Charles Petzold

Reading “Bringing Down the Colonel”

January 21, 2019
Sayreville, New Jersey

At first, Bringing Down the Colonel seems like a retelling of a tawdry sex scandal of the 1890s, but in Patricia Miller's skillful hands, it becomes a springboard for a panoramic view of the burgeoning feminist movement in the decades prior to the 20th century.

Bringing Down the Colonel

The Colonel in the title is William Campbell Preston Breckinridge, an officer in the Confederate Army in the Civil War and, beginning in 1885, a Congressman from Kentucky. When the Colonel's wife died in 1893, he married again -- but not the woman he had been having an affair with for a decade, and with whom he had fathered two children, and who he had promised to marry if ever his wife died.

Madeline Pollard responded with a breach-of-promise suit, triggering a scandal that quickly grew beyond Washington D.C. and Kentucky to capture the interest of the whole country. The intent of the suit was not to squeeze some money from the Colonel (who had very little), but to demonstrate the "perniciousness of the unequal standard of morality for men and women" (pg. 237), which even at the time was called the "double standard." This suit was launched in a culture that encouraged sexual predation in men but restricted unmarried women to puritanical virginity and condemned women who had sex before marriage as "ruined" and no longer fit for society.

Like many modern micro-histories, Bringing Down the Colonel uses this particular event as an opportunity to tell a much bigger story. Throughout the book, we are treated to fascinating discussions of women's work and education options in the decades after the Civil War (including familiar issues like sex discrimination and workplace harassment), and the political power that women were able to wield decades before they got the vote.

This is an exceptionally entertaining and informative book, a little slice of American history that becomes a much larger wedge of the increasing triumphs of determined and powerful women.