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A Perfect Union

Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

Catherine Allgor

Holt Paperbacks

When the roar of the American Revolution has subsided and the British forces had withdrawn, a new generation of American politicians was summoned to a half-built city on the Potomac to establish a national capital and a kind of government never seen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.

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Prologue

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.

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REVIEWS

Praise for A Perfect Union

"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

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Catherine Allgor

  • A professor of history at the University of California-Riverside, Catherine Allgor has received the George Washington Egleston Prize, the Lerner-Scott Prize, and the James H. Broussard First Book Prize for Parlor Politics. She was awarded a Bunting Fellowship for her work on Dolley Madison.
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A Perfect Union

Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

Catherine Allgor

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