“A Bold Stroke against the Wilderness”: Wyandotté and Cooper’s Critique of the Jeffersonian Ideology of Domestic Production

James J. Schramer (Youngstown State University)

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

Copyright © 1995, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

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

Among my motivations for writing this paper were remarks from a couple of graduate students who told me that they had thought about signing up for my seminar in Early American Literature, but had decided against it because I had listed James Fenimore Cooper on my syllabus. Sadly, colleagues had told them that Cooper was a boring, canonical figure with little to offer young scholars interested in exploring the literary battlegrounds of class conflict, and post-colonialism. The few students in the course who had heard of Cooper had definite opinions about his writings, opinions formed, for the most part, by reading or hearing about Mark Twain’s cranky critique of Cooper’s “Literary Offenses.”

Cooper’s writings were, I thought, going to be a hard sell. Happily, on my syllabus I had paired Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823) with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Although my students disagreed with some of Jefferson’s ideas, especially his enumeration of the reasons why black slaves, if emancipated, could never be integrated within a white community, they agreed with his preference for an agrarian America. That they were studying at a university located in a community still undergoing painful recovery after seeing its steel industry depart, leaving behind the scars of years of heavy industry, may have accounted for their receptivity to Jefferson’s pastoral vision of America. Whatever the reasons for their conclusions, they clearly favor ed Jefferson’s pastoral vision over the views of those who favored manufacturing.

Jefferson’s clearest statement of the America he envisioned is found in his reply to Query XIX about “the present state of manufactures, commerce, interior, and exterior trade.” Jefferson answers that the people of Virginia, and by extension America, prefer to produce the raw material and to buy the finished goods from Europe rather than manufacturing those goods themselves. In Europe, where “lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator” manufacturing is necessary; its nations have “of necessity,” embraced manufacturing “to support the surplus of their people” (157). Jefferson contends that America does not have to look to manufacturing because there is “an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman” (157).

Annette Kolodny argues that Jefferson goes so far in the above passage as to suggest “an almost erotic intimacy in the bond of man and soil” (Kolodny 27). We cannot be sure about Jefferson’s implying an erotic union between farmers and the land, but he clearly felt that the choice between agriculture and manufacturing was a moral as well as an economic decision. His pastoral vision of a nation of self-sufficient farmers secularizes the theological covenant of Puritan New England. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if He ever had a chosen people, whose breasts He made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue” (157). Convinced that farmers cultivate a nation’s soul as well as its soil, he claims that history offers no examples of the “mass of cultivators” being morally corrupt (157). An ample supply of distributable, arable land ensures that people can be self-sufficient, and self-sufficiency is the true gauge of a nation’s moral health. So long as America has surplus land, Jefferson writes, “let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench or twirling a distaff” (157-58). He prefers that America transport raw material to Europe rather than importing manufacturing and the attendant evils of urban life. The body politic can remain healthy, only if it avoids the contagion of cities. “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body” (158).

The obverse of Jefferson’s pastoral vision was what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has called the “industrial vision of the American future” (The Age of Jackson, 7). In his Report on Manufactures, Alexander Hamilton became the spokesperson for this view of America. Schlesinger sees Hamilton as forging the first of many alliances between government and business.

Astutely conceding to the Jefferson dream that agriculture has “intrinsically a strong claim to pre-eminence over every other kind of industry” Hamilton proposed to show that its real interests “will be advanced, rather than injured by, the due encouragement of manufactures.” (7)

My students knew that Hamilton’s vision had prevailed but, as late twentieth-century Americans contemplating their country from within the “rust belt,” they felt that Hamilton’s “industrial vision” of the future had been horribly shortsighted. Clearly, they preferred Jefferson’s vision of a pastoral landscape dotted with small, neat farms to the industrial landscape that they felt was the Hamiltonian legacy. It was at this point in their debate with America that we began reading and discussing Cooper’s The Pioneers and Wyandotté.

It is clear from Cooper’s correspondence that he had long been thinking about Thomas Jefferson and his vision of America. In 1817, writing as corresponding secretary of the Otsego County Agricultural Society, Cooper enjoined the freeholders of the county to act together for the improvement of agriculture. “Most of you have been able to witness the good produced by one neat, judicious and economical farmer in a neighborhood; what may we not expect from a combination of such men” (Letters, I, 37). He would have found a ready model for his advocacy of agricultural innovation in Jefferson’s lifelong interest in improving American agriculture.

Among Cooper’s earliest direct references to Jefferson is in an 1823 letter to Charles Kitchel Gardner in which he recounts his changing views of the man. Writing about his impressions of Thomas Sully’s portrait of Jefferson, Cooper recalls that he was “brought up in that school where his [Jefferson’s] image seldom appeared, unless it was clad in red breeches, and where it was always associated with the idea of infidelity and political heresy” (Letters, I, 95). When he views Sully’s portrait, he sees a different Jefferson from the radical version of his youth. “In short, I saw nothing but Jefferson, standing before me, not in red breeches and slovenly attire, but a gentleman, appearing in all republican simplicity ... ” (Letters, I, 96).

That his admiration for Jefferson grew with the years is evident from his remarks in an 1830 letter from Rome to Charles Wilkes in which he asks Wilkes what he thinks of Jefferson’s letters, which had been published in 1829. “Have we not had a false idea of the man? I own he begins to appear to me, to be the greatest man, we ever had” (Letters, I, 411). Evidence that Cooper had long been thinking about the ideological differences between Hamilton and Jefferson is found in an 1831 letter to Wilkes. Reflecting on what he was learning from his European travels, Cooper imagines how a first-hand experience of European institutions would have moderated Hamilton’s monarchist views; he then observes that Jefferson’s stay in Europe had confirmed him in the opinion that “simpler forms” fit Americans better than the “perverted” ceremonialism of European conduct (Franklin, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper, 34-35).

Certainly, Cooper’s view of Jefferson changed greatly from his early conception (influenced by his father’s dislike for the man) of Jefferson as a Jacobin to an appreciative understanding of Jefferson’s role in shaping America. Despite his developing admiration for Jefferson, Cooper was too much the moral realist to accept uncritically Jefferson’s equation between cultivating the soil and cultivating morality. In his third novel, The Pioneers (1823), written less than 40 years after Jefferson’s Notes, Cooper begins to test the limits of Jefferson’s agrarian dream.

Cooper sets his tale in the early years of the Republic (1793). Looking back on the ten years preceding the opening of his story, Cooper reminds his readers that “Only forty years have passed since this territory was wilderness” (16). Throughout the novel, Cooper takes full advantage of the narrative perspective that his backward glance affords him. In the first chapter of The Pioneers (1823), Cooper remarks on the rapid filling in of the wilderness in New York. Between 1783 and 1823, he observes, “the population has spread itself over five degrees of latitude and seven of longitude, and has swelled to a million and a half inhabitants ... ” (16). In the 1832 edition, he added a footnote observing that “The population of New York is now (1831) quite 2,000,000” (n., 16). Returning to the New York of 1793, Cooper assures us that this burgeoning population “can look forward to ages before the evil day must arrive, when their possessions shall become unequal to their wants” (16).

Cooper’s narrative perspective, his introduction of current population figures, the syntax of his sentence: all suggest that this optimistic forecast will be short-lived. Clearly, Cooper sees an end to the American dream of a land of plenty. The “evil day” when Americans’ “possessions shall become unequal to their wants” must arrive; there is no conditionality here; it is not a question of if but of when. The prodigality of the citizens of Templeton will hasten the arrival of that “evil day.” Hardwoods and sugar maples are burned as fireplace fuel; flights of pigeons are slaughtered as they fly over the valley; shoals of bass are dredged from the lake with seine nets. As for the morality that a nation of cultivators will ensure, the actions of Richard Jones, Hiram Doolittle, Billy Kirby and the other dreamers, schemers, exploiters, and despoil ers who populate this frontier Arcadia suggest that Mammon has driven morality from the confines of Templeton.

Richard Godden, in his recent analysis of The Pioneers, sees the novel as Cooper’s working out of the tensions between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian views within Jacksonian America.

Cooper must have been fully aware of the polarities within a continuing political argument whose goal was the definition of Repub lican Virtue. For Jefferson the key had been the soil. ... However, the independent husbandman was, for Hamilton, an image of stagnation; only the introduction of a European style political economy could halt the farmer’s regression from an agrarian stage of culture to an earlier and more primitive phase associated with the Indian and the hunter. Jefferson’s husbandman and Hamilton’s manufacturer pass though various incarnations before achieving their Jacksonian form as the ‘people’ and the ‘speculator.’ (123)

Godden suggests that Cooper recognized what the Jeffersonian Republicans could not admit about themselves: that they “wanted what the Federalists were offering, but they wanted it faster, and they did not want to admit that they wanted it at all.” 1

If The Pioneers (1823) reflects Cooper’s concern about what we would now refer to as American ecology, Wyandotté (1843) reflects his concerns about American democracy. “One of the misfortunes of a nation,” Cooper wrote in his Preface to Wyandotté, “is to hear little besides its own praises” (3). He might have added that one of the misfortunes of authorship is to write to a nation that wants to read little but its own praises. Contemporary reviews of the novel attacked Cooper’s depreciation of patriotism. In an eerie foreshadowing of twentieth- century McCarthyism, The Southern Literary Messenger (November 1843) advocated exile for the author: “Away with the author of any kind, who, in any way, would intimate to us, that we are too proud of our Country.” 2

If Cooper, still smarting from criticism in the Whig press directed at Home as Found (1838), hoped to curry fav writing a novel based on the Revolution, he could not have written a work less inclined to do so. In Wyandotté he openly questioned the motives of self-serving patriots. “That there were demagogues in 1776, is as certain as that there are demagogues in 1843, and will probably continue to be demagogues as long as means for misleading the common mind shall exist” (3). What had happened in Cooper’s life and the life of the nation in the twenty years between The Pioneers with its forecast of material scarcity and Wyandotté with its suggestion of moral bankruptcy?

Perhaps it was the political and moral climate of his own day that moved Cooper to critique the sanctified iconology of the Revolution and question the stability of the republic. As George Dekker and Larry Johnston have shown in their introduction to Cooper’s The American Democrat, during his seven years residence in Europe, Cooper had turned from his father’s conservatism toward Jeffersonian liberalism. During this time, he was also, however, protected from the realities of American social and class conflicts (24-26). Dekker and Johnston recount Cooper’s growing disillusionment with democracy after his return to America from Europe. In brief, Cooper returned to an America where private property as represented by the holdings of men such as Cooper’s father had been in real life or Judge Temple in a fictional world was coming under increasing scrutiny and attack. Although, as Dekker and Johnston point out, the dispute over public or private use of Three Mile Point on Lake Otsego was “trivial, unfortunate, foolish on both sides” (27), Cooper came under increasing attack from the Whig press during the late 1830s.

In the late spring of 1843, as Cooper hurriedly readied Wyandotté for publication, America was going through one of its periodic flirtations with chauvinism. Three years earlier, voters had chosen William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe, as their President. In June of 1843, John Tyler (who had become President when Harrison died in office in 1841) and Daniel Webster were to dedicate the Bunker Hill monument. The nation was in a self-congratulatory mood, scarcely the political climate in which to launch a novel that critiqued both the Revolution and frontier democracy.

In Wyandotté Cooper puts Jefferson’s theories about the moral probity and innate democracy of the frontier yeoman to the test. The people who accompany Captain Willoughby’s party to the hutted knoll represent the various races and ethnic groups of colonial America. Cooper sets the action for this novel in the period leading up to the Revolution to demonstrate that democracy contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. He also wants to show that once the wilderness is converted for use as cultivated land, it and the people on it are no longer controlled exclusively by the cyclical forces of nature; they have become subject to the linear forces of progress and history.

There is no easy answer in Cooper, no escape from the burden of the past, no neutral ground. Captain Willoughby is destroyed as much by his pride and his disregard for the natural order of the wilderness as he is by Joel Stride’s machinations. No sooner does he arrive at his 7,092 acres of wilderness utopia, than he begins considering how he can change the features of the land to suit his needs. “[T]he Captain meditated a bold stroke against the wilderness, by draining the pond, and coming at once into the possession of a noble farm, cleared of trees and stumps by a coup de main“ (13).

Willoughby, the would-be Jeffersonian agriculturalist, wants to put the land beneath the pond to use. The only objection to this scheme comes from the millwright, a mechanic and proto-Hamiltonian industrialist, who wants to use the falls spilling from the narrowest edge of the pond to power his mill. He is overruled, “A pond of four hundred acres being too great a luxury for the region” (14). The effects of Willoughby’s “bold stroke” are immediately perceived. The pond is gone; in its place is a dreary expanse of mud and slime. “The change to the eye was melancholy, indeed; though the prospect was cheering to the agriculturalist” (14). Once the mud has dried, and the land been tilled and planted, the landscape begins to assume a gentler aspect. By autumn, the desolation of spring has been forgotten as the Captain and his workmen bring in a good harvest.

Although Willoughby’s action has transformed the wilderness into a pastoral setting, he has, through his violence against the wilderness, set in motion a chain of events that will eventually destroy him and the society he hopes to build. He has exposed himself and his family to attack by destroying the defensive security that the pond, with its island stronghold had afforded. He has also, by the ease with which he has cleared his land and “improved” it, sown the seeds of class envy in the hearts of men like Joel Strides who will turn the coming revolution into an opportunity to seize his lands.

One of a number of Cooper’s Yankee opportunists (Hiram Doolittle in The Pioneers is another example), Joel Strides and his appetite for land and power are as much products of the abundance of land as is Willoughby’s ill-fated dream of carving out a wilderness retreat from the forces of history. Just as Willoughby takes his “bold stroke against the wilderness” by breaking down the beaver dam, so Strides launches his attack against frontier aristocracy by pulling out the wedges holding up the unhung hinges of the fort’s gates. The gates fall in and the rebels rush the stronghold. The resulting melee ends with Colonel Beekman’s arrival and the restoration of revolutionary authority. Beekman, however, arrives too late to prevent disaster. Among the dead are Captain Willoughby, who has been stabbed by Saucy Nick (Wyandotté), and Daniel, the miller who had objected to the original plan to destroy the beaver dam. The Jeffersonian agrarian and the Hamiltonian manufacturer have each been destroyed. Strides, who prefigures the post-Jacksonian hybrid that will eventually emerge from the struggle between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian visions of America, flees the field. But his is out there, on the margins of the frontier, waiting to claim his share of the spoils.

Works Cited

  • Beard, James Franklin. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. vol. I. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale. 1823. New York: Penguin, 1988.
  • ------. Wyandotté, or the Hutted Knoll. A Tale. 1843. Eds. Thomas and Marianne Philbrick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
  • Dekker, George and Larry Johnston. Introduction to James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat. 1838. New York: Penguin, 1989. Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Godden, Richard. “Pioneer Properties, or ‘What’s in a Hut?’” in James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Clark. London: Vision Press, 1985: 121-43.
  • Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. 1785. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964.
  • Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. 1945. New York: New American Library, 1960.


1 See J. Zvespter, Political Philosophy and Rhetoric (Cambridge, 1977), 131. Cited in Godden, n.5, 140.

2 See Thomas and Marianne Philbrick, “Historical Introduction,” to Wyandotté, xxv.