A tribute to Mary Ellen Isgraves’s 1999 article on prostitution and slavery

A former American diplomat, Clément Baillet of the Economist, pays tribute to my column in the Guardian on prostitution and slavery, which I wrote in 2005. The following was published in the FT:

In 1860, a few years after his inauguration, the American founding father James Madison, confiding to his friend, President Abraham Lincoln, that he had lost all love for his wife, his wife’s mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, asked him to “please give me to you a lover, to try me for Christ”. Lincoln agreed that Madison’s wife had an unendurable habit of posting expensive invitations to her lovers to come and celebrate their birthdays together, and that she regularly entertained them for months, even years.

Though Lincoln’s version of events failed to give away anything about the relationship between these two American statesmen, he revealed much about the frustration of middle American politicians and their reliance on the seductive powers of women. By 1857, he had found an answer to Madison’s love problem – he dispensed with Madison himself. His associates had been listening to a sobbing Bill Halter, the senator from Arkansas, pleading that his abolitionist party now should vote against the Bill because of the demeaning kind of attention Madison paid to his wife. The congressmen, most of them Presbyterians, sighed and soon, as Lincoln said, “all it required was one helping hand and an iron spine”.

It has never seemed clear to me what the object of James Madison’s obsession was, although I have always thought it was not about love. He seemed more to be baffled by his wife’s open contempt for him and admired for the way in which her children’s love of him was unalloyed and passionately held. He sometimes adored them, and she looked back to him as the greatest love of her life. It is possible that he was jealous of the closeness of their friendship, which had survived the disappointment of their marriage, but I doubt it. I could see, however, a less romantic explanation. In general, Madison saw himself as a very loving man – but not around his wife. All of his hard work seemed to be for her as much as it was for the Republic. It had helped him win election and ratification for the Constitution, and his own personal happiness had still not been guaranteed. His wife had not been able to save him, and she should have – at least in the eyes of the worldly politicians and aristocrats, of whom he was one. For only women could bring out the best in men and persuade them to seek inner happiness.

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