John Oller’s cumbersomely titled AMERICAN QUEEN: THE RISE AND FALL OF KATE CHASE SPRAGUE – CIVIL WAR “BELLE OF THE NORTH” AND GILDED AGE WOMAN OF SCANDAL is a surprising biography of a woman I’d never heard of. It’s surprising for a number of reasons, each of them as legitimate and important as the next.
I’m surprised that I hadn’t learned about Kate Chase Sprague in any of the history classes I’ve taken, even the ones that were centered on women in some way. Oller proves that, without a doubt, she influenced at least a quarter century of American politics and history in ways that really can’t be ignored. Women couldn’t vote when Kate, the daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, made sure that she was at the center of everything that happened in Washington, D.C.
She wasn’t content to throw parties and look pretty, both of which she excelled at. She wanted to influence the course of things and she did. Oller makes the comparison that while for most citizens politics is local but for Kate politics were personal and she most of her influence trying to get her father, and later her lover, elected president.
She never succeeded but that didn’t stop her.
Another area of surprise is that even though Kate lived and moved over a century and a half ago, things haven’t changed much. The newspapers then, even far-flung ones in dusty Kansas towns, were fascinated by her. They reported on the clothes she wore, the men who courted her, the children she had, the parties she threw, and the affairs she may or may not have had. “Celebrity” wasn’t a concept at the time, but she was a celebrity in every sense of the word. She refused to be limited by anything and the news media ate up everything she did.
This, in one of the most interesting sections of the biography, irritated Mary Todd Lincoln to no end and the supposed “war” between the two Washington hostesses is filled with vague half-truths concealing the actuality of what happened. It’s almost like a Civil War version of The Real Housewives of … and would play well in any gossip website.
And just like the reality “stars” and “celebrities” of today who seek out fame often fall far, so too did Kate Sprague Chase.
A marriage to a wealthy heir, Governor and later Senator William Sprague of Rhode Island, was either one of money or of love. The point is that he was a drunk and fell far below the status she envisioned for herself. The letters between Kate and William that Oller cites are fascinating looks at the private lives of two people who both excel at overcompensating for what they perceive as their own shortcomings, always at the expense of the other. The marriage didn’t last and a bad economy swept them both off their feet.
Kate Sprague Chase may have been the “Belle of the North” but she died far, and somewhat pathetically, from that. She seems like the type of person that we all admire from afar, that we probably would find terribly conceited if we knew her, and that history is generally truthful with – and the truthfulness may seem unkind, but it is truth.
AMERICAN QUEEN should be required reading for anyone taking a class in American history, anyone interested in this period of American history, and any woman who wants to know what ignoring societal limitations looks like.
AMERICAN QUEEN is available for purchase now.
(I received a copy of AMERICAN QUEEN through NetGalley in exchange for an honest & original review. My review will be posted on NetGalley, Goodreads, and my blog.)