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When Thomas Jefferson moved his victorious Republican administration into the new capital city in 1801, one of his first acts was to abolish any formal receptions, except on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. His successful campaign for the presidency had been partially founded on the idea that his Federalist enemies had assumed dangerously aristocratic trappings—a sword for George Washington and a raised dais for Martha when she received people at social occasions—in the first capital cities of New York and Philadelphia. When the ladies of Washington City, determined to have their own salon, arrived en masse at the president's house, Jefferson met them in riding clothes, expressing surprise at their presence. His deep suspicion of any occasion that resembled a European court caused a major problem, however: without the face-to-face relationships and networks of interest created in society, the American experiment in government could not function.
Into this conundrum, writes Catherine Allgor, stepped women like Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams, women of political families who used the unofficial, social sphere to cement the relationships that politics needed to work. Not only did they create a space in which politics was effectively conducted; their efforts legitimated the new republic and the new capital in the eyes of European nations, whose representatives scoffed at the city's few amenities and desolate setting. Covered by the prescriptions of their gender, Washington women engaged in the dirty business of politics, which allowed their husbands to retain their republican purity.
Constrained by the cultural taboos on "petticoat politicking," women rarely wrote forthrightly about their ambitions and plans, preferring to cast their political work as an extension of virtuous family roles. But by analyzing their correspondence, gossip events, "etiquette wars," and the material culture that surrounded them, Allgor finds that these women acted with conscious political intent. In the days before organized political parties, the social machine built by these early federal women helped to ease the transition from a failed republican experiment to a burgeoning democracy.
University of Virginia Press
Allgor's concern with the blurred lines between official and unofficial politics, government and society, image making and power sharing, resonates loudly in our own time.
Parlor Politics is a stimulating, lively, and subtle book that enlarges our understanding of how, in just half a century, Washington City became an important world capital.
For those whose knowledge of early Washington and its politics is in need of repair, Parlor Politics provides a fresh perspective and rich details— history at its most readable.
What Ms. Allgor's history suggests is that the nation that dares to criticize its first lady's fashion sense may be a very healthy one indeed.
An extraordinary piece of work, easily one of the most intellectually original and stylishly elegant first books I have ever read. Allgor's treatment of the role of women brings them into the center of the story of America's early political history and demonstrates that the republican values so central to the ideology of the post-Revolutionary era actually required the presence of women to permit the federal government to function. It's the kind of argument that seems utterly self-evident but in fact no one has made it before in anything like this persuasive way. Throughout the text, one encounters a truly lyrical presence, cajoling, whispering, taking us aside (as at an elegant dinner party) to talk interestingly about what the evidence means.
Parlor Politics is an absolute gem of historical research and writing. Again and again—and yet again—it opens fresh views on the political culture of the early Republic. Moreover, its sprightly, sparkling prose will delight scholars and general readers alike.
Parlor Politics is cultural history at its best. Showing how style and substance merged into social power, Catherine Allgor has recovered the fascinating political role of women in the Washington of Jefferson and his successors.
Ms. Allgor's argument is more than a new twist on the history of high society. Parlor Politics, her first book, has opened not just a new window on the past, but floodgates.
— Emily Eakin
— Alan Pell Crawford
President Thomas Jefferson in Washington City
"O, brave new world that has such people in't!"
--WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, The Tempest 5.1.183-84
Washington city, the new capital of the United States of America, Anno Domini 1801. The federal government under President John Adams had officially removed to the city the previous June. Almost immediately, people, then as now, engaged in the city's most popular unofficial sport--Washington-bashing. Disparaging comments came from new residents and visitors alike, focusing on the city's rural isolation and its lack of built environment. As one might expect, European travelers supplied some of the most colorful and pithy descriptions of the aspiring capital. One Englishman, told by his companion that they were entering Washington City, looked in vain for houses and public buildings. Sure that he had misunderstood his guide, the visitor asked where the city was, only to be told that he was standing in the middle of it. A fellow countryman, Augustus John Foster, arriving from England to serve as secretary of the British Legation, reckoned that if Congress had really meant this little town to be their capital, "they would have acted much more wisely than by settling in the swamp."
Though Europeans took malicious glee in lambasting the upstart city, even patriotic Americans likened their capital to a mule, "without pride of ancestry or hope of posterity." The sight of early Washington inspired usually taciturn New England folks to heights of invective and wit. One of the first arrivals, Ebenezer Mattoon, representative from New Hampshire, wrote to his friend Thomas Dwight, "If I wished to punish a culprit, I would send him to do penance in this place, oblige him to walk about this city, city do I call it? This swamp--this lonesome dreary swamp, secluded from every delightful or pleasing thing--except the name of the place, which to be sure I reverence."
Raconteurs competed to render the wittiest and nastiest verdicts; indeed, some of the sharpest reactions became widely quoted cliches. In 1818 Thomas Hubbard, representative from New York, referred to old and accepted Washington wisdom in a letter to his wife, Phebe. He gleefully related that "Old Abbe Correa, the Portuguese minister (a monk)" and "a man of great powers and learning," had opined "that every man is born with a bag of folly which attends him through life." Although George Washington had been burdened with only a "small bag, which he kept to himself and never imparted any of it to the world," when "the metropolis of the nation was founded ... he emptied the whole of it into this city."
Many early descriptions have contributed to the general view of the new capital as a "fever-stricken morass," lacking society and civilization. Albert Gallatin, for example, wrote his spouse, Hannah Nicholson Gallatin, that the early congressmen were "discontented ... living like a refectory of monks, with no other amusement or occupation." However, Washington City was one of the fastest-growing urban settings in the United States during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. New buildings were constructed throughout the era, and the population grew rapidly. The number of federal government employees grew as well, from 291 in 1802 to 625 in 1829. Further, the geographical isolation and country setting that astonished and appalled some more cosmopolitan observers had quite a different effect on other new arrivals, an effect articulated by one of the chief players in early Washington City.
In 1800 Margaret Bayard Smith arrived in Washington as a newlywed. Her new husband, Samuel Harrison Smith (who was also her second cousin), had won not only her heart but her mind as well. Born into a distinguished Federalist family, Margaret changed her allegiance and became an enthusiastic supporter of Thomas Jefferson and the Republican party when she married. The couple came to Washington from Philadelphia under Jefferson's personal patronage. He wanted Samuel Smith to become the editor of the first national American newspaper, the Daily Intelligencer. Samuel Smith justified his patron's trust; he attended Congress every day, recording its proceedings faithfully for his paper's pages.
Yet it was Margaret Bayard Smith who became posterity's ideal informant. First and foremost, she was consistently there--no mean feat in a city known for the transience of its inhabitants. By the 1840s a core of longtime residents made up a political and social elite in Washington, but no one could match the Smiths' forty-four-year residence. Both her continued presence and her social position assured Bayard Smith a front-row seat at all the events of the day. She quickly became a leader; as her husband rose in prominence and she became enmeshed in the community networks of the town, her entree to places and people proved unparalleled.
Bayard Smith possessed one more qualification invaluable to anyone curious about Washington City in the early Republican era. She was a writer, with an artist's sense of the outside perspective. She could render descriptions of scenes and assessments of people with a few choice words or phrases, in effect a few well-chosen brush strokes. She wrote both reportage and fiction and possessed the writer's double ability to be both of a situation and outside it, the reason, according to Truman Capote, that writers are dangerous people to have around. Though Margaret Bayard Smith rarely wrote with malice, she could spot and dispose of pretension in a manner that bears Capote out.
Bayard Smith's pen supplied many of the most crucial scenes that comprise the historical narrative of the early Republic, yet political histories have not identified or individualized her, instead mentioning her only as a "society matron" or "doyenne." But the Margaret Bayard Smith who stepped upon the Washington scene in 1800 could not have been less doyenne-ish. Young, vibrant, and bursting with energy, she was eager to write to her sisters and family of the new world that greeted her on her arrival. Bayard Smith sustained this enthusiasm for sharing experiences with her female kin (both natal and marital) for the rest of her life.
Bayard Smith conscientiously recorded the raw aspects of her new home. Her description of their arrival echoes Abigail Adams's account of a woman who looked "in vain for the city." The planned avenues consisted of stone markers, and the roads were only footpaths, presenting an unforgettable image of the "ungraceful" Capitol, surrounded by "mud, shavings, brick," and other materials for completing it and the adjacent structures.
But once they were settled in, Margaret and Samuel Smith discovered a different, more delightful side to the new city. The young couple spent long hours roaming through the countryside of the federal city, enjoying the sights, sometimes collecting herbs or flowers. "I seldom enjoyed a walk more than this," she declared after one such ramble, "and had scarcely resolution to return, although the sun had set." On another "delightful day," she "sallied forth" with a group of friends; "I will not say we walked along ..., the elasticity of the air had given such elasticity to my spirits that I could not walk." She did not have to travel far to appreciate the natural beauty of the place. Samuel described their house to his sister as standing "on a commanding hill bounded by one of the handsomest streams in our country, now descending into a cool valley covered with wood and watered by gently flowing rills." He loved the "noble oaks" in the yard, and Margaret loved the sweetbriers.
As an old woman she remembered with nostalgia the panorama from Capitol Hill in those early years, the "extensive and beautiful view" of the "wide plain, through which the Tiber had wound its way." Undisturbed by building and development, the riverbanks were shaded with trees "of every variety," most conspicuously "the Tulip-Poplar." The flowers she listed inhabit a scene of lush abundance, even a romantic bower: "The magnolia, azalea, the hawthorn, the wild-rose ... violets, anemones and a thousand other sweet wood-flowers.... The wild grape-vine climbing from tree to tree hung in unpruned luxuriance among the branches of the trees and formed a fragrant and verdant canopy over the greensward, impervious to the noonday sun."
Other commentators shared Bayard Smith's initial dismay at the lack of settlement and then subsequent praise for "the situation." Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, wife of Senator John Quincy Adams, arrived in Washington in 1801, the year after the Smiths, to visit her parents. Her first impression consisted entirely of criticisms, "the city not being laid out; the streets not graduated, the bridges consisting of mere loose planks and huge stumps of trees cut down intercepting every path." At the same time she enthusiastically predicted to her husband, "I'm quite delighted with the situation of this place, and I think should it ever be finished it will be one of the most beautiful spots in the world."
Even some of the European travelers proved susceptible to the charm of the upstart Republic's capital. In 1796 Henrietta Liston, who had come to America with her husband, Robert Liston, the British minister, counted one hundred houses and thought the situation "noble and beautiful, strangely resembling Constantinople," their last posting. The Prince d'Orleans also commented favorably on the countryside, marveling at the peach trees already in bloom in early April. An Englishman, David Baillie Warden, who may have wished to curry favor with those in power (he dedicated his A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia to Martha Washington), exulted, "It is scarcely possible to imagine a situation more beautiful, healthy and convenient than that of Washington." He went on to describe the "rising hills" as "truly picturesque"; the "gentle undulated" topography threw the "water into such various directions, as affords the most agreeable assemblage."
Margaret and Samuel found more than the consolation of nature in their new home. From her earliest letters the young bride described herself as plunged into a whirl of activity, in which relationships with women offered especially intense socializing and mutual support. Bayard Smith shared her wedding cake with Mrs. Bell, who had brought her a "large basket of sweet potatoes and some fine cabbages." Shortly after setting up housekeeping in the federal city, she detailed the companions who treated her with familial affection: Mrs. Bell was like a mother; Miss Thornhill and Eliza, her sisters; and "in Mr. English, a most attentive brother." Local gentry joined with other official families, among them "Mr. and Mrs. Law, Captain and Mrs. Tingey, Mr. and Mrs. Otis and Dr. and Mrs. Thornton," to form an intimate circle for Bayard Smith only a month or so into her residence.
The Capitol area sometimes resembled a building lot, and wildlife abounded, but the city was sited in a land of farms, plantations, and prosperous small towns, including Georgetown. Nearby Alexandria was a thriving port. Some 500 Maryland and Virginia families with incomes of a thousand or more pounds a year lived within a day's ride of Washington, and by one society watcher's estimation, in 1802 Washington City contained 150 socially eligible ladies and gentlemen. The local gentry--the Tayloes, the Ogles, the Custises, and the Laws--provided the city with a ready-made select society. To be sure, the surrounding communities were mostly rural settlements or plantations, but the landed families of the area included Europeans of great refinement such as Rosalie Stier Calvert and Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton. These elites functioned in a population of more than 14,000 souls in the federal district, with 3,000 white residents in Washington proper, along with 623 enslaved Americans and 123 free blacks.
Washington society mixed cosmopolitan flair with rural neighborliness. Many foreign travelers spent time by the firesides of Bayard Smith and her neighbors, discussing intellectual subjects in English and French. On the other hand, the Smiths often dropped in on neighbors during their rambles, and on one of these visits Margaret was treated to a fine roast turkey and a viewing of the contrivance that cooked it, a stove called a Ranger. Often morning visits among these women turned into all-day sessions, in which visitors and hostesses performed such domestic tasks as hanging curtains. After Congress adjourned for the day and the legislators had their evening meals in the boardinghouses, they often went to households such as the Smiths' to drink tea and spend the evening talking politics.
Women were everywhere in Washington City. The mixed and contradictory evidence about the presence of elite white women at any given time stems from the cyclical nature of their presence. There always remained a steady core of female residents, both official and local, but most women came to Washington for the social season, which roughly corresponded to the congressional session. Albert Gallatin may have felt he was living in a celibate community during those first years because, though the congressmen arrived in November, the "season" did not begin until after the New Year and ended before Congress rose in the spring.
Though cyclical, the women's presence in Washington certainly appeared regular; that is, women began arriving for the social season the first year of Jefferson's term, and they never stopped. Many letters sent home from congressmen mention the arrival of other legislators' female relatives at their boardinghouses. Women attended Jefferson's inauguration, packed the House for church services, crowded the galleries in both houses of Congress, browsed the congressional library, and filled the houses and the streets. The socially indefatigable Harrison Gray Otis teased his wife that he had found "several really fine and fashionable" ladies to conquer at an otherwise dull party. A close reading of early sources reveals Washington to have been not "a pleasureless outpost," as one scholar has asserted, but a thriving, vibrant, growing community, populated by both women and men.
Visitors and new residents from New England and the Middle Atlantic states, accustomed to residing in towns and cities of long standing, expressed their horror and disappointment more vociferously than southerners, but apart from regional prejudice the perceptions of Washington City depended on what the various observers and commentators wished or expected to see. Those who came with fixed notions of what should be there were much more likely to be disappointed. In contrast, visitors and new residents who focused on the location's potential, as suggested by the first row of fine brick houses or the lush natural environment, were much more positive about the future and more accepting of the current rough conditions. In 1801 Washington City seemed more potential than place. The prospects challenged, excited, and alarmed everyone who came there, not the least of whom was the first president to begin his term in the new capital.
THE REPUBLICAN DREAMWORLD
Washington City was born of the imaginations of two men: George Washington, who sited and laid out the city, and Thomas Jefferson, the first national leader to take up full-time residence there. In striking contrast to all future presidents, these two men poured their hearts and souls into the creation of the capital. Washington City's biggest booster and "leading spirit" from the beginning, Jefferson gave more attention to the formation of the capital than any other government official. Some see this to be his "first major effort of statesmanship" as a cabinet member in Washington's administration. Because George Washington began the project, he devoted his attention mostly to geographical and surveying matters, while Jefferson absorbed himself in architecture and landscaping for the selected site. Much as he did with his beloved Monticello, Jefferson expended a great deal of energy on the aesthetics of the new federal city. Unfortunately, again as in the case of Monticello, he paid less attention to practical matters such as roads and drainage than to a comprehensive vision. That Washington City and the grounds around the President's House looked so unfinished for much of his administration echoed Monticello's state of perpetual process.
Jefferson, as the first president actually to live in the federal city, concerned himself deeply with the philosophic implications of the embryonic capital. Though his political motivations were evident in his "Notes and Calculations" on the siting of the capital in 1783, by the time the House elected him the new leader of the nation in February 1801, he was primarily concerned that the city give "physical form to his vision of what the Republic should be." Jefferson entered the infant capital fully determined to make in this landscape a new kind of "city upon a hill," a shining example of a republican society for the world to emulate.
Like many influenced by the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson was a man with utopias on his mind. His fascination with states of nature, where fundamental humanity might stand revealed, combined the scientific bent of John Locke with the romantic vision of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The desire to create his own perfected society may also have been something of a family tradition. His father, Peter Jefferson, had carved his own materially advanced and eminently civilized estate, Shadwell, out of what was then a wild frontier of Virginia. In doing so, Peter Jefferson followed a pattern set by a minority of rich southerners: building a comfortable and luxurious mansion ex nihilo in uncultivated wilderness.
With his background in this high-living culture of country seats, Thomas Jefferson likely saw no incongruity in the plan of building a classical capital in the countryside. As his father had surveyed and laid the boundaries for a new Eden, so the son would do the same with his own frontier, and he brought considerable zeal to the task. Jefferson scholars who assess him as a man with a "polygonal mind," one for whom "nothing that promised the ultimate physical or moral improvement of mankind was alien," only echo the opinions of Jefferson's contemporaries. Augustus John Foster, the British secretary, tagged him as a "visionary," one who "loved to dream with his eyes open."
Jefferson's predisposition to see America as a land of limitless possibilities had strong roots in his belief in a golden age, a pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon utopia, evident in his Revolutionary justifications of the colonies' rebellion against the Crown. His 1774 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, contrasted the current state of affairs with a past in which people lived in freedom and harmony, unhampered by government or king. Jefferson's arguments for independence predicted that once purged of the corruption of the present, America could recapture the perfect past for its future. This was not a pose affected for strictly political reasons; it reflected something deeply rooted in Jefferson's character. In the classical worlds to which Jefferson constantly referred, nature provided metaphors and commentary on human actions, and it might have seemed that he stood at the edge of a more natural and moral world as, in January 1801, a large comet fired the sky over Washington City.
But Jefferson would not be free to pursue his plan of utopia in peace. He began his reign at a time of great turmoil and division. Almost from the end of the Revolutionary War, Americans feared that the whole experiment, based on the political theory of republicanism, would fall apart, and that anxiety pervaded the political atmosphere. Undoubtedly the political culture of the 1790s and early 1800s embodied in particularly virulent form the postulate that politics is always personal. This "Age of Passion" was marked by inflammatory rhetoric, vicious public and private attacks, and a fear of conspiracy which scholars have labeled paranoid, in all of which Jefferson participated fully. In an era before party systems, power sharing was not an option; it was all or nothing for the two protoparties, the Federalists and the Republicans, and they justified their right to rule by casting the opposition in the blackest hues.
The election of 1800 focused and concentrated the free-floating apprehension. Power had never passed peacefully from one faction to another, and that it would in 1801 was not at all certain. Jefferson's Federalist enemies viewed his assumption of power as the signal for a reign of Jacobin terror. "There is scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a civil war," gloomily predicted the Connecticut Courant, a newspaper located deep in the heart of Federalist country. "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest" would not only be practiced but taught; the very "air will be rent with the cries of distress," the soil soaked with blood, "and the nation black with crimes." With so much at stake, the rhetoric was high-flown and lowdown--bitter, vicious, and personal.
In his turn, Jefferson hated Federalists and viewed his success in 1800 as the last, best hope of the Republic. It had been a close call. The Federalist "barbarians" had "really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft." But the ship of state survived the previous years of federalism; "put on a republican tack," she would sail free. His "fellow-citizens" had been "hoodwinked," but now that "the band is removed," they would see and appreciate a government of perfect republicanism. It was morning in Jefferson's America.
Part of the Federalists' anxiety lay in uncertainty; they worried that Jefferson intended a thorough overhaul of the government, but they did not know the exact process or goals. Neither did Jefferson. Until they swept the election of 1800, the Jeffersonian Republicans had always cast themselves as an opposition, tracing their origins to the "Country Party" of England, a group of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century disaffected gentry. Theorists such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon developed their version of "pure republicanism" in opposition to what they saw as the danger to liberty posed by the English court's corruption. In their vision, centralized power had caused the disintegration of the government institutions and social practices that ensured English freedom. This philosophy of radical reform had supplied the colonists with a Revolutionary ideology--especially warnings against standing armies and other signs of arbitrary power--but after the war disagreement over interpretations of Country Party doctrine split the founders. First the Anti-Federalists and then Jefferson and his followers co-opted its tenets to define themselves against the Federalists.
Republicans, the Country Party of the United States, like its counterpart in Great Britain, had positioned themselves as a critical minority; in Britain, elites who led the faction actually were few in number. By electing their leader president, however, the American Republicans had ascended to the majority position, and the opposition, in the person of Thomas Jefferson, had become the Establishment. No doubt fed by the Anglo-Saxon myths of a lost golden age, Jefferson's political rhetoric had always been couched in terms of restoration, sweeping away present corruption to re-create some simpler past. When it came to positive formulations of what he was for, however, Jefferson proved a little hazy on the details. In 1801, as he took office, he found himself in an ironic position: he had railed against the danger of consolidated government and abuses of power, and now he held the reins.
History did not provide Jefferson with any models for constructing the first large, modern, republican government. The only successful republics either had existed in ancient times or were small and easily governed. But, as suited his contrary mind, he had very definite ideas about what he did not want for a new social order: anything smacking of aristocracy, a danger he associated with federalism. As the Federalists feared that the "democratic demagogue" would destroy the Constitution and usher in his own Reign of Terror, so Jefferson saw federalism as the next step to a monarchy, bringing with it all the vice, luxury, and corruption inherent in aristocratic societies. Though Jefferson's warnings and anxieties seem almost paranoid at times, ample evidence exists that talk of monarchy did not end with the rejection of John Adams's proposals about titles.
Even some Federalists shared Jefferson's fears of aristocratic excess. Ironically, a few who worried about creeping royalism, like Mercy Otis Warren, fretted that capitals, such as Jefferson's Washington City project, constituted breeding grounds for the luxury that signaled a loss of republican values. Her particular concern was for the young, unborn at the time of the Revolution, who would abandon the "simpler paths" of "competence and felicity" to "follow the fantastic fopperies of foreign nations." Longing for the "distinctions acquired by titles," America's young citizens would eschew "real honor which is ever the result of virtue." In Otis Warrens estimation, the seat of power seemed the place most likely for this to happen.
Not if Jefferson had his way. Not only was it paradoxical for a man who feared consolidated power to champion a national capital; Jefferson, Washington City's biggest promoter, also loathed cities of any kind. Like other Rousseauian romantics, he regarded urban centers along with courts as twin symptoms of civilized decadence. Echoing Rousseau's dictum that "cities are the abyss of the human species," Jefferson declared them "sores" on the body "of pure government." Having recently returned from Paris, from which he traveled to other European countries, Jefferson had himself borne witness to urban dangers. In a privately circulated document, "Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe," he warned that even the spectacular art and architecture of the great European cities served only to distract from the corrupt and depraved lives of their inhabitants. In his own country Federalists gathered together in cities to plot and plan, a circumstance which created the false impression that they reflected the will of the majority. Their proximity to urban areas enabled the Federalists to "act in a body readily and at all times."
Washington City, rustic to a fault, seemed the ideal republican setting. Created in the negative space of Federalist fears, the blankness of Washington provided both challenges and promises. The fact that government was the only business of the place freed Washington City from the influence of bankers, shippers, and other persons associated with trade in more established settings. With few public buildings in any state of completion, no halls of power existed, no recesses where courtiers could hide and plot. The capital resembled Jefferson's "pure republicanism," undeveloped and untested enough to be ideal. That the rich and respectable wanted to go back to Philadelphia, the former capital, against the wishes of the "rough" majority, as Secretary Foster reported, only indicated to Jefferson that he had found the ideal spot to take his stand against the monarchical and aristocratic practices he saw threatening the young Republic.
Excerpted from Parlor Politics by Catherine Allgor Copyright © 2002 by Catherine Allgor.
Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Illustrations||viii|
|1.||President Thomas Jefferson in Washington City||4|
|2.||Dolley Madison Takes Command||48|
|3.||Washington Women in Public||102|
|4.||Louisa Catherine Adams Campaigns for the Presidency||147|
|5.||The Fall of Andrew Jackson's Cabinet||190|