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About the Book

Beyond the Book

296 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 15 halftones, 2 tables, notes, bibl., index

Civil War America

ISBN  978-1-4696-1085-6
Published: December 2013

Washington Brotherhood

Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War

By Rachel A. Shelden

Awards & Distinctions

Honorable Mention, 2014 Wiley-Silver Prize, Center for Civil War Research

Traditional portrayals of politicians in antebellum Washington, D.C., describe a violent and divisive society, full of angry debates and violent duels, a microcosm of the building animosity throughout the country. Yet, in Washington Brotherhood, Rachel Shelden paints a more nuanced portrait of Washington as a less fractious city with a vibrant social and cultural life. Politicians from different parties and sections of the country interacted in a variety of day-to-day activities outside traditional political spaces and came to know one another on a personal level. Shelden shows that this engagement by figures such as Stephen Douglas, John Crittenden, Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander Stephens had important consequences for how lawmakers dealt with the sectional disputes that bedeviled the country during the 1840s and 1850s--particularly disputes involving slavery in the territories.

Shelden uses primary documents--from housing records to personal diaries--to reveal the ways in which this political sociability influenced how laws were made in the antebellum era. Ultimately, this Washington "bubble" explains why so many of these men were unprepared for secession and war when the winter of 1860-61 arrived.

About the Author

Rachel A. Shelden is assistant professor of history at Georgia College and State University.


“Shelden does an admirable job in illustrating how what is said on the floor of the House or Senate might not always be the best guide for historians.”
--Roll Call

“A charming, superbly crafted examination of Washington, D.C., during the years when the slavery issue rose to prominence in American politics and then tore the country apart.”
--America’s Civil War

“Shelden’s work offers valuable insight into a male-dominated culture that was almost purposefully concealed from the public, adds a vital ingredient to our understanding of why politicians seemed peculiarly unable to grasp the likely repercussions of their actions in the late antebellum era, and provides the reader with an engaging and not infrequently entertaining read.”
--Civil War Book Review

“A fresh perspective. . . . Students of American political culture outside the antebellum era and those seeking historical support for either optimistic (the nation endured) or cynical (despite the bloodiest war in American history) interpretations of contemporary political conditions will likewise find much to engage their interest.”
--North Carolina Historical Review

"Shelden pulls back the façade of sectionalist pistol-wielding and Bowie knife-brandishing to reveal the surprising brotherhood that existed within the antebellum Washington community."
--Mark E. Neely Jr., McCabe-Greer Professor of Civil War History, Pennsylvania State University

"In her striking new book, Rachel Shelden goes behind the scenes to show readers a Washington, D.C., in the years before the Civil War that rarely reached the public eye. She highlights sociable day-to-day life in boardinghouses and hotels, where Northerners and Southerners took their measure of each other and often became friends. When secession suddenly brought their world to a screeching halt, many of the dismayed principals tried vainly to stem the torrent."—Daniel W. Crofts, The College of New Jersey

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