James Fenimore Cooper and the American Experiment

In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper was worried about American democracy. He was apprehensive, not about America’s democratic institutions during the Jacksonian era so much as he was concerned that features of American civil society, like newspapers, like religion, like political economy, were becoming the greatest threats to the maintenance of American democratic legitimacy. Although Cooper, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that natural rights were a given, he feared that the young republic’s post-revolutionary culture might not be able to preserve those natural rights because of an increasingly conformist and fatuous public sphere.

After a half dozen years living aboard, Cooper described how returning to America, he found himself a “foreigner in his own country.” He noted two alarming features, “the disposition of the majority to carry out the opinions of the system to the extremes and a disposition of the minority to abandon all to the current day.” His instructional book, The American Democrat: Or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America was his attempt to offer both a diagnosis and a remedy.

In The American Democrat, Cooper began to thread the needle between his commitment to the rule of the majority and its imperative for the maintenance of democracy and his increasing worry about how the majority might become a mob and thus threaten minorities:

The majority rules in prescribed cases, and in no others. It elects to office, it enacts ordinary laws, subject however to the restriction of the constitution, and it decides most of the questions that arise in the primitive meetings of the people; questions that do not usually effect any of the principal interests of life.

Cooper was safeguarding liberty and majority rule but restricting it to “questions that do not usually effect any of the principal interests of life.” Rather than a paean to democracy, Cooper notes, “we do not adopt the popular polity because it is perfect, but because it is less imperfect than any other.” (Apparently, Winston Churchill had been reading James Fenimore Cooper, as well.) “As no man is without spot in his justice, as no man has infinite wisdom, or infinite mercy, we are driven to take refuge… in the government of many.” This is rather steep decline from Cooper’s optimism regarding humanity’s natural justice, which he had celebrated more robustly in his earlier work, Notions of the Americans.[1]

According to Cooper, one of the primary threats to democracy is the power of public opinion. On the positive side, democratic institutions tend “to equalize advantages and to spread is blessings over the entire surface of society.” But, because of the well-known concurrent tendency of democracies to “lend value and estimation to mediocrity,” the people of large democracies can lack the insight and intelligence to accurately judge character and thus are “exposed to become the dupes of demagogues and political schemers, most of the crimes of democracies arise from the faults and designs of men of this character, rather than from the propensities of the people, who having little temptation to do wrong, are seldom guilty of crimes except through ignorance.” It is also why democracies are particularly prone to the influence of foreign nations, “secret means are resorted to, to influence sentiment in this way, and we have witnessed in this country open appeals to the people… in matters of foreign relations, made by foreign, not to say, hostile agents,” an insight that comes over a century before the revelations about Cambridge Analytica.

Freedom and Self-Government

One of the mistakes citizens make regarding their understanding of liberty is the assumption that those nations with either the mildest or fewest laws are therefore the freest, “This opinion is untenable, since the power that concedes this freedom of action, can recall it.” Cooper then recounts a long story of a slaveowner who grants one slave liberty to travel to town and denies to the other the same privilege. The rather Aesop-like moral of the story is that neither slave is free since each is still subject to the will of the slave owner. Consequently, Cooper leaps, “it follows, that no country can properly be deemed free, unless the body of the nation possess, in the last resort, the legal power to frame its laws according to its wants.” Rule by simple majorities does not work, because of their inability to consider what is beyond their own self-interest and minority rule, even by “the educated and affluent classes of a country” is also insufficient since they, too, are prone to the same self-aggrandizement.

Fortuitously, the resolution is that

nature has rendered man incapable of enjoying freedom without restraint, and in the other, incapable of submitting, entirely without resistance, to oppression. The harshest despots are compelled to acknowledge the immutable principles of eternal justice, affecting the necessity and the love of right…

For Cooper, much rests on the configuration of the constitution, a hallowed document from the founding era, which maintains the balance between the reckless mob of the majority and the partisan interests of the minority. Even as Cooper has thoughtfully detailed how civil society jeopardizes the mechanisms and constitutional instructions of democracy, he does not develop a robust conception of power, offering only a tidy summation: “Certain general principles that shall do as little violence to natural justice, as is compatible with the peace and security of society.”

Although Cooper was always clear than no one in his family had ever owned slaves, he has the views on American slavery one would expect from an aristocratic land owner in 1838:

It is quite possible to be an excellent Christian and a slave holder and the relations of master and slave, may be a means of exhibiting some of the mildest graces of the character… In one sense, slavery may actually benefit a man, there being little doubt that the African is, in nearly all respects, better off in servitude in this country, than when living in a state of barbarism at home.

Cooper has a rather complicated, if not convoluted, assessment of slavery. On the one hand, he maintains that the virtues of Christianity are compatible with slavery, in part, because the slave owner can cultivate his compassion, generosity and understanding of those without his (natural) advantages.  Yet, on the other hand, Cooper maintains his confidence in black inferiority while noting that Africans, too, can benefit from being in democratic America. Similarly, Cooper gives Native Americans significantly more agency in his fiction, than his contemporaries do, but he also continues to limit their full human development to the colonial imagination of the 1830’s and 1840’s.[2]

Cooper acknowledges that the institution damages the ethical sensibility of the slave holder, “it leads to sin in its consequences, in a way peculiarly its own, and may be set down as a impolitic and vicious institution. It encourages those faults of character that depend on an uncontrolled will, on the one side, and an abject submission, on the other.” Cooper acknowledges that the institution is damaging the foundations of American democracy—autonomy, restraint, and education. It is an early iteration of what will become pivotal to the case for racial equity from Frederick Douglass to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cooper discusses, too, how “nature has made a stamp on the American slave” that will make it difficult for him to integrate into American society once slavery is abolished. He proclaims, “American slavery shall cease, and when that day shall arrive (unless early and effectual means are devised to obviate it) two races will exist in the same region, whose feelings will be embittered by inextinguishable hatred, and who carry on their faces, the respective stamps of their factions.” This is as accurate of a forecast of the period of Reconstruction as historically exists. And, so Cooper recommends the legal process; he is adamant that “slavery can be legally abolished by amending the constitution, and Congress has the power, by a vote of two-thirds of both houses, to propose amendments to that instrument. Now, whatever congress has power to do, it has power to discuss.” But, he says, “it would be equal madness for congress, in the present state of the country, to attempt to propose an amendment to the constitution, to abolish slavery altogether, as it would infallibly fail.”

It is tempting to read The American Democrat, as some have suggested, as biographical vengeance rather than political philosophy. Many of the criticisms that Cooper makes about the threats to democracy, especially regarding public opinion, had deeply affected his own personal life. For by 1837, as one of Cooper’s early biographers noted, “Cooper had pretty sedulously improved every opportunity of making himself unpopular. His criticisms had been distributed with admiral impartiality.” Cooper had disparaged nearly everyone and everything: from the Old Federalist party, which he accused of secretly longing for monarchy; to the sons of Puritans who he had exasperated by styling them “the grand inquisitors of private life”; as well as nearly all of the people of the Northern states, as he declared repeatedly that it was in the Middle States alone that the English language was spoken with purity. So, that he despised newspapers and public opinion and religion might be personal. For newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic disdained him. But, while this is a casually rewarding way to interpret this book, especially when one includes his expulsion from Yale at 16 after locking a donkey in a recitation room and exploding the door off another student’s room, the fact is that Cooper has insightfully assessed features of American democracy that remain salient to this day. He raises concerns and offers insights that are remarkably similar to those of the travelling aristocrat reporting on American democracy at the same time, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Threatening Democracy

Reading Cooper today, one marvels at his prescient insights regarding the elements that could potentially threaten American democracy. Consider his assertion that in a democracy people became “impatient of all superiorities… and manifest a wish to prefer those who affect a deference to the public rather than those who are worthy.” Perhaps nothing makes that observation more salient than a hectic primary season bloated with sycophants adjusting their views to the whims of public polls.

In addition, Cooper recognized the risks of a populism led by demagogues. Etymologically, a demagogue is “a leader of the rabble,” but Cooper adds a more precise nuance as one “who seeks to advance his own interest by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people.” Cooper notes that “the true theatre of a demagogue is a democracy, for the body of the community possessing the power, the master he pretends to serve is best able to reward his efforts.”

Cooper then offers “rules” by which one can determine if a leader is acting in the interests of the people or on their own account: “The man who is constantly telling the people they are unerring in judgment, and that they have all power, is a demagogue.” A second rule is that a “demagogue always puts the people before the constitution and the laws, in face of the obvious truth that the people have placed the constitution and the laws before themselves.” And, finally, there is a revelatory test, Cooper details, by which “while proclaiming his devotion to the majority, he (the demagogue) in truth, opposes the will of the entire people, in order to effect his purposes with a part.”

It’s a powerful analysis of how the very features of democracy—the rule of the majority and the educated opinion of the people—is what renders them liable to the coercive power of the demagogue:

Liberty is not a matter of words, but a positive and important condition of society. Its greatest safeguards, after placing its foundations on a popular base, is in the checks and balances imposed on the public servants, and all its real friends ought to know that the most insidious attacks are made on it by those who are the largest trustees of authority, in their efforts to increase their power.

James Fenimore Cooper remains one of those treasures of the American literary canon, a writer able to capture the particularities of his historical age through his tales and novels, like The Last of the Mohicans and The Deer Slayer as well as one who offers enduring insights into not only the American national character but the perils that could potentially jeopardize the longevity of the great American experiment.

[1] For more on Notions of the Americans, see John P McWilliams, Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972).

[2] For a more extended treatment of Cooper’s characterization of the Negro in his novels, see Therman B. O’Daniel, “Cooper’s Treatment of the Negro” Phylon (1940-1956) vol. 8, no. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1947), pp.164-176.