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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: A Perfect Union by Catherine Allgor

A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
Unabridged, 15 hr. 58 min.
Macmillan Audio
Anne Twomey (Narrator)
March 28, 2006

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Source: Downloaded audio from my local library
“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 known for saving a portrait from the burning White House.
Why did her contemporaries so admire a lady so little known today? In A Perfect Union, acclaimed historian Catherine Allgor reveals how Dolley manipulated the constraints of her gender to construct an American democratic ruling style and to achieve her husband's political goals. By emphasizing cooperation over coercion--building bridges instead of bunkers--she left us with not only an important story about our past but a model for a modern form of politics.”
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. Like the blurb above states, 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 House. But she was so much more than that – really she was much of the power behind her husband’s presidency.

This book did do a great job of giving the reader a solid understanding of just how much of a political role Dolley had and how important she was not only to her husband’s presidency but that of Jefferson as well. You get a well rounded idea of who she was and why she was so well known.

I was also thrilled by the quantity of primary source documents and references that were peppered throughout the book. We are privy to many of her letters to her friends and sisters which provide not only a glimpse at the political but also the private life of this lady. You are able to feel very connected to her thoughts and feelings through these words.

But, there were also some aspects of this book that I thought could have been much better. First of all, there is a lot of repetition of phrases – and it’s not done to drive home a particular message – it is more like there needed a better job in the editing process. When these things are noticeable there is a something wrong. I kept thinking, “you already told me that!”. I also thought that there was a little bit too much time spent on the personal life of Thomas Jefferson. To some extent this is necessary as Dolley did a lot for Jefferson as well, but there came a point when I started thinking I was reading a Jefferson biography instead and lost sight of the subject of the book. I would also have liked a little bit more about James Madison – he just appears and then they are wed. He is someone who’s backstory would have fit well into the book and helped support more of Dolley’s story as well.

Overall this was a decent read, but I have read better – and I would recommend it if I could come up with the title!


The narrator, Anne Twomey, did a decent job of narrating this non-fiction work. I never lost interest in the narrative and she was able to keep your attention – which can sometimes be difficult when listening to a biography. The sound of her voice leant itself to the subject – I could believe her to be Dolley as her personal letters were being read.

Author Allgor also has written Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. You can listen to an excerpt of A Perfect Union at the publisher’s website.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Here are some choices for purchasing the book: Amazon, B&N, RJ Julia (my fav indie bookstore).

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Nice review -- I'd be curious about your thoughts on this one when I saw on GR you were listening to it. If you ever remember the other Dolly Madison book, do share, because I'm so curious!

  2. Great review! I am one of those people who know next to nothing about Dolly, and would be interested in this book. However if the story veers off course that much then I'll pass.

  3. Audra - I'm still working on finding the other book. I read it several years ago for school, so we'll see how well my memory works! I'll let you know if I come up with anything.

    Jenny - It was a decent read, but if I can find the other book that I enjoyed more I will let you know!

  4. Huh, sounds like an interesting read, but I may have to pass on this one for the time being. Great review!


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