A Perfect Union Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

Catherine Allgor

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

512 Pages



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When the roar of the American Revolution has subsided and the British forces had withdrawn, a new generation of American politicians was summoned to a half-built city on the Potomac to establish a national capital and a kind of government never seen before—a modern republic capable of ruling a vast continent. Into this atmosphere of uncertainty, picking their way along Washington City's rutted, muddy streets, entered Dolley Madison and her husband, James. As the wife of the secretary of state, the charismatic, gracious, and ubiquitous Dolley was the primary architect of the social and political intricacies of the city; as the president's wife, she dominated the Washington scene. By her death in 1849, Dolley was the most celebrated person in Washington. And yet, to most Americans, she's best known for saving the portrait of George Washington from a burning White House, or as the namesake for a line of ice cream products.
Why did her contemporaries adore and revere a lady so little known today? In A Perfect Union, historian Catherine Allgor explores the mystery of Dolley's fame and examines her subtle yet profound influence on American politics during the volatile era surrounding the War of 1812, when the republic was just taking shape. Allgor reveals that while Dolley's gender prevented her from openly playing politics, the very constraints of womanhood allowed her to construct an American 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. 
A Perfect Union is both a portrait of an unsung founder of our democracy and an account of a little-explored time in our history.


Praise for A Perfect Union

"When Americans think of Dolley Madison, we tend to recall her legendary response to the British invasion of Washington in 1814: fleeing the White House ahead of the oncoming troops, carting off official papers and a portrait of George Washington. Appropriately, then, Catherine Allgor, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, begins A Perfect Union, her delightful and discerning biography, with that very scene . . . In this evocative study a remarkable woman, creator of the 'first lady' role, comes vividly to life."—Mary Beth Norton, The New York Times

"Allgor . . . is a fine writer and a perceptive historian who easily captures the political landscape of early America. She provides helpful guides to various battles dividing the country . . . Allgor provides revealing anecdotes about everything from interior design to dueling. She's especially adept at exploring how the 'feminine' sphere of parties influenced national politics as leaders tried to shed the shadowy court intrigue of Europe . . . An engrossing historic tale of the power of civility to offset acrimony."—Randy Dotinga, The Christian Science Monitor

"Ms. Allgor provides this background to Dolley's triumphs with scholarly aplomb . . . [She is] an astute historian and biographer."—Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun
"[Allgor] captures Dolley's charisma and her essential role in the politics of her time."—The New Yorker

"Where is Dolley Madison when we need her? Catherine Allgor makes clear that Mrs. Madison's skills as a hostess and politician held the country together when rabid partisanship threatened to tear it apart. This is a well-told biography of a true nineteenth-century celebrity, but a celebrity with substance, savvy and courage."—Cokie Roberts, author of Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation

"For some time Dolley Madison has been a beguiling ornament, flashing her femininity in the parlors of the early American republic. Here, at last, Catherine Allgor, with great style and wit, recovers a different Dolley, a full-fledged political partner with James Madison. Now, in addition to John and Abigail, we have James and Dolley."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington

"A lively, clear-eyed account of a master politician. As first 'Presidentess,' Dolley Madison established herself among our earliest female celebrities and left an enduring mark on American culture. Hers is a rousing tale of ambition, gossip, and policy, told with empathy and understanding by Catherine Allgor."—Stacy Schiff, author of A Great Improvisation

"Before Jackie Kennedy there was Dolley Madison—elegant, sophisticated and charismatic. Thanks to her inimitable style and determination, the nation's capital became more than just a swampy outpost where pigs and politicians freely roamed. In A Perfect Union Catherine Allgor reveals the warm and fascinating woman who dazzled Americans for more than three decades."—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

"During the administration of President James Madison, his wife was the 'most famous and loved' individual in the country; upon her death in old age, having achieved the status of icon, she was accorded a state funeral in the nation's capital. When her husband served as secretary of state under Thomas Jefferson, and then especially while she occupied the White House during Madison's two presidential terms, Dolley put her beauty, charm, and intelligence to good use: as a practitioner of salon politics, she played a beneficial role as a bridge between the political and social arenas at a time when 'Washington City' was still an unformed and unfinished capital carved from the wilderness and its social atmosphere was in its infancy. History professor Allgor's serious biography of a woman who was 'never one to fade into the background in any situation'—this at a time when it was commonly believed that a woman should do just that—stresses the importance of Dolley's making the office of First Lady her own, setting a pattern for future strong and individualistic First Ladies, a list that came to include Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton. A sensitively perceived and historiographically important biography."—Booklist (starred review)

“No union is ever perfect. Yet it's not a stretch to consider Dolley Madison the perfect First Lady, ‘a bridge between presidential dignity and democratic accessibility.’ As Allgor details, Dolley and James Madison certainly enjoyed an uncommonly good partnership, perhaps against the odds. He was 43 and she 25 when they married, he retiring, she fond of the social swirl; James . . . ‘resided most comfortably in the theoretical realm, happiest when composing or untangling complex political theories,’ while his wife was a master of practical diplomacy. She put her skills to work early on, when James became Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state; one of the more newsworthy aspects of this book is its revelation of Jefferson's misogyny and poor manners, which resulted in more than one diplomatic flap, especially when they were combined as in the wonderfully complicated ‘Merry affair,’ which almost caused new warfare between the fledgling United States and England. So skillful was Dolley at repairing some of the damage Jefferson did that she even managed to fly under his radar, even as he sternly condemned other women active in Washington politics. Dolley also forged a diplomacy of the dining-room table that brought together feuding Federalists and Republicans; ‘by welcoming all and making her house the place to see and be seen, Dolley also upped the social ante, making society even more necessary to politics in the capital city.’ So it was when she became First Lady, taking charge of making a White House worthy of the name, soon to be burned by the British in the War of 1812, in which she emerged as a national hero. Allgor also credits Dolley with skillful campaigning that saved her husband's bid for reelection in 1812. A welcome life of a woman who deserves greater representation in history books.”—Kirkus Reviews

"In this elegant biography, award-winning historian Allgor makes the case that not only was Dolley Madison incredibly popular with the American people—'Everybody loves Mrs. Madison' Henry Clay once said—the wife of America's fourth president was also a 'master politician.' Dolley was a skilled hostess, and everyone in Washington coveted an invitation to her table. She knew the etiquette of polite society and used it to political advantage. She worked as a de facto campaign manager when her husband sought the presidency, inventing fictive kin and feigning family connections to potential allies. Even her interior decorating was politically savvy: though she favored French decor at home in Virginia, she chose American-made furniture for the White House. There's no anachronism here: Allgor doesn't turn Dolley into a proto-feminist, nor the marriage—which was respectful and deeply affectionate—into a bastion of egalitarianism. Yet when Allgor describes the Madisons as 'political partner[s],' one can't help thinking of the Clintons. The erudition and charm of this biography are rivaled only by that of its subject."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


On Wednesday, August 24, 1814, Dolley Madison stood at the window of the White House and watched thousands of Washingtonians, rich and poor, white and black, pouring down Pennsylvania Avenue. News and rumors of the approach of British troops had thrown the city into confusion, and the population had been evacuating for days. Vehicles were at a premium, and any conveyance with wheels was pressed into service by the fleeing throngs. It had not rained for three weeks, and the clouds of dust raised by the people, horses, carriages, and carts lingered ominously on the horizon.1


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  • A Perfect Union by Catherine Allgor--Audiobook Excerpt

    Listen to this audiobook excerpt from Catherine Allgor's book A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. An extraordinary American comes to life in this vivid, incisive portrait of the early days of the republic—and the birth of modern politics. When 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.



  • Catherine Allgor

  • Catherine Allgor, a professor of history at the University of California–Riverside, has received the George Washington Egleston Prize from Yale, the Lerner-Scott Prize from the Organization of American Historians, and the James H. Broussard First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic for Parlor Politics. She was awarded a Bunting Fellowship for her work on Dolley Madison. Allgor lives in Riverside, California.