A Tainted Election? “Hamlet” & Politics

For roughly the first half of Hamlet, the audience is left in suspense as to whether or not Claudius, the present king, had in fact secretly murdered his predecessor, Prince Hamlet’s father. Then the prince devises and executes a plan to find out, and deems his suspicions confirmed; we in the audience get to be privy to still more conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt. Mystery solved. Except that this isn’t the play’s only mystery, nor the most vexing one. For – despite what we’re tempted to think – the confirmation of Hamlet’s suspicions doesn’t resolve the unanswered question looming over the play from the start: how is it that Claudius, the murdered king’s brother, got to be king after him?

Never mind how the former king died. Why did the crown not pass to Hamlet, that king’s son and namesake? Shakespeare supplies us with just enough information to allow the inference that the Denmark of the play (like the Denmark of Shakespeare’s own time) is an elective monarchy, not a hereditary one. This doesn’t answer the question; it defines it. In the elective monarchies that Shakespeare’s audience knew, a king with a direct male heir would almost invariably be succeeded by him on the throne, barring exceptional circumstances. In Hamlet, the recently-deceased king is survived by an adult son, bearing his father’s name. Yet somehow the crown has passed not to the son but instead to the former king’s brother. We are told nothing about the procedure whereby he was elected, or who was involved. It seems to be connected somehow (whether as cause or consequence) with his having won the heart and the hand of Gertrude, the queen. Shakespeare withholds any definite information. He simply presents us with Claudius on the throne, his election a fait accompli.

This turn of affairs, however it happened, has left Hamlet in a state of incredulous, shocked disgust. He finds Claudius loathsome, a disgrace to the kingdom. He can barely contain his rage at his mother for having let herself be swayed to the side of a man so deplorable and disgusting. When he learns (from his father’s ghost) that his uncle had brought about his father’s death, he absorbs this disclosure as if it were something he might have known all along. As the son of the murdered king, he finds himself tasked with avenging the crime.

But make no mistake: what Hamlet seeks is not public justice, and his cause serves no useful political purpose.   The revenge he is tasked with is  merely a private affair, familial score-setting. For Claudius (we must assume) is Denmark’s legitimate king. He may be a treacherous, unscrupulous thug.  He might never have gotten his chance if he hadn’t committed a devious crime. But it wasn’t the crime that got Claudius his crown. He got elected.

Just how Claudius got elected, Shakespeare leaves unexplained. We’re given no information about the procedure, nor of the identities of the electors.   We’re not told whose support Claudius had relied upon for the election to go in his favor.  Maybe whoever it was  (Gertrude? Polonius? Osric? Others unmentioned?) would have chosen differently had they known of the candidate’s crimes in the run-up to his election.  Maybe; or maybe not. Maybe they were in a position to guess what he’d done; maybe they didn’t care. They might still have preferred him to the other available candidates, for reasons unknown to us.   In any event, it’s a moot hypothetical. A royal election can’t be revoked or retracted.

Hamlet generally seems to understand this.   He never speaks of his uncle as   a usurper, nor disputes the legitimacy of his title to rule. He accepts that Claudius is indeed Denmark’s king.  And yet his lucidity on the matter does seem to have limits. He cannot help himself from cruelly berating, and baiting, his mother, merely for having married the man. He rails at her pointlessly, wildly imagining he might shame her into abandoning him. It never occurs to him that she might have had her reasons for marrying, now that his father is dead. This is painful to watch.

There’s a reason why Hamlet so brutally and irrationally castigates his mother, as if she alone were responsible for Claudius’ ascendancy. It spares him the need to confront the hard truth – nowhere stated by anyone, but inscribed in the situation – that it isn’t his mother who bears the blame for enabling Claudius’ rise, but his father, the previous king. We tend not to notice this. But it’s true.

For consider: somehow the long-reigning King Hamlet had failed to ensure that the crown would pass to his son. Was his father a weaker, more pusillanimous king than Hamlet allows himself to remember? Was he merely negligent, and short-sighted? Might he not have cared for his son to succeed him, or cared to expend the political capital that would have been needed to assure his son’s success? Might it be that the father and son had been somehow estranged? Shakespeare withholds from us any basis for knowing, one way or another. The father is dead (though still haunting the place, now and then); the son is disappointed; the uncle is king. Later the uncle is dead, along with the son and the mother, and somebody else takes over. The rest is silence.

Thoreau and the Tax-Collector

Thoreau portraitThere’s a side of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” that I believe is often misunderstood – or maybe just misremembered. We remember his refusal to pay the Massachusetts poll tax, even at the cost of going to jail.  But what is it that he hopes this act will accomplish, practically speaking?    

Perhaps that question seems misplaced. According to some readers of Thoreau – Hannah Arendt, for one – his refusal to pay the tax is divorced from any concern with practical consequences.  He simply sees it  incumbent on him, a dictate of conscience.  “It is not a man’s duty,” he writes, “as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” At most it is a matter of preserving his integrity intact, avoiding any personal guilt in the government’s wrongdoing.

This is mistaken. The author of “Civil Disobedience”  does very much aim for a definite, and immediate, practical result. Contrary to what Arendt and others have claimed, Thoreau isn’t merely acting in the interest of protecting his integrity.  I don’t mean to deny that he feels morally bound to dissociate himself from a government that permitted and protected the holding of slaves, come what may. But it’s not for this alone that he feels morally bound to withhold his taxes. What makes the latter a duty for him is his hopeful belief that by doing so, he might prompt others, too, to dissociate from the government.

If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, ‘But what shall I do?’ my answer is, ‘If you really wish to do any thing, resign your office.’ When the subject has refused his allegiance, and the officer resigned his office, the revolution is accomplished.

The citizen’s principled non-cooperation finds its completion in the official’s principled abdication: both must occur, to accomplish the revolution that Thoreau hopes his act might initiate. It might be a long shot, but there’s a real enough chance to make it one that’s worth taking.

If we tend to neglect this part of Thoreau’s intention, perhaps it’s because we attribute too much importance to the financial aspect. We tend to assume that his point of withholding the tax is to refrain from making any monetary contribution to the furtherance of acts  that he cannot in good conscience endorse. It has sometimes been said, pedantically, that Thoreau’s act was based on a misapprehension, in that the tax he refused to pay provided no revenue in support of slavery or the Mexican war. That’s irrelevant. Thoreau doesn’t care in the least about how the money gets spent. “I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with, — the dollar is innocent, — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.”   (This is why it’s a matter of indifference to him, that his unpaid tax bill was eventually settled – without his involvement – by an unknown third party, probably his aunt.) His refusal to pay the tax is simply his way of denying the government’s legitimacy – and more to the point, his chance to challenge its agents’ putative authority.

I meet this American government, or its representative the State government, directly, and face to face, once a year, no more, in the person of th tax-gatherer; this is the only mode in which a man situated as I am necessarily meets it, and then it says distinctly, Recognize me; and the simplest, most effectual, and in the present posture of affairs, the indispensable mode of treating it on this head, of expressing your little satisfaction with and love for it, is to deny it then.

It is no mere negative act of abstention, the refusal to pay, it is an act of engagement – a deliberate confrontation, not so much with the government as an institution, as with its human agents. “My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with — for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel — and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government.” By withholding his tax, Thoreau hopes to make the government’s agent unsure of himself, to see that he too might renounce an officially-sanctioned modus vivendi unworthy of him. “How shall he ever know well what he is and does as an agent of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he shall treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace… ?”

Let me press the point a bit further. It seems to me that Thoreau’s belief in his moral duty to refuse payment of the tax, on account of the government’s iniquity, rests entirely on his hopeful belief that the refusal might elicit the desired response from enough other people, without whose support the government would collapse.   Otherwise, his decision to pay his taxes, or not, might be merely a question of tactics, subject to strategic exigency. “I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage I can, as is usual in such cases.” The government, he knows well, comes “armed… with superior physical strength,” and might conceivably use the brute force at its disposal to extort his compliance. “When I meet a government which says to me, ‘Your money or your life,’ why should I be in haste to give it my money?” The government’s claim upon his recognition comes only in the expectation that the money be given in haste: that is, cooperatively, granting the legitimacy of the request. Thoreau will have none of that: “It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that.”

Thoreau’s hope comes through most clearly in a passage near the end of the essay, in which he raises – and answers – some hypothetical doubts about his position.

I sometimes say to myself, When many millions of men, without heat, without ill-will, without personal feeling of any kind, demand of you a few shillings only, without the possibility, such is their constitution, of retracting or altering their present demand, and without the possibility on your side, of appeal to any other millions, why do you expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force? You do not resist cold and hunger, the winds and the waves, this obstinately; you quietly submit to a thousand similar necessities.

“Why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force?” His answer is not, that it’s better to suffer than sacrifice one’s integrity. Instead, his answer is to reject the premise, refusing the analogy.

But just in proportion as I regard this as not wholly a brute force, but partly a human force, and consider that I have relations to those millions as to so many millions of men, and not of mere brutes or inanimate things, I see that appeal is possible, first and instantaneously, from them to the Maker of them, and secondly, from them to themselves… And, above all, there is this difference between resisting this and a purely brute or natural force, that I can resist this with some effect; but I cannot expect, like Orpheus to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts.

Related Post: Thoreau the Revolutionary (Sept. 14, 2015)


“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)