Democracy by Henry Adams: why it's the best anonymous Washington novel.

The history behind current events.
April 20 2011 2:28 PM

Democracy

Why it's the only lasting anonymous Washington novel.

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Democracy is the story of a young widow, Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, who relocates to Washington, where her romantic pursuits unfold against a backdrop of high-level political intrigue and corruption. The book's themes are the doubts harbored by Washington's aristocratic society about the viability of the nation's newly robust mass democracy. The party system of the late 19th century was dominated by plutocratic senators on the take from newly wealthy corporations, and, in Adams' telling, party machines put power and self-enrichment above the public interest. Good governance scarcely stands a chance.

Parts of the novel, to be sure, no longer speak to us except as period pieces. The Victorian salons and courtship rituals seem quaint, the nakedness of the party machinations dated. But in other ways Democracy is strikingly contemporary. Ratcliffe, the charismatic but corrupt Republican senator who for a time beguiles Madeleine as he sizes her up as a prospective first lady, hides an original sin that will resonate with anyone who is still recovering from the Bush years: He doctored his state's election returns to ensure his candidate's victory in a close, contested presidential election. (Adams fused the election of Lincoln in 1864 to the controversial 1876 election, which lasted far longer than that of 2000 and which Rutherford Hayes ultimately won in a corrupt bargain.)

Also uncannily contemporary is the portrait of the newly elected president in Democracy. He a reformist outsider hailing from the Midwest, one "whose political experience was limited to stump-speaking in his native State, and to one term as Governor," but enjoys the starry-eyed support of newspaper editors everywhere. Once in Washington, he's outmaneuvered by skillful veterans like Ratcliffe. For the most part, though, Democracy is neither timebound nor timely but timeless: a subtle meditation on the seductions of partisanship, the elusiveness of clean government, and the tension between the premises of popular wisdom that underlie self-government and the mediocre leaders and short-sighted decisions that democracy often produces.

At the broadest level, the book is a straightforward indictment of Gilded Age corruption, of the hollowness of presidents and other politicians, and of the superficiality of the court politics of Washington insiders. Although Madeleine is at first taken with Washington life, attending sessions of Congress and reading up on her presidential history, she grows disillusioned, not least because she loses esteem for the cynical Ratcliffe. Her view of a White House receiving line reveals the concerns about authenticity that permeated American politics even then:

Madeline found herself before two seemingly mechanical figures, which might be wood or wax, for any sign they showed of life. These two figures were the President and his wife; they stood stiff and awkward by the door, both their faces stripped of every sign of intelligence, while the right hands of both extended themselves to the column of visitors with the mechanical action of toy dolls…. To the President and his wife this was clearly no laughing matter. There they stood, automata, representatives of the society which streamed past them…. What a strange and solemn spectacle it was…. She felt a sudden conviction that this was to be the end of American society; its realization and its dream at once. She groaned in spirit.

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Despite the book's overtly political passages, Adams stops short of the pamphleteering that mars second-rate Washington fiction. He allows other parties to have their say about democracy. Though corrupt, Ratcliffe defends the American system, warts and all. He admits that "in politics we cannot keep our hands clean. I have done many things in my political career that are not defensible." But he explains his participation in election chicanery as necessary to save the Union. He even makes an eloquent defense of party-line voting, explaining when it's prudent to yield his own personal opinions to the party position.

But the most sympathetic argument comes from a minor character in the book, the diplomat Nathan Gore. His democratic spirit remains undimmed because he combines modest expectations with a sober assessment of the alternatives—a variation on the old quip that democracy is the worst form of government but for all the others. In an era when many people questioned the viability of democracy—as they did in 1925 as well as in 1880—Gore says: "I believe in democracy … because it appears to me the inevitable consequence of what has gone before it. Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. … I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking." He doesn't defend rank corruption, but he recognizes the inherent grubbiness of democratic politics.

Democracy survives because democracy remains a work in progress.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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