Henry Adams (1880)
At first glance, Democracy appears to be a 19th century comedy of manners. A prominent young widow, Mrs. Madeleine Lee, retreats from the “boredom” of New York for Washington, D.C., where she and her younger sister become the center of attention in Washington’s high society. Through the course of the novel, the author makes clear his personal frustration with the government, and with politicians. The book evolves into a serious meditation on the nature and pursuit of power, and the very concept of democracy.
While visiting the Senate chamber with her friend, Mr. Carrington, Madeline Lee encounters the powerful Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe. A courtship ensues between Mrs. Lee and the senator that is not romantic, but a power struggle--an interplay of integrity (represented by Carrington) and the politics of personal gain (represented by Ratcliffe). Adams modeled Senator Ratcliffe, “the Prairie Giant of Peonia," on the real life Senator James G. Blaine, “the Plumed Knight of Maine.”
Amid the parlor talk of Washington society, Madeleine Lee ponders the meaning and future of American democracy. As the plot develops, readers are treated to lovely period scenes in Georgetown, Arlington Cemetery, Mount Vernon, and the Capitol.
Senator Ratcliffe proposes marriage, promising Madeleine that he will someday be president and she his first lady. She treads close to accepting. It is only through the intervention of her sister, who produces an incriminating letter, that Madeleine realizes the folly she is about to commit. The letter reveals the depth of Ratcliffe’s deceptions, and in Mrs. Lee’s reflections as she searches her soul for her reply, Adams reveals his own disappointment with American politicians of his day.
The grandson and great-grandson of presidents, Henry Adams employed a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek style to lead his readers through the social and political discussions in Madeleine’s parlor. Readers are left to contemplate the dilemma of the American democratic experiment: Is it really the right path, or should we revert back to the autocracies of old? Is there an ultimate truth? As one parlor guest says: “I believe in democracy. . . . I believe in it because it appears to me the inevitable consequence of what has gone before it. . . . All our civilization aims at this mark.”
Democracy is further discussed in a chapter on "The Senate in Literature and Film" in Senator Robert C. Byrd’s history of the Senate.