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English story

Democracy An American Novel

        Tác giả: by Henry Adams

First published anonymously, March 1880, and soon in various
unauthorized editions. It wasn"t until the 1925 edition that Adams
was listed as author. Henry Adams remarked (ironically as usual),
"The wholesale piracy of Democracy was the single real triumph
of my life."--it was very popular, as readers tried to guess who the
author was and who the characters really were. Chapters XII and
XIII were originally misnumbered.

FOR reasons which many persons thought ridiculous, Mrs.
Lightfoot Lee decided to pass the winter in Washington. She was
in excellent health, but she said that the climate would do her
good. In New York she had troops of friends, but she suddenly
became eager to see again the very small number of those who
lived on the Potomac. It was only to her closest intimates that she
honestly acknowledged herself to be tortured by ennui. Since her
husband's death, five years before, she had lost her taste for New
York society; she had felt no interest in the price of stocks, and
very little in the men who dealt in them; she had become serious.
What was it all worth, this wilderness of men and women as
monotonous as the brown stone houses they lived in? In her
despair she had resorted to desperate measures. She had read
philosophy in the original German, and the more she read, the
more she was disheartened that so much culture should lead to

After talking of Herbert Spencer for an entire evening with a very
literary transcendental commission-merchant, she could not see
that her time had been better employed than when in former days
she had passed it in flirting with a very agreeable young
stock-broker; indeed, there was an evident proof to the contrary,
for the flirtation might lead to something--had, in fact, led to
marriage; while the philosophy could lead to nothing, unless it
were perhaps to another evening of the same kind, because
transcendental philosophers are mostly elderly men, usually
married, and, when engaged in business, somewhat apt to be
sleepy towards evening. Nevertheless Mrs. Lee did her best to turn
her study to practical use. She plunged into philanthropy, visited
prisons, inspected hospitals, read the literature of pauperism and
crime, saturated herself with the statistics of vice, until her mind
had nearly lost sight of virtue. At last it rose in rebellion against
her, and she came to the limit of her strength. This path, too,
seemed to lead nowhere. She declared that she had lost the sense
of duty, and that, so far as concerned her, all the paupers and
criminals in New York might henceforward rise in their majesty
and manage every railway on the continent. Why should she care?
What was the city to her? She could find nothing in it that seemed
to demand salvation. What gave peculiar sanctity to numbers?
Why were a million people, who all resembled each other, any way
more interesting than one person? What aspiration could she help
to put into the mind of this great million-armed monster that
would make it worth her love or respect? Religion? A thousand
powerful churches were doing their best, and she could see no
chance for a new faith of which she was to be the inspired prophet.
Ambition? High popular ideals? Passion for whatever is lofty and
pure? The very words irritated her. Was she not herself devoured
by ambition, and was she not now eating her heart out because she
could find no one object worth a sacrifice?

Was it ambition--real ambition--or was it mere restlessness that
made Mrs. Lightfoot Lee so bitter against New York and
Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston, American life in general and
all life in particular? What did she want? Not social position, for
she herself was an eminently respectable Philadelphian by birth;
her father a famous clergyman; and her husband had been equally
irreproachable, a descendant of one branch of the Virginia Lees,
which had drifted to New York in search of fortune, and had found
it, or enough of it to keep the young man there. His widow had her
own place in society which no one disputed. Though not brighter
than her neighbours, the world persisted in classing her among
clever women; she had wealth, or at least enough of itto give her
all that money can give by way of pleasure to a sensible woman in
an American city; she had her house and her carriage; she dressed
well; her table was good, and her furniture was never allowed to
fall behind the latest standard of decorative art. She had travelled
in Europe, and after several visits, covering some years of time,
had retumed home, carrying in one hand, as it were, a green-grey
landscape, a remarkably pleasing specimen of Corot, and in the
other some bales of Persian and Syrian rugs and embroideries,
Japanese bronzes and porcelain. With this she declared Europe to
be exhausted, and she frankly avowed that she was American to
the tips of her fingers; she neither knew nor greatly cared whether
America or Europe were best to live in; she had no violent love for
either, and she had no objection to abusing both; but she meant to
get all that American life had to offer, good or bad, and to drink it
down to the dregs, fully determined that whatever there was in it
she would have, and that whatever could be made out of it she
would manufacture. "I know," said she, "that America produces
petroleum and pigs; I have seen both on the steamers; and I am
told it produces silver and gold. There is choice enough for any

Yet, as has been already said, Mrs. Lee's first experience was not a
success. She soon declared that New York might represent the
petroleum or the pigs, but the gold of life was not to be discovered
there by her eyes.

Not but that there was variety enough; a variety of people,
occupations, aims, and thoughts; but that all these, after growing to
a certain height, stopped short. They found nothing to hold them
up. She knew, more or less intimately, a dozen men whose
fortunes ranged between one million and forty millions. What did
they do with their money? What could they do with it that was
different from what other men did? After all, it is absurd to spend
more money than is enough to satisfy all one's wants; it is vulgar to
live in two houses in the same street, and to drive six horses
abreast. Yet, after setting aside a certain income sufficient for all
one's wants, what was to be done with the rest? To let it
accumulate was to own one's failure; Mrs. Lee's great grievance
was that it did accumulate, without changing or improving the
quality of its owners. To spend it in charity and public works was
doubtless praiseworthy, but was it wise? Mrs. Lee had read enough
political economy and pauper reports to be nearly convinced that
public work should be public duty, and that great benefactions do
harm as well as good.

And even supposing it spent on these objects, how could it do
more than increase and perpetuate that same kind of human nature
which was her great grievance? Her New York friends could not
meet this question except by falling back upon their native
commonplaces, which she recklessly trampled upon, averring that,
much as she admired the genius of the famous traveller, Mr.
Gulliver, she never had been able, since she became a widow, to
accept the Brobdingnagian doctrine that he who made two blades
of grass grow where only one grew before deserved better of
mankind than the whole race of politicians. She would not find
fault with the philosopher had he required that the grass should be
of an improved quality; "but," said she, "I cannot honestly pretend
that I should be pleased to see two New York men where I now see
one; the idea is too ridiculous; more than one and a half would be
fatal to me."

Then came her Boston friends, who suggested that higher
education was precisely what she wanted; she should throw herself
into a crusade for universities and art-schools. Mrs. Lee turned
upon them with a sweet smile; "Do you know," said she, "that we
have in New York already the richest university in America, and
that its only trouble has always been that it can get no scholars
even by paying for them? Do you want me to go out into the streets
and waylay boys? If the heathen refuse to be converted, can you
give me power over the stake and the sword to compel them to
come in? And suppose you can? Suppose I march all the boys in
Fifth Avenue down to the university and have them all properly
taught Greek and Latin, English literature, ethics, and German
philosophy. What then? You do it in Boston. Now tell me honestly
what comes of it. I suppose you have there a brilliant society;
numbers of poets, scholars, philosophers, statesmen, all up and
down Beacon Street. Your evenings must be sparkling. Your press
must scintillate. How is it that we New Yorkers never hear of it?
We don't go much into your society; but when we do, it doesn't
seem so very much better than our own. You are just like the rest
of us. You grow six inches high, and then you stop. Why will not
somebody grow to be a tree and cast a shadow?"

The average member of New York society, although not unused to
this contemptuous kind of treatment from his leaders, retaliated in
his blind, common-sense way. "What does the woman want?" he
said. "Is her head turned with the Tulieries and Marlborough
House? Does she think herself made for a throne? Why does she
not lecture for women's rights? Why not go on the stage? If she
cannot be contented like other people, what need is there for
abusing us just because she feels herself no taller than we are?
What does she expect to get from her sharp tongue? What does she
know, any way?"

Mrs. Lee certainly knew very little. She had read voraciously and
promiscuously one subject after another. Ruskin and Taine had
danced merrily through her mind, hand in hand with Darwin and
Stuart Mill, Gustave Droz and Algernon Swinburne. She had even
laboured over the literature of her own country. She was perhaps,
the only woman in New York who knew something of American
history. Certainly she could not have repeated the list of Presidents
in their order, but she knew that the Constitution divided the
goverument into Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary; she was
aware that the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice were
important personages, and instinctively she wondered whether they
might not solve her problem; whether they were the shade trees
which she saw in her dreams.

Here, then, was the explanation of her restlessness, discontent,
ambition,--call it what you will. It was the feeling of a passenger
on an ocean steamer whose mind will not give him rest until he
has been in the engine-room and talked with the engineer. 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. She cared little where her pursuit
might lead her, for she put no extravagant value upon life, having
already, as she said, exhausted at least two lives, and being fairly
hardened to insensibility in the process. "To lose a husband and a
baby," said she, "and keep one's courage and reason, one must
become very hard or very soft. I am now pure steel. You may beat
my heart with a trip-hammer and it will beat the trip-hammer back

Perhaps after exhausting the political world she might try again
elsewhere; she did not pretend to say where she might then go, or
what she should do; but at present she meant to see what
amusement there might be in politics.

Her friends asked what kind of amusement she expected to find
among the illiterate swarm of ordinary people who in Washington
represented constituencies so dreary that in comparison New York
was a New Jerusalem, and Broad Street a grove of Academe. She
replied that if Washington society were so bad as this, she should
have gained all she wanted, for it would be a pleasure to
return,--precisely the feeling she longed for. In her own mind,
however, she frowned on the idea of seeking for men. What she
wished to see, she thought, was the clash of interests, the interests
of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centering at
Washington; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and
uncontrollable, by men of ordinary mould; the tremendous forces
of government, and the machinery of society, at work. What she
wanted, was POWER.

Perhaps the force of the engine was a little confused in her mind
with that of the engineer, the power with the men who wielded it.
Perhaps the human interest of politics was after all what really
attracted her, and, however strongly she might deny it, the passion
for exercising power, for its own sake, might dazzle and mislead a
woman who had exhausted all the ordinary feminine resources.
But why speculate about her motives? The stage was before her,
the curtain was rising, the actors were ready to enter; she had only
to go quietly on among the supernumeraries and see how the play
was acted and the stage effects were produced; how the great
tragedians mouthed, and the stage-manager swore.

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