John Oller. American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War "Belle of the North" and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2014. 416 pp. $25.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-306-82280-3.
Reviewed by Frank Cirillo (University of Virginia)
Published on H-War (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Over the years, scholars have cast Kate Chase in a number of lights. Chase, the daughter of a prominent politician who became a Washington socialite and a politico in her own right during and after the Civil War, has been portrayed variously as a ruthless political operator, a hopeless romantic, and an empowered progressive. In American Queen, John Oller draws on an impressive array of manuscript sources to offer a well-rounded biography of the enigmatic figure. Oller presents Chase as a “woman ahead of her time”—a “calculating politician” who made her mark as a “behind-the-scenes orchestrator” (pp. xi, 264). At the same time, Oller humanizes his subject as a flawed individual “constrained by the choices she made,” especially regarding the unworthy men to whom she devoted her political talents (pp. 264-265).
In a novel contribution to the extant historiography, Oller stresses that “politics was personal” to Chase (p. 171). She put her stock in specific people, rather than in ideologies or policy positions. Throughout her life, Chase thus worked to advance the interests of her preferred politicos by any means necessary. The first, and paramount, of these figures was her father, Salmon P. Chase. Oller casts the elder Chase, who would serve as wartime treasury secretary and then as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, in a rather unfavorable light. While Kate devoted herself to her father, serving as the widower’s “official hostess” throughout his political life, he refused to provide her with the unconditional love that she craved (p. xi).
Chase nevertheless worked tirelessly to make her father president. She served as the manager of her father’s presidential campaigns in 1864 and 1868, using her social position as the “belle of Washington” to further the elder Chase’s ambitions (p. 39). Oller’s discussion of the 1868 campaign is especially strong. Kate developed a “political strategy” whereby her father would cut his longstanding ties with the Republicans, which had coalesced around the candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant, and run as a Democrat (p. 37). Because she “wanted him to win,” Chase pushed her father to betray his radical Republican roots and “endorse the racially inflammatory platform” of the Democrats (p. 126). Salmon’s radical past and “lack of warm personal appeal,” however, ensured that Kate’s machinations would come to naught (p. 37).
The elder Chase’s coldness also pushed Kate into the arms of the hot-tempered Republican politician William Sprague. While other scholars have cast her marriage as a political move, Oller argues that Sprague and Chase shared a genuine romance—at least at first. Their wartime marriage, which cemented Chase’s socialite status, fell apart after the war, as Sprague turned to adultery and alcohol. Chase accordingly began an affair in the 1870s with the leader of the Republican political machine, Roscoe Conkling. Convinced that “what was best for the party” was also “what was best for Roscoe Conkling,” she aided his Stalwart faction against Republican reformers throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Chase thereby demonstrated once again that “her politics were more personal than policy or party driven” (p. 231).
Yet Conkling also proved undeserving of her support. Through an excellent parsing of sources, Oller describes a fiery confrontation involving Chase, Sprague, and Conkling in 1879. As the press caught wind of the incident and exposed Chase’s affair, Conkling left her to face the public alone. The resulting scandal destroyed Chase’s political prestige and social status. Following her divorce from Sprague in 1882, Chase would live in solitude for the rest of her life. While historians have cast her as a “tragic figure” that fell from grace, Oller instead emphasizes that Chase embarked on a “new chapter in her life—one less burdened by the need for public approval” (p. 242). In the end, the “quieter pleasures of private life” offered Chase a “peace of mind” that she had not found during her tumultuous political years (pp. 256, 258).
Oller’s biography contains a couple of shortcomings. First, Oller outlines Chase’s political creed but does not explore its larger implications. Was her vision of politics, in which specific people mattered far more than parties or policies, idiosyncratic or part of a larger trend in the nation? And was this philosophy a benefit or detriment to a country dealing with some rather momentous issues in the years during and after the Civil War? Oller neither contextualizes nor takes an interpretive stance on the Chase mindset. Second, he fails to flesh out Chase’s views on the defining issues of the day, such as slavery and black rights. Did Chase hold any heartfelt beliefs on the meaning of the Civil War and what its settlement should entail? Oller goes to great lengths to repudiate scholarly interpretations of Chase as a political idealist, but he veers toward the other extreme—of presenting her as a shameless opportunist bereft of principles.
Taken as a whole, however, American Queen is a strong biography. In well-written yet accessible prose, Oller provides a fascinating understanding of Chase’s life as a whole, from her marriage dynamics to her political maneuverings. The author does excellent work in locating the strand of Chase’s influence throughout the politics of the later nineteenth century. Perhaps most important, Oller’s insights regarding Chase’s political philosophy are a valuable contribution to the historiography of American politics from the 1860s to the 1880s. The work therefore comes recommended for general audiences and scholars alike.
. The scholarship on Kate Chase includes Ishbel Ross, Proud Kate: Portrait of an Ambitious Woman (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953); Thomas and Marva Belden, So Fell the Angels (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1957); Alice Sokoloff, Kate Chase for the Defense (New York: Dodd, Meade, and Co., 1971); and Peg A. Lamphier, Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Frank Cirillo. Review of Oller, John, American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War "Belle of the North" and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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