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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

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  398 Ratings  ·  82 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 another
Paperback, 512 pages
Published February 20th 2007 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 2006)
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Sep 08, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-lady
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
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
Jul 13, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: american-history
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
Sep 20, 2010 rated it did not like it
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.
May 22, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Dolley Madison grew up in a Quaker belief, mainly due to her father. Her father utterly rejected slavery - it was the reason why they moved out of their home that Dolley ever known. For all of her life Dolley longed for to return to her childhood. Not much is known of her or her sisters' education during her youth, however they were all educated to some degree. Dolley took the role of being a Sister very seriously and it was a role she played happily.
John Todd was her first husband. Dolley and J
Jan 06, 2017 rated it it was ok
I'm halfway through this book, but it feels like I've been reading it for an eternity (and I'm a fast reader!).

The author is undoubtably a good writer. But is sorely in need of a ruthless editor. You can tell she relishes writing, but writes far too much! This book could have been half its length with some good editing. There is no need to go for pages into the entire history of Quakerism or of Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, when these topics happen to pop up in Dolley's timeline. The author r
James Henry
Oct 28, 2017 rated it liked it
This book's main thesis is that Dolley Madison, by setting up the Washington DC social circle and getting Congressmen with opposing viewpoints to find common ground, helped establish the democratic form of government we have (and complain endlessly about) today. It's an interesting subject but the author does belabor the point over and over again, often telling instead of showing (although this may be due to a lack of primary historical sources). The most fascinating part to me came at the very ...more
Dec 15, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting. Makes the argument that Dolley Madison was almost as important, perhaps more important to the Madison presidency than her husband. Dolley Madison created a feminine space within the White House that allowed for the business of politicking to happen and to calm the overly masculine, violent tendencies of official politics of the day. She allowed her body to become the body of the state, becoming a kind of republican queen.

However, the long lists of clothes and china sometimes become
Oct 29, 2017 rated it liked it
I thought it went into too much detail about Thomas Jefferson, even though Madison was important during his Presidency. But, to me Dolley was definitely the star of the whole book.
Feb 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
Thorough, interesting biography of the famous Dolley, but this could have been cut by at least a third without cutting any real information.
Nicole Kapise-Perkins
Oct 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
This was a hard one to get through. There was quite a bit more about the politics of the time than I had expected, which is my own fault, I suppose. As the wife of a politician, at that time period, Dolley Madison's life was all about her husband's career.
Jul 19, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Sep 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Jun 01, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Mar 26, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Regardless of whether a book is consumed visually or by auditory means, it's best if the reader or listener can forget it's a book and just get caught up in the story. This didn't happen for me with this book; both the author and the narrator kept distracting me from the story.

The language is often stilted and unnatural. It's not often that I have to look up the meaning of a word, but if I had been reading rather than listening, I'd have been tempted far too often to dive for the dictionary. In
Sep 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 another conflict with Britain—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 ...more
May 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
A very well-written biography of Dolley Madison that highlights her role in establishing the role of First Lady and demonstrating that her husband's success would not have been possible without her political gifts. Allgor has definitely advanced the historiography of the Revolutionary and early Federal period with this book. Meticulously researched using many primary sources, Allgor does a commendable job in providing evidence of how Dolley was a true and real partner with James. This is not ent ...more
Feb 27, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Oct 19, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Debbie Morrison
Oct 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: literature
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.

Thomas Burky
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
This really interesting biography of Dolley Madison is definitely not what I expected. It turned out to be a discussion about early American politics as seen through the restricted role that women could play in the political arena in that time. There is actually much more to Dolley than just saving the portrait of Washington from being destroyed by the British as they burned the White House.
The biography unfolds this complex character to reveal that Dolley was also fundamental to the establishm
Oct 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library
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
Oct 21, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: early-nation, history
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
Jan 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Marcia Chandler
Jul 15, 2014 rated it liked it
I read the book because I was curious about the famous story of Dolley saving the portrait of George Washington. In the 478 page book there was only two paragraphs (on page 313) about the incident. It raised some controversies over exactly what happened but made no attempt to address them. I did not know there were any discrepancies over the incident so it was frustrating that it raised the questions but did not answer them.

The book was somewhat interesting. I did learn many things about James
Aug 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
I am trusting the authors research of documents, journals, letters to compile this bio of a very interesting lady. The author chose the perfect reader for me ear. The era in America was fascinating with societal behavior, dress, customs, political implications & historical 'take' on men we've been taught to revere. Jefferson was brilliant, a hypocrite, manipulator, controlling person in every move he made. Sometimes I got a bit bored with details, then realized times haven't changed that muc ...more
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
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