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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 19-22)
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One year ago I decided to write a short presentation about A Letter to His Countrymen when the French Association for American studies established “Lettres d’Amérique—Letters from America” as a main theme for its annual conference, and especially when I noticed that the title of one of its workshops, “Politique et épistolarité—Politics and Letter-Writing,” suggested a way of linking the public and the private spheres. I thought it would be a good opportunity to read and to present this rather unknown text, and to stress how much Cooper had been involved in the political debates of his time, immersing himself and his country into European political challenges.
I will on occasion make use of references found on the website of the James Fenimore Cooper Society, with which most of you are probably familiar, and I beg your indulgence if you occasionally recognize some familiar lines.
First, I must specify that I read the text itself on this website, where it is introduced as follows:
This text has been scanned from a photocopy of the first edition kindly provided by the New York State Historical Association, and corrected and converted to HTML by Hugh C. MacDougall.... A Letter to his Countrymen was reprinted in London by John Miller in 1834, and was also included as an appendix to England, With Sketches of Society in the Metropolis (better known as Gleanings in Europe: England) (London: Richard Bentley, Vol. III, pp. [215-312.
As the advertisement to the first edition puts it:
This letter has been hastily written, with the hope of procuring its insertion in one of the daily prints. Its length having exceeded the writer’s expectations, he has presented to a son of his old and much esteemed publisher, the late CHARLES WILEY, who has given it its present form.... (2). [Page numbers are from the original 1834 edition]
Thus, the letter became a 120-page booklet; later, when recently edited in 2000, it was published among other texts under the title, The American Democrat and Other Political Writings, so that the “Address” hardly appears to have epistolary characteristics. The text could be dryly summed up by the abstract contained on the website:
Cooper angrily attacks American press reviews of The Bravo and The Heidenmauer; presents a theory of limited Constitutional powers and the dangers of legislative usurpation, and says he will quit writing.
Nevertheless, I will try to show that A Letter to His Countrymen takes place in the continuity of Cooper’s writings, in the dialogue he had already established for several years between himself and the American, British, and French presses, as well as with the United States representatives in Europe.
Indeed, during his sojourn in the Old World from 1826 to 1833, although he was already a well-known American writer, Cooper was struck by the coldness of the people, and their differences with Americans both in social behavior and in political thinking. He gave vent to his feelings of disappointment when writing Notions of the Americans in 1828.
Later on, in November 1831, while living in Paris, and at the request of Lafayette, Cooper agreed to describe the finances of the American Union. Lafayette had been accused of gross misunderstanding, when he described the Republican institutions of the United States as being the cheapest in the world; he sought the support of Cooper as an influential American voice in the financial controversy which was disturbing political circles, especially in France. There, the Monarchie de Juillet [July Monarchy], in the establishment of which Lafayette took a crucial part, was in its first days. According to the Libéraux, the Liberal Party to which Lafayette belonged, the weight of public finances was lighter in America than in either the British or French monarchies. Lafayette made great efforts to demonstrate that the American Union should have been considered as an example.
The famous General thus had Cooper’s analysis published in a French magazine, La Revue des deux mondes, as “Lettre au général Lafayette sur les dépenses publiques aux Etats-Unis.” In this forty-page open letter, Cooper set forth his opinions on democracy for consideration in the public debate in France. Moreover, thanks to his place in high European society, as well as the reviews of his recently published novels in different newspapers, Cooper was presented as an influential American democrat in Europe, both in political and literary matters; yet his voice received a contradictory reception in a period of sharp struggles for only vaguely conceived powers.
In November 1833, with unfavorable reviews by American Whig newspapers, and half forgotten by his former readers, Cooper returned to his own country. He was eager to address the American public in that “hastily written letter.” With this text, he will reply to his detractors and argue about American weaknesses spread at home and abroad, focusing on one main principle: “let us be true to ourselves.”
With regard to its form, the Letter’s text is complex and even confusing, written in a “rambling fashion,” noted by Hugh MacDougall: one hundred pages grapple with the main themes, in many twists and turns; then a six-page postscript corrects errors and adds supplementary information; and ten pages are added with notes, newspaper extracts contested by Cooper, and a few Articles of the Constitution concerning the different powers. Finally, as an aid to the reader, are two pages of complementary notes by Hugh MacDougall.
As to substance, the Letter brings to light the agonies Cooper endured in Europe when faced with misunderstanding of American principles. His aim is to underline what sorts of things threaten the Union if American remain unaware of them. Three main matters are denounced:
1) Unacceptable foreign meddling in the American press, as had been seen in articles about The Bravo and The Heidenmauer. Their errors and prejudiced views cannot be recognized by those living in America.
2) American citizens and representatives abroad are untrue to American democratic concepts.
3) America’s very institutions are too much under the influence of the English system.
In spite of his proclaimed interest in the public welfare, the personal feelings of the author cannot pass unnoticed by the reader; let me cite an example from p. 3:
I am acting chiefly on the defensive;...the editors of several of the public journals have greatly exceeded their legitimate functions, by animadverting on my motives and private affairs; and...assertions, opinions, and acts, have been openly attributed to me, that I have never uttered, entertained, or done. When an individual is thus dragged into notice, the right of self-vindication would seem to depend on a principle of natural justice.... I am less influenced by any personal considerations in what I am now doing, than by a wish to check a practice which has already existed too long among us; which appears to me to be on the increase; and which, while it is degrading to the character, if persisted in, may become dangerous to the institutions of this country.
As said above, Cooper is primarily at issue with the world of the press, especially with three newspapers: The New York American, the New York Courier & Enquirer, and The New York Commercial Advertiser. He had contested several others during his European sojourn, demonstrating the continuity of his public presence. Half of the Letter demonstrates that most of the articles in the American press, borrowed from foreign newspapers, print unconfirmed information, like those untruths he explains as follows. I quote:
I have been repeatedly and coarsely accused of writing for money.... [T]hat I have taken the just compensation of my labors...is true.... I never asked nor received a dollar for anything I have written except for the tales and the letters on America (6-7).
He defends himself from the principal attack, noting that: “I have been accused of undue meddling with the affairs of other nations” (7). Thus, he recalls how “La lettre au général Lafayette” was a specific answer given at Lafayette’s request, expressed as follows:
Monsieur, Il vous appartient...de rectifier certaines comparaisons avancées dans la publication ci-jointe de la Revue Britannique. Indépendamment de notre commun intérêt américain dans cette affaire, j’éprouve le besoin de détromper ceux de mes collègues français (qui croient)...que les taxes de ce pays-ci sont moins lourdes que les dépenses combinées du gouvernement fédéral et des Etats de l’Union. (Le Général Lafayette A Ses Collegues de la Chambre des Députés. Paris: Paulin, Libraire-Editeur, 1832, p. 25)
[Translated, this means “Sir, it falls to you to correct certain comparisons published in the attached Revue Britannique; besides our common American interest in the matter, I need to undeceive those of my French colleagues who believe that taxes in France are lighter than the combined expenses of the Federal Government and the States of the Union.”
It must also be noted that Cooper’s response concludes on a moderate tone: “I want in no way to compare those facts with the taxes paid in France, for I am sincerely convinced that it is no task for a foreigner” (ibid., 68 [in French]). Later on, Tocqueville would stress that the two financial systems could hardly be compared.
Then, Cooper proceeds to the political censures that had fallen on his recent book, The Bravo, set in early 18th century Venice. Its “object was to lay bare the wrongs that are endured by the weak, when power is exclusively the property of the strong” (13). He shows how reviews veered from a warm welcome in the French Le Figaro and The New York American in 1831, and how adaptations for the opera had later appeared in different European towns, to open assault when Le Figaro was bought by the conservative French party, whom he calls “les doctrinaires,” and when the American press came under the supposed domination of the Whig Party, which meant that the book seemed directed against it. “All I say is, that ‘the Bravo is certainly no very flattering picture for the upstart aristocrats of the new regime, and that nothing is more natural than their desire to undervalue the book’” (35).
As his second point, as Hugh MacDougall introduces it, “Cooper denounces the tendency of Americans living abroad to poor-mouth their country's institutions in order to cuddle up to foreign aristocrats” (Cooperstown: The Freeman’s Journal, Nov. 23, 2001). This type of behavior later struck even European liberals, Tocqueville among them, whose complaining opinion is reported by Cooper:
“The liberals of Europe...complain that Americans do them as much harm with their tongues, as the institutions of the country do good by their example.” (95). The writer is unpleasantly impressed by the scornful remarks that several influential or political figures poured on Americans abroad; he quotes, for instance, what an English minister told him during a London party: “‘What is the reason that so many of your countrymen desert the distinctive opinions of their country on coming to Europe?’” (94). According to Cooper, “there must be something very unsound in the state of public opinion, when so many of what are called the elite of a country, go off at half-cock against the effects of its own institutions” (97).
The second half of the Letter, a defence of the Constitution, is shaped about the same basic idea: “deferring to foreign opinion is dangerous to the institutions of the country” (59). Cooper recalls the two strata of shared powers between the common interests of the Union and those of the States with regard to their own constituencies, which nevertheless form a Republic. He does not think that this double authority threatens the country since, I quote: “the framers of the Constitution...devised means to obviate the natural conflict between principles so irreconcilably hostile...by limiting the powers of the new government to the control” of common interests (63). One problem is to obviate “an occasional want of concurrence in views and action between the different branches of the constituted authorities” (64). For instance, in England, power became an oligarchy when legally, the “entire authority of the state...is virtually in the hands of the parliament.... The ascendancy of the thousand families who control the British empire has been obtained under the cry of liberty” (65-66). In France, the conflict between legislative and executive branches led several times to revolution, while the problem was temporarily removed when “the crown has power to prorogue or dissolve the legislature” (66). In the United States, “the executive...has no power to dissolve congress, or congress any power to dissolve a ministry” (67). “All the branches of the deputed government, executive, legislative and judicial are equally amenable” to the decisions of the constituency, yet the congress is the “branch...most likely to abuse its trust” (68).
Then Cooper mentions several cases “in which the habit of admitting foreign examples into the administration of our own system, has violated the essential principles of the great national compact” (70). For instance, there are frequent abuses by consuls in the practice of naming attachés in an unofficial manner, which should be done only “by the President with the consent of the Senate” (72). According to Cooper, those practices, “derived from the usages of England” (74), show “the sinister influence of foreign example” (74) as it had recently happened to the Senate during the Bank War of 1834. He recalls that Jackson had decided “the removal of...the public moneys from the bank of the United States” (74-75) to the banks of the individual states and removed the Secretary of the Treasury who refused to comply with that decision. These facts had led the Senate to pass “a separate resolution declaring...that the interference of the president in this affair was unconstitutional” (75).
Cooper demonstrates that “the constitution commands that every ‘order, resolution or vote’ which requires the concurrence of the two houses...shall be sent to the president for his approval....” without which it can become law “only by a two-thirds majority in each house.” Since “the house of representatives is of the same way of thinking” as the President, “the vote of the senate [to override a veto] is a simple, unqualified vote of censure” (79), the expression of its sole opinion, which tends to instruct the constituent. Hence, it is to be feared that, by acting in this colonial and parliamentary way “the two houses of congress will degenerate into mere electioneering caucuses” (86).
As a conclusion, Cooper claims, “is not this a free country, freer than England?.... God forbid that congress should ever have power to do that which parliament does daily; and God forbid that the president should not do daily that which the King of England...cannot do at all!” (86). So if he admits “that the president has too much authority....” and that “it would be better if congress had power to appoint a treasurer....” (90), he repeats that it must be by “some of the expedients of our own system” and that “the several branches of government can only be varied by...the constituency” (90).
To the last point, Cooper gave some other examples of dependence on foreign opinion: “the pretence that the employer has a right to coerce the vote of the employed,” as commonly practiced in England, is contrary to the solemn American decree that property shall not be represented, and yet “the heresy is openly maintained by perhaps a majority” (91) of those who look abroad for their opinions. He regrets that in this country, “without pensions, orders, titles, or even military rank,” patriotism is stripped to the skin, “leaving it little more than opinion for its reward,” while “the English and the French never refuse to honor their defenders” (92). He goes on to express his horror that most Americans accepted without complaint the impressment of American sailors by the English navy, and concludes that “I did intend, my countrymen, to expose to you the exultation and interested satisfaction with which other nations view this dependance [sic] on themselves” (97).
The Letter ends with a piece of personal news, deeply linked with the aims of a writer involved in creating an American personality through literature:
The American who wishes to illustrate and enforce the peculiar principles of his own country, by the agency of polite literature, will, for a long time to come, I fear, find that his constituency...is still too much under the influence of foreign theories, to receive him with favor. It is under this conviction that I lay aside the pen.... I confess I have come to this decision with reluctance, for I had hoped to be useful in my generation.... (98-99).
In conclusion, the Letter, in the political context of the Jacksonian era, faced hostile reviews, especially from the Whig Party, and otherwise met no widely shared interest. Yet Cooper soon returned to writing, and remained involved in the political debate on democracy. Europe was living through a transitory period of revolutions, such as the one that occurred in Belgium that Cooper had the opportunity to observe. Meanwhile, for one year (1831-1832), Alexis de Tocqueville had been studying democratic American society as reflected in its institutions, on which this liberal European aristocrat was to report in his honest and clear-sighted analysis, De la démocratie en Amérique, published between 1835 and 1840.
Cooper remained in the wake of his Letter and of Tocqueville’s book. He argued again for many of the themes common to both in writing The American Democrat in 1838. Its forty-four chapters offered a better organization, but one must remark that it corroborates once more Cooper’s pride in his country, as well as his anxiety in facing the future with regard to specific features of American democracy.