"Education" concerned itself with modern education itself and political theory but also had elements of autobiography. That book is classic because it offers insight into how far political power differs from the way most people in a democracy might care to view it. Adams, like his comp-temporaries William James and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, was a pragmatist at heart and one who had serious misgivings about the role of power politics in a democratic society. Especially one where business interests and party patronage were so strong.
This led him to write--anonymously--"Democracy", a story of two powerful men vying for the love of one society socialite, the widowed Mrs. Lightfoot Lee. Also in the mix is her younger unmarried sister, Sibyl Ross, a woman who desperately struggles to keep her from from marrying the corrupt and ambitious, charismatic and amoral Senator Silas Ratcliffe of Illinois.
The novel takes its course as Mrs. Lee--a philanthropist and social activist with a sterling reputation for both--decamps from New York City after the death of her son, looking for a way to understand how power functions in Washington. She has no intention at first of getting remarried and one feels she must be searching for some sort of distraction to deal with such grievous personal losses.
MIss Ross' comrade in this affair is the spurned suitor John Carrington, a Virginia lawyer and former Confederate officer who lost his family fortune during the Civil War. He is hopelessly in love with Mrs. Lee herself, but she is much more taken by the Senator. Ratcliffe is well aware of his rival and at one point lobbies the new President to offer Carrington a economic representitive post in Mexico City to get him away from her for the few months he feels he will need to bend her to his will.
"Democracy" is set in a Washington of power-hungry Senators seeking the Presidency (and in one case a beautiful and intelligent wife for a First Lady) , lobbyists bearing graft in exchange for votes, office-seekers haunting the capital as a new President is about to be sworn in, an army of lawyers, numerous scandals, cynical Old World diplomats who see Americana view of themselves as a incorruptible republic as delusional.
Much of the novel is set in the drawings rooms and splendid houses of Washington's social elite. Mrs. Lightfoot Lee becomes a star in this mobile salon of intelligent and well-placed people. She is first an idealistic than a cynical witness to all the pomp of foreign dignitaries, White House receptions, and speech-making from the galleries of Capitol Hill. There is a fine chapter on her side-trip down the Potomac Rival with friends to se the Georgian spendour of Mount Vernon, home of George Washington.
Here Adams gets to reflect on the times of the Founding Fathers in comparison to the great disillusionment of a century later when the country was saved from slavery after a bloody struggle but still struggling on how to be a true republic.
As historian Arthur Schlesinger put it in an article on Adams in the New York Review of Books in 2003:
"Like other young reformers in 1868, Adams was thrilled by the election of Ulysses S. Grant as president. People saw hopeful parallels between Grant and George Washington. Both were generals; both commanded national confidence; both had the capacity to raise the character of government. Then came the announcement of Grant’s cabinet. When Adams heard that McCulloch, a man he admired, was to be replaced in the Treasury by George W. Boutwell, a man he detested, he saw this as “a somewhat lugubrious joke” signifying “total extinction for anyone resembling Henry Adams.” “To the end of his life,” he recalled, toward the end of his life, “he wondered at the suddenness of the revolution which actually, within five minutes, changed his intended future into an absurdity so laughable as to make him ashamed of it.” Disenchantment accelerated as fraud and scandal spread through the Grant administration. “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.” "
Adams himself later saw that the dream of a better society he hoped for in the post-war years was dashed by corruption from the imperfectibility of human beings and the "robber baron" bankers and industralists and railroad executives who wielded power and were virtual kingmakers when it came time to choose Presidential and Senatorial candidates.
Some reforms have come along since 1880, but the course of controlling power and governing by consent of all those citizens who participate is still an ideal far from conception.
'Democracy" is an interesting and witty novel and a strong tonic to those who think our own times are somehow uniquely troubled by a death of ethics in high places. What makes it memorable is how the story ---the wooing of Mrs. Lee by two men from different regions and temperaments--is symbolic of the struggle between ethical and Machiavellian forces in the body politic.
And Adams knew how to keep a secret. No one other than his wife knew he was the author of this novel it seems until after his death 38 years later.