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.

Harvard graduation photo of Henry Brooks Adams.
A young Henry Adams

The publication of the dismal O: A Presidential Novel—the 2008 campaign's contribution to the genre of anonymously published political fiction—led Slate readers to vote on their all-time favorite Washington novel. You did yourselves credit by choosing Democracy by Henry Adams. Like O, and the Clinton-era Primary Colors before it, Democracy was an anonymously published roman à clef, causing a stir in political circles when it appeared in 1880. Unlike those authors' anonymity, however, the secret of Adams' authorship held for 35 years.

Topical political novels seldom endure as literature, or even as genre fiction. Government officials, campaign operatives, and journalists rarely possess the requisite artistic gifts, as any reader of Newt Gingrich's novels knows well. The appeal of most Washington novels rests in their resonance with current events. After Joe Klein was outed as the author of the Primary Colors, popular interest in reading the book plummeted. Klein's sequel, The Running Mate, written under his own name, drew little attention. Most Washington novels are not literature but punditry by other means.

Yet Democracy, though distinctly an artifact of its historical moment, boasts some true artistry. The most detailed version I have found of the book's publication and reception comes from Ernest Samuels's 1958 biography, Henry Adams: The Middle Years. As a young man, Adams sympathized with the good-government reform movement that sought to purify the corruption-plagued party politics of the "Gilded Age"—the name given to the period by the era's other great political novel, written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. But following the Grant presidency's scandals, the 42-year-old Adams, by then an accomplished historian and journalist, lost hope in reform. He would soon embrace a world-weary Spenglerian declinism. As a descendant of both President Adamses and the son of thwarted presidential aspirant Charles Francis Adams, Henry also had personal reasons to believe that the presidency was in eclipse. "I bade politics good-bye when I wrote Democracy," he later said.

The men and women he witheringly depicted in his novel, Adams knew, were not well disguised. So it was all the more important that he himself should be. Disclosing his authorship to only a few confidants, he took pains to be in Europe when the book appeared. It was published on April Fools' Day, 1880. Although the initial American response was subdued, the book made a splash in Britain, where the scribbling class found confirmation of their suspicions about America's vulgar democracy. The British scuttlebutt in turn triggered a new flurry of excitement in the States.

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Political insiders delighted in trying to unmask both the characters and the author. The former were easier to figure out—especially the book's compelling villain, Silas B. Ratcliffe, a thinly veiled incarnation of Maine Senator James G. Blaine, who had twice blocked Adams' father from the Republican party's presidential nod. But the author's identity was harder to ascertain. "It was the exception for me to be in any company where I was not plied with questions regarding it," wrote his publisher, Henry Holt, one of the few in on the secret.

Of the innumerable guesses, several came quite close. Theodore Roosevelt believed it was E.L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, a friend of Adams, another one of the few people privy to the truth. Adams' father-in-law nominated his daughter, Marian "Clover" Adams, Henry's wife, but she denied it strenuously. Most richly of all, Adams' own brother, Charles Francis Jr., fingered John Hay—formerly Lincoln's secretary, later William McKinley's secretary of state, and a dear friend of Henry's. (The two men and their wives even lived in adjoining townhouses on Lafayette Square—also the site of much of the novel's action—where Washington's Hay-Adams hotel now stands.)

In the first wave of guesses, only one reviewer, the British writer Mary Augusta Ward, guessed correctly. Ward heard in Democracy echoes of the ideas that were in an article Adams had written in the North American Review on civil-service reform. The Gilded Age's Donald Foster arrived 30 years later, when Theodore Stanton of Cornell, the son of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, declared that while the novel's authorship had "hitherto baffled the critics," he could "definitively" identify Adams. A few years after that, William Roscoe Thayer, who as John Hay's biographer was immersed in the relevant correspondence, proclaimed himself more certain still. "You alone," he wrote to Adams, "were up to the level of its substance, vocabulary and style." Many people found Thayer's conjecture persuasive. But not until 1920—two years after Henry Adams' death—did Henry Holt finally confirm the guess.

By then, Democracy had been through multiple printings. Its success in the new era, several decades after its appearance, owed little to its faded topicality and more to its insights into the dilemmas of American democracy. Beneath the morality tale of corruption and cynicism was what Ernest Samuels called a "symposium on democratic government," with all sides of the issue given their due.

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.

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 media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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