Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture

By Elizabeth Fenton | Go to book overview

6
Losing Faith: Ultramontane
Liberalism and Democratic Failure

From the outset of Henry Adams’s 1880 novel Democracy, Senator Silas Ratcliffe endorses a program of absolute political partisanship. “Believing as I do,” he explains to Madeline Lightfoot Lee, “that great results can only be accomplished by great parties, I have uniformly yielded my own personal opinions when they have failed to obtain general assent.”1 Party cohesion, Ratcliffe contends, must take precedence over the individual will because differences of opinion threaten the business of the democratic state. When Ratcliffe asserts that he has never defied the machine, Lee asks him, “Is nothing more powerful than party allegiance?” “Nothing,” comes the senator’s firm reply, to which he adds, almost as an afterthought, “except national allegiance” (47). Despite this assertion of national primacy, over the course of Adams’s novel it becomes clear that Ratcliffe not only subsumes individual preference to party design but also conflates the interests of his party with the interests of his country. Justifying his suppression of a rival party’s presidential votes while governor of Illinois, for example, Ratcliffe asserts, “Had Illinois been lost then, we should certainly have lost the Presidential election, and with it probably the Union” (61). Here, the distinctions among party dominance, state politics, and national solidarity all but disintegrate. Patriotism, such logic suggests, can include the subversion of federal law in the name of political allegiance. In violating electoral procedure, Ratcliffe would like Lee to believe, he has saved

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