Henry Adams explores political intrigue in late nineteenth-century Washington, DC. By inserting the character of Madeleine Lee (a wealthy widow from New York) into the nation's capital, Adams reveals the continuing post-Civil War "North versus South" conflicts in US politics.
Madeleine is fascinated by power and hopes to play an informal but influential role on the national scene. Madeleine and her sister, Sybil Ross, take up residency and begin having weekly parties in a home near the White House.
At the Capitol, Madeleine observes the sessions of Congress. Soon, romantic links develop between Madeleine and two distinct political and regional rivals: John Carrington of Virginia and Silas Ratcliffe of Illinois.
Carrington, working assiduously to overcome his family's Confederate past and gain a foothold in national politics, seems more genuine in his affection for Madeleine. Ratcliffe, a senator with aspirations to become Secretary of State, is more successful in his courtship, however; his engagement to Madeleine seems inevitable.
A number of minor characters and subplots round out the Washington scene. Madeleine, already friends with Senator Clinton of New York, gets to know Lord Skye, the British ambassador, and his wife. These relationships further develop during the group's trip to Mount Vernon, Virginia—the former plantation of George Washington.
The political machinations within the novel include Ratcliffe's efforts to become a cabinet official, his opponents' maneuverings to block his appointment, and his ultimate goal to become president. In addition, there are investigations into Ratcliffe's corrupt business transactions owing to the recent death of a lobbyist named Samuel Baker. Ratcliffe temporarily outmaneuvers Carrington by getting him appointed to a job in Mexico, but Carrington manages to expose his rival's illegal dealings to Madeleine. She then refuses Ratcliffe's proposal. Ratcliffe then makes a scene during a dinner at the Skyes' home, getting into a violent altercation with an elderly Bulgarian diplomat.
Ultimately, Madeleine leaves Washington to take a trip abroad.
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...
(The entire section is 2,188 words.)