Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Democracy by Henry Adams

Source of book: I own this

Henry Adams was an intriguing character. He was the grandson of president John Quincy Adams, and seemed destined for a political career. He eventually decided against this, and pursued a more academic one, working first as a journalist, then as a Harvard professor (in Medieval Literature, of all things,) and eventually as a respected historian. His nine volume (!) work on the Jefferson and Madison administrations is still considered an excellent work. 

His personal life had a few skeletons, and some of his views have aged better than others, so to speak. His wife suffered from mental illness, and eventually committed suicide. Since he destroyed most of her letters, there isn’t much of a consensus on her reasons, although Henry’s treatment of her appears (from other evidence) to not have been a factor. He later had an emotional and almost romantic long term relationship with a woman who had been pressured by her family into marrying a corrupt and drunken senator more than twice her age. It is easy to see a bit of this senator in the book, in my opinion. 

Adams was a fierce opponent of government corruption, which is certainly admirable. He appears to have been generally a fair and decent man in his personal life. However, like others of his time, he was openly anti-semitic and anti-immigrant. (Particularly those immigrants from places other than England, which, at the time, was most immigrants…my ancestors from Germany were suspect.) 

Democracy was published anonymously. The publisher eventually revealed his identity after his death. Although the stigma has faded a bit now, back in the Victorian Era (and before), the writing of novels was considered beneath the talents of serious academics. This is a shame, because Democracy is likely Adams’ most read work today. 

The book tells of Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, an attractive and wealthy 30 year old widow, who moves from New York City to Washington DC to learn about politics, and find what she believes to be the gem at the center of the American system of government. Instead, what she finds is a wretched hive of scum and villainy - naked lust for power, rampant corruption, and an utter lack of moral principle. 

She comes under the influence of a certain Senator Ratcliffe, who is a rising star in his party, and aspires to become president. He sees Mrs. Lee’s money as an asset, sure, but more than that, he sees a devoted wife as a great help in his political career. 

The crazy part about his “courtship” is that he is actually quite open and honest with her about his lack of morals. Instead, he lays out for her his decisions, and why he made them, and she ends up agreeing that he took the least-bad alternative. Well, at least from his personal and political point of view. Others would describe the situations differently. That said, Ratcliffe isn’t completely wrong. A man who approached politics with pure convictions and an unwillingness to play the game, compromise, and trade favors wouldn’t last long in most cases. And for that matter, as the last few years have demonstrated, the most “principled” ideologues can actually do the most damage - because they believe that god and morality are on the side of their evil beliefs, such as racism, xenophobia, social darwinism, and other ideas that throw vulnerable people under the bus in the name of principle. 

This is definitely not to say Ratcliffe is admirable. He isn’t. His worst crime (as he freely confesses) is rigging an election when he was governor of Illinois. This is slipped pretty casually into a conversation, and it somehow doesn’t completely register with Mrs. Lee. Which is why, when she uncovers evidence of blatant bribery, his only effective return blow is to point out that this (relatively) harmless instance of bribery was nothing compared to disenfranchising millions of people. (Hmm, this suggests precisely why the GOP’s current strategy to defeat their, um, demographic challenge is such an issue…) 

Although Mrs. Lee and Mr. Ratcliffe are the central characters in the book, there are a panoply of other memorable and colorful sorts. The ancient ambassador from Italy, who bemoans both his loss of virility and the fact that dueling is no longer permitted. The jaded and sarcastic English ambassador, who has to figure out how to save a diplomatic dinner party from disaster after a princess and the president’s wife take an instant hatred to each other. The Washington gossip corps, and their rumor-mongering. Mrs. Lee’s younger and less sophisticated sister, who nonetheless has more common sense and emotional intelligence. Mr. Carrington, a lawyer with an impoverished family, who tries to live up to his principles while caught in the machine as a small, inconvenient person. And, of course, the President and his wife, who are imaginary, but fit the mold of vulgar, dull, and ambitious sorts with no clue what they are doing. (Also fits the present a bit too much - although the book characters aren’t narcissists.) 

The characters are based loosely on actual people, but they are often composites. For example, many have identified Ratcliffe with James Blaine. And it sort of fits with the political intrigue. But it fits as well with the personal details of J. Donald Cameron, the husband of Adams’ paramour - and it would have fit even better had Mrs. Lee actually married Ratcliffe. 

Democracy may have been written a hundred and forty years ago, but it works well as an indictment of our current age. Humans are, after all, still humans. Politics is politics, and democracy is the worst form of government...except for every other form which has been tried. The problems are to a degree predictable. As this novel was written in the Gilded Age, many of the same problems plague politics in our new gilded age: the influence of powerful corporations, the drowning of principle in money, the crushingly expensive elections, and the identification of personal or party success as synonymous with the good of the country at large. 

But there is more. Here are the quotes which stood out to me the most. 

This one comes near the beginning, and is both an indication of Mrs. Lee’s naivete and a razor-sharp putdown of politicians:

But, in truth, her notion of legislative bodies was vague, floating between her experience at church and at the opera, so that the idea of a performance of some kind was never out of her head. To her mind, the Senate was a place where people went to recite speeches, and she naively assumed that the speeches were useful and had a purpose, but as they did not interest her she never went again. This is a very common conception of Congress; many Congressmen share it. 

  Another bit of rapier wit is directed against Ratcliffe, as an explanation given by Carrington as to why the senator was once an abolitionist, but wouldn’t take a controversial position now:

“He is older, more experienced, and not so wise.”

Alas, this expresses my own sentiments about the conservative Baby Boomers in my family and acquaintance. I feel very much like they have betrayed the values they raised me with in favor of partisan politics and reactionary ideas. They are older indeed, and indeed more experienced. But far, far less wise than they perhaps once were. (Or at least as I thought them.) 

How about this bit about the British Minister, Lord Skye, and Senators? 

A certain secret jealousy of the British Minister is always lurking in the breast of every American Senator, if he is truly democratic; for democracy, rightly understood, is the government of the people, by the people, for the benefit of Senators, and there is always a danger that the British Minister may not understand this political principle as he should.

Adams also skewers the elitist and condescending sort of congressman, more educated than wise, and all too eager to display both facts. 

He had reform principles and an unfortunately conceited manner; he was rather wealthy, rather clever, rather well-educated, rather honest, and rather vulgar.

Not that Adams spares the insufficiently educated, however. Ratcliffe is pushed around by the Italian, Count Orsoni, who says witty things in French to Mrs. Lee, which Ratcliffe cannot understand. One particularly funny bit occurs when Ratcliffe confuses Moliere and Voltaire. The thought of Moliere having “unfortunate influence...on the religious opinions of his time” is actually pretty funny. Like Tartuffe

Much less funny, but more chilling, is Adams’ description of how men like Ratcliffe view morality and politics. 

The beauty of his work consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle. As he wisely said, the issue now involved was not one of principle but of power. The fate of that noble party to which they all belonged, and which had a record that could never be forgotten, depended on their letting principle alone. Their principle must be the want of principles. 

It was impossible for me not to think of a certain current Senate leader in this connection, for whom power and party have crushed all principle. But, as I noticed later in the book, the issue isn’t just with him: it is with the voters of said party, who have openly abandoned the principles they taught me, as soon as power and party - and white supremacy - were in view. 

The political satire has held up well to time, as I noted. Along with the politics, however, comes a good deal of social satire, which is more of its time. In my view, that is a feature, not a bug, as I rather enjoy the novel of manners and the quaint customs of times gone by. And, as far as that goes, I find that sometimes outdated customs shed light on our own. Take, for example, this delightful bit about the visit of European royalty. 

In the middle of April a sudden social excitement started the indolent city of Washington to its feet. The Grand-Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Baden-Hombourg arrived in America on a tour of pleasure, and in due course came on to pay their respects to the Chief Magistrate of the Union. The newspapers hastened to inform their readers that the Grand-Duchess was a royal princess of England, and, in the want of any other social event, everyone who had any sense of what was due to his or her own dignity, hastened to show this august couple the respect which all republicans who have a large income derived from business, feel for English Royalty. 

Yep, I laughed out loud at this one. Things haven’t exactly changed. I confess to an utter failure to understand the appeal of the English royals to American tastes. Okay, except for Queen Elizabeth II, because she is basically a badass old lady, and I have a soft spot for them. But Charles? Oh god no. Can he and the rest of the Windsor males just go away already? 

Here is another witty remark regarding male-female relationships among a certain social class; one I think is rather apropos today as well. 

She [Mrs. Lee] regarded men as creatures made for women to dispose of, and capable of being transferred like checks, or baggage-labels, from one woman to another, as desired. The only condition was that he should first be completely disabused of the notion that he could dispose of himself. 

 While not exactly characteristic of women in general, I can say that I am familiarly acquainted with women of this sort, and of situations such as these. 

On the flip side of this are men who, like Ratcliffe, have a similar difficulty of understanding and accounting for the feelings of the members of the opposite sex in question. 

Did he seriously suppose that she, who was bored to death by New York, and had been able to find no permanent pleasure in Europe, would live quietly in the romantic village of Peonia? If not, did Mr. Ratcliffe imagine that they could find happiness in the enjoyment of each other’s society, and of Mrs. Lee’s income, in the excitements of Washington? In the ardour of his pursuit, Mr. Ratcliffe had accepted in advance any conditions which Mrs. Lee might impose, but if he really imagined that happiness and content lay on the purple rim of this sunset, he had more confidence in women and in money than a wider experience was every likely to justify.

That last line is just fantastic. I love it more every time I read it. There are plenty more witticisms in this vein in the book - Adams was a sharp observer with a good command of language. 

There are two political observations which I think are worth closing this post with. The first actually comes near the end of the book, during the final denouement between Ratcliffe and Mrs. Lee. Ratcliffe basically grabs a shovel and starts digging his own grave. But, in a certain way, it is an accurate defense of his politics. They may be morally appalling, but they make sense from a certain worldview. 

“Mrs. Lee...there are conflicting duties in all the transactions of life, except the simplest. However we may act, do we what we may, we must violate some moral obligation. All that can be asked of us is that we should guide ourselves by what we think the highest. At the time this affair occurred, I was a Senator of the United States. I was also a trusted member of a great political party, which I looked upon as identical with the nation.”

I swear, this was the most common defense I heard in the aftermath of the 2016 election, by people who voted for the Ku Klux Klan in the form of Donald J. Trump. The idea of voting for the other party - or neither - was unthinkable, because the party was identical with the nation. Never mind throwing the majority of Americans under the bus, and causing hardship to many. Party above principle. Party above human decency. Party. Party. (And white supremacy, yo.) 

And guess what? Like Ratcliffe, you sell your soul. You sell out your principles and values, and those of us raised on those values are left wondering what the fucking hell happened. As Adams tells the tale, what happened was a gradual destruction of morality by the reality of politics - and particularly with loyalty to party and power over principle. And sure, politics is messy. But as a human being, with allegedly strong religious principles, it is sad to see those co opted by rank partisanship, until every value is now its opposite. 

Perhaps the best line in rebuttal, though, is delivered by Mr. Gore, a rather minor character, but one who represents a progressive and practical viewpoint - one that I am inclined to share. 

“But since you ask for my political creed, you shall have it. I only condition that it shall be for you alone, never to be repeated or quoted as mine. I believe in democracy. I accept it. I will faithfully serve and defend it. I believe in it because it appears to me the inevitable consequence of what has gone before it. Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to a higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilization aims at this mark. We want to do what we can to help it. I myself want to see the result. I grant it is an experiment, but it is only the direction society can take that is worth its taking; the only conception of its duty large enough to satisfy its instincts; the only result that is worth an effort or a risk. Every other possible step is backward, and I do not care to repeat the past. I am glad to see society grapple with issues in which no one can afford to be neutral.”

This basic sentiment would be repeated by others, including Winston Churchill, over the ensuing century and a half. Democracy is messy, imperfect, maddening, corrupt, and all the other things that have been said about it. Churchill himself would also say that the best argument against democracy was five minutes spent talking to the average voter. But, on average, it is, amazingly enough, better than the other options. 

In the end, Henry Adams seems to have come to the same conclusion, even while despairing of the state of politics in his time. And, for that matter, it is difficult to blame him. He wrote during the height of the Gilded Age, when government jobs were dispensed according to the Spoils System - it wouldn’t be until the most unlikely person ever, Chester Arthur, signed the first Civil Service laws that this changed. Indeed, there is hope that people of good will can make positive changes in politics, even if the battle is never-ending. From the Civil Rights Movement to the Sufferage movement to the rise of unions and labor laws to the creation of the social safety net - things can be changed. The corrupt and pragmatic Ratcliffes of the world don’t always win - but are often remembered for the scoundrels they are. 

Democracy isn’t a particularly well known book these days, which is a real shame. It is a worthwhile read which sheds a lot of well-deserved light on the rot at the heart of money-driven politics, as well as the partisan foolishness which drives ignorant and prejudiced voters to support it. 

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