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Leatherstocking and the American Spirit

Robert McNulty
(Winner of 1940 Cooper Essay Contest)

Presented at the Annual Meeting of the New York State Historical Association, held August 29-September 1, 1940, in Cooperstown.
Published in New York History, Vol. XXII, No. 1 (January 1941), pp. 46-51.

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The Cooper Essay Contest was open to all students of New York State secondary schools. Mr. McNulty, who is seventeen, won first prize of $100 and brought honor to the Glens Falls High School. The other winners were: William McEwen, Jr., 18, Charles E. Gorton High School Yonkers, $75; Isabel Kelly, 16, St. Francis de Sales High School, Geneva, $50; Peter W. Lyall, 17, Albany Academy, Albany, $25. All the winners also received all-expense trips to Cooperstown to attend the Cooper Celebration on August 31, 1940. The judges of the Contest were: Dixon Ryan Fox, Union College, Schenectady; Henry Seidel Canby, New Haven, Conn.; Robert Ernest Spiller, Swarthmore College; Harold William Thompson, Cornell University and Carl Van Doren, New York City.

ONE HUNDRED years ago next year, James Fenimore Cooper published the last of the five volumes in his Leatherstocking Tales. Almost immediately they won wide acclaim, an acclaim that has lasted and increased throughout their hundred years, an acclaim knowing no political nor racial boundaries, for the Leatherstocking knew none. The appeal of the series is not due alone to the fascinating story unfolded. It comes from the character of Natty Bumppo, himself, the ideal hero.

When in the spring of 1917 the United States took the fateful step of entering the World War, a French statesman cried, "The spirit of Leather-Stocking is awake!"1 Thus had Cooper's character come to symbolize the American Spirit to the rest of the world. Who or what could better represent it? Here is first the youth and then the man in whom are combined all the things for which America stands and of which the American Spirit is made -- truth, courage, tolerance and democracy, justice.

Think of the American youth. What do you see?

In stature, he stood about six feet in his moccasins, but his frame was comparatively light and slender, showing muscles, however, that {47} promised unusual agility, If not unusual strength. His face would have had little to recommend it except youth, were it not for an expression that seldom failed to win upon those who had leisure to examine it, and to yield to the feeling of confidence it created. This expression was simply that of guileless truth, sustained by an earnestness of purpose, and a sincerity of feeling, that rendered it remarkable.2

Is that not what you see? -- a youth, tall, stalwart, looking upward and ahead? This is the description of the Deerslayer, who was later to become the Leatherstocking, when he is first presented to us. He is the youth of America. and its future.

Perhaps the first thing noted about the Deerslayer is his love of truth. Almost at the very beginning, he announces to Hurry Harry his steadfast regard for the truth:

"You may shake, Hurry, until you bring down the mountain," he said quietly, "but nothing beside truth will you shake from me."3

The breaking of a promise never occurs to him. Such a thing would be a crime against truth and against God. When, in The Deerslayer, he was captured by the Mingos and then released on furlough by them to present their schemes to his companions, there was no question in his mind of not keeping the furlough. The time over, he went back to the Mingo camp, like Regulus to Carthage, to face almost certain torture and death.

"This furlough is not, as you seem to think, a matter altogether atween me and the Mingos, seeing it is a solemn bargain made atween me and God."4

The truth as the Deerslayer sees it is the ideal of all peoples, for all coöperation, all society is based essentially on truth. Learning and religion are the search for truth; justice, its embodiment; bravery and courage, the ability {47} to face it. It is fitting, therefore, that truth should be the first characteristic of an American national hero.

The courage and bravery of the Leatherstocking are not those of the reckless, dare-devil hero of the usual adventure tale. In all his exploits, prudence and moderation temper his bravery. In him there is none of the rashness of Hurry Harry, for there must be reason in all that he does. No lust for the killing of man or beast mars his character. In The Deerslayer, he explains that his name comes from his uncanny skill in hunting down the deer, but5

"they can't accuse me of killing an animal when there is no occasion for the meat, or the skin. I may be a slayer, it's true, but I'm no slaughterer."

The first time he finds that he must kill a man or be killed, he feels none of the awful excitement of war, rather there is only regret that this has to be. Acting on the training gained in his Delaware upbringing, he goes carefully forward.

Equally free from recklessness and hesitation, his advance was marked by a sort of philosophical prudence, that appeared to render him superior to all motives but those which were best calculated to effect his purpose. Such was the commencement of a career in forest exploits, that afterwards rendered this man, in his way, and under the limits of his habits and opportunities, as renowned as many a hero whose name has adorned the pages of works more celebrated than legends simple as ours can ever become.6

His task finished, he does all he can to ease the last minutes of his fallen foe, and from him receives the name by which we know him throughout The Last of the Mohicans, Hawkeye.

In almost every page of the Tales, the Leatherstocking's courage is shown. His bravery is shown in a hundred {49} battles; his ability to stand up for what he believes, in a thousand. Although he seems well-nigh invincible, he never allows his prowess to carry him beyond what he believes right. Never will he forsake his ideals -- the ideals we today call the American Spirit.

In few characters in literature do we feel as sincere a belief in God and in Christian ethics as the Leatherstocking's. Throughout most of his life, he has lived in the great outdoors, and there he feels God about him. In Cooper's own description of him, he is

a being...who sees God in the forest; hears Him in the winds; bows to Him in the firmament that o'ercanopies all; submits to his sway in a humble belief of his justice and mercy; in a word, a being who finds the impress of the Deity in all the works of nature, without any of the blots produced by the expedients, and passion, and mistakes of man.7

It is interesting to notice how his feeling for God is mixed with his love of the forest and the outdoors in general,

"...the whole 'arth is a temple of the Lord to such as have right minds. ...give me the strong places of the wilderness, which is [sic] the trees, and the churches, too, which are arbours raised by the hand of natur'."8

With such surroundings and with such an intimate feeling for God, he has come to be tolerant of all. Although his fellow white men considered themselves superior in every way to the Indian, he has none of this feeling.

"God made us all, white, black and red; and, no doubt, had his own wise intentions in colouring us differently.9

Each race has its gifts and must act according to them. He believes firmly that all men are equal before God, each with a right to think and act as he pleases.

{50} "...but in the sense of reality, why may not a beaver-hunter be as respectable as a governor."10
     "...any one may have a fancy, and a squirrel has a right to make up his mind touching a catamount."11

Here is a belief in democracy that is a sincere expression of his simple life, a belief as sincere as it is possible to be, coming as it does from his own life and thinking in the forest.

In all the career of the Leatherstocking, probably his most outstanding trait is his justice. He sees when his opponents are acting with right on their side, and he bows before them; but, let, as he usually takes care to see, justice be on his side, and nothing can stop him. He sees justice, like truth, as a bargain with and a duty to God.

"That's justice! The rarest thing to find on 'arth, is a truly just man.... I love a just man, Sarpent; his eyes are never covered with darkness towards his inimies, while they are all sunshine and brightness towards his fri'nds. He uses the reason that God has given him, and he uses it with a feelin' of his being ordered to look at, and to consider things as they are, and not as he wants them to be. It's easy enough to find men who call themselves just; but it's wonderful oncommon to find them that are the thing in fact."12

The justice of the Leatherstocking is eternal justice, the clear distinction of right from wrong. Seldom is there a question in his mind as to a course to follow. If one is right, another wrong, there can be no question. Carl Van Doren says: "Justice, not partizanship, is Leatherstocking's essential trait: justice as conceived, somewhat out of space and out of time, by the universal spirit of youth.13

Such justice is the basis of the American Spirit. We fought the Revolution and the War of 1812 because we felt that England was treating us unfairly; the Civil War, {51} because a class of people was being downtrodden. Our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our laws all condemn injustice and set up high standards of right. Justice is the very life-breath of the American Spirit.

Thus we find the Leatherstocking to be an outstanding symbol of what America stands for, and in these times of strife, national and international, we would do well to keep him in mind. Because of the war and because this is an election year, we shall have need of a clear conception of the American Spirit, lest our thinking become muddled by the sophisms and flag wavings of the editorials and orators. More than ever we need Leatherstocking's typically American, homespun idealism and integrity. The American way of living is the greatest and best in the world today -- it must not be lost. Long live Leatherstocking and the American Spirit!


1. Carl Van Doren, The American Novel (New York, 1929), p. 44.

2. Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (Everyman's Library, New York, 1914), pp. 8-9.

3. Ibid., p. 17.

4. Ibid., p. 396.

5. Ibid., p. 41.

6. Ibid., p. 103.

7. J. Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (Cambridge, Mass., 1876), p. viii.

8. J. Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer (Everyman's Edition), pp. 216-57.

9. Ibid., p. 37

10. Ibid., pp. 85.

11. Ibid., p. 13-14.

12. Ibid., p. 194.

13. Van Doren, op. cit., p. 45.

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