Kate Chase Sprague (1840-99), the daughter of Lincoln's treasury secretary and wife of a Rhode Island governor, senator and Civil War veteran, held court in Washington, D.C. — to the dismay of Mary Todd Lincoln, but much to the delight of the team (one might say the legions) of rivals who thought they could lead better than the first elected Republican president.
In a half-dozen botched attempts to win that nation's highest office, Sprague's own father, Salmon P. Chase (1808-73), an unfortunate combination of sanctimony and opportunism, plotted to supplant Lincoln and others. His daughter became, in effect, his campaign manager, and as John Oller shows in "American Queen," she was able to command the attention, if not the allegiance, of nearly every major Washington politician.
This historical biography, a kind of life-and-times tome, in a certain sense has no historical significance at all. For all her clever maneuvering, Kate Chase Sprague, saddled with a dashing but drunken and unfaithful husband, never came close to getting her father nominated, let alone elected president. And then she compounded her own folly by engaging in a decadelong affair with another handsome, virile hunk of a senator, Roscoe Conkling, a power broker in New York and Washington — another public figure who made no lasting contribution to his nation or to history.
Why, then, bother with an American queen who had no realm or lasting influence? As Oller deftly delineates, Sprague's story is fascinating in itself. She is a fit subject for a biography because of her commanding presence in an era when women were not expected to have any say in public affairs. She regularly made the national news and set a style and manner that showed what women could do given proximity to power. Even though she dressed in the constricting fashions of her time, she behaved boldly and decisively, thus giving the lie to the genteel conception of women as the tender second sex not meant to consort with dirty politicians in the public arena.
Oller commands his sources in a riveting narrative that is all the more persuasive because he does not make large claims for his subject. It is enough, he realizes, for a biography to portray and assess a remarkable human being — one who struggled with and overcame many of the confining conventions of her age — in her own terms.
Carl Rollyson is the author of "Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography," and "American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath."