Democracy: An American Novel


I finished “Democracy: An American Novel” last week.



And now I am very thoughtful.



It was published (anonymously) in 1880 by Henry Adams, great-grandson of John and grandson of John Quincy. In one sense, it’s just a whom-shall-I-marry? story, like so many other nineteenth-century novels: two sisters, one widowed and reflective, the other spirited and unintellectual (are you thinking of the Dashwoods?), who move from genteel New York City to savage uncultured Washington. Madeleine, the elder sister, particularly wants to understand politics. She wants, per the narrator, to understand POWER.



It comes down to dueling courtships. Madeleine’s two suitors are Senator Silas Ratcliffe (nice name, eh?) of Illinois, and a handsome young lawyer named John Carrington. Ratcliffe becomes Secretary of the Treasury through expert manipulation of a new and doltish president. Carrington, who has no real power or influence in the government, but who adores Madeleine, suffers in silence (are you thinking of the Bill Holden character in “Born Yesterday?).



Carrington is from a Virginia family and fought for the South in the Civil War. He is still called upon to answer for this from time to time. He tells Sybil, Madeleine’s lively younger sister, that he “never intentionally shot at anyone.” (My college advisor, a German who’d fought in his country’s army during World War II, told me once with a twinkle that he’d been in an antiaircraft unit, but that he “always shot between the planes.”)



Ratcliffe has skeletons in his closet too, but he fought on the winning side, so he’s actually proud of his misdeeds. At one point he admits to a group that, as Governor of Illinois during the Civil War, he actually threw a state election to ensure a Union-friendly victory, and that he’d do it again in a moment, to save his government. Carrington, his romantic rival, smells victory for a moment, thinking that Madeleine will see Ratcliffe as a villain; he then realizes that “the man who has committed a murder for his country is a patriot and not an assassin, even when he receives a seat in the Senate as his share in the plunder.”



As a story it’s mild; it doesn’t even approach Jane Austen, or even Trollope. But the subtlety and complexity of its depiction of American politics – and the kind of thinking (and non-thinking) that goes into political negotiation and manipulation – is amazing.



For example:



Ratcliffe, to endear himself to Madeleine, several times describes a political situation, and asks her, “What do you think I should do?”



To shut him up, she finally replies, a little coldly, “You should do whatever is in the best interest of the people.”



And he comes back with: “And what would that be?”



And Madeleine finds that she has no answer to the question.



And neither do I.








About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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