Henry Adams’s 1880 Novel, ‘Democracy,’ Resonates Now More Than Ever

Adams wished things were different. The corrupt politician is the putative villain of his book, the idealistic wayfarer his heroine. A cleareyed reading of the novel, however, suggests that his view of democracy has much in common with that of Machiavelli, Sidney, Emerson and Truman. After hearing conflicting opinions about the matters of the day, Mrs. Lee sighs and wonders: “Who, then, is right? How can we all be right? Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right.” She has, she says, a single goal. “I must know,” she muses, “whether America is right or wrong.” Turning to a character named Nathan Gore, a man of letters and an occasional diplomat (rather like Henry Adams himself), Mrs. Lee asks, “Do you yourself think democracy the best government, and universal suffrage a success?”

Gore answers reluctantly but revealingly. “I believe in democracy,” he says. “I accept it. I will faithfully serve and defend it.”

“I grant it is an experiment,” Gore continues, “but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking; the only conception of its duty large enough to satisfy its instincts; the only result that is worth an effort or a risk.”

Like many reformers, Mrs. Lee longs for a North Star. “Where did the public good enter at all into this maze of personal intrigue, this wilderness of stunted natures where no straight road was to be found, but only the tortuous and aimless tracks of beasts and things that crawl?” she wonders. “Where was she to look for a principle to guide, an ideal to set up and to point at?”

No such principle or ideal, it becomes clear, will be found in Senator Ratcliffe. As he courts Mrs. Lee, Ratcliffe has to explain a pair of political transgressions. The first dated from the Civil War when, as governor of Illinois, he manipulated election returns to ensure the success of Lincoln’s 1864 campaign. The second was his acceptance, as a senator, of a large payment for his vote on a bill he had previously opposed. As Ratcliffe told the story, the bribe went to supporting his party in the first post-Civil War presidential election — a race that, if lost, would have “meant that the government must pass into the bloodstained hands of rebels.”

Mrs. Lee would have none of it. She declines Ratcliffe’s hand, saying: “I will not share the profits of vice; I am not willing to be made a receiver of stolen goods, or to be put in a position where I am perpetually obliged to maintain that immorality is a virtue!”

So there it was. Adams’s Madeleine Lee will strike some readers as a kind of American Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” Inspired by St. Theresa of Ávila, Dorothea sought “some illimitable satisfaction” in the provincial world of 19th-century England; Mrs. Lee, too, is anxious to find unleavened goodness in the drawing rooms of Washington. Both are doomed to be disappointed, but Dorothea is the far more profound character, for she does realize that the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. “What do we live for,” Dorothea asks, “if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”