Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War by Rachel A. Shelden (review)
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Washington, Brotherhood, Civil War, Politics, Social

Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War. By Rachel A. Shelden. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. 296. Cloth, $34.95.)

In Washington Brotherhood, Rachel A. Shelden provides the reader a behind-the-scenes look at politics in the nation’s capital from the 1840s to the secession crisis. Politics always exists beyond the traditional spheres of speeches and elections, but this was especially true in antebellum Washington where lawmakers worked together, ate and drank together, and often lived together under the same roof. These men also participated in the same reform movements, went to the same churches, and had similar vices. This communal experience created ‘‘a fraternity of Washington politicians’’ (2) that more often than not crossed sectional and partisan lines. Additionally, this brotherhood gave these men a different view of the Union; a view where the prospect of compromise never disappeared. In contrast to other historians who see political divides over the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, and the Sumner–Brooks Affair as events that shattered the national parties, radiating out to disrupt state political parties, Shelden posits a Washington ‘‘bubble’’ which ‘‘shielded federal politicians from the difficulties of sectionalism and ultimately rendered many of them unprepared for the disunion movement’’ (5).

In order to develop the story of the ‘‘real’’ Washington, Shelden divides her study chronologically and thematically. First, she uses the 1846 Wilmot Proviso to show the surprising unimportance of congressional speeches. She presents a picture of a Congress that suffered from [End Page 707] poor attendance, where even those who showed up paid little attention to their colleagues’ orations. Often speeches, most likely including the Wilmot Proviso, were not serious policy initiatives but instead ‘‘buncombe’’ meant primarily for one’s constituents back home. She follows this discussion with an examination of Lincoln’s first term, wherein membership in the cross-sectional Young Indian Club was certainly more important than his actions on the floor of Congress. The Young Indian Club demonstrated Washington’s associational culture—whereby congressmen joined colleagues from the same profession, religion, reform movement, or other interest group.

Shelden further addresses the role of cross-sectional social events, especially dinners, in forging the Compromise of 1850 coalition. And, if eating meals together did not provide enough interaction, most politicians also lived with their colleagues. The majority of lawmakers resided in either boarding houses or hotels that included men from both North and South. These living arrangements, according to Shelden, abetted compromise, including passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Plus, the friendships forged over meals and in communal living spaces lasted beyond a politician’s time in Washington. Not all relationships, however, were positive. Bad behavior ranging from drinking and gambling to corruption to promiscuity to violence all had their place in this fraternity as well. Partially because of this shared culture of vice, politicians reacted more calmly to Preston Brooks’s beating of Charles Sumner than their constituents did, with business in the Capitol returning to normal within a month of the incident.

Shelden offers many invaluable lessons for those studying antebellum politics both inside and outside the Washington ‘‘bubble.’’ First, one must be careful in using the Congressional Globe or newspaper accounts of Congress without considering context. Was a congressional speech carefully inserted into the local partisan newspaper truly important or was it simply buncombe? Second, historians too often portray political figures in an overly simplistic manner with ‘‘northern Whig’’ or ‘‘southern Democrat’’ serving as a full description of the man. Shelden reminds historians that they must be aware of how living arrangements, friendships, social ties, and business relationships added complexity to these ostensibly political relationships. Third, she reminds us that Washington was a permanent community interacting with its temporary residents. Men such as financier William Corcoran, perhaps the most important [End Page 708] mainstay of life in the nation’s capital, played a key role in shaping politics by hosting dinner parties, lending money, and providing valuable introductions. These permanent residents had a vested interest in keeping the country together and in fostering collegiality in the capital, and consequently...