Saturday, August 08, 2009

75. A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor (Audio)

"An extraordinary American comes to life in this vivid, incisive portrait of the early days of the republic—and the birth of modern politics hen the roar of the Revolution had finally died down, a new generation of American politicians was summoned to the Potomac to assemble the nation’s newly minted capital. Into that unsteady atmosphere which would soon enough erupt into another conflict with Britain in 1812, Dolley Madison arrived, alongside her husband James. Within a few years, she had mastered both the social and political intricacies of the city, and, by her death in 1849, was the most celebrated person in Washington. And yet, to most Americans, she’s best known for saving a portrait from the burning White House, or as the namesake for a line of ice cream.Why did the Americans of her time give so much adulation to a lady so little known today?

In A Perfect Union, Catherine Allgor reveals that while Dolley’s gender prevented her from openly playing politics, those very constraints of womanhood allowed her to construct an American democratic ruling style, and to achieve her husband’s political goals. And the way that she did so—by emphasizing cooperation over coercion, building bridges instead of bunkers—has left us with not only an important story about our past but a model for a modern form of politics."

My mother and I listened to this audio book when we traveled to Salt Lake City. It is filled with great historical information about the time leading up to James Madison's presidency, the eight years spent in Washington, the War of 1812, and then the Madison's retired life. I'm not too sure that Allgor doesn't idealize Dolley a bit too much, crediting her with changing the very course of American politics. Even so I enjoyed learning more about the political structure of that era, how Dolley decorated the White House before its destruction and the famous story of how she saved George Washington's portrait. She really was a fascinating person. Having said all that, I have to admit that this was not the most gripping tale to listen to on a long trip. I would advise reading it or listening to it in small tidbits as I did with the last disc. Plus, I feel like she skated through the last years of Mrs. Madison's life while presenting a huge amount of details of her life in Washington. On the reverse side, James is kind of overlooked during the presidential years but more is said of him after his term ends. I think I would like to read a book about Dolley that maybe I could pay better attention to.

Rating: 3.5


  1. I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook -- particularly since I knew so little about Dolley Madison beforehand. Recently I started listening to it a second time, and I got absorbed in it all over again...

  2. This book sounds really interesting. I love history. Thanks for sharing! I hadn't heard of it before your link on Saturday Review.