She taught even Washingtonians to be civil

More than just a gracious hostess, Dolley Madison helped unify a young nation.

Anyone who doubts the power of parlor diplomacy needs only consider how a domestic snub wreaked havoc on international relations in the early 19th century.

When a new British ambassador arrived at the nation's capital, an unimpressed President Thomas Jefferson wore shabby clothes to meet him and even let his slipper dangle from his toe; at a state dinner, the chief executive humiliated the ambassador's wife by failing to escort her to her seat.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but only after a standoff left Washington D.C. society in an uproar and threatened to drive a rift between the mother country and its former colonies.

Upon Mr. Jefferson's departure in 1809, there was plenty of room for improvement on the diplomatic front. To the rescue came Dolley Madison, an extraordinary first lady who turned the White House into a welcoming space where differences were smoothed over instead of exacerbated.

These days, Dolley is best known for two things: inspiring the name of a snack cake company and escaping with a portrait of George Washington as the British prepared to burn the White House during the War of 1812.

During her lifetime, however, Dolley was famous for much more, according to A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. The ebullient and buxom wife of a frail and mild-mannered president, the third first lady played a major role in shaping the American capital and its government.

At the time, the character of the newborn country was still in question. Would it be a republic, run by the upper crust, or a free-wheeling democracy? Dolley opted for a blend of both: she opened the White House to the people, even allowing boots on her fine carpets, but never lost her regal bearing and sense of elegance.

In the process, she became possibly the most loved figure of her era. "In these partisan times, perhaps only a woman could have emerged as a national symbol, a charismatic figure," writes author Catherine Allgor in this fascinating biography.

Allgor, a professor at the University of California at Riverside, 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: Federalists vs. Republicans, Anglophiles vs. Francophiles, and New England (the region voted most likely to secede) vs. everyone else.

Against this backdrop, "Queen Dolley" used White House soirees to improve relations with foreign diplomats and force the capital's own warring parties to be civil to one another, even as her husband, James, blundered into the devastating War of 1812.

As she tells her tale, 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; even the most royalty-averse were charmed by the Quaker-turned-socialite, with her trademark turbans, low-cut blouses, and oceans of personal warmth.

"Everybody loves Mrs. Madison," declared politician Henry Clay. Her spirited reply: "That's because Mrs. Madison loves everybody!"

The public indeed adored their first lady, and their love only grew after she saved the George Washington portrait. It wasn't the original, but Dolley had the presence of mind to keep it from the British.

"A Perfect Union" isn't perfect. Allgor stretches to paint Dolley as one of the most influential figures of early American history, and at the same time she fails to place her in a wider context. Readers never learn how she compares to her predecessors - the unassuming Martha Washington and outspoken Abigail Adams - and those who followed.

There are other problems. At nearly 500 pages, "A Perfect Union" is too long and too full of minutiae; also Allgor doesn't paint a full picture of how Dolley perceived herself and the world around her. The fault might lie in the first lady herself, who may have ordered the destruction of some of her most intimate letters.

Despite its daunting heft, "A Perfect Union" is an engrossing historic tale of the power of civility to offset acrimony. Considering the rancor of our own national politics, it's easy to wish Dolley Madison were back in Washington today.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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