• Email
  • Print

On Henry Adams’s ‘Democracy’

The novelist insisted on total ano-nymity, instructed his publisher to bring the book out on April Fools’ Day 1880, and took care to be in Europe on publication day. Democracy: An American Novel1 created a sensation and was a best seller in the United States and England. The author was not disclosed for another thirty-five years. He was Henry Adams.

Edward Chalfant, his best biographer, believes that Adams began Democracy as early as 1867 in London when he was secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to the Court of St. James. In 1868 the Adamses returned to the United States. Henry, thirty years old and in search of a career, supposed that political journalism might be the way to move his bewildered country in the right direction. The press, he conceded, was “an inferior pulpit; an anonymous schoolmaster; a cheap boarding-school; but it was still the nearest approach to a career for the literary survivor of a wrecked education.”

Where to establish a reputation? “Neither by temperament nor by education,” Adams observed in his (third-person) Education of Henry Adams, “was he fitted for Boston.” New York dazzled him, but he had no New York base, and so he decided on Washington. In the nation’s capital Adams found active and intelligent contemporaries, eager for reform, rallied by Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch—“the broadest, most liberal, most genial and most practical public man in Washington”—united by the conviction that, after the Civil War, the whole political fabric required rethinking and renewal—“as much,” Adams said, “as in 1789.” He found himself at home with the young reformers, “more at home,” he later wrote, “than he ever had been before, or was ever to be again.” He adored Washington, “the easiest society he had ever seen.”

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.”2 “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.”

What had gone wrong? As the old Henry Adams was to remark about his younger self, “He needed to penetrate the political mystery.” If the Op-Ed page had been invented, Henry Adams could have been the Walter Lippmann of his day. What he required was a New York daily, but no New York daily required him. Still E.L. Godkin’s weekly Nation and James Russell Lowell’s quarterly North American Review were always available, and in Great Britain the Edinburgh Review and the Westminster Review took occasional Adams pieces.

In a series of powerful articles young Adams did his best to set forth the tragic dilemmas of democracy. Popular government, he contended, was fatally threatened by the emerging power of the corporation. In “The Session, 1869–1870,” a savage piece for the North American Review in July 1870, he emphasized the impotence of reform as a check on corporate aggression. While reformers in Congress rejoiced at carrying a small reduction in the tariff on pig iron, Congress was creating a new Pacific railway—

an imperishable corporation, with its own territory, an empire within a republic, more powerful than a sovereign State, and absolutely inconsistent with the purity of republican institutions, or with the safety of any government…. With the prodigious development of corporate and private wealth, resistance must be vain.

(The Democratic National Committee circulated Adams’s article in a vain effort to stop Grant’s reelection in 1872.)

Young Adams summed up his indictment of corporate power in “The New York Gold Conspiracy” for the Westminster Review in October 1870. The Erie Railroad, he wrote, “has shown its power for mischief, and has proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check.” The day is at hand, Adams continued, when corporations far greater than Erie,

swaying power such as has never in the world’s history been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens,… after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption—will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance.

The regulatory power of government “sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is trying to escape, and thus destroy the limits of its power in order to make corruption omnipotent.”

The tendency of our political system to corruption,” he wrote in the October 1876 North American Review, had accelerated to the point where “unless the evil is checked, our political system must break down.” Corporations dependent on legislation routinely bribed legislators and parties to assure profits and dividends. “So long as there is money to corrupt, there will be parties to hide the corruption and to receive their reward.” The domination of politics by the party system, Adams argued, crucially reinforced the tendency to corruption and constituted a mortal danger to democratic self-government.

Meanwhile Harvard had offered Adams an assistant professorship in history and the editorship of the North American Review, and his family prevailed on the disillusioned young journalist to accept. His Harvard years were not especially happy—“several score of the best-educated, most agreeable, and personally the most sociable people in America united in Cambridge to make a social desert that would have starved a polar bear”—and his concern for the American future did not abate. Confiding only in his wife, Marian Hooper (Clover) Adams, he quietly worked away in spare moments on his Washington novel.

In 1877, to his immense relief, he moved back to Washington. “I gravitate to a capital by a primary law of nature,” he wrote a British friend. “This is the only place in America where society amuses me, or where life offers variety.” By then he had worked out the central conflicts of the Washington novel.

The protagonist is a New York woman, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, thirty years old, whose husband and child have died and who has tried, and failed, to fill an empty life by good works. Nor does foreign travel help. She is American to the tips of her fingers, “and she meant to get all that America had to offer, good or bad, and to drink it down to the dregs….”

So Madeleine Lee decides to pass the winter in Washington:

She wanted to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power. She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy…. What she wanted, was POWER.

Like Henry Adams.

She comes to Washington at a propitious time for her quest. It is an interregnum, the interval of four months (until the Twentieth Amendment) between the election and the installation of a new president. Rumors abound in such transitions, and this time speculation centers on the relationship between the president-elect, a one-term governor of Indiana, and Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe of Illinois, the Prairie Giant, whom the unknown Indiana farmer had beaten by three votes for the presidential nomination. But Senator Ratcliffe retains his power in Congress and in the party, and the new president must somehow come to terms with him.

Madeleine Lee rents a house on Lafayette Square, opposite the White House. Soon politicians and diplomats flock to her soirées. Ratcliffe among them. He is an impressive figure, masculine, confident, eloquent, talking naturally, shrewdly, humorously. “There was a certain bigness about the man; a keen practical sagacity; a bold freedom of self-assertion; a broad way of dealing with what he knew.”

He talks to Madeleine with astonishing freedom about his own politi-cal situation, making her complicit by discussing his strategy toward the president-elect. She sees Ratcliffe “as the high-priest of American politics; he was charged with the meaning of the mysteries, the clue to political hieroglyphics…. If there was good or bad in him, she meant to find its meaning.” Each is soon fascinated with the other, and the reciprocal fascination has sexual overtones. Senator Ratcliffe decides that to complete his life he must marry Mrs. Lee; he already sees her as his partner in the White House.

Much of Democracy is taken up with elegant social comedy and witty set pieces; but darker themes lie underneath. “Surely,” Madeleine cries to Ratcliffe, “something can be done to check corruption. Are we for ever to be at the mercy of thieves and ruffians? Is a respectable government impossible in a democracy?” “No representative government,” Ratcliffe replies sententiously, “can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents. Purify society and you purify the government. But try to purify the government artificially and you only aggravate failure.”

You Americans believe yourselves to be excepted from the operation of general laws,” is the sour observation of Baron Jacobi, the cynical Bulgarian minister:

…Rome, Paris, Vienna, Petersburg, London, all are corrupt; only Washington is pure. Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States. The children in the street are corrupt and know how to cheat me. The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States’ legislatures and the judges. Everywhere men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds.

Mrs. Lee pursues the question of corruption with Ratcliffe. He freely admits that “in politics we cannot keep our hands clean. I have done many things in my political career that are not defensible.” In the worst days of the Civil War, he confides to Madeleine, it had seemed almost certain that Illinois would be carried by the peace party in the 1864 election. Ratcliffe, an old abolitionist, was governor; and he believed that “had Illinois been lost then, we should certainly have lost the Presidential election, and with it probably the Union. At any rate, I believe the fate of the war to depend on the result.” So he had the northern counties delay election returns until he knew the precise number of votes needed to give President Lincoln a majority in the state. Then “we telegraphed to our northern returning officers to make the vote of their district such and such.” Ratcliffe concludes his recital, “I am not proud of the transaction, but I would do it again, and worse than that, if I thought it would save this country from disunion.” Madeleine’s silence conveys approval.

For Ratcliffe loyalty to his party is the highest political morality. “Believing as I do,” he tells Madeleine, “that great results can only be accomplished by great parties, I have uniformly yielded my own personal opinions where they have failed to obtain general assent.” Madeleine: “Have you never refused to go with your party?” “Never!” is Ratcliffe’s firm reply.

Ratcliffe decides to accept the president-elect’s offer of the Treasury Department, rapidly dominates the cabinet, and soon tells Madeleine that the new president’s incompetence is becoming notorious and that the odds are two to one that the secretary of the Treasury would get his party’s nomination the next time around. Finally Ratcliffe’s strong will prevails on Madeleine’s unacknowledged ambition. She makes up her mind to marry him.

This decision sets in motion an anti-Ratcliffe conspiracy propelled by John Carrington, who is vainly in love with Madeleine, and by her younger sister, Sybil. Their weapon is the charge that Ratcliffe had accepted a bribe of $100,000 (probably equal to nearly $2,000,000 in today’s degraded currency) for enactment of legislation benefiting a steamship company. Madeleine is at first shocked and angered. On second thought she feels she has no right to be angry; Ratcliffe “had never deceived her.” She is angry at herself for ever having believed in him.

Confronting Ratcliffe with the accusation, she is met by ready explanations. He harked back to the 1864 election. “Our defeat meant that the government must pass into the bloodstained hands of rebels…. Money was freely spent, even to an amount much in excess of our resources.” The head of the national committee told him that he must, for the party’s sake, abandon his opposition to the steamship subsidy bill. The $100,000 was paid to the national committee; “I received no money”; the Union was saved.

Ratcliffe continues:

Did I not tell you then that I had even violated the sanctity of a great popular election and reversed its result?… In comparison with it, this is a trifle! Who is injured by a steamship company subscribing one or ten hundred thousand dollars to a campaign fund?

He reminds Madeleine that she had not uttered a word of criticism for depriving a million people of their votes. “Why are you now so severe upon the smaller crime?”

With the power of a revelation Madeleine suddenly sees Ratcliffe as a “moral lunatic,” talking about virtue and vice as a colorblind man talks about red and green. Coldly she rejects Ratcliffe, rejects Washington, rejects democratic politics, prefers “the true democracy of life, her paupers and her prisons, her schools and her hospitals,” and, democracy having shaken her nerves to pieces, goes off to Egypt to recuperate. “The bitterest part of all this horrid story,” Madeleine concludes, “is that nine out of ten of our countrymen would say I had made a mistake.”

At the time of publication, people rushed to read Democracy as a roman à clef and gossiped about the personalities satirized, gossiped even more about the anonymous author who dared produce such a scandalous book. Clover Adams wrote her father, “I am much amused but not surprised at your suspecting me of having written Democracy, as I find I am on the ‘black list’ here”; she named half a dozen other suspects, including John Hay. James G. Blaine, widely supposed, even by himself, to be the model for Ratcliffe, snubbed Adams’s friend Clarence King, thinking he was the author, and Blaine later blamed Clover Adams. “I understand,” Adams wrote Hay, “…that Hon. J.G. Blaine at a dinner party in New York said that Mrs H.A. ‘acknowledges’ to have written ‘Democracy.’ You know how I always admired Mr Blaine’s powers of invention!”

Adams remained a tease about the authorship. “The riddle,” he told the publisher, “is more amusing…than the solution would be.” “I am glad the secret is at last coming out,” he wrote Hay. “I was always confident that you wrote that book.” In 1911, Adams even told a correspondent, “Really, of course, Henry James wrote it, in connection with his brother Willy, to illustrate Pragmatism.” There were other contenders. William Dean Howells and Charles Dudley Warner decided that John W. DeForest, the gifted author of a couple of Washington novels, had written the book. No one, except for the British novelist Mrs. Humphry Ward, detected Henry Adams’s hand in Democracy.

People today read Democracy not as a roman à clef but as a gallery of political types and as a novel of political ideas. Adams detested Blaine, but he was less interested in portraying real personages than he was in defining Washington types—the unscrupulous politician, the naive idealist, the lightweight reformer, the cynical diplomat, the cunning lobbyist, the congressional hangers-on. The cast of Adams’s Democracy populates Washington today, which is why the book is still in print.

As a novel of political ideas, Democracy is intermittently brilliant but ultimately unsatisfactory. There is no question that Henry Adams thinks that Madeleine is right in her rejection of Washington and her withdrawal from politics. But why then does he give the more powerful arguments to Ratcliffe? Madeleine herself admits to Ratcliffe, “I have no doubt that you can overcome me in argument.” And where does Adams stand on Madeleine’s key question: “Is a respectable government impossible in a democracy?” His support of Madeleine’s decision suggests that his answer would be yes.

There is a minor figure in the novel, a historian and diplomat, Nathan Gore, inspired somewhat by John Lothrop Motley, the historian of the Netherlands and minister to England from 1869 to 1870. Grant’s secretary of state, Hamilton Fish, once told Adams that Grant recalled Motley from London because he parted his hair in the middle. Nathan Gore, a historian of Spain, was not kept on as minister to Spain because, he tells Madeleine, the new president objects to the cut of his hair.

After Baron Jacobi’s rant about corruption in America, Madeleine turns to Nathan Gore: “I must know whether America is right or wrong…. Do you yourself think democracy the best government, and universal suffrage a success?”

Gore, goaded by Madeleine, affirms his political creed:

I believe in democracy. I accept it. I will faithfully serve and defend it. I believe in it because it appears to me the inevitable consequence of what has gone before it. De-mocracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilisation aims at the mark. We want to do what we can to help it. I myself want to see the result. I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking…. Every other possible step is backward, and I do not care to repeat the past.

And supposing your experiment fails,” Madeleine asks, “suppose society destroys itself with universal suffrage, corruption, and communism.” “Let us be true to our time, Mrs Lee!” Gore replies. “If our age is to be beaten, let us die in the ranks. If it is to be victorious, let us be first to lead the column. Anyway, let us not be skulkers or grumblers.”

Nathan Gore, most students of Democracy agree, was speaking for Henry Adams. Yet Adams endorses Mrs. Lee’s decision to retreat from the challenges of her age. How to reconcile participation with rejection? Perhaps Adams in his desire to get the novel out in time to stop the nomination of James G. Blaine rushed the final chapters and did not think through his political creed.

The neglected figure in Democracy is the widow of the lobbyist who extracted Ratcliffe’s $100,000 from the steamship company. As Edward Chalfant points out, it is Mrs. Sam Baker who really understood the action of primary forces in Washington. “I knew half the members of Congress intimately,” Mrs. Baker tells Mrs. Lee, “and all of them by sight. I knew where they came from and what they liked best…. We had more congressional business than all the other agents put together.” Mrs. Lee had seen duchesses as vulgar, so why did she “draw back from this interesting lobbyist with such babyish repulsion?” Perhaps because she sensed that Mrs. Baker had really got to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and really exerted “POWER.”

Someone who, contrary to Madeleine Lee, embraced the challenges of his age was a young acquaintance of Henry Adams, though neither cared much for the other. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in September 1905, in the midst of his efforts to settle the Russo-Japanese War,

The other day I was reading Democracy, that novel which made a great furor among the educated incompetents and the pessimists generally about twenty-five years ago. It was written by Godkin, perhaps with assistance from Mrs. Henry Adams. It had a superficial and rotten cleverness, but it was essentially false, essentially mean and base, and it is amusing to read it now and see how completely events have given it the lie.

Events may have given Henry Adams’s novel the lie in T.R.’s Progressive era a century ago. But Democracy: An American Novel is all too true for Washington under corporate domination at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

  1. 1

    To be reissued by the Modern Library in July, with this essay as an introduction.

  2. 2

    Adams was indifferent to the fact that Boutwell, who believed in civil rights for ex-slaves, was more of a reformer than McCulloch, who supported Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies.

  • Email
  • Print