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…

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