In Henry Adam’s Democracy, the character of Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe first comes across as the kind of politician that Henry Adams openly criticizes and denounces. However, with further analysis one can see how Adams uses Ratcliffe’s character to depict the stark contrast between an ideal, model political figure and a more pragmatic, realistic one that exists in current day politics. Ratcliffe epitomizes the new type of Western leader who is deeply influenced by the subtle appeal of political power.
In the beginning of the novel, Ratcliffe is portrayed to have launched his political career as a well-intentioned post Civil War governor from Illinois. However, as the novel progresses, the temptations of political power erode away at his will, and social pressures cause him to take on an increasingly cynical attitude toward politics. Adams compares Ratcliffe to political leaders prior to the Civil War in order to give readers a clearer image of the type of politician that has emerged since the war, as well as the new issues that partisan politics and social pressures have brought to the table.
Adams's depiction of Ratcliffe not only includes biographical overtones of political figures of his time, but also foreshadows the complexities that inhibit modern government officials in today’s political realm. In order to accurately depict the effects of the pressures that political leaders face, Adams portrays Ratcliffe as unhappy with political life and suggests that he found it detrimental to “honesty and self respect” (Gilley, 1991). Ratcliffe rationalizes his moral decline with a detached outlook on politics.
He says that he became a politician because “it is the trade he is fittest for” and that ambition is his “resource to make it tolerable. ” (Adams 171). Although Adams did not excuse Ratcliffe’s rationale, he suggested that the erosion of the Senator’s will was brought on by the pressures of an impersonal society (Gilley, 1991). A significant portion of the social pressures that contributed to Ratcliffe’s apathetic view on politics came from various lobbyist groups that he had to deal with on a daily basis.
Lobbyists, representatives, other senators and journalists bombard Ratcliffe to work for their selfish interests, which causes him to resent them and acquire an uninspired attitude towards his work. In addition to Ratcliffe’s disillusionment, the Senator’s moral decline is affected by his quest for political power and control. In the beginning, Ratcliffe sought power in order to achieve legitimate goals and objectives. However, the search for power obscured his original goals and corrupted his connection to the voters (Gilley, 1991).
As the novel progresses, the reader can see how Ratcliffe begins to look at politics as a means of gaining personal advantages rather than doing what is in the best interest of the public. This is epitomized by the fact that as a widower, Ratcliffe thinks it will be helpful to have a wife at his side when he decides to run for office. He turns his attentions towards the novel’s protagonist Madeline Lee and does everything in his power to ensure that she chooses him over his competition.
Ratcliffe uses his political clout to get rid of John Carrington: he secures a post abroad for his rival, who has no choice but accept the offer due to financial constraints. Step by step, Ratcliffe maneuvers Madeleine Lee into a difficult position in which he thinks the only choice left for her will be to marry him. Through this example, the reader can see how Ratcliffe uses his political status to further enhance his personal agenda without a second thought towards legitimate use of power.
Adams attempts to further describe the new challenges that politicians from Ratcliffe’s time face by comparing Ratcliffe to pre Civil War politicians such as George Washington. Washington refused to acknowledge or to be a part of political factions, and Adams uses this to stress his view of post-Civil War political leaders and their changed environment. In a memorable scene in Democracy, John Carrington and Ratcliffe evaluate George Washington in terms that described the changed political climate.
Carrington noted that dedication to a moral code and to the welfare of the people motivated Washington's public actions, and that this was no longer the case in current day politics. Ratcliffe agreed that the political context of Washington’s time no longer prevailed, but his reasoning was very different than Carrington’s. In Ratcliffe’s opinion, Washington would have had difficulty succeeding in contemporary politics. Ratcliffe argues that “public men cannot be dressing themselves today in Washington's old clothes” (Adams, 76).
Washington had been able to refrain from partisan politics, but in order to be re-elected in the present he would have had to change his political philosophy to one similar to current day politics (Colacurcio, 1967). In contrast to Washington’s refusal to partake in political factions, Ratcliffe regards loyalty to his party to be the highest political morality (Schlesinger, 2003). The Senator tells Madeline Lee that he has yielded all of his personal opinions in order to be in accordance with the will of the party.
He stresses that he has never refused to vote with his party, and this causes Madeleine to come to the conclusion that Ratcliffe puts party allegiance ahead of everything else (Adams, 48). Party alliance is the sole way that Ratcliffe clings to some sense of warped political integrity. While Adams does not approve of political figures who act in the way that Ratcliffe does, he does not merely condemn the Senator for his political corruption.
Adams acknowledges the challenges that the changed political climate has brought, and realizes to a certain extent that politicians like Ratcliffe are responding in a pragmatic way to the environment they live in. This is exemplified when Madeleine asks Nathaniel Gore about his opinions on Ratcliffe’s conduct. Although he despises Ratcliffe, Gore refused to denounce the Senator's pragmatism. Instead, Gore acknowledges the relationship that exists between political means and ends when he says “Mr. Ratcliffe has a practical piece of work to do…we have no other equally good practical politician.
I believe in him myself and am not afraid to say so. ” (Adams, 45). While Adams portrays Ratcliffe in a negative light, he is also acknowledging that the complexities of modern politics can undermine the integrity of leaders by compelling them to use unethical means to pursue legitimate ends (Gilley, 1991). It is clear that Adams is not completely condemning the way politics functions. While he accepts the reality of the society he lives in, he cannot bring himself to be a part of it (Colacurcio, 1967).
This is symbolized by the fact that when Madeline finds out about the true nature of politics and the way it works, she packs her bags and leaves Washington and the political realm behind. Even though she flees politics, she also tries not to judge what Ratcliffe has done "as a politician . . . according to his own moral code” (Adams, 175). Towards the end of the novel, it is apparent that Adams acknowledges through Madeleine’s character that American democracy, which had never been perfect, would continue to be lawed because leaders were human and susceptible to the increased pressures defined by party factions and increased depersonalization. In conclusion, Adams understood that many well-meaning politicians like Ratcliffe intended to serve the public well, but lost their grip on the difference between right and wrong along the way. Although Ratcliffe engaged in questionable moral behavior, he prevailed as a successful officeholder. The rise of partisan politics, the emphasis on party loyalty and the pressures of impersonal society convinced Adams that the individual political leadership of Washington's and Jefferson's time was no longer feasible.
He grudgingly conceded that political leaders of his day were pragmatic and realistic when considering the time and environment they were operating in. Adams sums up his feelings on modern day politics when he suggests that with all its flaws, democracy was nevertheless "the only direction society can take that is worth its taking” (Adams, 46). While he doesn’t approve of the direction politics and officeholder were heading towards, he accepted it for what it was and had to come to terms with the reality of the era he was living in.
Adams, Henry. Democracy: An American Novel. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Print. Colacurcio, Michael. "'Democracy' and 'Esther': Henry Adams' Flirtation with Pragmatism. " 1967. American Quarterly. Vol. 19. N. p. : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. 53-70. Print. Gilley, B. H. "Democracy: Henry Adams and the Role of Political Leader. " 1991. Biography. Vol. 14. N. p. : University of Hawai'i Press, 1991. 349-65. Print. Schlesinger, Arthur. "On Henry Adams and Democracy. " New York Review of Books 27 Mar. 2003: n. pag. Print.