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

3.5 of 5 stars 3.50  ·  rating details  ·  242 ratings  ·  59 reviews
"Delightful and discerning . . . In this evocative study a remarkable woman, creator of the 'first lady' role, comes vividly to life."--The New York Times






When the roar of the Revolution had finally died down, a new generation of politicians was summoned to the Potomac to assemble the nation's capital. Into that unsteady atmosphere--which would soon enough erupt into anothe...more
Paperback, 512 pages
Published February 20th 2007 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 2006)
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Community Reviews

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Heather
First of all, I was drawn to this book because of my fascination with all things Dolley Madison. I was actually trying to find a biography that I had read about her years ago and stumbled across this one. Without knowing the title of that previous read, I think I enjoyed this one a little less and I will elaborate on the reasons further on. Most people today do not know that much about this amazing woman – more than the cursory of saving Washington’s portrait and serving ice cream in the White H...more
Chris
Crossposted at Booklikes.

Dolley Madison is my favorite first lady. I’m sorry Michelle, but she is. The whole story of her marriage to Madison, her saving of the Washington Portrait. The fact that she reminds of the Unsinkable Molly Brown as played by Debbie Reynolds (Look, I don’t know why, she just does).

This book looks at the influence of Dolley Madison on the not only the role of the First Lady but on politics, the argument being that the role of women in the political system has been vastly...more
Shelley
This could have been the shining star, the very Platonic ideal of a biography of a woman in the early Republic. And Dolley Madison at that, a strong, savvy woman who started a Quaker and died an elder stateswoman! It could have been great.

Which is to say, the parts that are good are very, very good. I love a book that treats Jefferson like the flaming asshole hypocrite that he was, and Allgor definitely is onto Jefferson's misogyny and manipulation.

But this book desperately needed editing. Hea...more
Jennifer
This woman MUST have done something more interesting than picking out crimson curtains for the Oval Office and buying fancy dresses and schmoozing politicians. I don't care if it was 1800. I mean really...can you make it any more boring?! Shoot me now.
William
I have mixed feeling about Catherine Allgor's biography on Dolley Madison, the woman that established the prominent role of First Lady of the United States, as covered in A Perfect Union. Allgor could have easily slid the historical narrative into comparisons between the fractious and personal attacks in one of the early presidencies within the first twenty years after the Constitution was ratified to the political posturing and lack of bi-partisan compromise in our present day, but she didn't....more
kim
Mar 05, 2011 kim rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommended to kim by: Tammy
This was a well-documented, well-researched book. I did not actually finish the book as it was a book club selection and I was on a deadline. I found that PBS has a documentary based on this book and it is available through NetFilx, so I watched the movie in case I did not get the book finished before our discussion. After watching the movie I lost my motivation to finish the book.

I enjoyed learning about Dolley and the influence she had on the 'office' of first lady. It was interesting to see t...more
Bruce
The benefit of a woman's sphere in a time of extreme factionalism is exhibited in this work about the woman who essentially established the role of First Lady. With regional interests so diverse as to cause physical fights in the Congress and each thinking the opposing side were 'beasts' it was this woman that united the nation. Beginning with her role as wife of the Secretary of State, a position at the time thought to lead to the Presidency, and later as First Lady, Dolley held frequent 'salon...more
Chris
Mar 21, 2011 Chris rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2011
Good biographies are really hard to find. This one had everything I look for in a biography. It used a ton of primary sources, quoting from D. Madison's letters at great length and from those who surrounded her throughout her life. Allgor also used secondary sources to great effect--and, most importantly, her information was varied and really gave me a complete picture of Dolley. She didn't try to make Dolley into anything other than what she was--an extremely complex woman who was smart, ridicu...more
Erika
A detailed biography of Dolley Madison, from the sketchy details of her childhood to the painstakingly scrutinized social whirlwind that was her life in Washington.

Dolley was the first "First Lady" to lead the social scene in Washington. She set fashion and played politics in the oblique way required of women in her culture. Her winning personality made her a favorite with foreign and domestic officials.

Although Catherine Allgor is clearly an admirer of Dolley, she doesn't let her off the hook f...more
Judy
A biography of Dolley Madison, an amazing woman, who virtually invented the role of an active First Lady. Most Americans remember Dolley Madison as the First Lady who remained in the White House and rescued the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington just before the British arrived in Washington and burned the White House during the War of 1812. But she was so much more. She was able to include members of bitter political factions at her dinners and receptions which allowed political rivals...more
Debbie Morrison
I picked up this book at an author's festival at the Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA. The author is a curator at the museum. The book provides a historical background of Dolley Madison's role as first lady when her husband was in office as the president of the United States. What was most interesting was the level of 'politicking' that went on even in the early years of the United States democratic establishment after its independence from Britain.

Firs...more
MJ
Mar 30, 2008 MJ rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: history buffs, students
Shelves: history
Almost more of a "life and times" biography than anything else, this book is a great glimpse into early 19th century American politics and society. Dolley Madison leaps from the page, and this book whetted my appetite for even more discussion. You'll find yourself wanting to know not just more about James Madison and his relationship with his wife, Thomas Jefferson, and other key figures, but about the women in Dolley's life - Margaret Bayard Smith and others. This is the kind of history book th...more
Jewels
While once again it is quite irksome to me that any biography of a founding mother is intricately intertwined with their famous husbands, Allgor was able to actually make Dolley shine as the central character. She didn't get bogged down in what James Madison was doing; she made sure that Dolley was center stage. I actually felt a little bit sad when reading the part about her death. It is the hallmark of a good historical researcher that they can touch upon the person who is being analyzed with...more
Shenek
Excellent book that puts Dolley Madison in an attractive yet realistic light. Fascinating to learn how she helped to shape the role of first lady. Made me realize the necessity of excellent hosting skills (listening, putting people at ease, engaging others in conversation). Fascinating to read during the presidential election. It's nice to know that whether it's the presidential race for the fourth or the forty-fourth president things can get ugly. And an interesting piece of trivia... the pearl...more
Cara
A pretty good, very detailed biography of Dolley Madison, who is more interesting than I had ever thought (not that I had done much thinking about her, or any thinking about her other than in passing while driving on Dolley Madison Blvd in McLean). It could have done with a lot less information about her constant parties in DC and more information on her life after the White House.
Joan Porte
Little long in parts but a good description on mrs. Madison and the work she did to make us a "real nation."
Carrie
There is definitely some good information in this book but I didn't love it - I'd say 2.5 stars.

I thought the author tried to fit in too many side stories that were interesting things about the time but not necessarily required for this book. It was sometimes repetitive and too long but my biggest annoyance is that Allgor said things like "Because Dolley wasn't a man, she couldn't ____" in just about every chapter. Right, well 200 years later it's time to get over it. As is clearly evident from...more
Jason
A Perfect Union is the Fox News of historical Dolly Madison biographies. Just totally over-the-top pomposity. And repetitive. So repetitive. Did I mention it's repetitive? It overstates its case so badly in some instances that I'll just make an executive summary of what I learned:

Dolly Madison was a bit of a flake who liked parties and pretty dresses and decorations. She was the petri dish of early American politics, and all manner of things (many moldy and gross) grew on and around her.

I'm pre...more
Carin
fascinating story of the woman who was the first "First Lady" as we think of her (Martha and Abigail stayed home on the farm, and Thomas Jefferson was widowed.) She helped smooth out her husband's rough edges when dealing with politicos and she saved the famous painting of Washington when the Brits burned down the White House in the war of 1812. Really shed light onto an era of American History I wasn't very familiar with. Dolley was sharp, outgoing, fiercely loyal to her husband, and without he...more
Bonnie
I'm enjoying this one. I really enjoy learning more about Dolly Madison. The author asserts that she "created" the role of first lady and had enormous impact in politics. It was Dolly who made possible the "unofficial sphere" so neccessary to smoothly getting things done. But I come to some different conclusions than the author does. I'm not convinced Dolly had her own political ambitions. I think she loved her husband and embraced his causes. I'm not convinced she had a quest for personal power...more
Don
Selected as a 2006 Editors’ Choice book by the editors of Booklist, this biography chronicles the life of the most acclaimed female in early Washington, wife of the fourth President. Best know for saving a portrait of George Washington from the burning White House, until now her influence has not been well documented. As a skilled hostess, she developed the structure of social engagements that allowed politicians and bureaucrats to build the unofficial alliances that allowed the government to fu...more
Jeri
Jan 01, 2014 Jeri rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Jeri by: Gail Banker
Everything you wanted to know about Dolley Madison but were afraid to ask...seriously, very well done book about a fascinating woman and the post-Revolution era in Washington. Not much more to say about it except that I really learned a lot from the reading and Allgor did an excellent job of telling the saga of Dolley and, oh yeah, President Madison, her husband.
Liisa
I really enjoyed the story of this unusual woman who was such an important piece of the US's post-Revolutionary story. Some bits lagged (strangely enough, the saga around the War of 1812 did not hold my attention), but I appreciated the author's focus on the Madisons' uncomfortable relationship with slavery, as well as the way she put events in context with what would eventually lead the nation into Civil War (states' rights vs federal imperative). A pleasant read that I plowed through in 2 days...more
Helena
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Karyn
Often times I get distracted when reading history books that read more like an enumeration of names and dates, but this book was such a good read. I was inspired to read this book after seeing it on a bookshelf during my visit to Montpelier. I especially love reading about the creation of our nation from the female perspective. Despite some of her faults, Dolley is certainly a role model and I look forward to reading more about others like her.
Janet Meissner
I got so much out of this book. I certainly have a new respect for Dolley Madison! Listening to one CD a day was the perfect pace to hear about Dolley's special political and social skills and the awkwardness and country-bumpkin-ness of those founding fathers we revere so much. I loved piece of Amer. history and found it a relief from McCullough's fact-stuffed pop-histories.
Joan
As I gather from reading this, Dolley was one of the first American woman celebrities and I think she really deserved it. It sounds to me like she orchestrated a lot of big name political events and changed the atmosphere in Washington forever. I think she suffered a little bit psychologically from putting on the airs of pleasing everyone all the time too.
Jilz
Apr 27, 2009 Jilz is currently reading it
I've only read the Prologue, and "A Note on Names," but liked this, from the later:

"When discussing men and women in political partnerhsips, 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 diminishment equally."
Maria
This is as thoroughly researched as a book could be on our invaluable first lady. If you want to know the influence she had on protocol in the white house, diplomacy, as well as her relationship with her husband, read this. One interesting thing I found was the setting. To read her descriptions of DC back then was eye opening.


Jill
Listened to this over a 4 month period of time...if I was reading it, I may have never finished. Some parts I found interesting since I always like to learn more about early american leaders and history, and other parts I was snoozing...well, I was driving..maybe more like tuning out all the names and stuff that bored me.
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