During his famous and well-attended University of Pennsylvania lectures of 1790 and 1791, James Wilson attempted to define the ideas of the American founding period. Others had done the same thing, or soon would, in a comprehensive fashion. The very first history of the revolution appeared in 1789, written by southerner David Ramsey. In 1805, Massachusetts historian Mercy Otis Warren wrote the second history, this one from a much more New England-friendly perspective.
Wilson, though, was a Scot and a Pennsylvanian, neither a northerner nor a southerner. Through his lectures, he wanted to clarify and set right—as he saw it—what he and others had done by drawing up the Articles, the Declaration, and the Constitution. Unlike Ramsey and Warren, he approached the founding through the eyes of philosophy and legal theory.
James Wilson was one of only six founders to have signed both the Declaration and the Constitution, and he would, one day, serve on the Supreme Court. His own life was fraught with moral problems, but great men such as Washington, Adams, and Jefferson took his ideas very seriously. We postmoderns should probably take him seriously as well.
In one of his lectures on natural rights in 1791, Wilson noted the relationship of slavery to the founding itself. “Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power, in the master, over the life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law. Indeed, it is repugnant to the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist in any social system.”
The topic of slavery and the founding is an immensely complex one, and I’ve tried to deal with it in my own scholarly work as well as in a number of pieces here at The Imaginative Conservative over the last three and a half years. I don’t propose to examine that issue in all of its complexity here. But, it is well worth noting that the founders understood its importance as well. One only has to compare the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of (July) 1787 by Congress in New York, which forbade slavery in the western territories, with the brutal debate in the Constitutional Convention only three weeks later in Philadelphia.
Whatever the reality and the complications of the institution—again, something I’ve elsewhere been quite critical of the founders for allowing it to survive, in direct contradiction of their own professed ideals—I’m interested in how the cultural elements accompanying and at times prompting the founding stated.
Two great works of republican literature, though separated by almost exactly a century, give us an important insight into the republican mind. The first, Joseph Addison’s play, Cato: A Tragedy; and the second, the second volume of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Last of the Mohicans.
In very different ways, each points toward a dignified treatment of the human person, as a citizen of an eternal republic, one that transcends time as well as accidents (skin color, gender) of birth.
Cato: A Tragedy
The talented English literary critic and commentator Joseph Addison wrote the play, Cato: A Tragedy, published in 1712. It offered a very Protestanized view of the best of Stoic pagan Roman history, a look at the last man fighting the empire and its corrupt leader, Julius Caesar. In the story, Cato of Uttica symbolizes the highest of Roman virtue, a man who will dedicate his life and death to the defense of a republic of virtue and liberty. Allies and enemies surround, challenge, and react to the statements and actions of Cato. He serves as a vital catalyst for others, desiring not to conform others to himself, but to call forth and leaven the best that is within each of us. When Cato realizes that Caesar will control his fate, he commits suicide.
One of the most interesting characters in the play is an African prince by the name of Juba.
In the first part of the play, Juba offers the following reflection on republican virtue:
These all are virtues of a meaner rank, Perfections that are placed in bones and nerves A Roman soul is bent on higher views: To civilize the rue, unpolished world, And lay it under the restraint of laws; To make man mild, and social to man; To cultivate the wild, licentious savage With wisdom, discipline, and liberal arts— The embellishments of life; virtues like these Make human nature shine, reform the soul, And break our fierce barbarians into men.
Later in the play, though, Juba reveals his real importance. Embarrassed by the actions of others of his kingdom, he appears before the still-living Cato, apologizing.
Juba: I blush and am confounded to appear/Before thy presence, Cato Cato: What’s thy crime? Juba: I’m a Numidian Cato: And a brave one too/Thou hast a Roman soul Juba: Hast thou not heard/Of my false countrymen? Cato: Alas! Young prince/Falsehood and fraud shoot up in every soil,/The product of all climes—Rome has its Caesars.
As Cato so wisely notes, being a Roman is more than being a citizen of a certain time and place. It stands for something eternal, something greater than any one moment, one place, or one person can contain. And, it has nothing to do with skin color, gender, or any of the accidents of birth.
Nearly three generations later, Addison’s play found a receptive and devoted audience among American founders such as Washington, Nathan Hale, and Patrick Henry and with Whigs such as Edmund Burke. The play especially influenced Washington. He had much of it memorized, and it served as a liberal education for the great Virginian.
When his army officers hoped to march on Congress and establish their general as a dictator in the spring of 1783, Washington confronted his men, challenging their ambition. On March 15—the Ides of March—1783, he told his assembled men at Newburgh, New York:
While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor, let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your Country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an Army they will cause all your Accts. to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions, which were published to you two days ago, and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power, to render ample justice to you, for your faithful and meritorious Services. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood. By thus determining, and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion of Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to Mankind, ‘had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.’
Liberally quoting and paraphrasing Addison’s play, Washington reminded his men that their actions against republican liberty and order would disgrace not just those who had come before, but those would come after as well.
Last of the Mohicans
A century and a bit more after Addison first published his play, James Fenimore Cooper published the second of his Leatherstocking Tales, The Last of the Mohicans, a rewrite of The Aeneid for Americans. But, like all good republicans of those centuries, he understood the need to explore the transcendent and the universal, even if manifested in the particulars of a person not in favor with the norm of society.
For Cooper, the frontier in particular can make anyone—regardless of background or gender—a true American, noble, liberty-loving, and virtuous. Ultimately, then, one cannot base “Americanness” on racial or ethnic background or terms. Instead, Americanness is individual and cultural; it is based on virtue and merit.
Cooper’s idea of the frontier is best exemplified by the character of Cora Munro in the Last of the Mohicans. From the moment Cooper introduces the reader to Cora, he learns that she is beautiful, skilled, intelligent, and virtuous. She is also dark-complected. Her sister, Alice, is equally beautiful, but she is timid and, consequently, lacks the virtue of Cora. While she may want to do the right thing, her diffidence holds her back. Unlike Cora, Alice is blond and fair-skinned.
It is not until the middle of the novel that the reader discovers why Cooper describes the two female characters by their complexion over and over again. Cora, as it turns out, is actually part African, as her father, a Scottish officer in the British army, had an intimate relationship in the West Indies as a young man. Once Cooper reveals Cora’s background, several pointed conversations occur between main characters regarding the issue. Accusations of prejudice fly. Cooper chastises, through his characters, those who hold racial prejudice. “The dogs and crows of their tribes [white men]” Tamenund, Sachem of Delaware, says, “would bark and caw before they would take a woman to their wigwams whose blood was not of the color of snow.” Taking it further, the sagacious Indian, taking a role very similar to that taken by Cato, implies that God may send a plague against those who put race above virtue.
While modern readers do not find this shocking, American readers in the 1820s would have been aghast to find the heroine of the story to possess any amount of African blood. Cooper wanted to make a significant point. Being American transcends the narrow biological categories and confines of race or sex. Instead, the frontier provided the freedom for each person to discover and use his moral gifts and to submit to his God-given teleology. In the end, Cora proves the most moral and virtuous of all characters in The Last of the Mohicans, even more so than Leatherstocking or Chingachgook. She does everything well, and she does it without hesitation—even if it involves the ultimate sacrifice, her own life, for her friends and loved ones.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
- While there are a number of versions of Cato: A Tragedy available, the best, by far, is the one edited by Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark Yellin, available through Liberty Fund Books, 2004, which includes numerous documents, reviews, and essays to provide context.]