Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Democracy: An American Novel. Henry Adams.

1880. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1983

Why read it? Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, her husband dead for five years, decides to go to Washington, D.C. to get to the root of the magnificent machinery of democracy. What does she find at the heart of democracy? What moves democracy? Politics. Corruption. the same thing she is convinced she would find if she investigated any other form of government. She leaves Washington, D.C. to travel to Egypt where she can contemplate the eternity of the pyramids.

Sample quotes:

“Since her [Mrs. Lightfoot Lee’s] husband’s death, five years before, she had lost her taste for New York society; she had no interest in the price of stocks and very little in the men who dealt in them.” p. 3. ………. “What was it all worth, this wilderness of men and women as monotonous as the brown stone houses they lived in?” p. 3 ………. “She wanted to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power. She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government.” p. 7.

“For democracy, rightly understood, is the government of the people, by the people, for the benefit of Senators.” p. 17. ………. “Not one of them [Washington, Calhoun, Clay, Webster], who had aimed at high purpose, but had been thwarted, beaten and habitually insulted.” Adams, Democracy p. 43. ........... “How they had managed to befog the subject.” p. 43……….. “When ever a man reaches the top of the political ladder, his enemies unite to pull him down. His friends become critical and exacting.” p. 107. ………. “She felt that he would tell her what to do when the earthquake came, and would be at hand to consult, which is in a woman’s eyes the great object in men’s existence, when trouble comes.” p. 136.

“She had got to the bottom of the business of democratic government, and found out that it was nothing more than government of any other kind. She might have known it by her own common sense, but now that experience had proved it.” p. 168.

“I have no doubt that you can overcome me in argument. Perhaps on my side this is a matter of feeling rather than of reason, but the truth is only too evident to me that I am not fitted for politics [by becoming Ratcliffe’s wife].” p. 177. ………. Ratcliffe to Mrs. Lee: “Do you fear being dragged down to the level of ordinary politicians? So far as concerns myself, my great wish is to have your help in purifying politics.” p. 178. ………. “…or to be put in a position where I am perpetually obliged to maintain that immorality is a virtue.” p. 178.

Mrs. Lee to Mr. Ratcliffe: “For one long hour, I have degraded myself by discussing with you the question whether I should marry a man who by his own confession has betrayed the highest trusts that could be placed in him, who has taken money for his votes as a Senator, and who is now in public office by means of a successful fraud of his own, when in justice he should be in state prison. I will have no more of this. Understand, once for all, that there is an impassable gulf between your life and mine. I do not doubt that you will make yourself president, but whatever or wherever you are, never speak to me or recognize me again.” Adams, Democracy. p. 181. ………. “You must know that a fortnight ago, Lord Skye gave a great ball to the Grand-Duchess of something-or-other quite unspellable.” p. 183.

Comment: Take your pick. Henry Adams was a cynic or a realist or both. The engine that moves the democratic American republic is politics and politics is almost, by definition, moved by corruption, the temptations of power. RayS.

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