Cooper, Bancroft, and the Voorhees Court Martial

Robert D. Madison (United States Naval Academy)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1995 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 6, August, 1995.

Copyright © 1995, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In book after book, James Fenimore Cooper expressed his fear of demagoguery through the invasion of upstate New York by New England emigrants. The French Revolution, as described in Sir Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon, may have been the primary literary source of Cooper’s anxiety, an anxiety that reaches its high point in the Littlepage trilogy of the mid-1840’s. In these works, stability is to be gained only through a society formed around “natural aristocrats,” the best example of which for Cooper was the American naval officer. Cooper focuses on naval character in a series of essays which culminates in the mid-forties in two volumes of Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers.

We are all thoroughly aware of Cooper’s reaction to behavior that might shed disrespect on his ideal of the naval officer. We believe Cooper when he says that his initial reaction to the Somers affair was one of support for the officer in charge even ‘though that officer was Cooper’s literary enemy. His ensuing wrath is less an indulgence of personal enmity than an immediate realization of the effect Alexander Slidell Mackenzie’s action would have on the morale of the Navy. The Somers “muttiny” has often been held up as a major incentive for the founding of the U.S. Naval Academy, an institution that would radically alter the nature of naval education. But there was another, less well- known, naval incident that may have had more to do with precipitating the founding of the Academy, and once more Cooper was involved, if only tangentially.

All Cooper scholarship is a footnote to Beard, and it is to Beard’s own footnote that we turn to begin our inquiry. On July 21, 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, the famous American historian, replied to a number of queries by Cooper, and closed with this passage:

A recent event has given me much concern. A Naval Court- Martial has found one of its officers, a captain, guilty of scandalous conduct, & the specification is falsehood, and they have not dismissed him. Were you near me, I should take your advice as to the mode of relieving the navy from the disgrace of a sentence, which virtually declares immoral and dishonorable conduct to be no obstacle to a place of equality in rank, command & emolument with the captains of the Navy.

The captain in question was Philip Falkerson Voorhees, a hero of the War of 1812 who had been awarded a silver medal by Congress for his part in the capture of Epervier by Peacock. The falsehood was directed to no less a person than the secretary of the navy himself, so Bancroft’s vexation at the lenity of the court’s sentence is understandable. While he was near the Equator, it seems, the old captain had bragged to his lieutenant, David Dixon Porter, that he would sail straight to Annapolis (where his wife and influential in-laws awaited him) rather than to Norfolk as ordered. But he told Bancroft that he hadn’t decided to sail to Annapolis until the last minute, when wind and weather prevented getting into Norfolk.

In his note in Letters and Journals Beard reviews the courts martial (there were three, actually) that Voorhees underwent in the spring and summer of 1845. The first ran from June 2 to June 24, the second from June 24 to July 14. The first had to do with overzealous activity on the Brazil Station, where Voorhees single-handedly (and illegally, it turns out) captured an entire blockading squadron a blockade that had been respected by previous officers on the station, including Ned Shubrick, who was there in 1843. The second court martial considered the falsehood issue: its verdict reflects the dif ferences between the old-school naval officers and the implications of testimony from Porter, who would later become only the second Admiral in U.S. history and superintendent of the Naval Academy.

Bancroft’s letter to Cooper followed the verdict of the second court, and Cooper’s immediate response is recorded fully in Letters and Journals, V, 48-50. The key elements of Cooper’s advice follow:

  • [I]t is a wise and safe principle to say that the officer who can not be depended on, in his reports and statement of matters of public moment, is not worthy of holding a commission.
  • [F]alsehood, in an official act, is so obviously fatal to the confi dence indispensable to public trusts, that I think I should feel a disposition to protect the government. An officer whose statements are not true, might even involve the country in a war. You take his reports as the foundation of your own action.
  • I know nothing of the present facts, not even by rumour ... In some cases I might dismiss; in all, I would never think of employing the offender again.
  • Of all human offenses, lying is the most common. Many men lie, or seem to lie, because they are incapable of seeing the truth. It requires a clear head always to relate things as they happened, and, if I can guess the party implicated in this affair, he is a very weak man, though I never suspected him of being dishonourable. Exaggeration in discipline, in principles, in good, as well as bad, is apt to attend feebleness of mind, and sometimes exaggeration of facts.
  • This country has not a very high appreciation of abstract integrity.

Bancroft took Cooper’s response very seriously, and the influence of Cooper’s letter may underlie Bancroft’s charge of August 2 to the reconvened court. The charge is worth studying at length:

The sentence of the Court is inadequate to the grave charges of which you have found the accused to be guilty. I have therefore, agreeably to usage in such cases, reconvened the Court that its members may have the opportunity, more maturely and deliberately, to consider the nature of the offences that they have found to be proved, and the laws of the land and precedents which indicate the appropriate consequences of such offences. ... The charge is “Scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morals,” and the Specification is falsehood from a Captain in the Navy to the Secretary of the Navy. The object of the falsehood was to palliate and disguise a deliberately pre meditated disobedience of a positive order. I cannot but think it my duty to give the members of the Court an opportunity, on further reflexion, to [mark?] their deliberate opinion of “the very serious offense of making an untrue averment to a commanding officer, especially on a point which would govern his discretion” in ordering or declining to order a Court Martial, for the trial of the act of disobedience. Elevated rank should be no protection for moral delinquency. The higher the consequences the more obligation is the duty of exemplary conduct. ...

Whereas both earlier courts had sat at a hotel in Washington, the August court was ordered to reconvene on board the North Carolina at New York. From only August 5 to 8, the court reconsidered, and on August 9 rather bluntly recommended dismissal from the Navy. Bancroft concurred, but the President reduced the sentence, and subsequent lobbying by Voorhees was successful in restoring rank, command, and back pay. Those Annapolis relations included a close link by marriage to the up-and-coming Zachary Taylor, and by the time the new war hero became President in 1849, Voorhees had been fully restored to his position in the Navy. All of this was long after Cooper wrote to William Branford Shubrick on August 19, 1845: “When I wrote Mr. Bancroft, I knew nothing of the facts of Voorhees’ case. I now think there can not be two opinions about it. I am sorry for him, and for his wife, but what can be done?”

When President Polk appointed Bancroft in 1845, he explicitly directed him, in the words of biographer Russel Nye, to “rehabilitate the naval department.” At the same time the Voorhees case was being tried, Bancroft was engaged in nearly secret negotiations to establish a naval school perhaps such a school that cases like Voorhees’s would not need to come up. Voorhees, after all, may have been more dumb than dishonest, as Cooper hinted to Bancroft and suggested to Shubrick. “The aim of the academy,” Bancroft wrote to Commander Franklin Buchanan on August 7, “is to make midshipmen as distinguished for culture as they have been for gallant conduct.”

If naval officers were still to be held up as model American citizens, then the navy did need to be rehabilitated. On one front was a national assault on the gone-awry training mission of the Somers; on another was Bancroft’s covert establishment of the naval school under the impetus of a court martial which revealed the most fundamental flaws of naval character as it had too often come to be. On one of these fronts, Cooper was a major player. But although he was only a minor player on the other, Cooper’s few words to Bancroft in the summer of 1845 undoubtedly helped the Secretary not only to cope with a recalcitrant court and an obstinate Voorhees, but also helped shape his vision for the naval school that was to be.

After six years of very intense publishing of naval subjects, Cooper dropped the navy like a hot potato. There is more about natural aristocracy in the Littlepage Manuscripts than in Cooper’s only contemporary naval fiction, Jack Tier. There were no further volumes of Lives, and Cooper never bothered to complete the biography of Old Ironsides that he had called on Bancroft to help him with. Cooper didn’t even bother to respond to the publication of Mackenzie’s life of Decatur. Cooper tinkered with a third edition of the History of the Navy, but the navy was no longer the fixed center of Cooperian natural aristocracy. If the anti-romantic world of Jack Tier has been turned inside out, perhaps it is because the navy had become only a smudge on a distant horizon. In fact, the naval world of Jack Tier is as compromised and torn by party spirit as any other aspect of American society. And this work of fiction, rather than biography, history, or essay, represents Cooper’s last word on the American navy.

Works Cited

Among the literati gathered in the well-known print “Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside” are pictured three secretaries of the navy: James Kirke Paulding, John Pendleton Kennedy, and George Bancroft. Not without reason, firmly between Kennedy and Bancroft sits James Fenimore Cooper.

“Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside”. Felix Octavius Carr Darley, 1864. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Beginning with James Franklin Beard, Jr.’s The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, V (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), I looked at the pamphlets prepared by Voorhees and mentioned by Beard. I also looked at Plan and Regulations of the Naval School at Annapolis (Washington: C. Alexander, 1847), Russel B. Nye’s George Bancroft: Brahmin Rebel (New York: Knopf, 1944), and Louis Bolander’s (flattering) DAB entry on Voorhees. The heart of my research, however, lies in Court Martial 696 (June 2, 1845) and 697 (June 24, 1845, containing the reconvening of that August) recorded on microfilm M-273 at the National Archives. Voorhees was not unsuited to long- winded and far-fetched defenses of his acts; testimony and cross- examination were ample on both sides: the proceedings of these two courts martial takes up an entire reel. The lenient sentence of the second court martial was due, in part (according to the court itself) to their sympathy for the accused having gone through one grueling court martial already.