Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A Review of Allgor's Parlor Politics

Dolley Madison

Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government by Catherine Allgor is a book you want to like. It tries not only to weave the lives of several talented women, including Dolley Madison, Margaret Bayard Smith, Louisa Catherine Adams, and Catharine Ackerly Mitchill, into the history of Washington, but also tries to show that they were essential players in the politics of the day. Madison is a legendary figure, and the others left a rich legacy of letter, diaries, essays and even novels and plays. Allgor has a sure grasp of this material and also the correspondence of several other congressional and cabinet wives. If Allgor is right, many of the political histories covering the periodr from 1801 to 1832 have to be rewritten.

Unfortunately, she doesn't have a sure grasp of the politics of the day. She credits Adams with winning the Mid-Atlantic states in 1824, thanks in part to his wife. However, Jackson won New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and most of Maryland. Even with Adams's victory in New York, Jackson got more electoral votes from the region. She claims that Charles Cotesworth Pinckney attributed his defeat in the 1808 presidential election to Mrs. Madison's influence. That three time loser lost his home state (South Carolina) and hometown (Charleston) to Madison in 1808, and Dolley visited neither place in her lifetime. Allgor too often relies on gossip churned out in secondary sources like Boller's Presidental Wives.

Those lapses might be forgiven, but Allgor communicates no sense of the issues of the day. The basic premise of her book is that republican political philosophy emasculated politicians. To remain pure, they could not play the patronage game nor campaign for office, leaving women to do the dirty work of politics. This is a faulty premise. She used Gailliard Hunt's As We Were: Life in America, 1814, as a source but not his Office-Seeking in the Jefferson Administration, in which is described how gentlemen built a new administration all by themselves. Allgor does show how Washington ladies helped secure some clerkships for relatives and friends during later administrations, but clerkships were not patronage plums. That's no mean achievement on her part, and political historians should pay heed. But she falls far short of proving her thesis.

The best evidence of these ladies' political powers would be found in the letters between men or in their diaries. For example, Henry Adams cites a remark in John Quincy Adams's diary noting Dolley's displeasure with James Monroe. But as Allgor casts Dolley Madison as a force in politics that brought factions together, she does not (as some political historians delight in doing) cite gossip about how Dolley incidated displeasure with Monroe, or, to give another example, crossed couples - like the Samuel Smiths - off her list.

The strength of her book is her treatment of the social ways of Washington, from calling cards to nudity and jewels. She shows how the ladies, in spite of republican rhetoric, did build an elite social scene held together by ladies' notions of class, fashion, and kinship. Her detailing of various etiquette wars is fine work. Still she doesn't prove that the ladies were the principle architects of the city's social ways. She could have, for example, contrasted the influence of Thomas Law to that of his wife, Eliza Parke Custis Law. Nor does she examine how the elite ladies influenced racism in the city. How did Margaret Bayard Smith, a passionate opposent of slavery when she first came, wind up a fawning advocate of a series of slave owning politicians such as Georgia's William Crawford?

The weakest part of her book is her chapter about Dolley Madison. Though a scholar Allgor does not step back, cast a critical eye, and then assess Dolley's achievements in measured terms. Instead Allgor hypes the legend even more, insisting that because of Dolley, the President's house became the "White House," that friendly national symbol cherished by all. Yet, the people who apparently did use the phrase prior to 1815 were not Dolley's friends but men from New England and an opposition newspaper in Baltimore.

Allgor suggests that the White House drawing room was the "heart... renewing the lifeblood" of the political city. Yet, her treatment of what others took as the heart of the political process is inadequate. Since at the Capitol "men debated, shouted, argued, horsewhipped, and caned each other," she suggests that Congress was not a safe place, and so real politics was conducted in private parlors where the presence of women enforced good behavior. Again, Allgor demonstrate no grasp of the politics of the day. She details none of the major political battles, and few are mentioned.

Allgor ends her book with the Eaton Affair, in which the democratic pretensions of Jackson clashed with the aristocratic practices of the capital. Shocked at the sudden elevation of Peggy Eaton to the status of cabinet wife, Mrs. John C. Calhoun and company let the middle class morality then sweeping the nation demolish Washington's special social scene, which had given their predecessors such political power. This bit of analysis, of course, imperils the thesis of her book. To save it she suggests that the ladies of Washington "had no consciousness of what they were giving up, or that there was even a choice to be made." And so after the Eaton Affair, instead of ladies lubricating the political process, the hacks of the new political parties did. Allgor can be credited with a spirited try. Her exaggerations are perhaps valuable in drawing attention to the ladies of the period. But much more work needs to be done to prove, rather than merely assert, that in early Washington, too, women were half the sky.

Bob Arnebeck

(This review appeared in Washington History Magazine vol.13 num. 2 Fall/winter 2001-2002)