Book Excerpt: 'Capital Dames' by Cokie Roberts

PHOTO: The Civil War and the Women of Washington by Cokie RobertsCourtesy Harper Collins
The Civil War and the Women of Washington by Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts joins the "This Week" roundtable Sunday.

Excerpted from CAPITAL DAMES: The Civil War and the Women of Washington by Cokie Roberts. Courtesy of HarperCollins. Copyright © Cokie Roberts 2015

CHAPTER 1: Meet the Women of Washington 1848–1856

Church bells chimed their wake-up call for the Capital City just at first light. From the Navy Yard and the Arsenal, sunrise salutes signaled a historic day ahead for tens of thousands of expectant tourists “not only from the immediate vicinity and adjacent cities, but from opposite and distant parts of the Union.” They had crowded into town on special trains ordered up for the momentous occasion, the National Intelligencer excitedly reported, and bright sunlight greeted them after a day of drenching rain. It was July 4, 1848, and the gawkers just might get a glimpse not only of President James Knox Polk and other high- ranking of_cials, but of those two great relics of the founding age— Elizabeth Hamilton and Dolley Madison. The wives of America’s first fierce partisans would come together in seats of honor to preside over the laying of the cornerstone of a monument to the man their husbands both served: George Washington.

Getting to this day was no easy matter. Ever since Washington’s death almost half a century earlier there had been proposals in Congress to erect a fitting shrine to the Father of the Country. In fact, even earlier than that, back in 1783, before the Constitution was written creating the presidency, before a capital had been chosen, Congress resolved to honor General Washington with a statue “at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established.” But so far all attempts at redeeming that pledge had failed— the organizers could never raise enough money or interest. This time was going to be different. Public solicitations plus the formation of an “organization of ladies to aid in collecting funds,” headed by Mrs. James Madison, Mrs. John Quincy Adams, and Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, had collected about $87,000 and created enough momentum to choose a site for a marble cornerstone “weighing twenty- four thousand five hundred pounds”! The Speaker of the House delivered the oration and alluded to the grandes dames Hamilton and Madison “touchingly and eloquently.”

The distinguished dowagers had been present at the creation of the country. Seeing them there and hearing tributes to the foremost Founding Father conjured up for the crowd happier days, an era when the United States shared a common cause— an independent America— a useful reminder at a time when the nation was threatening to break apart over the increasingly contentious issue of slavery. The recent military victory over Mexico, with its vast new territory added to the country, led to an upset in the balance between slave states and free, and raised the specter of the South’s “peculiar institution” spreading as far as California and the Pacific. But on this Independence Day, the Intelligencer opined, the parades and pyrotechnics showed that “in these already dubious days of the republic,” a spirit remained that could again be raised “into national strength and unity.” From the beginning, that unity had been challenged by regionalism and partisanship. But for almost fifty years, ever since a sorry little village on the Potomac River had been established as the nation’s capital, one person— Dolley Madison— could be counted on year in and year out to bring the factions together to put aside, at least temporarily, the rancor. The July 4 ceremony marked a rare public appearance for the ninety- year- old Eliza Hamilton, but not so the eighty- year- old Dolley Madison. She had stayed on the public stage as a figure of enormous influence throughout the decades. But this event would be one of the last public acts of the former first lady who had done so much to calm quarreling politicians. It would have been hard to imagine on that day in 1848 that Dolley Madison would be dead in a little more than a year and that the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument would mark the last truly uni_ed moment for the country.

In 1801 the young and beautiful Mrs. Madison had blown into the muddy, miserable town newly designated as the seat of government as the effervescent wife of the secretary of state. She played hostess to hundreds, maybe thousands, through James Madison’s eight years in the Jefferson administration and then the eight years of his own presidency. Already liked by all (Henry Clay once gushed, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison”), the first lady rose to the level of national heroine during the War of 1812 when she refused to leave the White House as the British approached; she insisted on “waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured” before fleeing the invasion. With her return to the burned- out ruins a few days later she took up the cause of securing Washington’s place as the Capital City despite its near destruction. “Queen Dolley,” as she was universally called, left office to paeans of praise: “Like a summer’s sun she rose in our political horizon, gloriously, and she sunk, benignly,” proclaimed a newspaper of the opposition party, adding that she had turned Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural pronouncement that “we are all federalists, we are all republicans” from a “liberal sentiment to a practice.”

For twenty years she chafed in retirement with her husband on his family estate in Virginia, where she constantly pestered friends and family for news of her city before she regally returned as a widow to dominate the social scene for the rest of her life. As long as Dolley Madison was alive, everyone knew who ruled Washington. And in recognition of her role, she accumulated extraordinary honors: a seat of her own in the House of Representatives, the privilege of sending the first personal telegraph, the presentation of a specially cast silver medal in memory of the War of 1812. Heads of state called on her to pay her homage. And her funeral shut down the city. “The President of the United States, the Cabinet Of_cers, gentlemen of the Army and Navy, the Mayor and City Councils, and many distinguished citizens and strangers” jammed into St. John’s Church across the street from her house on Lafayette Square on July 16, 1849. After hearing “an eloquent and just eulogy on the character of the deceased,” the funeral procession, “a very large and imposing one,” trekked more than four miles in the summer heat to the Congressional Cemetery, where the body of the most famous woman in the land would stay until it could be moved to Montpelier, the Madison estate in Virginia.

In the course of her reign, Dolley’s city had undergone a steady transformation. In its infancy, when asked what he thought of the place, an ambassador replied that it “would be a city when our grandchildren were grown.” But when English author Fanny Trollope, who had little good to say about America, visited in 1830 she was surprised to find herself “delighted with the whole aspect of Washington.” The Capitol building, so badly damaged by British _re sixteen years before, greatly impressed her with its “beauty and majesty.” When Dolley had first come to town only a few shops huddled around the congressional boardinghouses on Capitol Hill; thirty years later, Pennsylvania Avenue, the still- famous thoroughfare between the Capitol and the White House, had become “a street of most magni_cent width, planted on each side with trees, and ornamented by many splendid shops.” Fanny found the White House a “handsome mansion,” deemed the town hall “very noble,” and called the Patent Of_ce “a curious record of the fertility of the mind of man.” All in all, the place that had served as the object of ridicule to foreigners and locals alike reminded Mrs. Trollope of Europe’s “fashionable watering places.” And that praise came even before work began on the Smithsonian Institution in 1847, causing a newspaper correspondent to conclude, “public opinion has decided that the national metropolis shall be distinguished for cultivation of the mind.” (On his trip to the capital several years after Mrs. Trollope, Charles Dickens had far less kind things to say, declaring the city “the headquarters of tobacco- tinctured saliva.”)

As the city grew more sophisticated it attracted more people— the population swelled from a village of 8,000 in 1800 to a metropolis of 52,000 by 1850. Lawmakers started bringing their families to the capital for the winter legislative sessions and the size of the Congress itself increased as a result of gains from the Mexican War. But that very growth created a challenge: as each state joined the Union, battles raged in the city and the country about whether those states would be “slave” or “free.” Within sight of the Capitol, where the endless debates droned on, traders crammed human chattel into filthy “slave pens” and dealers marched their shackled merchandise from one market to another in long lines called “slave- coffees.” The shocking sight gave urgency to the arguments in Congress, even as the city relied on slave labor. From its inception Washington depended on enslaved workers to help build government offices and help serve government officials. By midcentury Washington’s slave population stood at about 3,000 while the number of free blacks grew from fewer than 1,000 in 1800 to more than 10,000. Through all of this growth and change, Dolley Madison had seemed the one constant. But now she was dead. Now what? The woman who had always been able to bring warring factions together, the person whom presidents as well as their wives sought out for council and advice, the undisputed foremost figure of the federal city was gone. It didn’t take long for the women of Washington to begin vying to take her place.

The competition played out in the context of the political conflict consuming the capital. These women were the wives, daughters (often both), and sisters of politicians and just as caught up in the campaigns and concerns of the country as the men were. “Their interest was intense” when they crowded the Capitol “from the gallery to the floor; outside of the railing was a parterre of brilliant palpitating color, a solid phalanx of ladies,” remembered one who was there for the debate over the Compromise of 1850. “The rosy faces and waving plumes of ladies made points of color against the senators’ black garments” when, in an attempt to stave off the disaster of disunion, Congress patched together a series of bills in one more effort to keep peace between the forces for and against slavery.

The possession of people as property had threatened to tear America apart from the very beginning. A paragraph in the Declaration of Independence condemning the slave trade, ironically written by slave owner Thomas Jefferson, produced the most contentious argument in the Continental Congress as it was drafting the decisive document. To reach consensus, the paragraph was dropped. Then, in the Constitutional Convention, the slavery question again looked as though it would sabotage the entire exercise. Only after hard- fought compromise that counted slaves as three- _fths of a person and authorized Congress to outlaw the slave trade after 1807 could the majority of delegates agree to sign the Constitution. However, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as the vast territory added to the country sorted itself into states, the issue of slavery challenged the ability of the Congress to govern, as members failed to agree on whether new territories would enter the union as slave states or free. That time it was the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that postponed the inevitable battle by admitting Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and outlawing slavery above latitude 36° 30' in the recently purchased lands. But now yet more land had been added to the country by conquest in the Mexican War and some in Congress were desperately trying again to cut a deal that would appease both the pro- and anti- slavery factions. They temporarily succeeded by passing the Compromise of 1850.

The legislation aimed at appealing to abolitionists by admitting California as a free state and outlawing the slave trade in Washington— so the horrific coffees would no longer offend congressional sensibilities— while also soothing slavery advocates by passing a new Fugitive Slave Act that required officials and citizens even in free states to capture runaway slaves and return them to their owners. The law enraged northern “Free- Soilers” and by signing it President Millard Fillmore lost the support of the antislavery wing of his Whig Party. (Fillmore had become president after Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848, attended a blisteringly hot July 4 celebration at the Washington Monument construction site in 1850 and died _ve days later.) In the election year of 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s phenomenal bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin—it sold more than 300,000 copies in one year— added abolitionist converts, further splitting the Whigs and making it possible for Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce to win a landslide Electoral College victory.

The election did nothing, however, to diminish the jockeying for first place among the women of Washington. Unlike them, Pierce’s wife, Jane, hated politics— something she had determined twenty years earlier when her husband served in Congress. Still, she dutifully prepared to go to Washington as first lady when her only remaining child, twelve- year- old Benjamin, was killed in a train accident. She never really recovered. In later years Jane Pierce’s contemporaries remembered how she cast a pall over the presidency: “Her woe- begon face with its sunken dark eyes, and skin like yellowed ivory banished all animation in others,” lamented one. Another judged: “The Executive Mansion, shrouded in gloom, could never become a social center.” With no active _rst lady dominating society, it was open season among the women of Washington, constantly competing for first place. “In the _fties American hospitality acquired a reputation,” explained one of the competitors years later, “and that of the capital was synonymous with an unceasing, an augmenting round of dinners and dances, receptions and balls. A hundred hostesses renowned for their beauty and wit and vivacity vied with each other in evolving novel social relaxations.”

And they used their “social relaxations” to promote their own positions along with the men in their lives. “During the four years that Franklin Pierce presided over the nation so many beautiful women came prominently before the public at the capital that his was called the ‘beauty administration,’ ” declared nineteenth- century social historian Virginia Peacock. But the political women in the capital as Pierce’s presidency began in 1853 were not just beautiful, though they did describe themselves as “belles.” These women who sparred in society in the years leading up to the Civil War turned out to be tough and tenacious. They were a remarkable group whose stories unfolded in vastly different ways during and after the war.

Jesse Benton Fremont grew up with a father in the U.S. Senate and then her husband served there as well, a husband she was ready to help push to the presidency. She and her good friend Elizabeth Blair Lee had achieved close to native status, since they were brought to Washington as children. Living directly across the street from the White House, Lizzie worked with her father, Francis Preston Blair, a political boss and newspaperman, to foster the careers of her husband and brothers. She formed a close friendship with Varina Davis, described by one of her contemporaries as “the most brilliant woman of her time.” The Mississippi belle had been popular in the city a few years before as a Senate spouse; she now returned to the fray as a lady of the Cabinet. New to town, Virginia Clay, the wife of an Alabama senator, and Sara Pryor, whose husband had been recruited to the capital to help edit a Democratic newspaper, quickly joined the competition. And then there was the teenager with no social standing who still managed to achieve chief belle status: Adele Cutts, marveled Virginia Peacock, “attained while yet a very young woman a pre- eminence by reason of her beauty, the distinction of her bearing, and a genuine loveliness of character.”

Without either a powerful husband or father, Adele achieved her place through her own “queenly apparition” and the clout of her female relatives. Her great- aunt on her father’s side was Dolley Madison, who had groomed “Addie” for prominence, and her mother’s sister, Rose Greenhow, was famous— eventually infamous— for the political salon she presided over. But the women of Washington truly admired Adele for herself. Sara Pryor described her as “beautiful as a pearl, sunny- tempered, unsel_sh, warm- hearted, unaffected, sincere.” Jessie Frémont compared her to Dolley and found Adele equal “in beauty and sweetness of nature, while every charm that polished training and associations can give, she has gathered.” And “Addie Cutts,” wrote her friend Virginia Clay, “was the admired of all foreigners” because she was a gifted linguist adding, “the effect she had on strangers was invariably one of instant adoration.”

Everyone agreed that Adele was a great beauty, which was puzzling to her friend Sara Pryor: “I said to her once: ‘You know you are not really handsomer than the rest of us! Why do people say so?’ ‘Because I never trick myself out in diamonds, or have more than one color in a gown. An artist told me once that all those things spoil a picture,’ ” came the reply. Don’t think for a minute that these women weren’t thinking about their appearance while they were plotting their political moves, and they all remembered what they were wearing decades later! When Sara looked back on those years, she marveled: “The belle in the fifties lived in an expansive time.” Houses weren’t crammed with furniture, streets weren’t crowded with people. “Ladies wore enormous hoops, and because their heads looked like small handles to huge bells, they widened the coiffure into broad bandeaux and braids, loaded it with garlands of _owers, and enlarged it by means of a wide headdress of tulle, lace, and feathers, or crowned it with a coal- scuttle bonnet tied under the chin with wide ribbons. In this guise they sailed fearlessly about.” They sailed to the Senate and House chambers to listen to debates, and clustered together to make the dutiful calls on the wives of other officials; they also comforted each other on the inevitable losses of their time. It was at a boardinghouse at Thirteenth and G Streets that Virginia Clay sadly stated, “I bore and buried my only child.” Varina Davis too mourned her toddler who “after several weeks of pain and steady decline, died at twenty three months old,” and though she found the outpouring of sympathy “gratifying,” she missed “sorely the opportunity to mourn in secret.”

The Washington population ebbed and _owed with the congressional seasons— as the itinerant representatives flooded into the Capital in December, filling hotels and boardinghouses, and usually left at the end of March, beating a retreat before the oppressive heat of the Washington summer. Though more of the men started bringing their wives and children along in the 1840s, most did not, giving the city a certain masculine aspect and creating great demand for the women who did come to town. And the politicians’ wives were expected to perform their own rituals— chief among them the custom of “calling,” following a strict protocol of who would visit and who would receive visitors. As a Cabinet wife, Varina Davis felt herself besieged. “Every day I have about 30 calls, and the only way to do is to get in a carriage and ride up and down to avoid them,” she griped to her mother. “One week I give a dinner, and a party the next week, and every Tuesday morning a reception, to which about sixty people call, sometimes more, and I must stand until half past four, from 12 in the morning.” Though sectionalism seethed in the Capitol and “feeling ran high in the Senate and the House, the surface of social life was smiling and peaceful,” according to Virginia Clay; “courtesies were exchanged between the wives of some of the Northern and Southern Senators, and formal calls were paid on Cabinet days, as etiquette demanded, upon ladies of the Cabinet circle.” Of course many other women beyond the “belles” who dominated the political parlors found occupation in the Capital City. Then as now, the work of the government attracted purposeful women. Some, like Elizabeth Blair Lee, lived in both worlds. She socialized with people like Varina Davis and Adele Cutts but she also put in long hours at the Washington City Orphan Asylum, a social ser vice agency first started by Dolley Madison and other Federal City women after the British invasion in 1814. Some women lived just on the periphery of the social whirl. Louisa Rodgers Meigs, a native Washingtonian, was one of those. Her father had been a renowned naval commodore and her husband, Montgomery, was working with Jefferson Davis on the expansion of the Capitol building and the construction of the aqueduct. Though Louisa was acquainted with the prominent women of the city— she once went to the opera with Varina Davis— since her husband wasn’t a member of congress or the cabinet, she didn’t shine in their social gatherings.

Government jobs beckoned women to Washington just as they do now. Clara Barton, a successful teacher who had had trouble landing a position because she was a woman, found work in the Patent Office, where she briefly made the same salary as her male colleagues. The capital also inevitably lured women eager to influence the government, chief among them Dorothea Dix, who spent years lobbying on behalf of ill and impoverished Americans, and Anna Ella Carroll, who published propaganda for her chosen causes and candidates.

When Dorothea Dix arrived in Washington in 1848, she was already famous for her work in both northern and southern states, successfully prodding them to establish hospitals for the mentally ill. But she had a much grander scheme planned for the national legislature. Dix proposed nothing less than that the government put aside five million acres of federal land for the “poor and the helpless.” She described the conditions of the poverty- stricken and mentally disabled people she had seen everywhere she worked, concluding, “I ask for the people that which is already the property of the people.” Her stature was such that the members of Congress actually allocated an alcove in the Capitol Library as office space for the indomitable advocate and there she daily met with the lawmakers, bent on converting them to the justness of her cause.

When they failed to pass her bill the _rst time it was introduced, she upped the ante. The following session she asked for 12,250,000 acres of land and supported her demand with constituent letters, newspaper editorials, and church sermons. And she succeeded— in the U.S. Senate, but the House refused to consider what she called “my bill.” Undeterred, back she came to the next Congress, this time throwing in an additional request for $100,000 for a hospital in Washington for mentally ill military men and District residents. Dix not only lobbied for the hospital; she persuaded a large landowner to sell her the property for it and there St. Elizabeth’s still stands, still serving the mentally ill, a visible monument to Miss Dix’s persistence. And she finally convinced both houses of Congress to pass her land bill as well. But after all that time and all that effort, President Pierce vetoed the measure, insisting that the care of the poor should be the responsibility of the states, not the federal government. She couldn’t muster the votes to override the veto, so a much- discouraged Dorothea Dix packed up the desk in the Capitol and left town. But she would be back again before long— this time as a formidable force.

Always seeking to be a formidable force, Anna Ella Carroll did most of her lobbying and politicking through her writing. The daughter of a former Maryland governor, the scion of a long- established Maryland family fallen on hard times, Carroll cultivated friendships with politicians, using her access to badger them for jobs for friends and family and to promote herself as a political advisor. When Fillmore was president, she wrote to him touting her political knowledge, arguing that though “it may look unique for an ‘American lady’ to be so heartily embarked in the interest of the political condition of the country,” her education and social position gave her a firm understanding of “our political system.” And her sex didn’t prevent her from attending the Whig Party convention in Baltimore in 1852 to back Fillmore’s reelection. When her candidate lost the nomination, Anna turned her attention to the American Party— derided by their opponents as Know- Nothings— whose political clout was on the rise. Though descended from an iconic Catholic family, Anna Carroll emerged as one of the greatest propagandists supporting the anti- Catholic Know- Nothings, whose virulent anti- immigrant stance gained followers at the same time that the established political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, fractured over the issue of slavery.

One cause that fell by the wayside with the current crop of political women: the Washington Monument. After the glorious day laying its cornerstone, the actual erection of the obelisk proved problematic. Funds for the project trickled in as the Washington Monument Society begged schoolchildren for “the monthly contribution of even one cent.” Similar appeals went to the Masons, Odd Fellows, Sons of Temperance, and military organizations. But the fund- raisers produced little by way of cash, so to drum up interest, solicitors asked each state to send a stone to line the interior of the monument, and then they approached foreign countries as well. And so arrived “a block of marble sent hither from Rome, a tribute to the memory of Washington by the Pontiff, and intended to become a part of the edi_ce now erecting to signalize his name and glory.” Obligingly, Pope Pius IX, the archvillain to the anti- Catholic Know- Nothings, had sent a piece to the stone-seeking Americans from the ruins of the Temple of Concord, built in ancient times to promote harmony. Anything but harmony followed. In March 1854, in the middle of the night, a small band stole onto the building site, surrounded the night watchman, wrapped ropes around the block, maneuvered it into a cart, and pitched it into the Potomac River. The Know- Nothings had struck a blow against Catholicism but a bigger blow to the future of the monument. Then the nativist party staged a coup at the Washington Monument Society, placing a know-nothing sympathizer in every office. Catholics refused to have anything more to do with the project and money dried up. A pathetic sight at a mere 153 feet, no one seemed to care about the shrine to the Father of the Country whose children wanted less and less to have anything to do with each other.

Despite the glow provided by new gas lamps installed on the streets in 1853, times were tough in Washington, as Louisa Meigs described them in a letter to her sister: “Provisions of all kinds are very high at this time— alarmingly so… I fear the poor will suffer very much. Vegetables are scarce and not very good… the pumps are often dry.” The country was experiencing an economic downturn— just the kind of situation calculated to create a political party like the Know- Nothings, looking for someone to blame for hard times and finding scapegoats in the millions of mostly Catholic Irish and German immigrants inundating the country. And while the new political party vented its venom on immigrants, the old ones ratcheted up their quarrels over slavery and whether the newly organized territories of Kansas and Nebraska would come into the Union as slave states or free.

Attempting to answer that question, Illinois U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas pushed through legislation that ironically had the effect of creating the Republican Party in 1854, a party that eventually ruined him politically. Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty” allowed people in Kansas and Nebraska to decide on slavery for themselves, instead of the federal government making that determination. The Kansas-Nebraska Act broke the previous covenant covering the spread of enslavement— the Missouri Compromise of 1820— and called into question whether the Compromise of 1850 could be abrogated as well. Bloody battles between proslavery settlers who rushed into Kansas and the abolitionists who followed them provoked political combat in the rest of the country. Those wars ended up destroying the Whig Party, with the Republicans rising to take in the northern Whigs opposed to slavery while most of the southern Whigs fled to the Democrats. The shaky stage was set for the presidential election of 1856.