Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War

Article excerpt

Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War. By Rachel A. Shelden. Civil War America. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. [xiv], 281. $34.95, ISBN 978-1-4696 1085-6.)

Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War traces the coming of the Civil War by reexamining a series of canonical events in light of the relationships that politicians in Washington, D.C., formed among themselves. In this tightly written and engaging political history, Rachel A. Shelden argues that "[t]he day-to-day interactions of congressmen who lived and worked in Washington served as a buffer for sectional prejudices" (p. 8). She demonstrates that that the social dynamics of the capital insulated leaders, leaving them ill prepared for secession.

Shelden has mined archives around the United States and "opened doors that would have been otherwise locked," as she says of the letter writers on whom she relies (p. 7). At one point, the reader follows South Carolina senator Andrew Pickens Butler as he chases a dog that has snatched his hat and made off into a house on D Street. Butler's surprise encounter with a bathing woman became an opportunity for intersectional cooperation. He reportedly promised that he would '"vote for anything Michigan wants'" if his companion, a fellow Democrat, kept his secret (p. 158). Such anecdotes--and most are far less trivial than this one--make antebellum politics a compellingly intimate business.

Shelden's work will also enhance historians' understanding of well-known political developments. In each chapter Shelden ingeniously couples a specific incident with a different facet of Washington social life. She pairs the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 with the routines of Congress itself, which slowed the measure's rise to notoriety. The chapter on Zachary Taylor's presidential nomination in 1848 showcases associations, especially the Young Indian Club, whose members included Congressman Abraham Lincoln and other northern and southern Whigs. In 1850 dinners, parties, and balls apparently helped persuade some congressmen to vote for sectional compromise. Four years later, the Kansas-Nebraska Act reflected the work of a group of southern Democrats who shared a boardinghouse. …

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