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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Democracy, Henry Adams builds on his own experiences living in Washington, D.C. and socializing with politicians and diplomats. As Reconstruction came to an end, the fragile unity of the nation continued to be tested as new inter-regional alliances were formed. Primarily through the interactions with a Northern woman, Madeleine Lee, and a Southern gentleman, John Carrington, Adams shows how people of very different backgrounds learned to negotiate personal and political differences. In addition, Adams offers the conniving character of Silas Ratcliffe, an ambitious senator from Illinois, to show the corrupt backdoor dealings of national politics.

Having lost her husband and a baby, Madeleine Lee is ready to leave New York and learn more about her country and its workings. Shocking her wealthy socialite friends, she decides to relocate temporarily to the nation’s capital.

She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government. . . . What she wished to see . . . was the clash of interests, the interests of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centering at Washington; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and uncontrollable, by men of ordinary mould; the tremendous forces of government, and the machinery of society, at work. What she wanted, was POWER.

Madeleine’s unmarried sister, Sybil Ross, accompanies her to Washington, where they rent a house. Madeleine is initially committed to her goal of learning about government by going to sessions of both the House and Senate, but she soon realizes how tedious the proceedings are; she becomes more involved in the social side of politics. At the Capitol, she meets a lawyer from Virginia, John Carrington. He, like many other Southerners, is struggling to find a place in national politics without becoming a hypocrite.

He was of that unfortunate generation in the south which began existence with civil war, and he was perhaps the more unfortunate because, like most educated Virginians of the old Washington school, he had seen from the first that, whatever issue the war took, Virginia and he must be ruined. . . . [After Appomattox, he] began to study law; then, leaving his mother and sisters to do what they could with the worn-out plantation, he began the practice of law in Washington, hoping thus to support himself and them. He had succeeded after a fashion, and for the first time the future seemed not absolutely dark.

When Madeleine hears a skillful orator in the Senate, she determines to meet Silas Ratcliffe of Illinois. Carrington tells her that this is the senator’s last term, as he is in line for a cabinet post in the department of state or treasury. Seated next to him at the British ambassador’s dinner, she draws him into conversation and finds that he exactly fits her preconception of a statesman.

To her eyes he was the high-priest of American politics; he was charged with the meaning of the mysteries, the clue to political hieroglyphics. Through him she hoped to sound the depths of statesmanship and to bring up from its oozy bed that pearl of which she was in search; the mysterious gem which must lie hidden somewhere in politics. She wanted to understand this man; to turn him inside out; to experiment on him and use him as young physiologists use frogs and kittens.

As the relationship advances between Madeleine and Ratcliffe, she is drawn further into the back-door dealings by which appointments are made. Society soon presumes that the two of them are about to become engaged. Ratcliffe subtly persuades her to use her influence on his behalf in...

(This entire section contains 728 words.)

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her endless social visits, including calling upon the wives of high-ranking officials. It seems that Madeleine’s desires in going to Washington are soon to be fulfilled.

Mrs. Lee had the chance now to carry out her scheme in coming to Washington, for she was already deep in the mire of politics and could see with every advantage how the great machine floundered about, bespattering with mud even her own pure garments. Ratcliffe himself, since entering the Treasury, had begun to talk with a sneer of the way in which laws were made, and openly said that he wondered how government got on at all. Yet he declared still that this particular government was the highest expression of political thought. Mrs. Lee stared at him and wondered whether he knew what thought was.