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Democracy: An American Novel
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Democracy: An American Novel

3.39  ·  Rating Details  ·  358 Ratings  ·  46 Reviews
First published anonymously in 1880, the mother of all (American) political novels is the story of Madeleine Lee, a young widow who comes to Washington, DC, to understand the workings of government. "What she wanted was POWER." During the course of the novel, she sees enough of power and its corruptions to last her a lifetime.
Paperback, 192 pages
Published November 1st 1983 by Plume (first published 1880)
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Bill  Kerwin
Mar 12, 2016 Bill Kerwin rated it really liked it

A novel published anonymously by historian Henry Adams in the 1880's, this portrait of deal-making and corruption in Washington seems almost contemporary. In addition, the novel features an interesting and admirable protagonist: Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, a New York stockbroker's young widow, who wishes to learn about power, duty and service in Washington D.C.
Mar 03, 2012 Kwame rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For reasons that I have yet to understand, the contemporary American author cannot write a satisfactory novel about the arts of political chicane in Washington. Maybe the inhibition is instilled at birth, or during the first two years of infancy. More probably it is the result of the mass media's tireless insistence that politicians, especially presidents, must be swathed in the ornamental drapery of a late Roman emperor. Adams understood that American politicians were mortal, possibly because b ...more
Inga Gardner
I read this book becuase John Dickerson of the Slate Political Gabfest recommended it as one of the best books about Washington D.C. ever written. Having read it, I think he's right. Although the book takes place in teh 1870's, much of the book feels surprisingly current. The story has absolutely no political agenda (the only political discussions are about issues that are already settled, like the Civil War), but holds a fairly dim view of Washington. This is a book that pretty much anyone who ...more
Feb 06, 2009 Nicole rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1112-19th-cent
This novel is the "Primary Colors" of the nineteenth century; it was published anonymously in 1880 and was quite controversial because of its less-than-veiled portrayals of several contemporary politicians. Upon his death in 1918, Henry Adams's publisher announced that Adams had penned the book. It's a terrific look at the Washington political and social scene of the 1870s, and it does a great job of grappling with the relationship between women and politics. It's kind of Jane Austen meets "The ...more
Frank Stein
Feb 22, 2013 Frank Stein rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

The quintessential Gilded Age political novel (surpassing even "The Gilded Age" itself, by Twain), this is Henry Adams masterful take on the corrupt life of Washington. Of course this supposed devastating portrait is all done with Victorian gentility, and takes place mainly in ladies' parlor rooms, but Adams demonstrates an uncommon eye for the little corruptions and pressures that take place in the city, as well as the big ones.

In its bare outlines, this is the story of two society women's, Ma
Apr 09, 2015 Robert rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Democracy by Henry Adams was published in 1880 but only attributed to him by his publisher after his death in 1918. Descended from two presidents--John Adams and John Quincy Adams--Henry Adams was deeply schooled in American political life, and that, in a sense, is what this ambivalent novel is about.

On the one hand it is a tale of the ambitious Silas Ratcliffe and his efforts to become president. He is well-decribed as a politician more interested in power than principle. On the other hand, it
Michael Austin
Jan 27, 2014 Michael Austin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
Henry Adams was the original "Anonymous" political author. and Democracy remains one of the finest political novels ever written. The novel , whose authorship was not revealed until the 1920s, tells the story of Madeline Lee, a wealthy young widow who comes to Washington, D.C. a generation after the Civil War. She becomes a famous hostess, an informal power broker, and the romantic object of several powerful men, including Silas P. Ratcliff, the new Treasury Secretary and a likely contender for ...more
May 26, 2016 Mike rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-owned
Three-and-a-half stars. It's easy to see why Henry Adams' novel caused a stir when published anonymously in 1880. It's also easy to understand why the novel remains relevant. Adams fires a shot across the bow of American exceptionalism, suggesting that Americans don't necessarily have any high moral ground just because the United States was the first modern democracy. Indeed, the populace (and those whom we elect) are just as dull, boorish, prejudiced, and unenlightened as anyone else in the wor ...more
H.J. Swinford
This book deals with more politics than I would care to think about in my whole life. Very little happens, most of the characters are shallow, but the writing style isn't uninteresting. There is enough wit in the writing to keep a reader's interest; I only fell asleep four times while reading this book, when at first I didn't think I'd ever finish. Perhaps it would be much more greatly enjoyed by people who care anything about politics. For me, I'll stick to books where things actually happen.
Mar 23, 2014 Nate rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The story is a riveting depiction of high-stakes political drama in Reconstruction Era United States, featuring the virtue of Desire for Truth on one hand, and the corresponding vices of ambition and lust on the other. In technical terms, the novel is a master class of symbolic character development and imbuing complex ideas into dramatic plot.

However, luckily for us, for those interested in the trajectory of Democracy/History/Culture in the United States (and the World), the book is absolutely
Nov 06, 2008 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to David by:
Vote buying, fixed elections, graft, greed, & slanderous competition. An insightful look into individuals and government in Washington in the 1870’s. I like the way it examined it moral positions that formed this Democracy. Democracy shows that the applications used to build this great land have not changed. The will-to-power and the will-to-rule for any person corrupts no matter how lofty the person’s principles or talents might be. Great book!!!
Jun 07, 2015 Don rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A terrific political novel about Washington in the 1870s. It moves through set pieces full of dazzling language -- balls, Mt Vernon, the heroine's salon. I was reminded at times of Scott Fitzgerald -- a sharp social focus that seems more european than american. Adams had a great understanding though no sympathy for his midwestern crude senator/cabinet secretary protagonist, and he draws out how the neurotic side of the political strategist -- manipulative, thin-skinned, self-pitying - plays out ...more
May 24, 2012 Michelle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Adams' style is a real pleasure and more than makes up for poorly drawn characters and a somewhat silly plot. I found myself laughing out loud throughout at the well-crafted sentences and indulgent observations (though there were a high number of clunkers, too). The big theme of the novel - corruption in politics - remains relevant today, and its last sentence is a fantastic triumph.
Russell Fox
This is the second time I've read Democracy; this time, I read it in preparation for a class discussion. It is a good, but not great; in a manner reminiscent of how Henry Adams presented himself in his autobiography/memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, he depicts his characters as constantly discovering something which, one would think, would dramatically alter their perspective or motivations, but never really do. So I can't claim that it is filled with superb characterizations; more like a bu ...more
May 18, 2014 Ivan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
FIRST LINE REVIEW: "For reasons which many persons thought ridiculous, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee decided to pass the winter in Washington." And during that winter and the following spring she discovers what we all have learned, from the 19th century to the 21st -- the game of politics is played by masters who will use any means to achieve their ends. I often felt like I was reading an early version of "House of Cards," but where the political scheming was more directed toward romantic ends...or at leas ...more
May 05, 2012 Dakota rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A marvelous, fascinating look at democratic tendencies. Still timely, both in politics and women.
“Democracy - An American Novel” was published anonymously in 1880, and it was not to be revealed until after his death in 1918 that Henry Adams was the author. Henry Adams was son of Charles Francis Adams Sr., who served in the House of Representatives for one term, and then as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He was also the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great grandson of John Adams both of whom held the highest office for one term, so it is ...more
Jul 21, 2013 Joan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"My reply," said Ratcliffe, "is that no representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents. Purify society and you purify the government. But try to purify the government artificially and you only aggravate failure."

I think the above quote was what I will always remember from this novel published anonymously by Henry Adams in the 1880's, for good reason. His description of how Washington works was what so many of us believe of Washington today.

The plot
Dec 01, 2012 Donna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
In doing research for my Literary Politics book discussion series, I kept coming across references to this book. Reviewers of "Advise and Consent" said that was the first book set in Washington since "Democracy." In "Echo House" the central family owns a first edition of "Democracy" which they hold in high regard. I had to read this!

I'm glad to say that this book was well worth the time. Although it focuses on two sisters who come to live in Washington in order to relieve the ennui they feel in
Jun 27, 2012 Larry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Unfortunately, Adams' account of power and corruption in 1880's Washington still rings true today. The struggle between Sen. Ratcliffe and the struggling lawyer Mr. Carrington for the affections of the widow, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee is your classic morality play but set on the banks of the Potomac.

Adams knows Washington well being the great-grandson of John and the grandson of John Q. Adams and served as his father, Charles, personal secretary while Charles was the ambassador to Great Britain during
Viswanathan Venkataraman
Written in 1880 but the name of the author recognized only after his death in 1918.
A good insight into Washington life by an author who belonged to powerful political family. Democracy has not changed much, but to escape from the corruption of Washington the heroine travels to Egypt. Wonder any one will do that now.
Riff Denbow
A moving and powerful story of a woman who looses her way in the political world and a truly disgusting and revolting political man who lusts after her. Maybe the most modern feeling book I have ever read that is over 100 years old! What is so moving about it is that nothing in the world has changed, this story, while in Reconstruction America, could happen today, yet I don't know how many woman could act like the main character today, I don't know if it would be more or less, though I suspect l ...more
Clark Hulse
May 04, 2016 Clark Hulse rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you think Washington DC is a mess now, just read this account by Henry Adams (grandson and great-grandson of American presidents) to see how corrupt it was a century and a half ago.
Josh Muhlenkamp
This is a biting satire of American politics. The back cover said that it was a satire of 1870s Washington, but I contend that it is still relevant and applicable to today's Washington.

Oddly, for a book about politics set in the 1870s, Adams chose a woman as his main character. However, this was a brilliant move, for it allowed him to use the consummate Washington "outsider" as a contrast to Washington "insiders." He shows how exposure to the way politics works can corrupt even the most upstandi
Sep 21, 2010 Sean rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
My complaint with this book is that it gives the impression that politics, more often than not, is a practice bordering on corruption. While it is certainly true that politics is a messy business, due to its transactional nature, I wonder whether Adams' portrayal might breed a dangerous cynicism in his readers. I suppose, however, that it is important to note the time in which the book was written (the post Civil War era) and consider that Mr. Adams probably witnessed a great number of political ...more
Alethea Hammer

I love this book, and all things Henry Adams. This is a romance set in post Civil War Washington, D.C. It is a story of politics and corruption and people. It pokes gentle fun at the ironies of Washington society and human foibles. The author chose to publish this book anonymously and did not admit his authorship until his Last Will and Testament. That leaves us 135 years later still playing guessing games about which friends of his famous family he might have offended with it. It is also a gent
Oct 28, 2012 Jay rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Satire of D.C. politicians, circa 1870. Writen with Twain-like over-the-top descriptions at the beginning of the book, it gathers a plot and steam toward the ending. Roughly the story of a wealthy widow wanting to reform Washington and being tempted to join the riff-raff. Great characters and description throughout -- even a description of a ball gown was quite well done. Interesting also in that it was released anonymously. Beat my expectations.
Rebecca Cantor
Aug 02, 2009 Rebecca Cantor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american
Really enjoyed this one. Henry Adams published this novel anonymously, because it is a thinly veiled criticism of many of his contemporaries. The criticisms still ring true of today's politics. But what m,akes this story worth reading, for me, are the protagonist, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee and her sister Sybil Ross, who come to Washington D.C. seeking a reprieve form their ennui. They find romance, intrigue and scandal. A good time for a nerd like me.
May 07, 2009 Abby rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in nineteenth-century U.S. history
Recommended to Abby by: (1) Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; (2) book group member (Tom McC.)
Shelves: fiction
Read this book during my brief grad school experience, in a seminar conducted by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Read it again in book group, when it was chosen by someone who thought highly of it. Both times, I felt I was missing what was great or important about it. Perhaps now, with a somewhat greater perspective on U.S. history, I'd appreciate it more.
"Democracy was published anonymously in 1880 when Adams was already 42 years old. Owing, no doubt, to its subject matter and to its devastating portraits of Presidents and would-be Presidents, as well as such lesser Carnivora as senators, lobbyists, diplomats, and their fair ladies, it was an immediate popular success." (From the Forward by Henry D. Aiken)
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Born in 1838 into one of the oldest and most distinguished families in Boston, a family which had produced two American presidents, Henry Adams had the opportunity to pursue a wide-ranging variety of intellectual interests during the course of his life. Functioning both in
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“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.” 1 likes
“Washington was no politician as we understand the word," replied Ratcliffe abruptly. "He stood outside of politics. The thing couldn't be done today. The people don't like that sort of royal airs.” 0 likes
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