Study Guide

Democracy

by Henry Brooks Adams

Democracy Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Madeleine Lee, also known as Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, a wealthy New York widow, decides to spend the winter in Washington, D.C. Since the death of her husband, Lee has lost interest in New York society and has tried to find meaning in the study of philosophy and in philanthropy. She wants to go to Washington, the center of American political life, to see what the world of power can offer.

On a December 1 in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Lee and her younger sister, Sybil Ross, move into their rented house on Lafayette Square in Washington. Lee is intellectually inclined, artistic, and skeptical, and Sybil is sociable, straightforward, and religious. Lee takes up the practice of sitting in on sessions of the U.S. Congress, and during her visits there she meets John Carrington, a lawyer from Virginia. Carrington, about forty years old, is a former Confederate soldier whose formerly wealthy plantation family became impoverished in the American Civil War.

Carrington invites Lee to attend what he says may be the last speech of Illinois senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, known as the Prairie Giant of Peoria. After narrowly missing his party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency, Ratcliffe is, according to Carrington, expected to be appointed U.S. secretary of state or secretary of the Treasury by the new president. Lee later meets Ratcliffe at a senatorial dinner, to which she is invited by her friend, Schuyler Clinton, the senator from New York. At the dinner she also meets Lord Skye, the British minister to the United States.

Ratcliffe begins visiting Lee at the Sunday evening gatherings at her home. Her social gatherings are popular with other Washington figures, such as Baron Jacobi, an elderly and cynical Bulgarian minister; the secretary of the Russian Legation, Count Popoff; Connecticut congressman C. C. French; the wealthy Philadelphian, Hartbeest Schneidecoupon; and historian Nathan Gore, whose specialty is the history of Spain in America (Gore hopes that the new president will name him minister to Spain). Gore is particularly interested in cultivating the acquaintance of Ratcliffe because he believes the senator may help him win the desired ministry.

Ratcliffe quickly becomes enamored of Lee, in part because he is genuinely attracted to her and in part because he sees marriage with her as an asset in his quest for the presidency. Carrington falls in love with her as well. For her part, Lee values Carrington’s friendship and character, but she also is drawn to the possibility of being a positive influence on the openly corrupt Ratcliffe and on American politics through Ratcliffe.

The weather is becoming warmer, and...

(The entire section is 1098 words.)

Democracy Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Because of the sarcastic critique of his contemporary Washington which his first novel offered, Adams decided to publish Democracy: An American Novel anonymously; he succeeded in keeping his secret to his death and continued to move in the society whose moral flaws and rampant corruption he had exposed with such incisiveness.

As the novel opens, the thirty-year-old Madeleine (Mrs. Lightfoot) Lee decides to go to Washington, D.C., to observe the play of power politics in an effort to overcome the sense of hollowness with which the death of her husband, the Southerner Lightfoot Lee, and her infant baby have filled her. Clearly modeled after both the author and his wife, Miriam “Clover” Adams, Lee has independent means and great social charm, and she is inevitably drawn to “the action of primary forces,” “the machinery of society, at work,” thus echoing one of Adams’s personal longings.

Further, the fact that Lee’s arrival comes after a disappointing series of attempts to make herself and her inherited fortune useful to society is a fine play on the author’s own most burning obsessions. Her frustrations with the products of higher education parallel the author’s recent resignation from Harvard University in 1877, and she moves to a “newly hired house on Lafayette Square” opposite the White House, effectively next door to Adams’s own. Most important, her sarcastic wit and ironic self-detachment from the political jungle she observes are the voice of Adams himself.

In her endeavor to see “POWER” at work, Lee is aided by her distant relation, the forty-one-year-old southern veteran-turned-lawyer John Carrington, who introduces her to the political powerhouse Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, the “Prairie Giant of Peonia.” While her younger sister Sybil Ross helps to make her salon a success, a variety of minor characters are...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Democracy Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Brookhiser, Richard. America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918. New York: Free Press, 2002. A history of the politically important Adams family. This book discusses Henry Adams’s privileged insight into American politics.

Chalfant, Edward. Better in Darkness: A Biography of Henry Adams—His Second Life, 1862-1891. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1994. The second volume of Chalfant’s comprehensive three-volume biography of Henry Adams, this work covers the period of Adams’s efforts at political reform and his career as a muckraking journalist during the period that saw the publication of Democracy.

Dawidoff, Robert. The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage: High Culture versus Democracy in Adams, James, and Santayana. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. A discussion of the influence of the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, on Adams as well as on novelist Henry James and philosopher George Santayana. Chapter 2 considers Democracy a critical reflection on the limitations and problems of the democratic system.

O’Brien, Michael. Henry Adams and the Southern Question. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005. A study of Adams’s perspective on the American South. O’Brien’s work provides background for the character John Carrington in Democracy.

Simpson, Brooks D. The Political Education of Henry Adams. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. An examination of Adams’s political career that will help readers understand the frustrations with democracy expressed by Adams in the novel. Simpson argues that Adams wanted to reform American politics through his journalism and lobbying, but that he undermined himself by offending the people he sought to influence.