Billed in the subtitle as "The True Story of a Remarkable Woman and the First Great Scandal of the Eighteenth-Century", Unwise Passions is a riveting morality tale, propelled by a virtual Who's Who of American politics. Crawford's compelling recreation of post-Revolutionary politics reveals intimate details of the lives of the Founding Fathers, including Patrick Henry, Court Justice John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Gouverneur Morris of New York, a signatory of the U.S. Constitution. The great struggle of early politicians to create a governmental structure that would safeguard the future of a country still in its infancy is evident in the juxtaposition of their idealistic agendas. Much like today, there is a polarization between federal and state issues, each faction vehement in their beliefs.
The vixen behind the scenes is Nancy Randolph, a handsome young woman accused in 1793 of killing her infant newborn, complicit with her brother-in-law, Richard Randolph, who may or may not have been the father. The comely daughter of a Virginia tobacco plantation owner, the one-time star of her social set is virtually outcast, scorned by proper Virginia society. After the inquest, Nancy lives in seclusion on the formerly grand plantation, Bizarre. At the mercy of her sister Judith, Nancy is safe until Judith's husband Richard's demise. After that, Judith develops even more antipathy toward the young woman and, with the moral support of Jack Randolph, Richard's younger brother, ascribes Richard's untimely death to Nancy. Jack has restored the plantation to its former glory and, finally, Nancy is ordered from Bizarre and left to fend for herself.
In New York, Nancy marries Gouvernour Morris, who relinquishes his bachelor days to this delightful young woman, his wealth allowing Nancy to live above the fray of her infamous past. However, after the much older Morris dies, Nancy finds herself in reduced circumstances, marshalling all her resources to protect her young son's inheritance from Morris' greedy relatives, victim once more to the rabid whispers of idle gossips.
The Federalists include George Washington and John Adams, who favor the interests of the mercantile classes of the north. Led by Thomas Jefferson, the opposition party of the Democratic-Republicans decries a United States Bank, federal excise taxes and US interference in the war between France and Great Britain, increasingly suspicious of the evolving national government. Jeffersonians believe that the power of governments must be restrained, thereby preserving personal liberties as defined by the Founding Fathers. The executive branch poses the greatest threat and presidential power must be checked, lest it become a monarchy.
A Jeffersonian, the youngest Randolph son, Jack, an able orator and Virginia congressman, is also an opiate addict. Installed on his own plantation, Roanoke, Jack makes it his lifelong mission to persecute Nancy Randolph for her "transgressions", among them her preference for both of his brothers rather than him. Like any great Washington scandal, Nancy Randolph's crime needs no proof in order to provide grist for the mill of society gossips, not the least of whom are politicians who wax poetic with their inflammatory language, perched on the pedestal of righteousness. And, like today's scandals, the Nancy Randolph saga fades into the realm of myth, while establishing a precedent for the outrageous glamour of the political spotlight.