- Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War by Rachel A. Shelden
In Washington Brotherhood, Rachel Shelden argues that the “social and cultural life” of the capital city was “a critical part of the way that politicians engaged with the sectional and ideological struggles of the antebellum era” (2). Shelden aptly demonstrates that understanding the social, cultural, and political norms of Washington, D.C., is necessary when interpreting politicians’ decisions during the sectional crisis, focusing on the years between the Wilmot Proviso and the winter of 1860–61. More broadly, Shelden’s work suggests a new way of doing political history, one that more carefully interrogates the domestic lives of the white male elite, underscoring for historians of all eras the importance of acknowledging the personal motivations and constraints of historical actors.
Shelden organizes Washington Brotherhood chronologically and thematically, opening each chapter with an overview of a major political issue or event and then exploring how the politicians involved in it may have been affected by an aspect of social or cultural life in Washington, D.C. This approach allows Shelden to highlight the interpersonal factors that historians have overlooked in their analyses of antebellum politics. Chapter 1, for example, considers how the culture of Congress affected voting on the Wilmot Proviso in 1846. Shelden posits that historians have “overvalued” the Congressional Globe, the official record of the proceedings of Congress during the mid-nineteenth century, as a source for determining politicians’ positions on sectional issues (39). Shelden found that congressmen and senators were often absent, intoxicated, or distracted during sessions and [End Page 159] votes. Moreover, the unwritten practices of Congress meant that the Globe did not always accurately report debates and proceedings as they occurred. Demonstrating the limitations of the Globe as an official source, Shelden argues that much of the discussion on legislation, including the Wilmot Proviso, actually happened in the cross-sectional and cross-party boardinghouses, association meetings, balls, and dinner parties that she explores in later chapters.
Creatively using a variety of sources, Shelden brings new information and perspectives to this and other important political events, including the Compromise of 1850, the caning of Charles Sumner, and the Lecompton Constitution battle. In her final chapter, Shelden explains the three ways the “unique Washington living experience” influenced congressmen’s handling of the secession crisis: first, cross-sectional and cross-partisan friendships gave politicians “a distinctive understanding and approach to Lincoln’s election”; second, while their constituents could spar with each other from afar, congressmen lived together in the capital and “dealt with the realities of their cross-sectional, cross-partisan city during the crisis itself”; and finally, politicians approached the sectional crisis “by working together outside of the halls of Congress at dinners and parties, over drinks, and at the faro table” (171).
Washington Brotherhood is supported by broad and deep research. Shelden consulted manuscript collections from eighteen states and the District of Columbia. She mined boardinghouse records, Washington etiquette books, personal papers, letters, invitations, notes, diaries, dinner guest lists, and church pew records in her effort to re-create the daily lives of antebellum politicians, lives that did not neatly compartmentalize the personal and the political. Shelden used the research cleverly, including analyzing congressional seating charts for evidence of cross-party sociability. In addition to being well researched, the book is also fun to read. Shelden writes in snappy, vivid prose, and readers are quickly moved along by stories of parties, drinking, friendships, dinners, hangovers (there is a shocking amount of alcohol in this book), and fighting, all set in the very male arena of antebellum Washington, D.C.
Washington Brotherhood is an important and useful supplement to studies that focus on the political ideologies and sectional interests of the age, complicating the traditional narrative of North versus South. Shelden persuasively argues that recognizing the “‘unofficial’ political arena” of Washington—the parties, friendships, associations, and board-inghouses—is critical to understanding antebellum federal politics (2). It is...