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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 728 words.)

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