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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 316

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.

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098

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 Carrington serves as a guide on a trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. On the trip are Lee, Sybil, Gore, Lord Skye, the flirtatious Victoria Dare, and Lord Dunbeg, an Irish aristocrat and friend of Lord Skye. Mrs. Samuel Baker, the widow of a recently deceased lobbyist who has worked with Carrington, goes on the trip as well. The courtship of Dare and Lord Dunbeg, begins with the Mount Vernon trip. The trip also gives everyone a chance to discuss George Washington, and to contrast the politics of the first president with those of Ratcliffe.

Back in Washington, D.C., the newly elected president, who is from Indiana, is advised by his associates to try to sideline the powerful and dangerous Ratcliffe. They devise a plan to have the president appoint Ratcliffe as secretary of the Treasury in a cabinet in which the new secretary will have no allies. The plan is to then dismiss Ratcliffe when he proves to be unable to operate effectively in this setting. In the meanwhile, Ratcliffe attempts to court Lee by presenting himself as needing her help and advice, playing on her sense of duty. The wily politician also starts creating alliances so that the Treasury job will actually turn out to his own advantage.

Sybil and Carrington take another outing to Virginia, where Sybil learns of Carrington’s tragic experiences in the Civil War, and Carrington talks to her about his love for her sister. The two agree to enter into an alliance to prevent a marriage between Lee and Ratcliffe. At about the same time, Ratcliffe learns that Carrington is executor for the estate of lobbyist Baker, with whom the Illinois senator had some extremely corrupt dealings. Ratcliffe begins his own maneuvering to sideline Carrington with a job appointment that will remove Carrington as a barrier to the pursuit of Lee. The senator begins by offering Carrington a job in the Treasury Department through Lee, both to test Carrington’s enmity and to portray himself to the widow as a person of good will. When Carrington refuses the job, the politician arranges to have the secretary of state appoint the attorney to a highly desirable position in Mexico.

Before leaving the country, Carrington meets again with Sybil and reminds her of their earlier conversation. He leaves a sealed letter with her, which she is to give Lee if it seems a wedding with Ratcliffe cannot be avoided. Only Lee and Ratcliffe are to read the letter. The historian, Nathan Gore, disappointed in his ambitions for the Spanish ministry, also attempts to warn Lee about the new Treasury secretary.

The grand duke and duchess of Saxe-Baden-Hombourg, Germany, visit Washington. Because the duchess is also an English princess, Lord Skye is obliged to give the couple a ball. The duchess develops an intense dislike for the vulgarities of the new president. Also, because there has been friction between the First Lady and Lee, the visiting noblewoman insists on keeping Lee at her side throughout the ball. At the end of the party, Ratcliffe proposes to Lee.

Lee is on the verge of accepting the proposal when Sybil gives her Carrington’s letter. The letter discloses a substantial payoff that the late Baker’s company had made to Senator Ratcliffe to get a bill passed to subsidize Baker’s company. Lee is so disturbed by this new evidence of Ratcliffe’s extreme corruption that she refuses the proposal and shows the letter to the politician, just as Carrington requested. In a fit of anger, he pushes the elderly Baron Jacobi out of his way on leaving Lee’s house and the old man responds by hitting him in the face with a walking cane.

Back in New York, Sybil writes to Carrington and tells him about Ratcliffe’s failed proposal and about her sister’s plans to go abroad. In an extra note, Sybil encourages Carrington to again try his courtship with Lee.

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