Bad Shakespeare, Bad Politics: The Case of the Central Park “Julius Caesar”

1. Unlike most of those who have felt the need to express an opinion of Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, I’ve actually seen it. I attended a performance during the third of the three weeks of previews that preceded its formal one-week run — a couple of days before the furor over the production erupted into national news.  I found it to be reasonably entertaining — and embarrassingly confused:  dubious as a staging of Julius Caesar, and politically irresponsible.

I hasten to say that I see no merit at all in the indignant, opportunistic complaints of those who profess to be scandalized at Eustis’s choice to identify the character Julius Caesar with Donald Trump.    About those complaints, I will say only this. I can see nothing  objectionable in a theatrical representation of Julius Caesar as the sitting President of the U.S., even if that should include (as it inevitably would) on onstage assassination. A stage-play is not an incitement, period. In reply to the “serious question” hurled by the President’s son—in the words of his tweet, “When does “art” become political speech, and what difference does that make?” — I defer to the U.S. Supreme Court: Expression, artistic or not, counts as political speech the moment the attempt is made to suppress it for giving offense on political grounds; the difference that this makes is that it’s precisely then that the First Amendment kicks in with full force (vide R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992), Scalia, J., Opinion for the Court). The issue is much the same as with burning the flag. (I note without comment that the scandalized theatergoer who first put the would-be censors on the scent seems to have been as much scandalized by the sight of the Trump look-alike naked in the bathtub as by the assassination scene.) You don’t have to enjoy or admire the spectacle of it to acknowledge its legitimacy as political expression.     It confuses the issue to defend such expression on the grounds of its artistic worth or edifying value.

Among the unfortunate consequences of the controversy is that it’s shunted aside any serious discussion of the merits of Oskar Eustis’s staging. The play has been denounced on irrelevant, pernicious grounds by supporters of Trump, and embraced as a cause célèbre by the cultural establishment. An eminent scholar has assured the readers of The New York Times that the staging would have had the Bard’s own approval, and commended the production for illuminating our political circumstances. (The writer, James Shapiro, identifies himself as a consultant on the production, and I grant that his actual wording – although not the headline writer’s – is a bit more oblique.) I’m afraid I can’t agree.

As I say, the performance I attended was before all the nonsense went viral; I had the benefit of seeing it without any of that in my head.    I was disposed to enjoy it – waiting on line for five hours to get tickets does that to you. (Five hours in line is the standard procedure, for any Shakespeare in the Park production. The free tickets are distributed in Central Park at noon on the day of the performance; people start lining up even before the park opens at 6 a.m.) The actors’ performances  were consistently top-notch., and the details were  often clever.  But in the end the dramaturgy was incoherent, and the politics blinkered, or worse.   The representation of Caesar as Trump — that is to say, Trump as Caesar — has a certain specious believability, so far as it goes.  But it makes for a muddle of Julius Caesar, and muddled understanding of the political moment to which it purports to be tailored. Eustis has said that he looked to Julius Caesar to offer a parable for our time. But what he has made of the play isn’t a parable; it’s a proposition. It fails to carry conviction.

Preceding the performance (at least on the evening that I attended), a recorded audio announcement informs the audience that every line to be spoken onstage adheres to Shakespeare’s original (one small, immediately-recognizable topical joke excepted).  The same assurance is given in the director’s program note printed in Playbill.  The fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is cited as if this attested to the production’s coherence and seriousness.   In fact it’s part of the problem. It’s as if Eustis imagined that he need only supply the contemporary correspondences (a Caesar who talks and gesticulates like Donald Trump, an opponent of Caesar who sports a pink-pussy knit hat), and leave Shakespeare to do all the thinking.  The trouble is,  Shakespeare is thinking about other things.

2. That the actor in the part of Caesar, Gregg Henry, is meant to be taken for Donald Trump is uncontestable (and uncontested). His Caesar is not merely reminiscent of Trump, a Trump-like politician. He replicates all the signature mannerisms that are  unmistakably Trump’s.  Gregg Henry has mastered Trump’s verbal inflections and physical gestures with a literalness that by comparison makes Alec Baldwin look like, well, Alec Baldwin. That is to say, he approaches an order of verisimilitude that would interfere with Baldwin’s satirical purposes. The marvel of it, though, is that this is all done while speaking lines written by Shakespeare for Caesar. The lines Shakespeare gives Caesar to say are things we can well imagine Trump saying (were he a bit more verbally fluent).  Henry need only speak the lines in the manner we know to be Trump’s, and the fit appears perfect.

It’s a marvel, but it doesn’t get quite so far as all that.  The most that it shows is that Shakespeare’s idea of Caesar can pass fairly well for Trump’s idea of himself.    Caesar always delivers; he knows himself better than anyone. He’s the man that he takes himself for, the man that he gives himself out to be. Here is Caesar, explaining why he’d never reverse a prior decision:

…I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: ’tis furnsh’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood; and apprehensive;
Yet in their number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak’d of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it…

The actor  need only supply Trump’s spoken inflections, and his air-slapping gestures, for this to pass for a genuinely Trumpian utterance.  The audience, lately familiar with this sort of thing, understands that it doesn’t correspond to anything actual. We recognize the speaker as a man for whom constancy means nothing real.

That isn’t how Shakespeare sees Caesar. More to the point – it isn’t how Caesar is seen by anyone in Shakespeare’s play; it gets no purchase whatever on the situation with which Shakespeare’s characters are confronted. What’s alarming to Caesar’s opponents is not Caesar’s outrageous indifference to truth, but precisely the fact that Caesar is just as he says. Caesar, truly, always delivers, at least to the limit his aging body allows.   That’s the reason why Caesar’s most bitter detractor, Cassius, is reduced to harping on his limited physical stamina.  (Hmm… ) It’s also the reason — the only reason — why Brutus becomes persuaded that that Caesar must die.

This last point is crucial, for making sense of the play Shakespeare wrote. It’s not for tyrannical personality traits that Brutus comes to see in Caesar a menace to the republic.  “To speak truth of Caesar,” he says — in the soliloquy in which he persuades himself to join the conspiracy,  “I have not known when his affections sway’d / More than his reason.”  What makes Brutus fear for Rome’s safety – so he tells himself, anyway – is simply that Caesar is peerless, in every sense of that word.   The menace is hypothetical, consisting  in what future abuses that any leader so universally admired and applauded might at length be tempted to commit. (“So Caesar may; / Then lest me may, [let us] prevent.”) Brutus  knows very well this won’t fly as a political argument —  “the quarrel / Will bear no colour for the thing it is.” He takes it for granted that normal political opposition, on grounds such as this, is futile.  Desperate measures are called for.

Brutus  convinces himself that his notional fears will be publicly validated, if only he shows how far he’s willing to go in acting on them.  His egregious misjudgment in this becomes obvious, after the fact, when he proves to be no match for Caesar’s friend and admirer Mark Antony in controlling the public understanding of the assassination. But it isn’t so clear what alternative there might have been, in the world of the play, given the premises. And it isn’t so clear on what other premises Caesar is to be seen as a menace. There are no actions in the play that attest to alternative means of resistance to Caesar’s ascendancy — and no voices that counsel their adoption. (It’s not an accident that the figure of Cicero is sidelined – not just by the conspirators, but by the playwright.)   The alternatives offered — as Caesar’s opponents see it — are violence or acquiescence.

I do not mean to imply that Eustis’s staging endorses assassination, or advocates violence. Eustis states in his program note, and has repeated in the press, that the lesson of his staging is that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods… pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.” It’s presumably meant to be highly significant that the set’s painted backdrop — a mural which depicts, along with portraits of Washington and Lincoln, an image of the parchment presentation text of the U.S. Constitution — is abruptly torn down immediately after the assassination. Out come the riot police, commanded by Caesar’s successors. (I was briefly confused when Octavius comes on stage; the actor looks nothing like Jared.)   James Shapiro explains: “Anyone who sits through the final scene will see the consequences of deposing the tyrant: The brutality of the victors, Antony and Octavius, is far worse than that of Caesar.”  That’s clear enough.    Now all we need is for someone to explain how this is supposed to speak to the present political moment.

3.  It actually isn’t true that everything said onstage is from Shakespeare.  The production’s vaunted fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is limited to the lines spoken by  the named characters; Eustis gives himself greater license with the anonymous persons who stand in for the populace — appearing onstage in crowds, and sometimes shouting from the audience.  Especially in the latter third of the play, with Trump/Caesar gone from the scene, these extras serve as the bearers of the play’s topical reference, and do so verbally. They carry signs recognizable from anti-Trump demonstrations of the past half-year (“Resist!”).   And they chant: “This is what democracy looks like.”

What does democracy look like, in this staging of Julius Caesar? Who are these chanting protesters, in relation to the named characters of the play?   Watching the performance, I had assumed that they were to seen as the partisans of  the conspirators — I took their clash with the riot police for Eustis’ rendering of the conflict between the  forces raised by Brutus and Cassius and those loyal to Antony and Octavius.    (The text refers only to “powers”  on either side.)  After reading the director’s various statements in the press, I suspect I had misread the intention.  Perhaps the idea is that the unnamed protesters are acting on their own initiative, a leaderless movement à la Occupy Wall Street — acting independently of the conspirators, innocent of the conspirators’ violence.  In that case, the point of the chant is not to identify democracy with the cause of Brutus & co., but instead to announce the emergence of a more authentically democratic alternative.  That would better comport with the lesson that Eustis has said he has meant to convey; there’s a logic to it.   The trouble is just that it corresponds to nothing that anyone says in the play of Shakespeare’s that Eustis has chosen to stage.  It means discounting everything said in opposition to Caesar by any of Shakespeare’s characters, so as to affirm an alternative  mode of  oppositional politics (call it “resistance”) of which those characters are apparently unaware, and which has no discernible impact on the political situation.  Grant that these other, nobler democratic citizens are innocent of complicity in the fatal misjudgments of  Brutus and Cassius.  By the same token, they’re just as innocent of  responsibility for everything else that occurs in the play.  Their innocence is the obverse of their  inefficacy, from beginning to end of the tragedy.  Some resistance. Some democracy.

4. Eustis has stated that he made the decision to mount this Julius Caesar on November 9, the day after Trump’s election. I get that. But we’ve all had a chance to learn a few things, in the interim.



[Original Title: “An Emperor Disrobed: Some Thoughts on Oscar Eustis’s Julius Caesar.” Revised for clarity, 6/19/17.]

Is Othello Insecure?

W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase ‘double consciousness’ to name the anxious self-doubt that is commonly suffered by those for whom social success or acceptance is barred by hostile race prejudices. “The facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate,” wrote Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk.  Does this diagnosis apply to  the hero of Shakespeare’s Othello?  Might it help account for Othello’s tragic susceptibility to  Iago’s deceit?

In the play’s opening scene, we hear Othello denigrated, behind his back,  on account of his foreign birth and exotic appearance (I.i.63; I.i.87).  Iago contemns him for being black; Roderigo derides him as “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere.” (1.1.134-5).  This talk sets us on edge, and so we may well surmise that such bias must figure as a factor in Othello’s eventual fall. But there’s little real reason to think so.  Du Bois wasn’t thinking of sixteenth-century Venice (nor seventeenth-century England), and the syndrome he descried is nowhere to be found in  this play of Shakespeare’s.  Othello is immune to self-doubt. He is indifferent to social acceptance or approval. He is a man of extraordinary self-assurance, convinced of his merit and proud of his parentage.  Socially-conditioned self-doubt is no factor in his tragedy. What makes him susceptible to Iago’s manipulation is not this, but a doubt over whether his new marriage might be unworthy of him – a stain on his native nobility.

There is only one time in the play that Othello is faced with what seem to be hostile prejudices on account of his race or his origin.  That is when he is forced to contend with the wild accusations from his new father-in-law, Brabantio,  who claims that his daughter Desdemona could not have agreed to marry “such a thing” as Othello unless she were drugged or bewitched (I.ii.71).  It isn’t entirely clear if Brabantio’s words are expressive of racial animus, or whether such animus is shared by others among the Venetian elite. But supposing that this is the case – the question then is, how is Othello affected by it? If Brabantio’s attitude toward Othello can be seen as indicative of a prejudice pervasive in Venice, then Othello’s response must be seen as indicative of his resilience in such an environment. His composure is perfect; whatever offense or insults are intended, he shows no sign of taking umbrage or affront. The only reason he  deigns to respond to Brabantio’s wild accusations at all is that they are made in front of the Duke and the Senate, who are about to commission him to lead the Venetian campaign against the Turks.  He shows every confidence that his words will be credited.

Othello couldn’t care less what Brabantio thinks.  After all, he’s just run off with the man’s daughter without  having bothered to notify him in advance, let alone ask for his blessing.  On first hearing of Brabantio’s wrath, he’s unfazed and dismissive.  His words at the time make it clear how little he depends on Venice’s favor to nourish his self-esteem. There’s no sign that he’d care to assimilate socially to the people whose state he serves, or pattern his life or his manners on theirs. There’s nothing shameful to him in his origins; just the contrary:  “I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (I.ii.22-3). His sense of his native nobility is closely connected with his sense of the heroic qualities manifested through his career as a free-booting soldier of fortune.  If it weren’t for his love for Desdemona, he wouldn’t care in the least to be hitched to her narrow, circumscribed people.   But that I love the gentle Desdemona,” he says, “I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth.”  (I.ii.26-28).   Venice was known as an opulent mercantile power, owing its wealth to its control on Mediterranean shipping; “the sea’s worth” thus stands for all of the ease and prosperity enjoyed by Venetian society. Othello’s not interested.

There is one other time, later on in the play, when Othello might be thought to suffer self-doubt on account of others’ perceptions of him as a racially-different foreigner.  It occurs right after Iago first plants the seed of suspicion concerning Desdemona’s fidelity.   Iago casually speculates that even if Desdemona had cared for Othello initially, her affections were sure to revert in due course to men of “her own  clime, complexion, and degree” (III.iii.241).  Othello then cuts the discussion short, and Iago leaves him to ponder what he’s been told.  “Haply for I am black,” Othello wonders aloud,

And have not those soft parts of conversation.
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years — yet that’s not much —
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her.  (III.iii.304-9)

Notice how he swerves, mid-sentence, never completing the thought.  That might be because the thought is too painful for him to bear.  But it’s far likelier that the idea has no purchase on him;  it’s as if he can’t fully make sense of it, or its ramifications don’t interest him.  In concluding that Desdemona is gone, what he means is not that she’s left him – he knows very well that she hasn’t – but that she’s rotten, ruined.  Nothing he says for the rest of the play shows him pained  at having been spurned by his wife, or resentful at her having preferred a man with advantages that he lacks.     From this point forward – until the play’s very end, when he learns at last of Iago’s deception – he is consumed with the thought that Desdemona has been indiscriminate with her favors – and that she is therefore worthless – a “cunning whore” (IV.ii.91). 

If Othello is so sure of himself, why then does he so quickly credit Iago’s insinuations concerning his wife’s infidelity?  It may seem tempting to take this fact alone as the evidence that beneath his seeming self-confidence lies a  stratum of nagging self-doubt. That would be to underestimate Iago’s cunning, and the deviousness of his lies.   Iago’s malign stroke of genius is to finger Othello’s lieutenant Cassio as Desdemona’s supposed paramour.  This is not because Othello envies the poise of his polished lieutenant (although Iago certainly does).    Cassio had played the part of the intermediary in Othello’s and Desdemona’s courtship (III.iii.71, 100).  Iago professes surprise upon hearing of this, when the topic comes up, but he’s presumably known of it all along; it’s part of his scheme to remind Othello at this when planting his fabrications.  Othello and Desdemona may have had little chance to speak to each other directly when he was a guest at her father’s house; perhaps they were seldom or never alone together. For whatever reason, they had relied on the help of the ever-solicitous Cassio to serve as their go-between.  What this means is that Othello not only had been dependent on Cassio to relay his feelings to Desdemona, but had also depended on Cassio’s attestations of her love for him.   By suggesting that there had been something illicit between Desdemona and Cassio, Iago effectively undermines Othello’s confidence in the truth of all that had passed between himself and his bride before they were married.  In that same stroke, he loses his confidence in the storybook quality of their romance.  That he is a marvelous hero he never doubts; he merely suspects that he might have been duped into a marriage unworthy of his nobility.  “Why did I marry?” he finds himself wondering, helplessly disoriented (III.iii.245).

The presence of Cassio in the play points to a further reason for Othello’s susceptibility.  Cassio is Othello’s opposite: unpracticed in war, at ease with “the soft parts of conversation” – the consummate ladies’ man.  Othello has never aspired to any of that. He sees himself as a marvelous hero, but only a hero of daring adventures – at the head of army, or alone. He has apparently never before played the part of a lover, nor greatly cared to do so.  If he had ever pined for love, that was long in the past – by his own admission, the “young affects” of erotic ardor are in him “defunct” (I.ii.265-6)    Ever since boyhood, his “dearest action” has been in “the tented field /  And little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broil and battle.” (1.iii.88). 

Othello has the great fortune of winning the love of a woman who reveres him for the very qualities that he most prizes in himself, and who requires of him no change in his habits or manners.  “My heart’s subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord,” Desdemona avers, “And to his  honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” (I.3.251-4).  He had reason to trust that this marriage would do nothing to hinder or hamper his way of life. And yet, even on the very night on his wedding, he betrays a certain uneasiness with the marital state, over whether it might constitute a distraction from “the serious and great business of war”  (I.iii.268).  The sign of this is the vehemence with which he insists  – without even having been asked – that having Desdemona with him in Cyprus would not interfere with his duties:

No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instrument
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation.   (I.iii.269-75)

In these lines he pledges never to let his intelligence and professional judgment (his “speculative and officed instrument”) be dimmed or impaired by Cupid’s darts;  he swears to surrender his  helmet for use as a housewife’s skillet should this ever come to pass. For a man who claims to find perfect bliss in the company of his bride, it’s an astonishing pledge – all the more so in being entirely unsolicited.  Why need he fear Cupid’s darts, if he’s happily married? It’s as if he believes that thing he must protect his intelligence from is the very condition of being in love –  as if to be in the thrall of a lover’s vexations would fatally compromise his martial vocation.

These words prove prophetic. The mere taste of jealousy – an anxiety foreign to him – is enough to leave Othello feeling not only deprived of his mental tranquility, but also bereft of his soldierly occupation (III.iii.369).  He finds this intolerable, an affront to his dignity. He refuses to be jealous – and chooses to loathe his wife, so as to spare himself of having the occasion to be.  “Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy / To follow still the changes of the moon with fresh suspicions?” he asks Iago, rhetorically. “No: to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved”  (III.iii.180-2).  He would sooner persuade himself of Desdemona’s worthlessness than to suffer the least anxiety over the quality of their love.  “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven: ’Tis gone!” (III.iii.448-9).



[Original title: “Othello’s Doubts”]

“Democracy” by Henry Adams

800px-William_Notman_-_Henry_Brooks_Adams,_1885_(transparent)Henry Adams’s Democracy: An American Novel, was first published anonymously in 1880.  Its author never publicly acknowledged it as his work.  (It goes unmentioned in Adams’s autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, published after his death in 1918).  One hundred thirty-five years later, it retains its hold on readers’  imagination, a classic of U.S. political fiction.  Just a few years ago, it was chosen by readers of Slate magazine as the best American political novel of all time.  What accounts for its stature?  For a slender satirical novel,  its moral turns out to be surprisingly hard to pin down.  Some admiring critics have wanted to read Democracy as a simple morality tale, opposing modern corruption to classical virtue.  That does the book a disservice.

Democracy‘s protagonist, Madeleine Lightfoot Lee,  is a young New York widow, endowed with fine taste, high sentiments, and an independent private income.  An admired, intelligent woman of 30, Mrs. Lee has already visited Europe, and risen to the heights of New York society.   To the surprised consternation of her friends and relations, she decides to relocate to Washington, D.C.  — then a city of  few amenities and little distinction, apart from its being the seat of the national government.   She seeks the excitement of politics, determined to learn all its secrets.  (To what end, it’s a little unclear.)  Admirable woman she is, she soon finds herself courted by two rival suitors.  One is Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, of Illinois — a career politician, loyal only to the Party on which his future is staked.  The other is Mr. John Carrington, an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, upright and impecunious.

Senator Ratcliffe has the domineering parliamentary presence of  a latter-day Daniel Webster, with a genius for back-room maneuvering.  He has built his career on advancing the interests of his party, and recognizes no moral claims conflicting with that party’s success. Mr. Carrington, a much younger man, bears the stamp of an older coinage.   “He is my idea of George Washington at 30,” says Mrs. Lee on becoming acquainted with him.  A man of impeccable, self-effacing reserve, he will stoop to no unseemly self-promotion, and refrains from all partisan jockeying. Ratcliffe has the advantage of power and cunning, capable of outfoxing his party’s own incoming President.  (This new, unnamed, President owes his election solely to Ratcliffe’s having made a few too many enemies to secure the party’s nomination for himself.)   We see Ratcliffe get the better of his new President, and we watch him come close to obtaining  Mrs. Lee’s hand in marriage.  He is wily enough to  get Carrington off the scene (secretly arranging for him to be given a diplomatic posting abroad). But in the end Carrington thwarts his designs — by passing on to the shocked Mrs. Lee evidence of his rival’s sordid political dealings.

The editor of the recent Penguin Classics edition of the novel, Earl N. Harbert, reads Democracy as a straightforward moral allegory, a clash between modern party politics and an older “politics of principle.”  “The contest for the hand of the heroine thus becomes a struggle to determine the future of the American nation.”  For Harbert, Senator Ratcliffe is but an amoral opportunist, unscrupulous and self-serving — entirely “color-blind” in matters of conscience.   His romantic rival Carrington embodies the austere virtues that Ratcliffe lacks; unsullied by party connections, he stands as “the moral and political hero of Democracy.”   This is a bit too simplistic.  The truth is more complicated and more ambiguous — and also more interesting.

Harbert’s reading relies on identifying Carrington’s old-fashioned outlook with Henry Adams’s own.   It sounds plausible, because Adams  repeatedly calls himself “a man of the eighteenth century” in his autobiography.    A great-grandson of John Adams, second U.S. President after Washington, Henry Adams had been close as a child with his grandfather John Quincy Adams, sixth in that series. Looking back from the end of his life, Adams says that his upbringing left him entirely unprepared for making sense of (let alone succeeding in) modern political parties, with their unseemly bargaining among disparate interests.  His fictional Senator Ratcliffe is presented as the master at just this form of politicking, which the actual Henry Adams found bewildering and repugnant.    Carrington stands aloof from all that, as Adams had done.  He reveres George Washington, whom Ratcliffe has the impudence to disparage. (Ratcliffe calls Washington an amateur, whose aloofness disguised his inadequacy.) Very well.  But there’s another side of this story.

Ratcliffe may be a dyed-in-the-wool party loyalist, but the party to which he is loyal happens to be the Republican party of Lincoln.   Carrington is a product of the Old South, an old officer in the Confederate Army.  His family plantation is not so profitable as it had formerly been, for reasons left undiscussed.  His opinions of Reconstruction — or of slavery — are matters he keeps to himself.   It isn’t so easy to reconcile this with the republican virtues that Adams admired in his illustrious forebears. When Adams refers in The Education to the Adamses’ stubbornly eighteenth-century outlook, he is thinking specifically of their opposition to slavery.  (It was this that set them apart from the commercially-minded Boston elite.)  The issue had dominated his grandfather John Quincy Adams’s post-Presidential career in Congress.  His own father Charles Francis Adams (John Quincy Adams’s son) had been Martin Van Buren’s Vice-Presidential candidate on the Free Soil ticket, as well as Lincoln’s beleaguered Minister to Great Britain.   Charles Francis Adams  taught his son Henry to admire George Washington, but  only as an anomalous exception, the inexplicable product of a pernicious evil — indeed,  “the sum of all evil.”

Earl N. Harbert seems aware of the difficulty, for he labors assiduously to be rid of it. In his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, he writes,  “Carrington is a loyal Virginian but never a secessionist; he is a former Confederate soldier who fought bravely for his region and political beliefs but never for the cause of slavery.”  Really? Harbert is at pains to reiterate, even italicize, his hero’s freedom from any taint of association with slavery.  What he’s unable to do is quote from the text in support.   Was Carrington never a secessionist?  Adams has him say that he “had been a Union man” — meaning, he had preferred for the South to remain in the Union, before the secession occurred.  What exactly were those “political beliefs” for which this Confederate officer gallantly fought? About this Adams is pointedly silent — as he is silent about Carrington’s attitude, then or later, toward slavery itself.  The matter does not go entirely without comment, however. Ratcliffe, for one, has no doubt that Carrington  “believes in the divine doctrine of flogging Negroes.” (In the same breath he also rails against European reactionaries with “nothing to do in the world but to trample on human rights.”)  Ratcliffe says this privately to Mrs. Lee, when Carrington isn’t there to contradict it.  But Mrs. Lee might have done so, if she had reason to think it were false.  Instead, she changes the subject.

Ratcliffe has his reasons for disliking Carrington, and what he says about Carrington’s views may or may not be founded on fact.  But there’s no reason to take his contempt for such views as in any way cynical or unprincipled.   He is, to repeat, a Reconstruction Republican, a loyalist to the party of Lincoln.  (For whatever reason of tact or style, the Republican Party goes unnamed in the novel, but its identity is plain enough.)  He had apparently been among those present at Lincoln’s bedside when he died — an event that was not more than a dozen or fifteen years in the past.  (The year in which the novel takes place is left hazy, giving Adams a freer hand in contriving the plot.)  We are told that the sole decoration adorning his walls is Lincoln’s portrait.   Ratcliffe himself is no Lincoln, needless to say.  He may be regarded as one of those canny careerists who rise to the top, sooner or later, in any successful political party.  But the fact remains: his is the Party of Lincoln, the Party that both saved the Union and ended slavery.  It is easy to lose sight of this fact in reading Democracy, and most of its characters seem to have done so.    But it is surely the central fact of Ratcliffe’s political consciousness.  He has it in mind when he tells  Mrs. Lee, to her apparent discomfiture, that for him nothing comes before party allegiance  — besides loyalty to the country.  It’s the reason he doesn’t distinguish much between those two loyalties.  And it’s this that lends even his darkest acts their ambiguous moral coloration.

The earliest of those acts, and in some ways the most egregious, dates back to the time of the Civil War — the election of 1864. Ratcliffe had been governor of Illinois at the time.   Ratcliffe freely tells Mrs. Lee and her friends the whole story, after Carrington has made a sarcastic  allusion to the Senator’s having once been driven to taking “strong measures” against corruption.  (Always the gentleman, that Carrington.)  Those “strong measures” consisted in falsifying county election returns, to neutralize the effect of suspected fraud in the southern part of the state, in counties controlled by the opposition.   Scholars bent on reading Democracy as a roman à clef have been quick to gloss this as an allusion to the notorious irregularities in the disputed Presidential election of 1876 (which eventually fell to Congress to decide).  But it makes all the difference that Adams shifts the episode to the Civil War. In the novel’s version of that period’s history, the election of 1864 were apparently very close — much more so than in actual history — and the Illinois vote might have turned the election.   Lincoln’s defeat would bring the war to a premature end, making peace with the Confederacy.  (This is admittedly only Ratcliffe’s version of the events: but it is told in the presence of people unfriendly to him, who lived through the period, and nobody challenges him on the facts.)

“I am not proud of the transaction,” Ratcliffe says, “but I would do it again, and worse than that, if I thought it would save this country from disunion.”  He acknowledges the illegality, and even admits (on another occasion, in private) that it “violated the sanctity of a great popular election.”  But he makes no apologies, and expresses no contrition.   He has made no secret of what he has done, and has apparently retained the trust of the people of his state, having afterwards been made Senator.  (Bear in mind: U.S. Senators were then chosen by the state legislature, and there was not yet a Fourteenth Amendment to place such an act under federal jurisdiction.)  The fraudulent act was committed to neutralize the effects of a fraud perpetrated by traitorous adversaries, and nothing less than the fate of the nation was thought to be at stake.

It is a a near-perfect case of what some philosophers and moralists have come to call the “dirty hands” situation.  The immediate question  is not so much whether Ratcliffe’s conduct was proper, but whether it might have been done in good faith.  It is certainly tempting to think so — tempting, that is, for Ratcliffe himself, and tempting too for his hearers, Mrs. Lee and her friends.   For him, because the act benefited not only his nation, but also his own career.  For his hearers, because doing so spares them the  genuine moral difficulties in the situation.   In any event, only Carrington,  of that company, dares to condemn.  But then Carrington —  as Ratcliffe is quick to point out — hasn’t much moral standing in this, having been engaged in armed rebellion against the U.S. at the time.

(To be continued)