Democracy, an American Novel

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Ratcliffe, whose marriage to Madeleine Lee would help him advance his political career. Over the months, Madeleine Lee gets more and more insight into the machinations at the center of political life. Seeing his chances fade, Ratcliffe devises a sophisticated scheme to get rid of John Carrington: he secures a post abroad for his rival, who—as the job is rather well-paid and his family has little money—cannot but accept the offer.

Step by step, Ratcliffe manoeuvres Madeleine Lee into a difficult position in which he thinks the only choice left to her will be to marry him. Carrington, however, has left behind a sealed letter in which he accuses Ratcliffe of being corrupt. In particular, he accuses him of having taken graft during the election campaign eight years ago. All evidence, Carrington adds, has been destroyed, so it is his word against Ratcliffe's.

The latter of course denies all allegations, but Madeleine Lee is so shocked at the revelation that she turns down Ratcliffe's proposal of marriage. Furious, Ratcliffe leaves Madeleine's house, only to be accosted and ridiculed by his arch-enemy Baron Jacobi, the Bulgarian minister. There even ensues a brief scene of physical violence between the two, but at the very last moment Ratcliffe, whose career would be ruined otherwise, is able to keep his wrath in check. Disillusioned by politics, Madeleine Lee now wants to go abroad, preferably to Egypt. Sybil, who has become Carrington's confidante, writes him a letter in which she tells him he should try again to win her sister's heart once they have returned from their tour.

When, on December 1, Madeleine Lee boards the train that takes her from New York to the capital she wants to find "the mysterious gem which must lie hidden somewhere in politics ". Her suitor, year-old Silas P. Ratcliffe, is a case in point. A former governor of Illinois , he now serves as Senator from that state but is toying with the idea of running for president in four years' time. A widower, he thinks it may be helpful to have a loving and caring wife at his side and focuses his attention on Madeleine Lee. He views politics from its practical side only: Frankly admitting that, for him, the pleasure of politics lies in the possession of power, he categorically denies the existence of anything remotely resembling political philosophy.

Ratcliffe is presented as a "practical man" with very little general knowledge or learning.

Henry Adams

He may "know" his political business, but that seems to be worlds apart from academic knowledge or the ability to reason theoretically. Reflecting upon his career and his ambitions for the future, Ratcliffe admits that he goes to church mainly because he needs the churchgoers' votes. Once in church, however, his mind regularly wanders off, and he thinks about politics only.

Yet Ratcliffe is proud of himself and his achievements: as a lobbyist, he has often been able in the past to bring together hostile interests and to combine them to almost everyone's advantage. Accepting the good as well as the evil things in life, he rephrases the old but wrong dictum that the end justifies the means by stating that "if virtue won't answer our purpose, we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office.

Lee asks him, "Are we for ever to be at the mercy of thieves and ruffians? Is a respectable government impossible in a democracy? Purify society and you purify government. Democracy by Henry Adams was published in but only attributed to him by his publisher after his death in Descended from two presidents--John Adams and John Quincy Adams--Henry Adams was deeply schooled in American political life, and that, in a sense, is what this ambivalent novel is about.


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On the one hand it is a tale of the ambitious Silas Ratcliffe and his efforts to become president. He is well-decribed as a politician more interested in power than principle. On the other hand, it Democracy by Henry Adams was published in but only attributed to him by his publisher after his death in On the other hand, it is a tale of Madelaine Lee, a widow, who comes to Washington fantasizing that somehow she can learn enough about America's democratic system to affect it.

Ratcliffe wants to use Mrs. Lee, and Mrs. Lee, for a time, foolishly thinks she wants to be used. The narrative is well-paced and conveys a gristly disdain for democracy, 19th century American style. Adams has to have had his doubts about the common man deciding the terms of his life. There's no great issue,fortunately, because that would turn it into a kind of dreary policy tract. Rather, the core of the tale is one of sentiment, moral values, and what kind of life one wants to lead. The final exchange between Ratcliffe, who never loses a gambit, and Mrs.

Lee, who finds him almost overwhelming, is a virtual business-negotiation nonetheless.

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The nicety of 19th century marital propositions, underpinned by not so much as a kiss or embrace, raises dark questions in the 21st century reader's mind. What on earth is it going to be like if these two people ever touch each other? Henry Adams is most famous for his autobiography and massive history of the Jefferson administration. He also was a medievalist who taught at Harvard. He was an accomplished writer best described as a man of letters.


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In this case, he slips into the novel form with grace, numerous cliches, and a purpose: he loathed Washington in its grubby dealmaking and wanted his battered heroine to help the reader understand that D. Oct 01, Michael Austin rated it really liked it Shelves: read-in Henry Adams was the original "Anonymous" political author. The novel , whose authorship was not revealed until the s, tells the story of Madeline Lee, a wealthy young widow who comes to Washington, D.

She becomes a famous hostess, an informal power broker, and the romantic object of several powerful men, including Silas P. Ratcliff, the new Treasury Secretary and a likely contender for Henry Adams was the original "Anonymous" political author. Ratcliff, the new Treasury Secretary and a likely contender for the presidency. As Madeline sees how the Washington game is played, she becomes increasingly comfortable in a world of moral grey areas, but she holds to the belief that there is some core of virtue underneath the American system of government that resists the corrupting nature of politics.

The central question of the novel is the question of "American Exceptionalism": is the American political system fundamentally different than other political systems? Are Americans, at some level, immune from the corruptions of power and position? I must know whether America is right or wrong. It was still a young nation, still licking its wounds from a disastrous civil war.

But the novel's central question could not be more important today, when "American Exceptionalism" has become a hiss and a buzzword and American power has shaped the world for more than 75 years. Oct 20, David rated it really liked it Recommended to David by: paleriderdc hotmail. I like the way it examined it moral positions that formed this Democracy.

Democracy shows that the applications used to build this great land have not changed. Great book!!!

This book deals with more politics than I would care to think about in my whole life. Very little happens, most of the characters are shallow, but the writing style isn't uninteresting. There is enough wit in the writing to keep a reader's interest; I only fell asleep four times while reading this book, when at first I didn't think I'd ever finish. Perhaps it would be much more greatly enjoyed by people who care anything about politics. For me, I'll stick to books where things actually happen.

A marvelous, fascinating look at democratic tendencies. Still timely, both in politics and women. Oct 13, Douglas rated it really liked it Shelves: fiction-adult , books. Something of an under-the-radar classic, "Democracy" serves as the popular version of Adams' chapter on political morality in his "Education". As other reviewers have commented, many aspects of the novel have a timeless quality; it is not hard to imagine any of a number of contemporary politicians in the role of Ratcliffe.

Further, it is written in such a way that one does not require any special understanding of political processes to appreciate the moral of the story. Indeed, there is enough h Something of an under-the-radar classic, "Democracy" serves as the popular version of Adams' chapter on political morality in his "Education". Indeed, there is enough here to scare many an honest person away from politics, and Ratcliffe's sole principle - the lack of principle - shall be ringing in my ears for a long time.

As a final aside, there is a great essay to be written on Adams' views of women in society.

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It was he, after all, who noted that "the study of history is useful to the historian by teaching him his ignorance of women and the mass of ignorance crushes one who is familiar enough with what are called historical sources to realize how few women have ever been known. The woman who is known only through a man is known wrong". That he would make the chief character in his novel a woman pursuing political power in 19th century Washington strikes me as highly significant, and makes "Democracy" interesting for this reason alone. Highly recommended for any student of literature, politics, or women in society.

Aug 22, Andy Wiesendanger rated it liked it. Not sure how this book ever got on my kindle, but started reading it and for most of the book thought it was by GK Chesterton. But book was pretty good, a witty look at politics in the USA not sure much has changed. And Adams should know some insider info about politics. Some of the lines in the book are very cutting. To me, the theme seemed to be, how can you keep to any principles once you gain a political office. To some degree, what use are principles in political office.

It seems Adams wo Not sure how this book ever got on my kindle, but started reading it and for most of the book thought it was by GK Chesterton. It seems Adams would say if principles are important to you, stay out of politics. Jul 19, Per rated it really liked it Shelves: feedbooks. Isn't that the first step in politics? Dec 24, Mike rated it really liked it. Worth revisiting. Delightfully wicked. Jan 31, Lauren rated it it was ok Shelves: own-it , , no , classics , e-books , get-down-and-study-udy-udy , never-finished.

I can see what Henry Adams was getting at which is why I gave it two stars it's clever , but honestly, it was just so bland. I could hardly read it. Jan 12, Russell Fox rated it it was amazing Shelves: classics , american-politics , fiction. I wouldn't take away any of my critical comments about the book's limitations.

Rather, I would supplement them with praise for the way Adams, perhaps not entirely intentionally, depicts--through the love triangle and Machiavel [I'm going to let my old review of Democracy , from nearly three years ago, stand, even though I would disagree with much that I wrote now, having gone through the book, thoroughly, once again with a group of Honors students this past semester, this time with great rewards.

Rather, I would supplement them with praise for the way Adams, perhaps not entirely intentionally, depicts--through the love triangle and Machiavellian strategizing between Lee, Ratcliffe, and Carrington--the psychological costs and consequences of a clash between someone, like Adams himself, who is a product of the transformed-yet-still-hanging-onto-remants-of-theth-century social world of the old money East--namely, Lee--and two others: the weirdly admirable perhaps because unrelatable?

Read carefully and thoughtfully, it is an enormously rewarding short novel, for all its weaknesses.

Democracy an American Novel by Henry Adams (Paperback) - Lulu

This is the second time I've read Democracy; this time, I read it in preparation for a class discussion. So I can't claim that it is filled with superb characterizations; more like a bunch of political and social types which he runs through those paces which his story demands. And Adams is, unfortunately, not at all free of the sexism of the 19th century. Still, as a story of American politics--and, to use the words carefully, of the politics of American life--it's a fine tale. Adams wrote this novel in the s it was published anonymously in , and so there are several basic political realities that the reader who comes to it with minimal knowledge of American history needs to keep in mind.

Among the points which stand out: the book apparently takes place in the winter of , following the election of a new president; this is the era of Reconstruction, with the Civil War less than a decade in the past; the decades following the Civil War were the high-water mark for party power and unity in the United States, with powerful political machines capturing never-before-and-never-since-reached levels of popular support and voter turnout; and that part of the reason for this was the high levels of outright corruption in that era, when the aforementioned party machines controlled, through patronage, huge numbers of government jobs--those who called for reform of, for example, the civil service during this time were derided as idealistic dreamers, or people who did not appreciate the genius of America's systems of government, or both.

Overall, the half-century following the Civil War was an immensely important and, perhaps, tragic one in American history: with the war having thrown American full-bore into the Industrial Revolution, the post-Civil War decades saw the irrevocable transformation of American from a mostly agrarian and decentralized country, still holding on to the republican ideals of a constitutional order which had become dated, into a fully urbanized and centralized country, where bureaucratic and regulatory responses to corruption were accepted as obvious necessities.

This is the world in which the story of Democracy takes place, and its worth keeping in mind. As for the story itself, it's a love triangle, a social comedy, and a portrait of how people come to appreciate or come to reject the compromises, contentions, and corruptions of political life in Washington DC. Ratcliffe, a determined party man and powerfully Machiavellian senator from Illinois; and Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, a wealthy widow from New York who comes to Washington DC, motivated in part by her genuine democratic and reformer instincts, and in part by a desire to understand the mystery of American democracy.

There are some wonderful scenes in the book the visit of Madeleine's sister Sybil, along with Carrington, to the future site of Arlington National Cemetery is beautiful writing , and many insightful, funny, or wise observations, but nothing about the story is truly surprising. It's a portrait of a time and place; read it with that in mind, and explore it accordingly.

He was also the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great grandson of John Adams both of whom held the highest office for one term, so it is hardly surprising that he was familiar with politics. Henry Adams himself was a journalist, acting as the anonymous correspondent for the New York Times while he was there during the time his father was Ambassador. Adams continued as a Journalist after returning to the U. The main focus of the novel is Madeleine Lee, a young widower who moves from New York society to Washington looking for a political gem.

The time is shortly after the election of a new President. There are no years given, but based on comments by characters in the novel it would take place around the time it was published, but the characters are fictional even though they reference real politicians from the past. The President is mostly a side-character in this novel though, as the key character to represent the problems with politics is Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, a man whose political ambition leads to the White House, and he sees Madeline as an asset to help him achieve that goal.

Ratcliffe is the kind of man who goes to church because he needs the church votes, and who can excuse any action by pointing to politicians being a reflection of their society and thus one must first purify society before one can purify politics. The President aims to bring Ratcliffe into his cabinet and frustrate him by thwarting his every move, before letting him go. Ratcliffe is extremely powerful, and he artfully works his way to foil both the President and Carrington, but Carrington proves he has a few tricks left as he out maneuvers Ratcliffe in the end.

The discussions in the novel often concern the politics of the time, so it is worthwhile to read up on the history of that period to fully appreciate the novel. One might think that Henry Adams had become very cynical about politics when reading this novel, but the fact that Carrington is able to influence Madeleine Lee at the end, shows that he had at least some hope left for Democracy.

Overall I think this is an enjoyable satire, but I was a bit disappointed in the lack of accompanying material in the Penguin Classics edition. Earl N. The lack of notes is the thing I missed the most, as I think the reading experience would have been enhanced with references discussing the political and social issues of the time to which Adams referred. Write a Review. Advanced Search Links.

Democracy, An American Novel

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