and a criminally forgiving mother.  Her son, Payne, bankrupted himself many times over, and Allgor blames the loss of priceless papers and possessions of the Madisons on Payne’s attempts to generate cash.  Mrs. Madison also remained silent on the hypocrisy of slavery in America, even as the earliest abolitionists sought her support in her retirement.

Allgor’s A Perfect Union is populated with other memorable historic figures: the beleaguered Albert Gallatin, fiery upstart John Randolph, maniacal Sir George Cockburn, Dolley’s loyal White House staff, and her husband himself, of course.  Dolley also shared her life with other extraordinary women: fellow political wives like Hannah Nicholson Gallatin and Margaret Bayard Smith, girlhood friends like Eliza Collins Lee, and her own sisters, Anna and Mary.  But none hold a candle to Dolley.  She kept an entire city humming and grounded, whether it was suffering the strains of partisan politics or outright destruction at the hands of vengeful invaders. She set the bar for what was to be expected of a First Lady, and by extension discreetly led the way towards female empowerment in the public sphere.  According to Catherine Allgor, Dolley Madison was more than an example of what a woman could be in America; she was the embodiment of American strength, virtue, and honor herself.

Editor’s Note: PBS’s American Experience aired an excellent program last year about Mrs. Madison, featuring commentary from Ms. Allgor, among others.  You can watch it here.

~ T

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