Kathryn Allamong Jacob


On her book King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward,Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age

Cover Interview of May 06, 2010

The wide angle

Lamentations that special interests, spending obscene amounts of money, strangle the voice of “the people”?  More lobbyists than Corinthian columns in the halls of Congress?  These sound familiar today in 2010, but the same stories filled the press and the Capitol building in the 1870s.

In the Gilded Age, when wave after wave of scandal uncovered congressmen who sold their votes and ruthless men who arrived in Washington with trunks full of cash with which to buy them, Sam Ward reigned unspotted as “King of the Lobby.”  Not only that, he transformed what it meant to lobby.  Bribes of railroad stock weren’t for him.  “The King” traded in information exchanged at dinner parties, evenings that one guest gushed were “the climax of civilization.”  At his table the outlines of a new, modern lobby, a lobby easily recognizable today, took shape.  With the spotlight shining again on the lobby and while cries of abuses of power by special interests abound, exposing and understanding the roots of the modern lobby in the years after the Civil War gives context to the current debate.

Before the Capitol’s lobbies were even finished, special interest groups began lining up to exercise their First Amendment right “of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”  How has the Constitutionally sanctioned lobby evolved in the intervening two centuries?  Can wily lobbyists like Collis Huntington in the 1860s or Jack Abramoff in 2000 really be said to be seeking “redress of grievances”?  Or is the nation now, as the press believed it was in the 1870s, going to hell in a hand-basket carried by lobbyists?

Themes important for examining Sam Ward’s life and the post-bellum lobby into the context of their times run throughout my career.  My doctoral dissertation examined high society in Washington during the Gilded Age.  As a historian for the U. S. Senate for more than a decade, I studied Congress and lobbying up close.  As editor-in-chief of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989 (GPO, 1989), I gained an understanding (and a trove of arcane details) of the lives of hundreds of former senators, some of whom got caught up in the cascade of scandals that washed over the two administrations of Ulysses S. Grant.

Research for my first book, Capital Elites, introduced me to Sam Ward, a key player at the three-way intersection of politics, power, and entertaining in the post-war years.  My second book, Testament to Union, again took me into the thick of politics and lobbying, where I ran into the ubiquitous Sam once more.

In both of these books and in articles for American Heritage and Smithsonian on the Lizzie Borden ax murders, physician Clelia Mosher and her sex survey of American women, and sculptor Vinnie Ream, who unabashedly lobbied Congress for government commissions, I’ve woven biography together with social, cultural, and political history to create a colorful tapestry that not only examines a life but tells a bigger story about power, class, or gender–sometimes all three–and that’s what I’ve tried to do for Sam Ward and the post-Civil War lobby in King of the Lobby.