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Cooper, the Federalists, and the Aristocrats

Lance Schachterle
(Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

Presented at the James Fenimore Cooper and Politics Panel of the 2014 Conference of the American Literature Association in Washington, D.C.

©2015 by James Fenimore Cooper Society
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 31, May, 2015, pp. 17-24

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A leading historian and critic of American literature, Philip F. Gura, recently characterized Cooper as out of touch with his times "usi[ng] his novels to buttress an older, aristocratic worldview typified in the life of his father, William" (40). Gura further claims that unlike his contemporary to whom he is juxtaposed, John Neal, Cooper "studiously avoided controversial topics, including miscegenation, despite its prevalence on the frontier" (43).1 Gulp! Are Professor Gura and I reading the same novelist? This brief essay attempts to draw upon Cooper's correspondence to disclose what he said in private about Federalists and their Whig descendants, and about aristocrats. In my view, Cooper is strongly critical of both groups, radically far from buttressing an established order they represented, as Professor Gura claims.2

Cooper was raised in the household of a staunch Federalist landowner, politically-appointed judge, and two-time Congressional representative; he was first educated outside Cooperstown in the Albany school run by the conservative clergyman, Thomas Ellison, where he become a close friend of William Jay, son of the arch-Federalist John Jay. But in his first foray into party politics, he entirely rejected these influences by working for the Jeffersonian Republican DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828). Writing from Scarsdale to his childhood friend Peter Gansevoort on 19 April 1820, Cooper identified himself as "the Secratary [sic] of the Central Committee" for Westchester, a Federalist stronghold. But he was eager to rally support there for Clinton against both the Federalists and anti-Clinton "Buck-Tail" (Tammany Hall) Republicans. He concluded his analysis of the political currents in Westchester with:

We are all alive here and will do our duty—I never worked at an election before—but you who know me so well-know I never do things by halves—for Six weeks I have given myself up to it—and I sincerely hope the result will shew not in vain—I find now I dabble in politics.3

Wayne Franklin provides the context for Cooper's switch in allegiance, speculating that he came to know and admire Clinton during the older man's terms as New York's mayor. Even though William Cooper and De Witt Clinton were sharp adversaries, Cooper may have admired Clinton's progressive politics in supporting innovation in commerce and agriculture. Clinton, in return, assisted Cooper in securing militia posts in Westchester that raised his prestige with his neighbors and presumably the De Lanceys.4

Three years later, Cooper recorded a further sharp break with his father's Federalist heritage: he looked anew at Thomas Jefferson and began to admire the despised enemy of the Federalists. In a letter of uncertain recipient and date (Beard gives 24 April-17 June 1823), Cooper movingly records how seeing Thomas Sully's portrait at West Point of Jefferson led him to newly regard that bête noire as

[S]tanding before me, not in red breeches and slovenly attire, but a gentleman, appearing in all republican simplicity, with a grace and ease on the canvas, that to me seemed unrivalled. It has really shaken my opinion of Jefferson as a man, if not as a politician; and when his image occurs to me now, it is in the simple robes of Sully, sans red breeches, or even without any of the repulsive accompaniments of a political "sans culotte." (L&J 1:96. Cooper's apostasy here was made public by the letter being published in the New York American Patriot.)

In 1823 Cooper added a caveat that his opinion of Jefferson was not entirely favorable "as a politician." That caveat disappeared after reading the recently-published letters of Jefferson in 1830. Writing to Charles Wilkes from Rome on 9 April 1830, Cooper concluded a discursive letter by praising President Jackson (anything but a genteel aristocrat) for "a sound, constitutional, democratic, intelligible" letter to Congress which "has done, both him and us credit, all over Europe." He then asked Wilkes,

What do you think of Jefferson's letters? Have we not had a false idea of that man? I own he begins to appear to me, to be the greatest man, we ever had. His knowledge of Europe was of immense service to him. Without it, no American is fit to speak of the institutions of his own Country, for as nothing human is perfect, it is only by comparison, that we can judge of our own advantages. (L&J 1:411)

Cooper could have applied that last sentence justly to himself: early in his European sojourn from 1826 to 1833 Cooper came to comprehend the pervasive power aristocrats had over European politics and to draw comparisons to America. Cooper was a close and interested observer of the political turmoil and violence against monarchal regimes in Europe in the early 1830s. While he welcomed democratic challenges to the established order, he saw clearly the power of reactionaries, however masked, to thwart them. Two long letters to William Jay's older brother, Peter Augustus, disclose Cooper's suspicions about these reactionaries. Writing on 15 July 1830, Cooper opined that

The whole of this quarter of the world is divided into two great parties. They have different names, in different countries…. One side is struggling to reap the advantages of the revolutions, and the other to arrest them. Of course the latter class is composed of all those who are in possession of power and emoluments…. (L&J 1:418)

And again to Jay on 16 June 1831, "There is at this moment a deep conspiracy, among the higher classes, to cheat the lower out of their natural rights" (L&J 2:107).

Even the liberal British Whig aristocracy who had welcomed him during his three-month stay in London in spring 1828 aroused Cooper's suspicions. To his Yale science teacher, Benjamin Silliman, Cooper wrote on 10 June 1831 that the Whigs "[s]till…were aristocrats," using their wealth to control voting since "England [is] in truth more of a monied Corporation than a government—a sort of another East India Company, on a grand scale" (L&J 2:95). In a letter to John Stuart Skinner sixteen days later, Cooper opined that "[t]here is a deep conspiracy of Aristocrats who are now striving to keep all they can from the people in England and France—All are not liberal who seem so, and the Reform Bill, in England, is a forced concession artfully contrived to appear to yield a great deal more than it actually does" (L&J 2:112). What is important here is Cooper's definition of aristocrats: the desire to use politics to protect wealth against a democracy, rather than bloodline, defines them—though of course the two often overlapped. Increasingly for Cooper, aristocrats and oligarchs were synonyms.

To Cooper the situation in revolutionary France was even more stark. Cooper had raced across Europe in late summer 1830 when news arrived that a revolution in France had replaced Charles X with the "Citizen King" Louis Phillipe. He admired the restraint General Lafayette, who had engaged the famous novelist on behalf of liberal causes soon after the Coopers arrived in France in 1827, in refusing to head the new government. But by spring 1831, Cooper wrote his closest friend William Branford Shubrick (7 May) that "[t]he people in power, in France, have completely cheated the people out of their liberty, and are aiming now at an Aristocracy. They will keep a King as a cloak; but the English system is their aim…" (L&J 2:77-8).

As early as 1832 Cooper began applying what he had learned about European politics to America—just as he had praised Jefferson for doing in 1830. He allowed a letter dated 1 October 1832 addressed "to the American Public" to be published in the Philadelphia newspaper the National Gazette and Literary Register on 5 December: "Governments, in this quarter of the world, are in fact degenerating into stock-jobbing companies, in which the mass are treated as so many producers to enable the few to get good securities for their money" (L&J 2:345-6). If the dead ever roll over in their graves, William Cooper truly must have spun to see his son state the central concept of Karl Marx's Das Kapital thirty-five years before its publication.

The Coopers returned to New York in November 1833, and thirteen months later the novelist began contributing public letters to the Democrat-leaning New York Evening Post, edited by his friend William Cullen Bryant. The "A.B.C." letters were technically anonymous but Cooper's hand was soon recognized and the letters widely reprinted; James Beard comments Cooper herein anticipated the modern role of the syndicated newspaper columnist (L&J 3:62). Various political topics engaged his pen but his focus was twofold: the duplicity of the new oligarchic French government, especially its refusal to pay reparations going back to the Napoleonic wars, and attempts to pervert the balance of power inscribed in the United States Constitution, especially opposition to Andrew Jackson—a roughhewn populist the Federalists, if any were left, would have abhorred.

Cooper's wrestling with the (to him) true interpretation of the Constitution now becomes his central political theme in his private letters. Writing to Yale classmate Micah Sterling on 27 October 1834, Cooper discourses at length on views that would eventually find their way into The American Democrat of 1838:

We have a vast deal of party politics without, I firmly believe I say truth, a single statesman in the whole country. I have not met a single man, since my return, who appears to me to have thoroughly examined the Constitution.

Cooper goes on to criticize the positions of the leading politicians both North (Webster) and South (Calhoun) as failing to comprehend the Constitution,6 and concluded his near-rant with

I care not a pin for Mr. Jackson, Mr. Van Buren, or Mr. Any one else, detest party politics, have not now nor ever had the sligh[t]est disposition for office, and mean no more nor any less than I say. Au reste, I am a democrat—not a party democrat, but a real democrat—on conviction that it is the best form of government for all countries that are sufficiently enlightened to bear it. (L&J 3:58-9)

And as the A.B.C. letters suggested, there was in Cooper's mind a linkage between American and French merchants. Cooper wrote to Richard Bentley on 6 April 1835 that "our merchants are proverbially ignorant of the political state of the country. As a class, and as politicians, they are aristocrats—The president [Jackson] is democratic and the nation is decidedly with him" (L&J 3:143).7

Even in his final full year, Cooper continued to dissect the Constitution to provide guidance during the political turmoil of 1850 over slavery and threats of Southern succession. Writing to Shubrick on 22 July 1850, he argued that:

It is evident that the slaveholders wish to introduce a new feature into the Constitution—that of Mr. Calhoun's "equilibrium"—in other words such changes must take place, from time to time, as will give the slave states equal power in the Union. Slavery is, consequently, to be an element in the government. And these are the men who talk of the Constitution. They say that the Constitution requires slavery. I should like to see in what clause…. (L&J 6:207)

Clearly here, at the national level, the proper interpretation of the Constitution remained Cooper's political lodestar. But from almost his return to the U.S. in 1833, local and personal experiences increasingly troubled his belief about applying to America his 1834 statement that democracy "is the best form of government for all countries that are sufficiently enlightened to bear it" (L&J 3:59). His quarrels with Cooperstown natives over the Three-Mile Point, the Effingham "Home" novels which draw upon that experience, the libel suits that ensued from the scathing ad hominem reviews of the "Home" novels from Whig editors in a hyper-partisan media environment attacking Cooper as a Democrat, and probably most important, the "Anti-Rent" controversies of the next decade all caused Cooper to begin fearing that the United States was not yet "sufficiently enlightened to bear" democracy. But in my view, neither in his correspondence nor printed work can we find evidence that Cooper now sought nostalgically to return to "an older, aristocratic worldview typified in the life of his father, William" (Gura 40).

What his work from 1833 on shows is his increasing fear that democracy was under attack not from aristocrats without, but from within—from demagogues, pretend democrats. Thus Cooper's fixation on demagogues came largely to replace his explorations of aristocracy in his fiction. In his correspondence he rarely mentions demagogues, except in two responses to unsolicited letters praising his stance against the Anti-Rent movement.8 On 30 March 1848 Cooper wrote Richard Bentley that "I am about to publish a work on American Democracy. It will be a bold book, taking the bull by the horn, and showing the mistakes of popular opinion on that subject, as it exists here. I shall write you again shortly, touching this work, which, while it will be republican will also be conservative in a high degree—" (L&J 5:326). On 18 July 1848 he reported to Bentley that the last half of Oak Openings had been dispatched to London, and that "I intend to get out one more tale, and I begin to think it will be the last, though there may be an exception in favour of a long cherished project, which will require time to execute" (L&J 5:374). Wayne Franklin speculates this "long cherished project" may have been a history of the middle states, which if it ever came into being may have survived only in a fragment of Cooper's last project, the history of New York, the manuscript of most of which was lost in a fire in Putnam's shop.9

Was Cooper pulling his punches in the political discourse of his last years? Perhaps he was. The "bold book, taking the bull by the horn, and showing the mistakes of popular opinion on that subject [American Democracy]" never appeared in his lifetime, though "The Towns of Manhattan" may well be its surrogate since it answers to Cooper's description to Bentley "that while it will be republican [it] will also be conservative in a high degree." As early as 1841 Cooper was suppressing his public orations on touchy matters by refusing to have them printed, such as that given at the Geneva College commencement on 4 August on the topic of "Public Opinion" (L&J 4:212). Seven years later, on 16 December 1848, Cooper responded to Anson Judd Upson's request to explicate a Latin phrase Cooper had used at Geneva: "vox populi, vox Dei." Cooper indicated his intent was not to endorse the usual translation that "the voice of the people is the voice of God." Instead he told Upson he hoped that "Divine Providence reigns over even majorities, and the 'vox dei' may interpose, after all, to save us from its miserable counterfeit the 'vox populi.'"

What his private writings—and in this case, his journals—do disclose is his increasing embrace of Trinitarian Christianity, his "vox Dei," in the last three years of his life. From 1 January through 21 March 1848 Cooper's almost daily brief journal entries while in Cooperstown mention briefly his and Susan's reading of the Bible: The Gospel of John, the Acts and Letters of the Apostles, and Revelations to 11 March, and then Genesis to 20 March. On occasion Cooper commented on his response: see his entries for 19 February, 2 March, and 18 March But largely the journal merely lists what appears to be a daily devotional reading, along with notes on the weather and who won the nightly connubial chess games.10 No evidence exists that Cooper had any interest in theological issues: he debated the interpretation of the Constitution fiercely but accepted without any known reservations the Christianity as preached in Cooperstown and New York.11

Homeward Bound and Home As Found (1838), Wyandotté (1843), the "Littlepage Trilogy" (1845-46), The Crater (1847) and Ways of the Hour (1850) variously show demagogues perverting Cooper's understanding of the Constitution, aiming to create majorities to trample the rights of the minority—especially the right to hold landed property through several generations. Professor Gura chooses The Crater as his exemplary novel for his reactionary Cooper, a role it largely supports though his analysis lacks the nuances of studies that call attention to the conflicts in the novel and the failures of its hero.12 But only Cooper specialists read much today outside the Leather-Stocking Tales; Last of the Mohicans (1826) would be the choice of most Americanists to represent Cooper, especially given its influence on the future in America of the Indian romance and the historical novel. Gura's choosing a late novel not characteristic of what he himself eloquently called Cooper's greatest strength—"the premise that the grand American theme was the lonely self in dialogue with the grandeur of the natural world" (93)—suggests he wants to make a late anti-demagoguery novel pass as representative of Cooper's whole career.

But the very novels that express contempt for demagoguery also show that imaginatively Cooper admitted what his rational preferences could not accept: in The Redskins of 1846, Hugh and Ro Littlepage, exemplars of "the older, aristocratic worldview," were ineffectual bumblers. If the best did not lack all conviction, they lacked the energy to defend their cause, while the worst spoke and acted with passionate intensity. The conclusion I wish to draw concerning Professor Gura's claim that Cooper "used his novels to buttress an older, aristocratic worldview typified in the life of his father, William" is that a reading of his letters, such as I offer here, does not support that claim any more than does the reading of his novels that John P. McWilliams presented in 1972. To Cooper the "older, aristocratic worldview," Gura's formulation, was long dead: the "Littlepage Manuscripts" showed it could not be resurrected.13 For better or worse, "The Towns of Manhattan" shows that commerce is now in control: Whatever politicians do, "Still property will eventually protect itself" (The Towns of Manhattan 60) If the Constitution cannot effect this protection, Cooper increasingly looked to Divine Providence.

Thus in my view at the end of his career Cooper's faith in democracy wavered: America, beset by demagoguery, was "not yet sufficiently enlightened" to bear it.14 Like many other young men of the High and Late Romantic period who embraced radical ideas in their youth—William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Henry Newman, Orestes Brownson, T.S. Eliot—Cooper turned in older age to conservative Christianity, but not, like many on my list, to reactionary politics. Rather he turned to the vox Dei. What he finally embraced was not the aristocratic politics embodied in his father's mansion in Cooperstown, but the religion embodied in his father's church.

End Notes

1 Philip F. Gura, Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

2 I draw upon Cooper's correspondence on the assumption—admittedly debatable—that therein he was more likely to express his innermost views rather than in his published writings where he always kept in mind the prejudices of his customer-readers. I think my conclusions will parallel those made more than a generation ago in John P. McWilliams, Jr's landmark of Cooper studies, which draws on his published work, Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper's America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972).
I note Gura's curious statement that in The Deerslayer the hero "acquires a Native American admirer" but "finally leaves her behind and dies celibate" (Gura 43). Yes, the Deerslayer is offered adoption into the Huron tribe if he marries Sumach whose husband Lynx he kills earlier in the novel, but the true admirer he rejects is the sexy and very white Judith Hutter. More curious still is his statement on the next page that in The Last of the Mohicans Cora rejects Magua because "she is more attracted to Natty." Perhaps so in a Hollywood version, but of course in Cooper's text Cora's attraction to Uncas explores the theme of miscegenation. And in The Pathfinder Natty's attempt to marry the heroine and escape celibacy is genuine but frustrated by a younger rival.

3 Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard, 6 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1960-68) 1:41. (Cited hereafter in the text as L&J.)

4 Franklin summarized Cooper's allegiance to his father's old political enemy as resulting from "his disillusionment with his father's old party and uncertainty about his own future…." See Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007) 243. Also, see Franklin 244-47 for an amusing account of Cooper's "never do[ing] things by halves" in his six weeks of active spring campaigning to help ensure Clinton's successful re-election as governor.
For a recent succinct account of Clinton's political career, see David I. Spanagel's DeWitt Clinton & Amos Eaton: Geology and Power in Early New York (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), which also has interesting material on Cooper and geology.

5 After writing this paper, I found Allan M. Axelrad's "James Fenimore Cooper, American English, and the Signification of Aristocracy in a Republic" to be a sophisticated and nuanced treatment of my themes here. See his essay in Literature in the Early American Republic 6 (2014): 137-70.

6 Cooper on 20 September 1830 in a letter to Shubrick, a South Carolinian, had argued at length that the Constitution overrides the interests of separate states, specifically in the arguments Southerners were making against tariffs favorable to Northern manufacturers: "there can clearly be no Nullification, under any construction of the powers of the Constitution, since it is destructive to the government itself. The doctrine that States are independent is fallacious" (L&J 2:21).

7 For a discussion of Cooper's views on anti-democratic oligarch-aristocrats, see the printed text from my 2011 ALA conference presentation, "The 'Soulless Corporation' in Venice, England, France, and America: Cooper's The Bravo (1831)," as published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 28 (2011), ed. Steven Harthorn and Callison Hopkins. The Bravo is Cooper's fictional masterpiece of oligarchic masking (literally) and deception, which Cooper told Rufus Griswold in 1844 was "perhaps, in spirit, the most American book I ever wrote" (Cooper's italics) in a valuable summary of his opinions of his work in a letter of 27 May-June? 1844. Here Cooper demonstrates how aristocratic oligarchs form corporations—"soulless," that is, without moral standards—to deceive the masses and protect their wealth; what he imagined in fiction in eighteenth-century Italy he detected in reality in contemporary England, France and America.

8 Responding on 1 January 1847 to a letter from the Hosmer sisters praising the Anti-Rent novels, he concluded:
"As to anti-rentism, in my judgment it is to be the test of the institutions. If men find that by making political combinations they can wipe out their indebtedness, adieu to every thing like liberty or government. The[re] will be but one alternative, and it will be the bayonet."
On 4 November 1848 he responded to a Thomas A. Field, who lost land to squatters about 1800:
"[T]here is a growing and most dangerous disposition in the people to take from those who have, and to give to those who have not; and this without any other motive than that basest of human passions—envy. How far this downward tendency will go, I do no pretend to say; but I think it quite clear that, unless arrested, it must lead to revolution and bloodshed. This State of things has long been predicted, and he who can look back for half a century, must see that a fearful progress has been made towards anarchy and its successor tyranny, in that period. Another such half century will, in my judgment, bring the whole country under the bayonet."

9 Private email from Wayne Franklin, 14 March 2014. The existing text of "The Towns of Manhattan" repeats and develops many of the arguments about the Constitutional power of the federal government over the states Cooper had inscribed over the years in letters to Shubrick and others. It also expressly condemns political "[p]arty [as] the most potent despot of the times" (39). In one passage strikingly contemporary, Cooper warns of the serious threat of "a mercenary corps of voters, insignificant as to numbers, but formidable by their union, to hold the balance of power, and to effect their purposes by practicing on the wilful, blind, wayward, and, we might almost add, fatal obstinacy of the two great political parties of the country…. In effect, it throws the political power of the entire Republic into the hands of the intriguer, the demagogue, and the knave" (42-3). In the end of the fragment Cooper is left to hope that the force of commerce developing so quickly in Manhattan will supersede such political dysfunction, but he appeals also, with increasingly frequency, to the assistance of Divine Providence. See New York by James Fenimore Cooper, being an Introduction to an Unpublished Manuscript, by the author, entitled The Towns of Manhattan, edited and published by William Farquhar Payson (New York: 1930).

10 Though quite outside the scope of this paper, James's relationship with Susan deserves comment as an example, based on the extant documents, of a perfect nineteenth-century marriage: the decisive husband directing the family and fully supported always by an affectionate helpmeet. Instead of the scandal modern readers often relish in their literary biographies of adultery and betrayal, their correspondence shows not a misstep in their thirty years together. When removed from his wife early after their marriage on 1 January 1820, he omitted any salutations in his letters of 26 April 1812 and 30 June 1814. But beginning with the next extant body of correspondence required by his travels around Europe, he always opened his letters with "My dearest Sue" or the like (27 February 1829).

11 But he did not accept the misdeeds of its clergy, as his detailed letters in fall 1845 from New York show when he was a delegate from Cooperstown in the trial of New York Episcopal bishop Benjamin Tredwell Onderdonk for immorality. That trial led through Byzantine maneuvers of the sort Cooper probably enjoyed; less pleasant were his own legal actions against his local clergyman over civil crimes, which terminated only when Cooper dropped the case after his daughter Caroline married the delinquent's nephew. See L&J 5:59-83 for Beard's summary, and subsequently for Cooper's letters on these matters.

12 For example, Rochelle Raineri Zuck's "Cultivation, Commerce, and Cupidity: Late-Jacksonian Virtue in James Fenimore Cooper's The Crater," Literature in the Early American Republic 1 (2009): 57-88 elucidates both the demagoguery of those who displace Mark Woolston, the founder of this Utopia, and Wollston's own failures.

13 For the present author's views on the decline of genteel leadership over the three Littlepage novels, see my "The Themes of Land and Leadership in 'The Littlepage Manuscripts,'" Literature in the Early American Republic 1 (2009): 89-131.

14 After finishing this essay I was pleased to note that Lawrence Buell makes essentially the same point in his monumental The Dream of the Great American Novel (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2014) 352:

Overall, Cooper and Tocqueville present themselves much more as critical expositors friendly to the American democratic experiment than as doom criers. Yet neither is under any illusion that the founding pledges of liberty and equality will operate with anything like justice for all. For Cooper, humanity is too fallible for democracy to work without serious flaws, dependent as the system is upon constituencies of informed and morally responsible self-policing stakeholders by no means to be expected even among the elite.

Buell briefly and cogently addresses The Pioneers as illustrating his point, but follows the tradition of beginning a discussion of the great American novel with The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick.

-----------------------------
Postscript

After writing this paper, I found Allan M. Axelrad's "James Fenimore Cooper, American English, and the Signification of Aristocracy in a Republic" to be a sophisticated and nuanced treatment of my themes here. See his essay in Literature in the Early American Republic 6 (2014): 137-70.

Cooper on 20 September 1830 in a letter to Shubrick, a South Carolinian, had argued at length that the Constitution overrides the interests of separate states, specifically in the arguments Southerners were making against tariffs favorable to Northern manufacturers: "there can clearly be no Nullification, under any construction of the powers of the Constitution, since it is destructive to the government itself. The doctrine that States are independent is fallacious" (L&J 2:21).

For a discussion of Cooper's views on anti-democratic oligarch-aristocrats, see the printed text from my 2011 ALA conference presentation, "The 'Soulless Corporation' in Venice, England, France, and America: Cooper's The Bravo (1831)," as published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 28 (2011), ed. Steven Harthorn and Callison Hopkins. The Bravo is Cooper's fictional masterpiece of oligarchic masking (literally) and deception, which Cooper told Rufus Griswold in 1844 was "perhaps, in spirit, the most American book I ever wrote" (Cooper's italics) in a valuable summary of his opinions of his work in a letter of 27 May-June? 1844 (L&J,IV:762). Here Cooper demonstrates how aristocratic oligarchs form corporations-"soulless," that is, without moral standards-to deceive the masses and protect their wealth; what he imagined in fiction in eighteenth-century Italy he detected in reality in contemporary England, France and America.

Responding on 1 January 1847 to a letter from the Hosmer sisters praising the Anti-Rent novels, he concluded:

As to anti-rentism, in my judgment it is to be the test of the institutions. If men find that by making political combinations they can wipe out their indebtedness, adieu to every thing like liberty or government. The[re] will be but one alternative, and it will be the bayonet.

On 4 November 1848 he responded to a Thomas A. Field, who lost land to squatters about 1800:

[T]here is a growing and most dangerous disposition in the people to take from those who have, and to give to those who have not; and this without any other motive than that basest of human passions—envy. How far this downward tendency will go, I do no pretend to say; but I think it quite clear that, unless arrested, it must lead to revolution and bloodshed. This State of things has long been predicted, and he who can look back for half a century, must see that a fearful progress has been made towards anarchy and its successor tyranny, in that period. Another such half century will, in my judgment, bring the whole country under the bayonet.

Private email from Wayne Franklin, 14 March 2014.

The existing text of "The Towns of Manhattan" repeats and develops many of the arguments about the Constitutional power of the federal government over the states Cooper had inscribed over the years in letters to Shubrick and others. It also expressly condemns political "[p]arty [as] the most potent despot of the times" (39). In one passage strikingly contemporary, Cooper warns of the serious threat of "a mercenary corps of voters, insignificant as to numbers, but formidable by their union, to hold the balance of power, and to effect their purposes by practicing on the wilful, blind, wayward, and, we might almost add, fatal obstinacy of the two great political parties of the country…. In effect, it throws the political power of the entire Republic into the hands of the intriguer, the demagogue, and the knave" (42-3). In the end of the fragment Cooper is left to hope that the force of commerce developing so quickly in Manhattan will supersede such political dysfunction, but he appeals also, with increasingly frequency, to the assistance of Divine Providence. See New York by James Fenimore Cooper, being an Introduction to an Unpublished Manuscript, by the author, entitled The Towns of Manhattan, edited and published by William Farquhar Payson (New York: 1930).

Though quite outside the scope of this paper, James's relationship with Susan deserves comment as an example, based on the extant documents, of a perfect nineteenth-century marriage: the decisive husband directing the family and fully supported always by an affectionate helpmeet. Instead of the scandal modern readers often relish in their literary biographies of adultery and betrayal, their correspondence shows not a misstep in their thirty years together. When removed from his wife early after their marriage on 1 January 1820, he omitted any salutations in his letters of 26 April 1812 and 30 June 1814. But beginning with the next extant body of correspondence required by his travels around Europe, he always opened his letters with "My dearest Sue" or the like (27 February 1829).

But he did not accept the misdeeds of its clergy, as his detailed letters in fall 1845 from New York show when he was a delegate from Cooperstown in the trial of New York Episcopal bishop Benjamin Tredwell Onderdonk for immorality. That trial led through Byzantine maneuvers of the sort Cooper probably enjoyed; less pleasant were his own legal actions against his local clergyman over civil crimes, which terminated only when Cooper dropped the case after his daughter Caroline married the delinquent's nephew. See L&J 5:59-83 for Beard's summary, and subsequently for Cooper's letters on these matters.

For example, Rochelle Raineri Zuck's "Cultivation, Commerce, and Cupidity: Late-Jacksonian Virtue in James Fenimore Cooper's The Crater," Literature in the Early American Republic 1 (2009): 57-88 elucidates both the demagoguery of those who displace Mark Woolston, the founder of this Utopia, and Wollston's own failures.

For the present author's views on the decline of genteel leadership over the three Littlepage novels, see my "The Themes of Land and Leadership in 'The Littlepage Manuscripts,'" Literature in the Early American Republic 1 (2009): 89-131.

After finishing this essay I was pleased to note that Lawrence Buell makes essentially the same point in his monumental The Dream of the Great American Novel (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2014) 352:

Overall, Cooper and Tocqueville present themselves much more as critical expositors friendly to the American democratic experiment than as doom criers. Yet neither is under any illusion that the founding pledges of liberty and equality will operate with anything like justice for all. For Cooper, humanity is too fallible for democracy to work without serious flaws, dependent as the system is upon constituencies of informed and morally responsible self-policing stakeholders by no means to be expected even among the elite.

Buell briefly and cogently addresses The Pioneers as illustrating his point, but follows the tradition of beginning a discussion of the great American novel with The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick.

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