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Democracy An American Novel

Chapter V
TO tie a prominent statesman to her train and to lead him about like a tame bear, is for
a young and vivacious woman a more certain amusement than to tie herself to him and
to be dragged about like an Indian squaw. This fact was Madeleine Lee's first great
political discovery in Washington, and it was worth to her all the German philosophy she
had ever read, with even a complete edition of Herbert Spencer's works into the
bargain. There could be no doubt that the honours and dignities of a public career were
no fair consideration for its pains. She made a little daily task for herself of reading in
succession the lives and letters of the American Presidents, and of their wives, when
she could find that there was a trace of the latter's existence. What a melancholy
spectacle it was, from George Washington down to the last incumbent; what vexations,
what disappointments, what grievous mistakes, what very objectionable manners! Not
one of them, who had aimed at high purpose, but had been thwarted, beaten, and
habitually insulted! What a gloom lay on the features of those famous chieftains,
Calhoun, Clay, and Webster; what varied expression of defeat and unsatisfied desire;
what a sense of self-importance and senatorial magniloquence; what a craving for
flattery; what despair at the sentence of fate! And what did they amount to, after all?
They were practical men, these! they had no great problems of thought to settle, no
questions that rose above the ordinary rules of common morals and homely duty. How
they had managed to befog the subject! What elaborate show-structures they had built
up, with no result but to obscure the horizon! Would not the country have done better
without them? Could it have done worse? What deeper abyss could have opened under
the nation's feet, than that to whose verge they brought it?
Madeleine's mind wearied with the monotony of the story. She discussed the subject
with Ratcliffe, who told her frankly that the pleasure of politics lay in the possession of
power. He agreed that the country would do very well without him. "But here I am," said
he, "and here I mean to stay." He had very little sympathy for thin moralising, and a
statesmanlike contempt for philosophical politics. He loved power, and he meant to be
That was enough.
Sometimes the tragic and sometimes the comic side was uppermost in her mind, and
sometimes she did not herself know whether to cry or to laugh.
Washington more than any other city in the world swarms with simple-minded
exhibitions of human nature; men and women curiously out of place, whom it would be
cruel to ridicule and ridiculous to weep over. The sadder exhibitions are fortunately
seldom seen by respectable people; only the little social accidents come under their
eyes. One evening Mrs. Lee went to the President's first evening reception. As Sybil
flatly refused to face the crowd, and Carrington mildly said that he feared he was not