Synopses & Reviews
When Thomas Jefferson moved his victorious Republicanadministration into the new capital city in 1801, one of his first acts was toabolish any formal receptions, except on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. Hissuccessful campaign for the presidency had been partially founded on the idea thathis Federalist enemies had assumed dangerously aristocratic trappings--a sword forGeorge Washington and a raised dais for Martha when she received people at socialoccasions--in the first capital cities of New York and Philadelphia. When the ladiesof Washington City, determined to have their own salon, arrived en masse at thepresident's house, Jefferson met them in riding clothes, expressing surprise attheir presence. His deep suspicion of any occasion that resembled a European courtcaused a major problem, however: without the face-to-face relationships and networksof interest created in society, the American experiment in government could notfunction.
Into this conundrum, writes CatherineAllgor, stepped women like Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams, women ofpolitical families who used the unofficial, social sphere to cement therelationships that politics needed to work. Not only did they create a space inwhich politics was effectively conducted; their efforts legitimated the new republicand the new capital in the eyes of European nations, whose representatives scoffedat the city's few amenities and desolate setting. Covered by the prescriptions oftheir gender, Washington women engaged in the dirty business of politics, whichallowed their husbands to retain their republicanpurity.
Constrained by the cultural taboos onpetticoat politicking, women rarely wrote forthrightly about their ambitions andplans, preferring to cast their political work as an extension of virtuous familyroles. But by analyzing their correspondence, gossip events, etiquette wars, andthe material culture that surrounded them, Allgor finds that these women acted withconscious political intent. In the days before organized political parties, thesocial machine built by these early federal women helped to ease the transition froma failed republican experiment to a burgeoning democracy.
"This stylishly written book boldly argues that elite women in early Washington, through patronage, networking, and material display, did the dirty work of politics and thus allowed their men to retain their republican purity. While this argument is quite overdrawn, especially in its discussion of patronage, some of Allgor's insights are stunning. For example, her exploration of Dolley Madison's decoration of the White House and discussion of the significance of the First Lady's drawing rooms are wonderfully depicted. Her treatment of Louisa Catherine Adams' social campaign for her husband's presidential bid is full and measured. While Allgor is to be applauded for shifting our focus from women as marginal social creatures to women as political actors, she has only opened the debate about how central and significant that activity was." Reviewed by Andrew Witmer, Virginia Quarterly Review (Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)