This is the second post in a discussion here and on Mark Athitakis’s blog, American Fiction Notes, about Henry Adams’ novel “Democracy.” which was published anonymously in 1880. See Mark’s first post in the conversation here, and a useful background piece on the book’s long history he found here.
Adams does get off some great zingers, doesn’t he? I went in expecting cynicism; I wasn’t looking for humor. The two blur together all too easily, though, in Democracy. When Mr. Gore, the Massachusetts historian-turned-statesman, asks our heroine Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, the skeptical but curious New York widow, whether she’s satisfied with what she’s learned of politics, her reply is the most cynical of jokes: “I have got so far as to lose the distinction between right and wrong. Isn’t that the first step in politics?” 
You asked whether Democracy could have worked with a male lead. My instinct is no, or at least that it would have been a very different sort of book. When he cast a woman as his lead, Adams freed himself up to write a romance. I wasn’t expecting that either.
But Democracy is a romance—I’m tempted to say a Gothic one—about seduction, in which the threat to the heroine’s virtue is not sex but power. Neither Senator Ratcliffe, the charismatic, amoral pragmatist who wants to sweep everything and everyone before him, nor Carrington, the kind and good but worn-out scion of old Virginia, are real contenders for Mrs. Lee’s heart. Adams makes it clear, in a passage that another novelist would make a whole book out of, that Madeleine has buried her affections with her dead family: “‘To lose a husband and a baby,’ she said, ’ and keep one’s courage and reason, one must become very hard or very soft. I am now pure steel.’” 
At first I thought it was heartless of Adams to make such short work of tragedy. Then I realized that Mrs. Lee’s decision to shut down her emotional life makes her more vulnerable to another kind of seduction. In writing about her political adventure in Washington, Adams pulls out all the staples of 19th-century romance: the heroine’s arrival on a scene full of allure and possibility; the men who vie for her hand, for better and worse reasons; the charged conversations in parlors and at dinner tables; the barbs and misunderstandings and intrigues. There’s a fancy ball (which also happens to be a staple of Washington life, although it’s been a long time since I got to wear my dancing shoes), There’s a romantic crisis that can only be averted by the delivery of a letter containing a critically important secret, the sharing of which probably dooms the writer’s prospects of happiness.
The further along in the story I got, the more I felt I was reading a kind of bizarro-world Jane Austen matrimonial, or one of Ann Radcliffe’s gothics. (I doubt Adams intended the Radcliffe/Ratcliffe echo but I heard it regardless, and Senator Ratcliffe is grotesque in his pursuit of power.) And there’s a scene of remorse in which our heroine berates herself for her foolishness as thoroughly as any Bennett sister could. “‘Oh, what a vile thing life is!’ she cried, throwing up her arms with a gesture of helpless rage and despair. ‘Oh, how I wish I were dead! how I wish the universe were annihilated!’ And she flung herself down by Sybil’s side in a frenzy of rage and despair.” 
What’s eating at Madeleine, though, isn’t that she gave in to the wrong man but that she succumbed to the “thirst for power.”  That’s her transgression. Adams makes it out to be Washington’s mortal sin as well, the canker at the heart of democracy.
And here we are back to cynicism, because if Democracy is a romance, it’s one that sees very little good in the world it describes. It bothers me that Adams never gives democracy a chance. This is probably my sentimental side talking, the part of me that drives past Washington’s monuments and sees them as the embodiment of ideals that are worth hanging onto. I’m not in politics but I’d like to think that there’s some good to be accomplished in political life, in spite of the Hill travesties and gridlock we read about every day in the Post.
So, Mark, I need a cynicism check here. Is Henry Adams right when he has Mr. Gore say to Mrs. Lee, “If you want to know what the world is really doing to any good purpose, pass a winter at Samarcand, at Timbuctoo, but not at Washington. Be a bank-clerk, or a journeyman printer, but not a Congressman. Here you will find nothing but wasted effort and clumsy intrigue.”  What do you think?