Bringing Down the Colonel
By Patricia Miller
Sarah Crichton, 368 pages, $28
Hillary Clinton told CBS News last month that Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinsky during his presidency did not involve “abuse of power.” Her remarks reignited the national debate about where to assign blame when a powerful older man makes sexual advances toward a younger, less powerful woman.
Americans have had this conversation before. In the 1890s a prominent member of Congress lost a breach-of-promise lawsuit brought by his longtime lover, who contended that he had reneged on his pledge to marry her. Was the congressman a predator who knowingly “ruined” an innocent young woman? Was the woman an adventuress out to entrap a celebrity politician? The nation was riveted on these and other questions during the five-week trial in 1894.
This mostly forgotten episode in the long history of Washington sex scandals has been brought vividly to life by Patricia Miller, a Washington-based journalist, in “Bringing Down the Colonel.” Her book is a deeply researched account of the affair and its aftermath, along with an examination of the changing sexual mores of the late 19th century.
The colonel of the book’s title is Rep. William C.P. Breckinridge, a handsome, sweet-talking Confederate war hero and Kentucky Democrat who hailed from a storied political family. He was married and in his late 40s when he began an affair with Madeline Pollard, a student at Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati who was at least 25 years his junior. The affair lasted nearly a decade, during which time Pollard gave birth to two of his children. When Breckinridge’s wife died in 1892, he spurned Pollard and married another woman.
The trial of Pollard v. Breckinridge—and the congressman’s loss—were sensations. Instead of hiding her shame, as fallen women were expected to do, Pollard spoke frankly about her seduction and the nature of the affair. Her testimony was corroborated by a string of witnesses, including the woman who had run one of the assignation houses where the couple had met and the doctors who had attended Pollard when she gave birth. A government typist testified that she had typed love letters from Breckinridge to Pollard. A Kentucky society matron refuted Breckinridge’s avowal that he had not promised to marry Pollard, stating that the congressman had introduced Madeline as his fiancée.
One of the blackest marks against Breckinridge was Pollard’s testimony that he had forced her to abandon their children to orphan asylums, where both babies died. Under the unspoken Victorian rules of conduct for illicit affairs, Ms. Miller explains, men were expected to provide for their children. Leaving a newborn in an infant asylum “was often a death sentence” because of a “combination of overcrowding, disease, a shortage of wet nurses—and only primitive, impure formula substitutes—and a sheer lack of affection.”
Breckinridge’s defense was poorly prepared, Ms. Miller writes. But it was also true that the congressman made the fatal mistake of assuming that his status and sex would protect him—that a jury would refuse to find for a “wanton” woman. Even so, Ms. Miller shows sympathy for the congressman, especially for the effect the affair had on his Wellesley-educated daughter, who was about the same age as Pollard. Nisba Breckinridge postponed her career ambitions in order to care for her new stepmother, who had a mental breakdown in response to the scandal.
While the congressman “may have started out as the exploiter,” Ms. Miller writes, “as time went on, it was unclear just who was using whom.” Pollard repeatedly lied about her age and sexual experience. She appears to have had a history of making inappropriate advances toward other prominent men, possibly including Treasury Secretary John Carlisle. Ms. Miller speculates that she engaged in casual prostitution when she needed money.
Under the prevailing social mores of the day, society punished only women—not men—for engaging in sexual conduct outside of marriage. Pollard, her reputation destroyed, was damaged goods, with little chance of finding a man willing to marry her. Breckinridge, by contrast, could carry on with his life. Pollard expressed her frustration with this double standard when she told the jury: “I said there was such a thing as justice, and it should be done. He should have his share and I should have my share.” Ms. Miller avers that Pollard seemed less interested in revenge or restitution than in making a point about sexual equality.
An unanswered question about the lawsuit is who paid for Pollard’s legal costs. Ms. Miller presents a plausible case that the money came from wealthy women who hoped that a full airing of Pollard’s predicament would lead to a change in societal attitudes about men’s out-of-wedlock sexual activity. The reformers wanted men to be judged by the higher moral standard that applied to women—that is, chastity for both sexes. After the trial, the women of Breckinridge’s district in Kentucky put that precept into action when they led an economic and social boycott against the congressman and any man who supported him in his campaign for re-election in 1894. He lost.
Pollard v. Breckinridge didn’t end the double standard, though Ms. Miller contends that it helped “break the taboo around women and premarital sex.” That feels like a stretch, given that the age of sexual liberation was still decades away. Certainly the episode didn’t lead to an elevation in the standard of sexual morality for men. Rather, as the nation experienced the sexual revolutions of the 20th and 21st centuries, equality all too often came to mean that women had license to behave as irresponsibly as men. In today’s #MeToo world, “Bringing Down the Colonel” reverberates in unexpected ways.