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James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper

In these days of confident talk of an American reconstruction of Europe upon democratic principles, in these days of fall-of-France and it-can-happen-here novels by the score, it is more than a little interesting to look at, and even to read, certain stories of European life and politics written by a sturdy American democrat of the 1830’s—James Fenimore Cooper.

Cooper’s comments upon his America frequently have been discussed and were so thoroughly summarized by him in The American Democrat as to make other examination of them almost un­necessary; that little book on the Ameri­can scene should be more generally read. Yet despite the persistency with which the squire of Cooperstown insisted upon making his points of view understood—an insistence both ill-timed and irri­tating, on occasion—his stand almost always has been met with hostility from his critics or else has been misunderstood. A surprising example of misinterpreta­tion of Cooper’s ideas is to be found in R. E. Spiller’s Fenimore Cooper. Pro­fessor Spiller knows his Cooper well enough, but in this book he appears to know his social and historical criti­cism hardly at all and to be even less familiar with Cooper’s age. It is necessary only to note that Spiller re­peatedly refers to Aaron Burr as a Federalist, as the colleague of Jay, and as the Federalist opponent of Jefferson for the presidency![1] Not merely does he display an ignorance of the period, but sometimes he utterly misunderstands Cooper’s opinions, as when he declares that “consolidation was Cooper’s funda­mental political conviction, and it proved to be not a fallacy.”[2] This astounding conclusion seems to be based upon a letter to Cooper from Henry Cruger, a Charlestonian, during the nullification days, in which the Carolinian reproached Cooper for his centralistic leanings. But to be accused of such tendencies by a Nullifier hardly meant that one was an advocate of consolidation; on such a premise, a state-rights man like John Randolph might be called a centralizer. It hardly is possible that Spiller could have read, at the time he wrote in this vein, the chapter “On the Republick of the United States,” in The American Democrat—that section in which Cooper refutes so cogently the nationalistic theory of the formation of the Union ad­vanced by Marshall and Webster.[3] That Cooper’s political thought is treated in this unsatisfactory fashion is reason for a re-examination of his principles.

It is worthwhile to examine an aspect of Cooper’s social philosophy sometimes neglected—the political thought con­tained in those works of his of which the scene is laid in Europe. These stories usually are listed as three: The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman. There are, however, other novels of his which deal in part with European institutions—Precautién, Mercedes of Castile, The Two Admirals, and The Wing-and-Wing. The American’s account of his travels in France, Switzerland, Italy, and England are useful, too, in the con­sideration of this subject.

Cooper said of The Bravo that it was his most American book, “but thousands in this country who clamor about such things do not know American principles when they meet them, unless it may happen to be in a Fourth of July ora­tion.”[4] There is much to be said for Cooper’s contention that American re­alities can best be discerned in the Euro­pean perspective. Henry James was to hold the same opinion.

II

Cooper had been residing for years in Europe when, in November, 1831, The Bravo was published. The first political novel from his pen called forth the praise of those who already sided with him in his views, as the artist Greenough, in Paris, wrote, “Cooper’s new book, ‘The Bravo,’ is taking wonderfully here. If you could transfuse a little of that man’s love of country and national pride into the leading members of our high society, I think it would leaven them all.”[5] What was it in this romance of old Venice—a story inoffensive indeed, in comparison with some crude pamphlet­eering that passes for fiction today—that aroused controversy in the prints and on the streets of two continents in that age? A part of the general interest arose from the fact that the political moral of the tale was not so pointed but that more than one faction could claim it for their own—or could maintain, at least, that its strictures did not apply to their party. As Addison’s Cato was ap­plauded by Whigs and by Tories, so did portions of The Bravo sometimes offend and sometimes please both liberals and conservatives in Europe and America. Cooper’s precise purpose in writing his European novels still is in doubt, it seems. Lounsbury holds that he intended to instruct Europeans in the advantages of American democracy;[6] Boynton main­tains that he was attacking European political systems “for the edification of American democracy”;[7] and Spiller con­tends that he was defending American ideals before a hostile world.[8] Although in some measure all these intentions were Cooper’s, a most important aspect of his thought has been forgotten by each of his biographers: that Cooper was holding up the failings of European systems as a warning to America that her free institutions, too, could perish—as he had elsewhere expressed his fear for real liberty in America.

The Bravo, with its close-knit plot, its sustained action, its credible characters, and the tragic consistency of its conclusion, surely is the best of the European novels; yet Lounsbury, referring to this romance, writes: 

The first of the three is generally spoken of as the best, especially by those who have read none of them at all. Little difference will be found, however, as a matter of fact, between “The Bravo” and “The Headsman” as regards liter­ary merit. “The Heidenmauer” is, however, dis­tinctly inferior, and is in truth one of the most tedious novels that Cooper ever wrote. All were, however, animated by the same spirit. They all assailed oligarchical, and lauded demo­cratic institutions. They were full of denuncia­tions of the accommodating stupidity of the patricians who were never able to see anything beneficial to the interests of the state in what was injurious to the interests of their own order.[9]

Lounsbury’s attitude toward Cooper’s works is revealed by the phrase “one of the most tedious novels.” His summary of the thesis of the European stories, while true in the sense that Cooper was the champion of republican institutions, is inadequate; for Cooper went deeper than a mere demagogic contrast of patrician and plebian. He found causes in institutions and traditions or in the ab­sence of these influences. Nor is it true, as Spiller hints, that Cooper was an en­thusiast for “progress.” Spiller would have us believe that Cooper “chose for his topic the decline of the old order before the growing liberalism of the new. His Venice is a city in the decay of waning powers; his monastery of the Palatinate has already felt the power of the Lutheran movement; in The Headsman, the corruptions of the old social order are resolved in the purifying atmos­phere of the Bernese Alps.”[10]

How Mr. Spiller arrives at these con­clusions is hard to understand. The tone of The Bravo is one of unrelieved gloom; the city-state of Venice is indeed declining and without hope of regeneration; the “growing liberalism” is apparent only in The Heidenmauer and, even there, is hardly presented with enthusi­asm.

The Bravo is an account of the nominal republic of Venice, early in the seventeenth century, a decaying state under the heel of aristocracy, that government Cooper so roundly condemned in The American Democrat. The secret government—government by lion’s mouth—provides Cooper’s plot. Liberty is engulfed in private cupidity, in class self­ishness, in the mechanism of the state, and in general fear. The forms of free­dom are preserved; the exercise of free­dom is lost. Jacopo, the bravo, is com­pelled to serve as agent provocateur and scapegoat for the Council. He struggles in his toils but is bound to the state through fear for his imprisoned father. Although he succeeds in rescuing two lovers from the grasp of the Council, he is given at last as a sacrifice to popular fury; and, despite the endeavors of the Doge himself, the necessities of the state bring him to the block, and, as the novel ends, his severed head rolls on the ground.

Had Cooper considered Venice a true republic, this plot would have been a stern criticism of American institutions; but Venice was not America, although America could lose her liberties in similar fashion. As Cooper states in his Preface:

It is to be regretted the world does not dis­criminate more justly in its use of political terms. Governments are usually called either monarchies or republics. The former class em­braces equally those institutions in which the sovereign is worshipped as a god, and those in which he performs the humble office of a mani­kin. In the latter we find aristocracies and democracies blended in the same generic appellation. The consequences of a generalization so wide is an utter confusion on the subject of the polity of states…

A history of the progress of political liberty, written purely in the interests of humanity, is still a desideratum in literature. In nations which have made a false commencement, it would be found that the citizen, or rather the subject, has extorted immunity after immunity, as his gnawing intelligence and importance have both instructed and required him to defend those particular rights which were necessary to his well-being. A certain accumulation of these immunities constitutes, with a solitary and partial exception in Switzerland, the essence of European liberty, even at this hour. It is scarce­ly necessary to tell the reader that this freedom, be it more or less, depends on a principle entirely different from our own. Here the immunities do not proceed from, but they are granted to, the government, being, in other words, concessions of natural rights made by the people to the state for the benefits of social protection. So long as this vital difference exists between ourselves and other nations, it will be vain to think of finding analogies in their institutions. It is true that, in an age like this, public opinion is itself a charter, and that the most despotic govern­ment which exists within the pale of Christen­dom, must, in some degree, respect its influence. The mildest and justest governments in Europe are, at this moment, theoretically despotisms…. Admitting every benefit which possibly can flow from a just administration, with wise and humane princes, a government which is not properly based on the people possesses an un­avoidable and oppressive evil of the first magni­tude, in the necessity of supporting itself by physical force and onerous impositions, against the natural action of the majority.

Were we to characterize a republic, we should say it was a state in which power, both theoretically and practically, is derived from the nation, with a constant responsibility that is neither to be evaded or denied. That such a system is better on a large than on a small scale, though contrary to brilliant theories which have been written to uphold different institutions, must be evident on the smallest reflection, since the danger of all popular governments is from popular mistakes; and a people of diversified interests and extended territorial possessions are much less likely to be the sub­jects of sinister passion than the inhabitants of a single town or country.[11]

Venice was not America; the agents of the republic were not, in reality, responsible to the people; and the United States were not a city-state, with its “sinister passions.” Whether, in our day, Cooper would uphold his conten­tion that a great republic is better than a small, we may doubt; but he might properly maintain that our great repub­lic has acquired in actuality the characteristics of a small state, bound together by the speed of communication and the dubious blessings of an intricate econ­omy. Letters to congressmen can be as potent for good or evil as was the mob of fishermen of the Lagunes. It was against a Leviathan government that Cooper warned in The Bravo; and a Leviathan government he would consider ours. Concerning the Venice of this novel and what probably would be his opinion of our America, Cooper might quote ap­propriately the words of Cicero, in The Republic:

But our age…having received the com­monwealth as a finished picture of another cen­tury, but one already beginning to fade through the lapse of years, has not only neglected to re­new the colors of the original painting, but has not even cared to preserve its original form and prominent lineaments.

Prominent in the political philosophy expressed in this novel is Cooper’s attack on the asserted sanctity and in­fallibility of the state—a doctrine which certainly has had its renaissance in this world of ours, and has had its literary rebirth, too, in a newer literary Caesar-ism of professed democrats—witness the books of Andre Malraux. Venice is a stabilized state, in which the principles of authority cannot be questioned, and in which the possessors of authority never tire of recounting its perfections. As Signor Grandenigo, one of the Coun­cil, tells Jacopo:

There is a beauty and a harmony in the man­ner in which the social machine rolls on its course, under such a system, that should secure men’s applause! Justice administers to the wants of society, and checks the passions with a force as silent and dignified as if her decrees came from a higher volition. I often compare the quiet march of the state, contrasted with the troubled movements of some other of our Italian sisters, to the difference between the clatter of a clamorous town, and the stillness of our own noiseless canals.[12]

Cooper did not call such praise of the state hypocrisy; the recipients of the favors of such a government were self-deluded. Of Grandenigo, he wrote:

To him Venice seemed a free state, because he partook so largely of the benefits of her social system; and, though shrewd and practiced in most of the affairs of the world, his faculties, on the object of the political ethics of this country, possessed of a rare and accommodating duless. A senator, he stood in relation to the state as a director of a moneyed institution is proverbially placed in respect to his corporation; an agent of its collective measures, removed from the responsibilities of the man. He could reason warmly, if not acutely, concerning the principles of government, and it would be difficult, even in this money-getting age, to find a more zealous convert to the opinion that property was not a subordinate, but the absorbing interest of civilized life. He would talk ably of character, and honor, and virtue, and republic­, and the rights of persons, but when called to act in their behalf, there was in his mind a tendency to blend them all with worldly politics that proved as unerring as the gravitation of matter to the earth’s centre.[13]

In this age of ours, in which the leveling principle has reached a point far beyond that it attained in Cooper’s, the enemies to Cooper’s own political thought may call Grandenigo but an unconscious Cooper, writ a little larger; there is some resemblance between this hostile portrait of the Venetian and the mind of Cooper—in the perspective of our time, at any rate—particularly if we think of Cooper’s advocacy, in anti-rent novels, of the rights of land-proprietors. But degree sometimes is as vast a difference as is kind, and, moreover, Cooper really did differ in kind, for he was not an aristocrat, in the sense of Aristotle’s and his own definitions, but a democrat, believing that the exercise of power should remain in the hands of the crass of the population. Cooper’s attacks on the aristocratic principle are frequent in the pages of The Bravo; in chapter xi he relates in some detail the nature of the Venetian state and com­ments upon it:

It may be taken as a governing principle, in all civil relations, that the strong will grow stronger and the feeble more weak, until the first become unfit to rule or the last unable to endure. In this important truth is contained the secret of the downfall of all those states which have crumbled beneath the weight of their own abuses. It teaches the necessity of widening the foundations of society until the base shall have a breadth capable of securing the just represen­tation of every interest, without which the social machine is liable to interruption from its own movement, and eventually to destruction from its own excesses….

An aristocracy must ever want the high personal feeling which often tempers despotism by the qualities of the chief, or the generous and human impulses of a popular rule. It has the merit of substituting things for men, it is true, but unhappily it substitutes the things of a few men for those of the whole. It partakes, and it always has partaken, though necessarily tem­pered by circumstances and the opinions of dif­ferent ages, of the selfishness of all corporations in which the responsibility of the individual, while his acts are professedly submitted to the temporizing expedients of a collective interest, is lost in the subdivision of numbers….

The advances of the human intellect, sup­ported by the means of publicity, may temper the exercise of a similar irresponsible power, in our own age; but in no country has this substitu­tion of a soulless corporation for an elective rep­resentation been made, in which a system of rule has not been established, that sets at naught the laws of natural justice and the rights of the citizen. Any pretension to the contrary, by placing profession in opposition to practice, is only adding hypocrisy to usurpation.[14]

And such a government, added Coo­per, tended to corrupt private morality, as well as public virtue:

The common opinion that a republic cannot exist without an extraordinary degree of virtue in its citizens, is so flattering to our own actual condition, that we seldom take the trouble to inquire into its truth; but, to us, it seems quite apparent that the effect is here mistaken for the cause. It is said, as the people are virtually masters in a republic, that the people ought to be virtuous to rule well. So far as this proposi­tion is confined to degrees, it is just as true of a republic as of any other form of government. But kings do rule, and surely all have not been virtuous; and the aristocracies have ruled with the minimum of that quality, the subject of our tale sufficiently shows. That, other things being equal, the citizens of a republic will have a higher standard of private virtue than the subjects of any other form of government, is true as an effect, we can readily believe; for responsibility to public opinion existing in all the branches of its administration, that conventional morality which characterizes the common sentiment will be left to act on the mass, and will not be per­verted into a terrible engine of corruption, as is the case when factitious institutions give a false direction to its influence.[15]

This surely is praise of democracy, and in keeping with Cooper’s assertion, in The Two Admirals, that it is the legis­lators who are reluctant to do right, not the people[16]; yet Cooper did not hold that despotic or aristocratic govern­ments necessarily were inefficient or, in the actual administration of the law, unjust; their faults were not on the sur­face but deeper.[17] Any government, he pointed out, which came to depend for its existence upon an assumption of its infallibility was a curse to the people; and although Cooper did not specifically state so, he implied that such a condi­tion was not impossible in American democracy. The state of Venice demanded a victim, and Jacopo was chosen; the new member of the Council of Three, Signor Soranzo, was blinded by the mists of the bureaucracy, despite his desire to do justice; the pitying Doge was restrained from intervening by the necessities of the Leviathan government.

As Jacopo tells the Carmelite:

“…. I fear there is a morality in these councils which separates the deed of the man from those of the senators, putting policy before justice.”

“This may be true, son; for when a communi­ty is grounded on false principles, its interest must, of necessity, be maintained by sophisms. God will view this act with a different eye!”[18]

The bloody conclusion is inevitable; the necessities of the state triumph; the bravo dies; and the thoughtless popu­lace continues its doomed revelry.

The porticoes became brilliant with lamps the gay laughed, the reckless trifled, the masker pursued his hidden purpose, the cantatrice and the grotesque acted their parts, and the million existed in that vacant enjoyment which distinguished the pleasures of the thoughtless and the idle. Each lived for himself, while the state of Venice held its vicious sway, corrupting alike the ruler and the ruled, by its mockery of those sacred principles which are alone founded in truth and natural justice.[19]

III

In The Bravo Cooper had exhibited as a warning the faults of a false repub­lic; in The Heidenmauer, published the next year, he dealt with the passing of an old order and the coming of a new. As in The Bravo, both conservatives and liberals found in this novel a word for their cause.

This story, very similar to Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot, is too heavily laden with Cooper’s own comments, and, although possessing at times vigorous scenes, it moves slowly and, in the lat­ter half, almost aimlessly along, some­what in the fashion of Scott’s Peveril of the Peak. Near the end of this novel, Cooper summarizes its purpose, ably indicating, incidentally, the tack a historical or a social novel should take:

Our object in this tale is to represent society, under its ordinary faces, in the act of passing from the influence of one set of governing princi­ples to that of another. Had our efforts been confined to the workings of a single and a mas­ter mind, the picture, however true as regards the individual, would have been false in refer­ence to a community; since such a study would have been no more than following out the de­ductions of philosophy and reason—something the worse, perhaps, for its connection with humanity; whereas, he that would represent the world, or any material portion of the world, must draw the passions and the more vulgar in­terests in the boldest colors, and be content with portraying the intellectual part in a very subdued background.[20]

The scene is the Palatinate, early in the sixteenth century, and the subject the destruction of a Benedictine monas­tery by the ambitious Baron Emich and his ally Heinrich Frey, the burgomaster of Durckheim; the growing influence of Lutheranism has begun to destroy both the spiritual and the temporal authority of the church, and the nobleman, desir­ous of power and lands, combines with the burgher, resentful of the demands of the monks, to crush the monastery of the Heidenmauer. Opposed to them are the worldly Abbot Bonifacius, the saintly Father Arnolph, and the fanatic Father Johan. It is the struggle—a doomed fight—of an old authority against a new school of thought and new economic forces; but though the author of The Heidenmauer criticizes harshly the old ways of the church, he does not eulogize the forces of change; the burghers of Durckheim find they have but exchanged the sovereignty of the monks for the sovereignty of the baron—King Log for King Stork—and the baron discovers himself none the richer for his efforts and perplexed by the problem of propitiat­ing the church. The revolution has not satisfied the aspirations of its instiga­tors. Cooper was generally hostile to­ward revolutionary movements and often expressed his opinion of the follies of the French upheaval.[21] He was no more friendly toward the Catholic church, however,[22] and, as a result, this novel analyzes the question of change with admirable impartiality, if with no great literary deftness. Cooper paints none of his characters as thorough vil­lains: Bonifacius has courage, even though he is no fitting churchman; Emich is good at heart, although hasty and ambitious; the gentle piety of Arnolph compensates for the wild fanati­cism of Johan; and Heinrich Frey is the embodiment of the mingled virtues and vices of the rising middle classes.

Cooper takes his stand on change early in the novel, when, after criticizing the church of the early years of the Ref­ormation, he concludes, in terms appli­cable both to the church and the reform­ers:

However pure may be a social system, or a religion, in the commencement of its power, the possession of an undisputed ascendency lures all alike into excesses fatal to consistency, to jus­tice, and to truth. This is a consequence of the independent exercise of human volition, that seems nearly inseparable from human frailty. We gradually come to substitute inclination and interest for right, until the moral foundations of the mind are sapped by indulgence, and what was once regarded with the aversion that wrong excites in the innocent, gets to be not only familiar, but justifiable by expediency and use. There is no more certain symptom of the decay of the principles requisite to maintain even our imperfect standard of virtue, than when the plea of necessity is urged in vindication of any de­parture from its mandate, since it is calling in the aid of ingenuity to assist the passions, a co­alition that rarely fails to lay prostrate the feeble defenses of a tottering morality.[23]

Cooper paints a leader of the con­servative faction of society—although temporarily converted into a radical of sorts, by his hostility to the church—in Heinrich Frey; he puts conventional defenses of the status quo into Frey’s mouth, and then comments, ironically:

We have already said that Heinrich Frey was a stout friend of the conservative principle, which, reduced to practice, means little more than that—

“They shall get, who have the power,

And they shall keep, who can.”

Justice, like liberty, has great reservations, and perhaps there are few countries, in the present advanced condition of the human species, that do not daily employ some philosophy of the same involved character as this of Heinrich, supported by reasoning as lucid, irresistible, and nervous.[24]

But this does not mean that Cooper was an enthusiast for progress, a devotee of change; he remarks the inconsisten­cies of reformers and the numerous fol­lies of movements of reform, and con­cludes:

Fortunately, all that is thus gained on sound principles is apt to continue, since what­ever may be the waywardness of those who pro­fess them, principles themselves are immutable, and when once fairly admitted, are not easily dispossessed by the bastard doctrines of expedi­ency and error.[25]

While the process of change, then, may be far from admirable, still many results of change may be praiseworthy. Cooper finishes his novel:

Our object has been to show, by a rapidly-traced picture of life, the reluctant manner in which the mind of a man abandons old to receive new impressions—the inconsistencies be­tween profession and practice—the error in con­founding the good with the bad, in any sect or persuasion—the common and governing prin­ciples that control the selfish, under every shade and degree of existence—and the high and immutable qualities of the good, the virtu­ous, and of the really noble.[26]

Spiller writes of The Heidenmauer:

In thus showing the effect of Lutheranism in liberating the mind of man from superstition, and the social order from corruption and hypoc­risy, Cooper draws an obvious parallel to his own time in the effect of the American ideal in liberating the modern mind from the corrup­tion of a world controlled by the ancient regime. He does not state this in so many words, how­ever, and there is small reason to suppose that anyone in his own day understood the point of his conclusion.[27]

But The Heidenmauer is more than a mere eulogy of American reforms; it also is a warning against the motives of many advocates of change and of the unex­pected results of innovation. Contrary to Spiller’s statement, Cooper specifi­cally refers to the parallel with America and apologizes for what may seem Ameri­can vanity;[28] and the controversy this book and its companion novels aroused in Cooper’s day proves that its impli­cations were understood by a good many.

The Heidenmauer has not the moving power as a novel or the memorability as a social treatise that The Bravo possesses; nevertheless, it is worth reading as one of the few thoughtful studies in fiction of how an old order passes.

IV

In The Headsman, published in 1833, Cooper resumed the consideration of the misuse of republican institutions—or rather, of institutions masked by the name “republican.” Although this novel possesses a theme of considerable inter­est, and some scenes are portrayed with skill, toward the end it fails, trailing away into the old, old problem of the missing heir, with half of the procession of char­acters turning out to be either the father or the son of some stranger; it cannot be compared to The Bravo and, in unity of purpose, is not equal even to The Heidenmauer. In addition to the study of the perversion of republicanism, there is present in the story the problem of hereditary duties, the spirit of caste. The scene this time is in Switzerland, in the eighteenth century; the Headsman is the hereditary public executioner of Berne; his son, Sigismund, is in love with a young lady of rank, but, although his parentage has been kept secret, he will not marry her, with the disgrace of his birth and the threat of having to assume, some day, his hereditary office. These characters, with a great many others, travel through Switzerland into Italy, and become involved in a great many complications; and the problem never is resolved, although Sigismund is saved from his plight by the discovery that he is in truth the son of the disguised Doge of Genoa, not of Balthazar the headsman. For Spiller to say the “the corruptions of the old order are resolved in the purifying atmosphere of the Bernese Lips” is an error. The institutions of Berne and Vaud remain unchanged, and Balthazar goes back to his dreadful task. Here, once more, is the problem of a stabilized and stratified social order, in which institutions are free in name only, and in which power has slipped by degrees from the hands of the people into le hands of the government—another warning to America. The Swiss cantons were not, in reality, democracies, but aristocracies, with power possessed by le few; and the citizen was deprived of is freedom by tradition and authority. The Headsman is an assault upon special privilege in government, which Cooper saw developing in the United States. An aristocracy, said Cooper, was a curse even to itself:

Wealth has its peculiar woes; honor and privileges pall in the use; and, perhaps, as a rule, there is less of that regulated contentment, which forms the nearest approach to the condi­tion of the blessed of which this unquiet state of being is susceptible, among those who are usual­ly the most envied by their fellow-creatures, than in any other of the numerous gradations into which the social scale has been divided. He who reads our present legend with the eyes that we could wish, will find in its moral the illustra­tion of this truth; for, if it is our intention to delineate some of the wrongs that spring from the abuses of the privileged and powerful, we hope equally to show how completely they fall short of their object, by failing to confer that exclusive happiness which is the goal that all struggle to attain.[29]

Cooper satirizes hereditary special privilege in the person of Peter Hofmeister, bailiff of Vévey, and puts into the mouth of Gaetano, the disguised Doge, a denunciation of hereditary distinctions. At times the latter’s utter­ances seem to approach the doctrines of Rousseau, and such a stand is perhaps a dangerous one for a Doge of Genoa or a Cooper of Cooperstown; the great land­holders of New York were, in a sense, the possessors of special hereditary privi­lege guaranteed by a government which would assist a young Littlepage in ex­pelling an old Thousand acres from his mill; but Cooper probably would have had an answer to this objection, for he would have maintained, with Ricardo and against Henry George, that the landlords fulfilled a useful social func­tion.

The bailiff of Vévey expounds the authoritarian theory of government, in contrast with American principles:

The object of all authority is to find the means of its own support,” continued the bail­iff; “for unless it can exist, it must fall to the ground; and you all are sufficiently schooled to know that when a thing becomes of indifferent value, it loses most of its consideration. Thus government is established in order that it may protect itself; since without this power it could not remain a government, and there is not a man existing who is not ready to admit that even a bad government is better than none. But ours is particularly a good government, its greatest care on all occasions being to make it­self respected, and he who respects himself, is certain to have esteem in the eyes of others. Without this security we should become like the unbridled steed, or the victim of anarchy and confusion, ay, and damnable heretics in re­ligion.[30]

For many a modern advocate of absolutism in government this would be too faint praise. The bailiff continues:

This is a free government, and a fatherly government, anal a mild government, as ye all know; but it is not a government that likes reading and writing; reading that leads to the perusal of bad books, and writing that causes false signatures. Fellow-citizens, for we are all equal with the exception of certain differences that need not now be named, it is a government for your good, and therefore it is a government that likes itself, and whose first duty it is to pro­tect itself and its officers at all hazards, even though it might by accident commit some seem­ing injustice.[31]

Such was Cooper’s opinion of special privilege, as displayed in the cantons of Switzerland. Cooper assailed the sta­bilized state divided into orders and classes; America in his day had not reached that stage, territorially, economically, or socially, but he dreaded its coming. It has been reserved for us to witness the beginning of that process of social stratification and restriction, and many a student of politics in this era would hold with Cooper that real liberty cannot endure in a society confined to narrow limits by its government, its economy, and its intellect.

Although the problems of society are discussed in almost all of his later works, in none of them did James Fenimore Cooper more ably analyze the dangers in government than in these three novels with a European setting; and in one of them he was able to combine literary talent with a political moral sufficiently well to make a memorable contribution to American literature. Maria Edge­worth could write the social novel and the moral tale better, within limits, than could Cooper; Scott made his point more gracefully; but, if we except Brackenridge’s satires, Cooper was the first American to use fiction as a weapon for political criticism, and, considering the loftiness of his aims, his success was considerable. In his European stories, he struck resolute blows at tyranny in the guise of liberty and offered America a warning which this nation heeded little. Cooper never was the man to win disciples; privately and publicly he antag­onized those he encountered; but if he gave no quarter, neither did he ask mer­cy, and he upheld American virtues as uncompromisingly as he denounced American vices. He was not always pro­found in his thought; in his economics, particularly, flaws may be discerned. But there are few democrats and lovers of freedom today who will deny the clarity of his vision or maintain that his voice was not nearly as prophetic as Cas­sandra’s, even if it was sometimes as annoying.

This essay was brought to our attention thanks to Dr. Brad Birzer. It originally appeared in College English 7 (January 1946): 198-207. 

Notes:

  1. Robert E. Spitler, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (1932), pp. 18, 23, and 25.
  2. Ibid., p. 215.
  3. The American Democrat, pp. 17-27.
  4. Quoted in H. W. Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper (1931), p. 226.
  5. T. R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (1893), pp. 109-10.
  6.  Ibid.
  7. Op. cit., p. 230.
  8. Op. cit., p. 217.
  9. Op. cit., p. 109.
  10. Op. cit., p. 217.
  11. The Bravo, pp. iii—iv.
  12.  Ibid., p. 70.
  13. Ibid., pp. 81-82.
  14. Ibid, pp. 143-48.
  15. Ibid., pp. 361-62.
  16. The Two Admirals, p.3.
  17. See his Excursions in Italy, II, 266.
  18. The Bravo, p. 390.
  19. Ibid., p. 413.
  20. The Heidenmauer, p. 377.
  21. See, e.g., The Wing-and-Wing, pp.iii and 168.
  22. See Mercedes of Castile, p. 84.
  23. The Heidenmauer, pp. 65-66.
  24. Ibid., p. 228.
  25. Ibid., p. 372.
  26. Ibid., p. 399.
  27. Op. cit., p. 220.
  28. The Heidenmauer, pp. 54-55.
  29. The Headsman, p.31.
  30. Ibid., pp. 240-41.
  31. Ibid., p. 242.
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