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Henry Adams’s "Democracy": Intelligence, Sentiment, and Politics in the American 1880s

Michael Collins

Pages 43 - 63



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This article considers Henry Adams’s 1880 novel "Democracy" in the context of his lobbying for civil-service reform, to show how the novel mobilizes proto-eugenic discourses of measurable “intelligence” and biological “merit” in its depiction of the characteristics Adams demanded of political actors in the new post-bellum era of American capitalist imperialism. Drawing on recent critical work on biopower and sentimental culture by Kyla Schuller and the history of the emotions by Sianne Ngai, I show how Adams’s novel predicts the system of Progressive Era biopolitics in its picture of idealized, modern, “meritocratic” forms of governance, and in so doing forecloses post-war processes of democratization in the service of efficient, “intelligently”-directed, and panoptic capitalist-state power.

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