Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More than just Snack-Cakes



"May I Tempt Thee with a Toothsome Zinger?"

I checked out newcomer Catherine Allgor's "A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation" principally because of the book's slightly outrageous subtitle, secondarily because I knew very little of the woman who provided the eponym for the wretched little snack-cakes called "Zingers" (tunnel-shaped tubes of enriched flour, sugar, and calcium sulfate almost identical, but actually somewhat superior to, its bitter rival, the "Twinkie") I used to devour as a child. Here's what I did know about Dolley Madison prior to reading this book: she was introduced to James Madison by none other than Aaron Burr; she favored gaudy turbans that flaunted ostrich plumes; during the War of 1812, she saved the copy (by an unknown painter) of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington that had hung in the first White House by taking it with her as she fled from the approaching British Army, who promptly torched the place.

This last bit was what enshrined Dolley in the annals of American fame, though, as Allgor points out, it wasn't Dolley who actually removed the painting, but rather a pair of her slaves. "Black hands tried to unscrew the picture, and when that failed, enslaved Americans wrestled the 'Father of Liberty' out of his frame." The incident, like so many in our history, became a vehicle for propagandistic embellishment. Unfortunately, Dolley's new biographer exploits her every bit as fulsomely, only in a far different -- indeed, in an exactly opposite -- manner. The 3rd First Lady has, in Allgor's hands, become the axe to be sharpened on the chip-on-the-feminist-shoulder.

Discontented feminism rears its head before the book even begins. On page xi, we're treated to a "Note on Names": "To refer to James Madison as 'Madison' replicates outdated biographical forms in which men are given the respect of last names and women are relegated to informal designations." And later: "When discussing men and women in political partnerships, both will be referred to by first names; hence, the Madisons will be 'James' and 'Dolley'. If this seems excessively familiar to modern readers, at least both women and men will suffer any diminishment equally." The Sexy Misanthropist (not, let it be reinforced, The Sexy Misogynist) wonders why anyone should suffer diminishment, equally or not, unless the historical record demands it. But these are the sort of pedantic games that our academics, born, bred, and burning with resentment in Academe, play. (Allgor is a professor at UC Riverside.) All of which means that the author of most of our Constitution, as well as the author of the world's single greatest political document, the Bill of Rights, must be referred to as "James" throughout this biography of his wife, who, hilariously enough, always referred to him as "Mr. Madison" or "Madison" or "M." in her correspondence to family and friends. Madison's brilliant Secretary of State, the sadly forgotten Albert Gallatin, is referred to as "Albert" by the author because he had the (posthumous) misfortune to be married to one of Dolley's closest confidants. Along those lines, "James" himself was Secretary of State to his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, who, being a widower during his Presidency, is spared from being called "Thomas". But to be fair to Allgor, the contemporaneous Emperor of the French doesn't "suffer diminishment" by being labeled Napoleon instead of the more gender-equitable "Bonaparte". Score one for Allgor!

The reader will note that I've not spent a lot of time on Dolley yet. This is because there's remarkably little to tell. She commenced life as a precocious gal from a rather dour Quaker family named Payne. Her father having failed at farming and social climbing in Virginia, he removed the brood to Philadelphia and re-committed himself to the Quaker religion. (When you fail in life, get Born Again!) The father suffered more business failures and eventually took to bed out of spite. He died soon after, but not before arranging a marriage for Dolley to one John Todd, a fellow Quaker and rising lawyer. During their happy 3-year marriage, they had two children. Her husband and the youngest child died on the same day from a plague of yellow fever that was sweeping the city and environs.

Dolley was a tough and practical broad. Within a month, she was back at her mother's place -- now a boarding-house for the city's visiting politicans (Philadelphia was then the capital while Washington City was being built) -- and already on the marriage-market. One of the boarders had been Congressman Aaron Burr, who introduced his lonely Princeton classmate, James Madison, to the voluptuous widow. The rest, as they say, is history.

I've spent almost as much time describing these fairly interesting events as Allgor does. The pre-Madison material consists of one brief chapter. Chapter 2 is "Meeting Madison", also brief. Chapter 3 is "Lady About Town", in which the Madisons take residence in the new, malarial, unfinished capital in Washington after "James" is appointed Jefferson's Secretary of State. It becomes clear that "A Perfect Union" isn't going to be a biography in the usual sense. A large portion of the remaining 340-odd pages of text is devoted to a thesis, which is what you should probably expect from a professor at UC Riverside. The thesis is this: Dolley Madison's parties at the Madison home in F Street, and later the White House, created the climate of compromise necessary to a fledgling republic. While the Founders, all men, the brute beasts, were barking and screaming at one another, fighting duels, and, like the insane John Randolph of Virigina, bringing hunting dogs onto the floor of the House of Representatives, Dolley Madison was inaugurating what Allgor calls "the unofficial sphere" into the political maelstrom of early America. The author is forced to ignore much history in order to issue her feminist corrective to the achievements of the Founding FATHERS, those patriarchal bastards. Allgor ignores the Constitutional Convention, which was, as every schoolgirl knows, a triumph of compromise over rigid partisanship. Allgor describes, but conveniently ignores the implications of, the back-room dealings that created the new capital of Washington City in the first place. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted the Federal government, rather than the states, to assume the Revolutionary War debt. Here's how he got it done, in Allgor's words: "Over the course of the meal, Hamilton consented to vote for the Potomac legislation in exchange for James' support. For James to vote for Hamilton's program would amount to political suicide, but he agreed not to organize a 'strenuous' opposition. Accordingly, on June 9, the House passed the Residence Bill, establishing the capital's new location . . . " And all this in 1790, before "James" even met Dolley! The point is, even these dunderheaded late-18th-century men managed to get a few things done without killing each other or otherwise acting like children.

Don't worry, this will be the last small paragraph I'll quote in full: "At Dolley's drawing room, politicians and members of political families gossiped to form alliances, develop strategies, and agree on common goals. Again, like other elements of the unofficial sphere, gossip accomplished some of the structure building that the government sorely needed and that the Constitution did not provide." Okay, now imagine this repeated, like, literally 500 times in slightly different wording, and there's your book. And despite the endless repetition, Allgor provides scanty evidence as to what was exactly accomplished at these weekly parties and balls. The letters she cites from witnesses all too often compliment Dolley on her gracious manners and whatnot, but no one seems to have documented any actual politicking. Allgor asserts that Federalists and Republicans were able to relax in each other's company at the parties, but I'm not sure that this justifies the book's lofty subtitle, "Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation." What does come to light is how Dolley wielded her position as a fount of patronage, dispensing cushy government jobs to her ladyfriends' husbands, her own nephews, and other satellites. I think an entirely negative book could be written about Dolley, using Allgor's book as a reference: the author unwittingly depicts the emergence of the lobbying class in America. No wonder Dolley's contempories are so silent about what was discussed during those parties! The corrupt patronage angle would merely be the cherry-icing atop the Zinger. The Creation of the American Nation, indeed! One starts to suspect that it wasn't coincidental that, before her death in 1848, Dolley asked her niece to burn the majority of her (Dolley's) correspondences and other writings. A revised letter to "James", originally written in 1814 as the British were several miles away from the White House, was spared, along with a few educational mottoes to young relatives and some bad poems.

The fact is, Dolley Madison's poor little shoulders simply cannot withstand the portentous feminist glory Allgor dumps on them. Why plump up this gentrywoman with all this hot air, when there are plenty of admirable feminists in the period -- hell, even before the period (Mary Wollstonecraft comes immediately to mind)? The author even alludes to Harriet Martineau, an original American feminist who wrote Illustrations of Political Economy and who visited the Madisons in their retirement at Montpelier. Why not a book about her? Perhaps Martineau has been "done" already by the "studies" department at Riverside, and they were desperate for a new subject.

The last plate in "A Perfect Union" is a Mathew Brady daguerreotype of Dolley, taken in 1848. Allgor captions it "The Last of the Founders". What did Dolley Madison Find? A White House that served as a locus of lobbying and political patronage? Perhaps Allgor has proven her case after all . . . in which case, the eponym of snack-cakes has proven to be the most influential Founder of them all.

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