Cooper and Slavery

James D. Wallace (Boston College)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1992 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego, May 1992.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

From reading through the body of Cooper criticism, you would never guess he had much to say about slavery. Apart from Robert Spiller’s 1930 essay called “Fenimore Cooper’ s Defense of Slave-Owning America” and the chapter on “Slavery, Security, and Doubt” in Cooper’s Americans (1965) by Kay Seymour House, the only references have been passing at best. One reason for this relative neglect is the relentless focus on the Leatherstocking Tales as the “essential” Cooper, and, as Geoffrey Rans remarks in his fine book Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels, the slavery question arises only three times in all those five texts. 1 Another reason, surely, is that whenever Cooper wrote directly about slavery, he did it so awkwardly and with such obvious discomfort that most readers have politely averted their eyes and asked about something else.

Still, write about it he did, and not always as cravenly as we have been told. I want to survey briefly some of Cooper’s overt comments on slavery, but then I want to consider its role in one of his later, reputedly “pastoral” novels, Satanstoe. H. Daniel Peck has expressed a common view that this

novel’s journey depicts the nation’s springtime, a time when “the buds [were] just breaking into the first green of foliage.” Cooper’s achievement is to make this springtime a permanent fact of the imagination by framing it in a timeless moment. Although Satanstoe dramatizes the first stage of America’s journey into the future, its temporal quality is essentially ahistorical. (178)

I will argue that Satanstoe is neither ahistorical nor so pastoral as this view suggests. Like all Cooper’s fiction, this novel deals with a latent violence in the American character, and in this novel in particular, that violence is directly related to the holding of slaves. In this reading, Satanstoe exposes the contradiction at the heart of the American republic and the experiment in democracy.

In his nonfiction, particularly in those works meant to explain the foundations of American civilization to the world, Cooper could not well avoid slavery. Two of the Letters, or chapters, of Notions of the Americans (1828) are devoted to it, as are three sections of The American Democrat (1838). In 1827 he wrote a qualified defense of American slavery — of its constitutional legality, that is — in French for the Revue Encyclopédique, and in 1835 he wrote a letter to the Freeman’s Journal of Cooperstown on the dilemma of slavery in the District of Columbia. In the History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), as Hugh C. McDougall pointed out to me, he records that the first slaves who were brought to Jamestown were “most probably the victims of perfidy,” and when the first Boston ship brought back a load of slaves from Guinea, “to the credit of the people of Boston, their sense of right revolted at the act, the parties concerned were arraigned, and the slaves were ordered to be restored to their native country at the public expense” (I, 36). Up to his death in 1851 he was working on a history of New York, The Towns of Manhattan, which included a discussion of slavery. In all the nonfiction, Cooper tried to steer a middle course. After all, two of his dearest lifelong friends were William Jay, an ardent abolitionist, and William Shubrick, the South Carolinian with whom Cooper often discussed the Nullification controversy (e.g., Letters and Journals II, 19-26). 2 But the nonfiction is very prudent, and Robert Spiller was generally right when he concluded that Cooper’s concern was “rather with explaining [slavery’s] existence, and in prophesying its ultimate disappearance in natural course” rather than in condemning it (575). Yet near the end of his life he wrote to Shubrick, condemning the Missouri Compromise and predicting “great events.” “Every week knocks a link out of the chain of the Union — At the next Presidential election it will snap. Tinkering will do no good any longer. A principle must prevail, and that principle will be freedom” (Letters and Journals VI, 208).

The tenor of Cooper’s fiction is rather less ambiguous, though it still embodies contradictory attitudes. In The Spy (1821), his first American novel, the narrator laments the passing of the domestic slave, “who, born and reared in the dwelling of his master, identified himself with the welfare of those whom it was his lot to serve” (47). But he also showed considerable understanding of and sympathy with Caesar, the faithful old black who serves the Wharton family. When Harvey Birch makes a slighting reference to “the niggars to the south,” Caesar bridles: “No more niggar than be yourself, Mister Birch,” interrupted Caesar tartly” (43), and Sarah Wharton backs him up. 3 The narrator is also acute enough to note that “it is one of the curses of slavery, that its victims become incompetent to the attributes of a freeman” (48).

Passages in the Leatherstocking tales and the Littlepage trilogy have often been cited by critics as instances of Cooper’s racism, but one of the most popular of these is Magua’s speech about the Great Spirit’s creation of red, black, and white men, and how can we credit Magua’s opinion about anything? I will turn to Satanstoe in a moment, but first I want to mention The Red Rover (1827), which not only was one of Cooper’s most popular novels all through the 19ᵗʰ century, but very nearly qualifies as the first abolitionist fiction in the American tradition. 4 It begins in Rhode Island, which became the “chosen retreat of the affluent planters of the South,” and this explains why Rhode Island became the most “southern” of New England colonies: “The inhabitants of the country, while they derived from the intercourse a portion of that bland and graceful courtesy for which the gentry of the Southern British Colonies were so distinguished, did not fail to imbibe some of those peculiar notions concerning the distinctions in the races of men, for which they are no less remarkable” (15-16). One important character is a black sailor named Scipio Africanus, who is doubled with Dick Fid, a white. Fid defends “S’ip” (or “Guinea,” as he also calls him) against the prejudices of Rhode Islanders, and S’ip’s death is so dramatic that F. O. C. Darley engraved the scene for the title page of the Townsend edition. On the strength of this novel alone, one could call Cooper a forerunner of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

But many of Cooper’s novels are set in New York before slavery was ended in 1827 and among these is Satanstoe. The idyllic world of Satanstoe, the world of Anglo-Dutch New York, has most often been seen as a pastoral prelude to the contentious political themes of the rest of the Littlepage trilogy and Corny Littlepage as an Adamic hero of tedious perfection. As Warren Motley puts it, “If American literature of the Adamic tradition evokes a world of individuals bound only by voluntary covenants, Satanstoe celebrates an organic society of families in which social obligations are assumed as a matter of custom” (133). This “organic society” exemplifies a number of aristocratic virtues, according to Richard Chase: “They love their houses, their orchards, their Negro servants; they pay heartfelt homage to the Crown” (48).

The hero’s personal slave, Jaap, seems at first to be the ideal embodiment of this noblesse oblige, but there are three aspects of the portrayal of Jaap that suggest a much greater complexity in Cooper’s understanding of slavery, a full recognition of the violence done to slaves and to the developing culture. These aspects include the matter of Jaap’s name, the nature of his relationship with Corny Littlepage, and his significance as a slave for the plot of the novel.

First there is the business of his name. When he first appears in the novel Corny merely calls him “a negro boy, who was about my own age,” and he notes that the boy’s name “was Jacob, or Jaap,” but that he was commonly called “Yaap” (28), and so Corny calls him, though he frequently reminds us that Yaap has two or more names, as if he were a multiple-choice question. Then quite suddenly at page 306 Corny writes, “Yaap, or Jaap, as i shall call him in the future. ... ” Why this sudden shift, two-thirds of the way through the narrative? Still more puzzling is a subsequent revelation, when Corny is trying to assure us of Jaap’s absolute loyalty to his master: “No dog, indeed, could be truer in this particular than Jaap, or Jacob, Satanstoe, for he had adopted the name of the Neck as his patronymic; much as the nobles of other regions style themselves after their lands” (313). Finally there is a kind of apotheosis of Jaap’s name when he quarrels with Susquesus, their Onondago guide, after the British defeat at Fort Ticonderoga. When Jaap is angriest, Corny interposes himself, “at once,” he comments, “effectually stilling the outbreak of Jacob Satanstoe’s wrath” (345).

The shifting of Jaap’s name, of course, parallels the growth of his importance as a character, as he develops from a relative nonentity into proportions nearly as heroic as those of Susquesus and Corny himself: he grows from the least of nicknames to a fully formal and resonant name. In fact, one wonders whether the title of this novel doesn’t refer to this character rather than to the Littlepage estate, which after all is not the setting for any of the significant action.

Moreover, Jacob Satanstoe is what Jaap chooses to call himself, and the struggle over names, as over identity, is one of the more significant cultural themes of American slavery. In his excellent book on the end of slavery in New York City, Shane White notes the practice of some masters to indulge themselves in naming slaves, “displaying their classical knowledge in names such as Cato or Caesar, or their sense of humor in names such as Romeo or Pleasant Queen Anne.” As White also notes, these names created an important arena for the black struggle for independence: “Black reaction to such thoughtless or calculated humiliation surfaces in the runaway advertisements, which make it clear that many masters expected their slaves to use alternative names when they absconded,” and he quotes examples of a “man named Cato but calls himself Curtis Johnson”; “another, ‘named York, calls himself Jacob’” (192). The overwhelming majority of slaves chose names they believed reflected simplicity and dignity: Johnson, Williams, Thomas, Smith (193).

Of course, everyone knows how important names and naming were for Cooper, but it is surprising to discover that he knew what White has inferred about slave culture. The large majority of the slaves in his fictions have those ponderously frivolous names: in Satanstoe there are Pompey, Caesar, June, Cato, and Petrus; in Red Rover there is Scipio Africanus; in The Pioneers, Agamemnon; elsewhere, Cupid, Venus, Vulcan, Cassandra, and so on. Very early in The Spy we learn that Caesar, “the faithful old black ... as if in mockery of his degraded state, had been complimented with the name of Caesar” (23), but he has a double name. “Mr. Caesar Thompson, as he called himself — but Caesar Wharton, as he was styled by the little world to which he was known” (24). When Cooper’s narrator has occasion to refer to Caesar by his full name, he uses “Caesar Thompson” (49). In Satanstoe, Guert’s personal domestic is called Pete, “it being contrary to bonos mores to style him Peter, or Petrus; the latter being his true appellation” (285).

The shifting forms of Jaap’s name, then, register on three different levels of Cooper’s employment of the discourse of slavery in Satanstoe. They mark his growing ability to claim a measure of independence for himself, to assert his self- definition in the face of a culture that strives to deny it. Corny’s recognition of this self-definition is also an acknowledgment of Jaap’s “mastery” of the world of violence and endurance that all the principals of the novel have entered in volunteering to accompany the British army into war. And Cooper’s use of the metonymy of names indicates his own response, at a much deeper level than the nonfiction ever indicates, to the human meaning of slavery, even while he allows Corny, his protagonist, to claim that in old New York “the treatment of the negro was of the kindest character” (69-70).

Another complication in Cooper’s portrayal of Jaap is in the structure of the relationship between Corny and his slave — or rather, in the metaphoric representation of that structure. Some 42 pages after Jaap is first introduced into the narrative, we are told retrospectively of the Dutch custom of giving each child a slave companion:

when a child of the family reached the age of six, or eight, a young slave of the same age and sex, was given to him, or her, with some little formality, and from that moment the fortunes of the two were considered to be, within the limits of their respective pursuits and positions, as those of man and wife. (70)

Cooper’s source for this custom, as Kay Seymour House points out in her introduction to the SUNY Satanstoe, was Mrs. Anne Grant’s Memoirs of an American Lady (1808). Mrs. Grant represents the subsequent relations of master and slave this way:

The child to whom the young negro was given immediately presented it with some piece of money and a pair of shoes; and from that day the strongest attachment subsisted between the domestic and the destined owner. I have no where met with instances of friendship more tender and generous than that which here subsisted between the slaves and their masters and mistresses. (I, 81)

The marriage metaphor is Cooper’s own interpretation of “friendship.” In itself this seems innocent enough, though rather overstated, since Jaap plays almost no role in the novel until the foray into the wilderness. But it fits into another pattern, one involving Corny’s other alter egos, Dirck Follock (or Van Valkenburgh) and Guert Ten Eyck. When Corny first learns that Dirck has fallen in love with Anneke, he is surprised to find that his friend harbors any strong feeling: “Dirck was such a matter-of-fact fellow, that I had never dreamed he could be sensible to the passion of love,” he remarks, and then, oddly, he immediately adds, “nor had I ever paused to analyze the nature of our own friendship.” This connection of friendship and passion is merely incidental, yet it suggests a latent ambiguity in Corny’s attitude toward Dirck. “I was well convinced that my companion could, and would, prove to be a warm friend, but the possibility of his ever becoming a lover had not before crossed my mind” (57). A similar ambiguity is created in the scene where Corny goes sledding with Guert Ten Eyck. When Corny wonders about his safety, Guert avers that “young ladies often honour me with their company, and no accident has ever happened.” It appears, though, that Guert sleds with ladies only on moonlit nights or at a “more retired spot ... to which the ladies are rather more partial.” And then Guert directs Corny to “Take your seat, lady-fashion, and leave me to manage the sled.” With this assurance, Corny agrees to go. “I took my seat, accordingly, placing my feet together on the front round, ‘ lady-fashion,’ as directed. In an instant Guert’s manly frame was behind me, with a leg extended on each side of the sled” (167).

In all three cases, the sexual ambiguity created around the idea of “friendship” can be read as Cooper’s device for linking Corny with his alter egos. 5 While Dirck represents the phlegmatic Dutch past and Guert something impulsive, anarchic, and untutored in Corny, Jaap is “earthier,” more fundamental. He only comes to life in the narrative when his party goes to war, and his stature only increases as the situation becomes more desperate. He is the closest thing in this novel to Natty Bumppo, who, as Peck has noted, only comes to life in The Last of the Mohicans in similar circumstances, after the fall of Fort William Henry (115-17). To paraphrase D. H. Lawrence, Jaap is the killer in Corny. 6

He is something else as well: he is a slave, and that is the third way he figures in Satanstoe. Despite all Corny’s assurances to the contrary, this fact matters a great deal. Indeed, the plot of the last third of the novel, everything leading up to the catastrophe of Guert Ten Eyck’s death, turns on Jaap’s enslavement. At the battle of Ticonderoga, Jaap behaves heroically, leading the foremost of the skirmishes, firing the opening shot, picking off a French officer, and taking an Indian prisoner in the retreat. “I cannot explain the philosophy of the thing,” muses Corny, “but that negro ever appeared to me to fight, as if he enjoyed the occupation as an amusement” (333). When Corny orders him to release his prisoner, though, Jaap is not pleased, and he beats Musquerusque before he lets him go: “I heard heavy stripes inflicted on the back of some one,” writes Corny: “The pine stands not more erect, or unyielding, in a summer’s noontide, than he bore up under the pain. Indignantly, I thrust the negro away, cut the fellow’s bonds with my own hands, and drove my slave before me to the canoe” (337-38).

Here is the issue of slavery in its barest form: one man set free, the other driven as a slave. From this moment, too, Guert’s doom is set. Muss, like Cooper’s other flogged Indians, Magua in The Last of the Mohicans and Saucy Nick in Wvandotté, will take revenge for his beating, tracking his tormentors to their origin, slaughtering the surveying team, horribly torturing poor Pete, and laying siege to Ravensnest and Anneke, everything Corny holds dearest. No wonder Susquesus, Corny’s Indian companion, says, “Blackman do foolish t’ing” (344). Jaap’s self-justification is straight from the slaveholder’s rhetoric of ownership: “Muss was my prisoner, and what good he do me, if he let go widout punishment. I wish you tell Masser Corny dat, instead of tellin’ him nonsense.” Moreover, as Jaap now reveals to us for the very first time in all this narrative of the perfect relations between slaves and masters in old New York, Corny beats him, and he is only serving Muss as he has been served himself: “When he flog me, who ebber hear me grumble?” (345). As Richard Brodhead has shown, flogging meant slavery in American texts of the 1830s, 40s and 50s, whether it be Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is (1839), Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840), or Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life, published in the same year as Satanstoe. Of representations of flogging, Brodhead writes,

We could analyze the particular contours that these picturings give to their subject — could note how they foreground the embodiedness of whipping, the bodily enacted and bodily received nature of its disciplinary transaction; or the perfect asymmetry of power expressed in the whipping scenario; or the indignity whipping inflicts on the slave through its dramatization of his powerlessness; or the erotics of authoritarianism that whipping both excites and discharges. But such a nuancing would scarcely be necessary to say what the imagination of whipping here means. For as such works determine it whipping means slavery. It emblematizes both an actual practice and the whole structure of relations that identify Southern slavery as a system. (68)

Or slavery in New York. The ultimate source of Muss’s vengeance is the abusive system Jaap has learned from his master. The last third of Satanstoe unfolds with tragic inevitability, and though Corny is insulated by his just portion of self- love from consciousness of his responsibility, 7 the logic of that tragic plot indicts him as a slaveholder.

What cultural work is Satanstoe designed to perform? The heroic figure of a black man commanding a battlefield and glorying in war, Jaap’s anger and frustration barely held in check by all his master’s authority, the chain of violence that originates in the slave’s flogging and ends in the death of a beloved friend and alter ego — all this hints at the deepest fear of slave-holding America: a race war. This is a possibility that the narrator of Notions of the Americans had reassuringly discussed in 1828. 8 By 1845 such open discussion may no longer have seemed possible to Cooper, and certainly the reassurances of Notions had worn thin. Among its other accomplishments, Satanstoe warns that the course of American civilization has made race war a real danger.

There are many other aspects of Jaap’s character and of Cooper’s portrayal of slavery in Satanstoe that deserve mention as well, but the three we have been considering — the shifting ground of his name, his metaphoric relation to Corny, and his synechdochal relation to the brutality of slavery — show in sufficient depth the problem and the opportunity slavery presented to Cooper as an American writer. That the great experiment in democracy should also be the last western nation to deal in the buying and selling of human beings is the most bafflingly profound contradiction our culture has ever faced, and even in the romantic memoirs of an Anglo-Dutch patriarch Cooper could not ignore that contradiction. At the same time, for Cooper as for Faulkner, the parallel lives of black and white created rich possibilities for characterization, for the exploration of difference and sameness, the incoherence of the self, and those internal, psychological conflicts and contradictions that make us such poor rationalists and logicians. If Satanstoe imagines the pastoral joys of a pre-politicized America, it also remembers that the greatest struggle the nation would suffer was born in the abominable customs of its proudest families.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Charles Hansford. “The Guardian of the Law”: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
  • Brodhead, Richard H. “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America.” Representations 21 (1988), 67-96.
  • Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1957.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat: Or. Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America . 1838; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.
  • ------. The History of the Navy of the United States of America. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1839.
  • ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. P., 1960-68.
  • ------. Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor. 1828; rpt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
  • ------. The Red Rover. a Tale. 1827; rpt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
  • ------. Satanstoe. or The Littlepage Manuscripts: A Tale of the Colony. 1845; rpt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • ------. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. 1821; rpt. New York: Townsend and Co., 1859.
  • Grant, Mrs. Anne. Memoirs of an American Lady: With Sketches of Manners and Scenes in America as They Existed Previous to the Revolution . 2 vols. 1808; rpt New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1901.
  • House, Kay Seymour. Cooper’s Americans. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965.
  • Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923; New York: Viking, 1961.
  • Motley, Warren. The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Peck, H. Daniel. A World By Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. 1983; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
  • Spiller, Robert E. “Fenimore Cooper’s Defense of Slave-Owning America.” American Historical Review, 35 (1930), 575-82.
  • White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City. 1729-1820. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.


1 The three points of issue involve only two novels: they are around Agamemnon in The Pioneers, the slave who is nominally owned by Richard Jones but belongs de facto to Judge Temple; Cora, whose mixed blood appalls Duncan Heyward; and Magua, who explains that the “Spirit who made men” destined blacks to be slaves and “to work forever, like the beaver,” in The Last of the Mohicans.

2 Another South Carolinian friend, Henry Cruger, was a leader in the state’s Anti- Union party, and he and Cooper exchanged long letters on the nullification controversy. Though they disagreed, Cruger had a major influence on Cooper’s attempt to tread a middle course in the arguments over slavery. For instance, Cooper wrote to Peter Augustus Jay, William’s brother, ” Cruger complains bitterly of the tone of the Northern States on the subject of slavery. Is he not right? ... He carries his resentment too far, no doubt, but we ought to consider how sensitive is weakness when united to h[onourable?] feeling” (Letters and Journals, I, 422).

3 In Satanstoe the word “nigger” is used by the fractious New Englander, Jason Newcome, and by the poorly educated Guert Ten Eyck, but never by the narrator and protagonist, Corny Littlepage. Clearly Cooper was aware of and sensitive to the derogatory force of the term.

4 My reading of the novel is obviously quite different from those of most other critics. See, for example, Charles Hansford Adams, who argues that Cooper meant to construct “a dark parody of the Byronic hero” in order to “dramatize the danger concealed by the Rover’s outward appeal” to lawlessness and misrule (99). Michael Paul Rogin, on the other hand, while assuming the same conservative intent on Cooper’s part, emphasizes the subversive force The Red Rover had for contemporary readers, especially Herman Melville (3-11).

5 There obviously is a homosocial, if not actually homosexual, implication to these relationships as well, but I am dealing here with the cultural work of Corny’s character.

6 Lawrence’s famous analysis of Natty Bumppo concludes, “But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” (62). Note that Guert’s and Corny’s slaves, having been “hired to” the army, go off to war as a “frolick” (203).

7 It is Bulstrode who forthrightly acknowledges his own “self-love, of which every man has a just portion, for his own comfort and peace of mind” (391), but it is a subject on which Corny needs few lessons.

8 I discuss this in my earlier paper, “Race and Captivity in Cooper, 1826-1829.”