Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Democracy: An American Novel (1880)

Genre: Other
Author:Henry Adams
Besides "Democracy", a novel published anonymously in 1880 which was a best-seller and a controversial book in its day, Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) is best remembered for his remarkable memoir "The Education of Henry Adams" which was first published privately in 1907. He was an influential historian of the early American republic in his own right and also the grandson of a President and the great-grandson of John Adams, who was both President and Founding Father.

"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.


  1. sounds interesting..well ms Lee does anyway..:)

  2. Doug, thanks for the perspective here - we'd all do well to remember that this has happened before.

    (Of course, we didn't have the Internet, nuclear weapons, and a whole world which hated us back then, either - and we weren't almost out of energy - but those are other matters....)

  3. One commentator saw Mrs. Lee as a stand-in for the author himself, Mike, in the way she was a keen student of the potential for good in politics, but ultimately to become disillusioned by democracy itself. The romantic triangle of course makes it a novel and not a dry bit of journalism.

    And whomever the model for Mrs. Lee as a woman was, I'm sure she was distractingly charming. :-)

  4. Yes it has, Will, and the more people realize there is less new in this world than they think, the more they might be less likely to hoodwinked by demagogues.

    Of course, many Americans aren't big on their own history unless it involves explosions in foreign countries. In a poll I read in Newsweek recently, only one in five of those adults polled knew who the President was in World War One. Fewer than half could name one power enumerated in the Constitution for the federal government.

    The power the USA has (and the lack thereof in domestic energy alternatives ) and the capacity we have to spread disinformation electronically to one another is one more reason we need the ability to filter out the crap we get when pundits in the media and politicians take advantage of citizen ignorance.

  5. I believe I read this in college

  6. Fascinating. Thank you Doug.

  7. You're one up on me. I just finished it Fred. The books I should have read in college but didn't would make a fine library.

    I've made up for it a bit since though.

  8. And "thanks" right back at you Iri Ani. :-)