IN THE YEARS before the Civil War, Washington, D.C., was “very much a work in progress”: most of its roads were muddy mires, neighborhoods were far apart by horseback, and much of the city sat in a genuine swamp to which most Congressmen had to travel from far away. In Bosom Friends, Balcerski conveys the roughness of the city in you-are-there detail, showing why a politician would come to Washington without his delicate, genteel wife.
In general, families were in fact left at home to tend to estates or other affairs, since nearly all of those men were landowners in far-flung parts of the fledgling U.S. The politicians who came to our nation’s capital sans family needed a place to live, so boardinghouses—called “messes”—sprang up to house them. This, then, is the backdrop, described at considerable length, for Balcerski’s tale: It was at a “mess” that William King met James Buchanan.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.