Battles of Rhetoric: Oratory and Identity in Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans
Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1997 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 9, August 1997.
Copyright © 1997, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
I’d like to begin my paper today by introducing two scenes, one from The Last of the Mohicans, and the other from Leslie Silko’s novel, Ceremony. I’ll argue that they share important topoi for discussing questions of racial authenticity and cultural hybridity. In Mohicans, Magua stands at the center of a Delaware tribe, condemning the in justices of the white man and asserting the virtues of the Indian. ¹ This tableau, like many others in Cooper, has often been cited as a prime example of Cooper’s stereotypical and romanticized view of Native Americans. To emphasize the savagery of his portrait, Cooper has Magua speak in French, the country responsible for the slaughter at Ft. William Henry. In Ceremony, when Tayo enters the hut of Betonie, the town medicine man, among the herbs and rattles he finds piles of old railroad calendars, stacks of newspapers and telephone books. In good English, the medicine man explains to him, “In the old days it was simple. A medicine man could get by without all these things. But nowadays ... ” Betonie then gestures toward the telephone books and concludes, “I brought back the books with all the names in them. Keeping track of things.” (121). Indians don’t have to act like “Indians” to be authentic.
This insight is particularly germane to the politics of racial separatism in The Last of the Mohicans. With the death of Cora and Uncas, the novel apparently retreats from a racial union, that, as Leslie Fiedler and many others have asserted, would have been unacceptable to Cooper’s audience. ² Furthermore, throughout the novel, Natty and Chingachgook lecture each other about the great differences between white men and Indians. But in the rhetoric of these characters’ declarations of purity, and the contradictions between their claims and substance, however, the novel actually describes the painful fusion of these cultures in debate. In Mohicans, whites and Indians share not only a separatist rhetoric but borrow philosophical and literary techniques from each other. As Alan MacGregor has shown in his history of the Tammany Society, by the time of Cooper’s novel, American political oratory had a long tradition of appropriating Native postures. And as I shall show, Native orators also borrowed white ideas and made them their own, too — both sides absorbing aspects of the cultures they opposed, and both sides waxing eloquent about their own purity. Cooper, ever mindful of the dangers of hypocrisy and demagoguery, portrays these ironies throughout Mohicans, laying bare the paradoxes of separatist political belief and attempting nonetheless to demonstrate the creation of social identity through public rhetoric. Turbulent and complicated, Mohicans is about linguistic battle as well as martial struggle. Cooper’s novel is not simply about the death of Uncas, but about what types of civic rhetoric will emerge from the contest of cultures in North America.
One of the perennial criticisms of the Leatherstocking Tales is the argument that Cooper presents his readers with idealized Indians. Although Cooper defended his novels on the grounds of his fidelity to his sources of Indian history, and later critics such as Albert Keiser and John T. Frederick have supported his claims, the question of Native verisimilitude often leads to unfortunately static concepts of human behavior. The problem of focusing exclusively on the narrow issue of whether Cooper’s characters speak like “real” Indians is that it denies Native-Americans the agency of manipulating their own language to suit the discursive needs of different occasions. As James Axtell has pointed out in his studies of Euro-Native contact in North America, one of the primary insights of the ethnohistorian is to recognize the mutual influence of colliding cultures. Cooper imitated the white historical records of Indian speech and “civilized” the sentiments of many of his Indians, as did many Indians themselves in an attempt to be understood by white listeners. For example, Dave Edmunds has suggested that Tecumseh and his brother learned the politics of religious enthusiasm by watching the progress of the Kentucky evangelists. Edmunds also points out Tecumseh’s appropriation of European concepts of land ownership, which functioned as a means of communicating with whites, and which was also a significant departure from traditional Native beliefs about real estate.
Although Roy Harvey Pearce has deftly summarized the scope of Cooper’s Indian portraits within a field of “noble” and “ignoble savagery,” Cooper’s Indians in The Last of the Mohicans are not always savages, any more than his whites always behave in civilized fashion. Rather, Cooper is often attracted to moments of indeterminacy (Patterson; Rans; Robinson). Cooper’s historical sources for the linguistic habits of his characters often reflect this indeterminacy as well: for example, in one of Magua’s speeches, Cooper quotes from Wingenund’s famous speech to Captain Crawford that he must die in revenge for his part in the massacre of Moravian Indians on the Sandusky river in 1782. In Heckewelder’s text, this scene demonstrates the tensions and challenges of intercultural communica tion: Wingenund translates a form of Indian justice, which he knows is incomprehensible to Crawford, into a language and a terminology that a European Other can understand. Wingenund’s speech is particularly moving because it is evident he shows sympathy for Crawford’s plight but he is unable to change his tribe’s decision. Although Magua shows little sympathy for his own captives (undeniably looming as the locus classicus of ignoble savagery), Magua’s rationale for their murder is an intriguing parallel of the white juridical procedure responsible for his own flogging at the hands of Munro. While Magua’s travesty of justice under mines the very principles he invokes, his speech echoes with both the historical precedent of Wingenund and, simultaneously, with the arguments of white demagoguery: Magua is no simple ignoble savage.
Similarly, Magua’s speech on the three types of man, the scene which I introduced at the beginning of this paper, is remarkable not only for the way it mirrors the beliefs of some white racists of the time but for the way Magua seeks to situate Native identity through public language. Magua’s nativist speech to the Lenape concerning racial difference also resembles the separatist philosophies of several prominent Indian spokespersons of Cooper’s day. Describing the separate creation of the Indians and the whites, a notion current in Native American discourse from the middle of the eighteenth century on (Dowd 312), Magua employs the creationist rhetoric many Indians came to use as a means of distancing themselves from white culture, particularly concerning matters of religion. Magua identifies three types of men made by the same great Spirit and accords each a separate place and temperament: The blacks are designated to work in the south as slaves. The whites, Magua continues, are designated by the Spirit to be “traders, dogs to their women, and wolves to their slaves. [. ... ] His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough and yet he wants it all. Such are the pale faces” (319). Magua’s account is clear: white men have been molded in the ways of greed and vice, and the Indians live in pastoral harmony with nature, not eating more than the land will provide: “They were brave; they were just; they were happy.” Although Magua crafts his narrative to earn the appreciation of his listeners by putting the Delaware at the apogee of human creation, his insistence that the Indians live by a code of justice which the whites are unable to respect is both historically accurate and a reflection of the same discourse used by Indian-haters like Lewis Cass.
One of the sources Cooper seems to have drawn upon for Magua’s speech was Petalesharo’s address to President Munroe in 1822 (Rindo). Cooper reminds us in Notions that he had met Petalesharo during his east coast tour and had spent some time with the orator (2.277-88). The speech, republished by James Buchanan prior to the writing of Mohicans, illustrates Petalesharo’s separatist belief that
the Great Spirit made us all — he made my skin red, and yours white; he placed us on earth and intended that we should live differently from each other. He made the whites to cultivate the earth, and feed on domestic animals; but he made us, redskins, to rove through the uncultivated woods and plains; to feed on wild animals; and to dress with their skins. He also intended that we should go to war — to take scalps — steal horses from and triumph over our enemies — cultivate peace at home, and promote the happiness of each other. [ ... ] We worship him, but we worship him not as you do. We differ from you in appearance and manners as well as in our customs, and we differ from you in our religion. (39) ³
Although less critical of whites than Magua, Petalesharo insists on the incommensurable value systems of whites and Indians. His translators emphasize this point by italicizing his determination to “steal horses” in appropriate circumstances. Highly aware of how his speech and appearance in Washington might be understood, Petalesharo concludes his speech by asking that several tokens of his visit, including a bear claw, be put on display as a record of his visit. They may not mean much to most Americans, Petalesharo declares, but they will mean much to his descendants who will see them in Washington.
Petalesharo’s remarks have a dual effect. On one level, Petalesharo firmly maintains a sense of cultural difference: he points out their different lifestyles, and different systems of justice. The difference, however, is not so great that he completely alienates himself from the culture he is addressing, invoking freedom of religion as if it were a right, rather than a question of force. In fact, he is careful to pay tribute to the standards of the culture he is addressing and he expects his descendants will be rewarded by his diplomacy and have the opportunity to see the records of his visit. The result is a curious negotiation where the politics of separatism get worked out rhetorically in reference to systems of shared, or at least mutually recognizable, beliefs.
Another orator who likely influenced Cooper’s exposition of the rhetoric of separatism was Red Jacket, the famous Seneca from New York State. Cooper would have been familiar with Red Jacket not only through published accounts of his prominent speeches, but because Red Jacket was a leading opponent of the lucrative Robert Morris/Holland Land Company sale in upstate New York (1797), a several million acre tract which Cooper’s father had unsuccessfully tried to secure during the 1790’s (Taylor 114; Stone 237). In 1805, after an inconsistent political record, Red Jacket converted to a strict Indian racialism which opposed landsales, intermarriage, drinking, English speech, and Christianity. ⁴
Red Jacket’s conduct during the Morris sale, which the Coopers must have watched carefully, is particularly illustrative off his rhetorical and political styles. Even though Red Jacket often went on record as a contentious opponent of white encroachment, he occasionally undermined what he said publicly in private negotiation, and took a highly pragmatic strategy advocating Indian rights. After Morris’s initial proposal, Red Jacket declared that they were unconvinced that they should sell their lands at any price, the reason being that although the land was wild, its possession gave great stature to his people:
It raises us in our own estimation. It creates in our bosoms a proud feeling which elevates us as a nation. Observe the difference between the estimation in which a Seneca and an Oneida are held. We are courted while the Oneidas are considered a degraded people, fit only to make brooms and baskets. Why this difference? It is because the Senecas are known as the proprietors of a broad domain, while the Oneidas are cooped up in a narrow space. (Stone 240) ⁵
Red Jacket then abruptly ended the negotiation. At night, however, he went privately to Morris and told him that he had no objections to selling the land, but it was politically inexpedient for him to say so — he wanted Cornplanter to take all the blame. Red Jacket also refused to sign the treaty, but asked Morris to leave a space at the bottom for him to sign it later, so that when Washington signed it, he would see Red Jacket’s name near his own and understand what an important Seneca leader he was (244-50).
Red Jacket’s equivocal and intemperate behavior was common knowledge when Cooper was writing The Last of the Mohicans: Red Jacket was a troublesome orator who didn’t necessarily mean what he said. Cooper draws on this paradox in The Last of the Mohicans. Natty Bumppo pauses at many points in the novel to insist on the fundamental differences in “natur” of the white men and red. He repeatedly identifies himself as “a man with no cross,” which most readers have taken to mean a man “of the whole blood of the whites” (75). But Natty’s claims to purity are inconsistent: he prefers the oral culture of the Indians and yet he claims to be more white than red; he often abjures white civilization for the company of Chingachgook; he lives like an Indian hunter and though he disdains scalping, he has absorbed many of the habits of an Indian brave. Similarly, Chingachgook insists on the “unmixed blood” of Indian chiefs in his own veins but his claims are undermined by the fact that his fate has already been scripted in The Pioneers: he becomes a Christian (and heavy drinking) convert. Then, during his last moments in The Pioneers, he starts singing a Delaware death song. Both these protagonists’ claims to a “separate” race are confusing.
The question of identity is a central one in Mohicans, and one of the most important myths which Cooper takes from Heckewelder foregrounds the relationship of identity to public rhetoric: the “transformation” of the Delaware into women at the hands of the Iroquois. ⁶ The feminization myth is important because it illustrates the way in which identity was portrayed in Native myth as a rhetorical construct. As Heckewelder tells it, the story is a classic example of the high art of Indian politics, which valued the hermeneutic ingenuity of both speaker and auditor. In his chapter on Indian politics, Heckewelder reports that tribes often sent complex messages to each other as a matter of literary and political pride. In terms of the feminization story, the Iroquois proved more skillful poets than the Delaware. Cooper’s interest in this Native hermeneutics of identity asks us to consider the ways in which public rhetoric shapes Native identity, and, by extension, the way it shapes both white and Native presences in his novel.
As Kenneth Burke has remarked, the rhetoric of dispute can take place in antagonistic or amorous modes. In my discussions of Magua, I have attempted to show how his antagonistic relation ship with whites ironically reveals aspects of mutual influence. Similarly, Uncas and Chingachgook speak to the Iroquois as enemies, but they speak to Natty in the rhetoric of courtship. In the section where Natty, Chingachgook and Uncas decide on whether to chase Magua by land water, their ability to negotiate verbally sets the heroes apart from their rigidly racist peers. Natty is truly persuasive only when he sheds the “cold and artificial manner which characterizes all classes of Anglo- Americans” and dons the physical and metaphoric eloquence of an Indian. The bond generated between these men through rhetoric is an explicitly optimistic model of a collaborative politics and a portrait of the limitations of racial separatism:
In short, Uncas and his father became converts to his way of thinking, abandoning their own previously expressed opinions with a liberality and a candor that, had they been the representatives of some great and civilized people, would have infallibly worked their political ruin, by destroying, forever, their reputation for consistency. (208)
Although it is Natty’s “white” reason which prevails, it would be a mistake to discount Chingachgook and Uncas’s conversion as an abandonment of Indian principle. Without the service of sophisticated Indian rhetoric or a non- “civilized” code of argumentative conduct, there would be little chance for consensus. Both the Indian and white culture mutually contribute their talents to this decision.
The most controversial aspect of Mohicans is the way in which it seems to prophesy a fatalistic demise of native culture — Uncas, the “last” of the Mohican line is dead and Tamenund, the grandfatherly representative of Indian tradition, apparently abdicates the continent to the advancing whites. As many scholars have remarked, Tamenund’s words evoke the myth of Logan, whose pathos-ridden final testament was widely broadcast as the finest example of Indian oratory ever recorded. After the murder of his wife and children, Logan supposedly declared,
There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called upon me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance: For my country I rejoice at the beams of peace. But I do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn Logan? No one. (Sandefur 291)
The fatalistic melancholy of Logan’s speech presides over The Last of the Mohicans. As Eric Seeber has docu mented, the authenticity of Logan’s speech is highly suspicious. Its Biblical overtones suggest it was created in part, if not wholly, by the imaginations of Logan’s Anglo translators, if indeed he ever spoke anything resembling this speech at all. But rather than seeing this only as an example of cultural imperialism (which indeed it is), it is also a record of the rhetoric generated by two cultures in collision. Corruptions of the white man included, Logan’s speech nonetheless set the pattern for many “authentic” speeches given by defeated chieftains during the nineteenth century, such as Black Hawk, Seattle, and Chief Joseph (Vanderwerth). In these speeches we hear resonances of both Indian and white presence: what we hear is a struggle. Although Tamenund’s resignation in the concluding lines of Cooper’s novel, “Why should Tamenund stay? The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the redman has not yet come again. My day has been too long,” is an accurately pessimistic declaration of sentiments then current in both Native and white discourse, it leaves the future open. The removal and disintegration of Native tribes at the hands of the U.S. government is a matter of record. I would submit that Cooper’s achievement in Mohicans is a record of the mutual influence of these cultures on each other, respecting their differences, but also an attempt to recognize a discourse that they can share.
- Axtell, James. The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Beard, James Franklin. Intro. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Ed. James A. Sappenfield and E.N. Feltskog. Albany: SUNY University Press, 1983.
- Buchanan, James. Sketches of the North American Indians. London: Black, Young and Young, 1824.
- Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. 
- Cass, Lewis. Rev. of Hunter and Halkett. North American Review 22 (Jan 1826): 53-119.
- ------. Rev. of Schoolcraft and Rawle. North American Review 26 (Apr 1828): 357-403.
- Cheyfitz, Eric. “Literally White, Figuratively Red: The Frontier of Translation in The Pioneers.” James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Clark. London: Vision Press, 1985. 55-95.
- Clark, Robert. History and Myth in American Fiction, 1823-52. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. New York: Bantam, 1981. 
- ------. Notions of the Americans Picked Up by a Traveling Bachelor. Ed. Robert Spiller. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1963.
- Dowd, Gregory. “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Age of Pontiac and Tecumseh.” American Indian Quarterly 16.3 (Summer 1992): 309-337.
- Edmunds, R. David. “Tecumseh, The Shawnee Prophet, and American History: A Reassessment.” Western Historical Quarterly 14.3 (July 1983): 261-276.
- ------. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: Little Brown, 1984.
- Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Anchor, 1992 
- Fisher, Philip. Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
- Frederick, John T. “Cooper’s Eloquent Indians.” PMLA 71 (1956): 1004-17.
- Heckewelder, John. History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations. New York: Arno, 1971. 
- Keiser, Albert. The Indian in American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933.
- MacGregor, Alan Leander. “Tammany: The Indian as Rhetorical Surrogate.” American Quarterly 35.4 (Fall 1983): 391- 407.
- Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
- Patterson, Mark. Authority, Autonomy and Representation in American Literature, 1776-1865. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
- Pearce, Roy Harvey. Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. .
- Philbrick, Thomas. ” The Last of the Mohicans and the Sounds of Discord.” American Literature 43.1 (1971): 25-41.
- Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
- Rindo, Ronald J. Paper on Oratory and Frontier Fiction. MLA Conference, Toronto, 1993.
- Robinson, Forrest G. “Uncertain Borders: Race, Sex and Civilization in The Last of the Mohicans.” Arizona Quarterly 47.1 (1991): 1-28.
- Sandefur, Ray, H. “Logan’s Oration — How Authentic?” Quarterly Journal of Speech (October 1960): 289-296.
- Seeber, E.D. “Critical Views of Logan’s Speech.” Journal of American Folklore 60 (1947): 130-46.
- Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, 1977. Stockton, Edwin L. Jr. “The Influence of the Moravians Upon the Leather-Stocking Tales.” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 20 (1964): 1-185.
- Stone, William Leete. The Life and Times of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket. Albany: J. Munsell, 1866 . Taylor, Alan. William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Knopf, 1995.
- Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Vanderwerth, W.C. Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chieftains. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.
- Wallace, James D. “Race and Captivity in Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.” American Literary History 7.2 (1995): 189-209.
1. With some misgivings, I’ll use Native, Native-American, and Indian interchangeably.
2. See also Philip Fisher and Jane Tompkins. See James Wallace and Forrest Robinson for alternative interpretations of Cooper’s views on amalgamation.
4. Red Jacket’s conversion seems to have been prompted by the introduction of a disagreeable missionary among the Senecas, named Cram. Red Jacket’s reply to Cram, composed after two hours of deliberation with his peers, is re-published in the preface of the SUNY Albany edition of Mohicans. The full exchange appears in William Leete Stone’s The Life and Times of Red Jacket (272-9). After their meeting, the Seneca tried to shake hands, but Cram withheld his hand, saying “no fellowship between the religion of God and the devil” (Stone, 277). Red Jacket later punned on Cram’s name by declaring “Not content with the wrongs the white men had done to this people, they were not seeking to Cram their doctrines down [our] throats” (279). Red Jacket often spoke boldly and contentiously, sometimes earning the censure of his peers for his indiscretion, but his vivacious style comes through nearly all the translations of his speeches. Stone’s book, like all his Indian histories, self-consciously includes as many primary records of Indian orations as possible, and is the best anthology of Red Jacket’s oratory in existence. As his son declares in the preface to the 1866 edition of The Life and Times of Red Jacket, Stone’s hope was that future generations of historians would need facts, not just interpretations.
Red Jacket’s political inconsistencies prior to 1805 were significant. Although his speech in 1784 at Ft. Stanwix argued that any further treaty negotiations should embrace the Indian tribes as a whole, and that no single tribe should sell land without the approval of all, Red Jacket later did sign over 999-year leases too nearly 6,000,000 acres of land to American investors in 1788 (Stone 136-7). The price was a $5000 down payment, and $500 a year rent.
5. Red Jacket’s characteristically blunt style is clearly evident in this passage. His skill as a speaker was rooted primarily in his ability to say frankly what others would not—when Morris’s former business associates (Col. Ogden and Miller) later tried to buy the Seneca reservation itself in 1816, Red Jacket replied that President Madison must have been “disordered in his mind when he offered to lead us off by arms to the Allegheny reservation” and “should Ogden come down from heaven with life and with flesh on his bones, and to tell us that he had a title for these lands, then we might believe him” (Stone 371-4). By 1827, 26 chiefs met to depose Red Jacket for the contentiousness he brought to negotiations, but even until his death, Red Jacket continued to speak forcefully. After a visit to Washington in 1829 to meet Andrew Jackson, he was advertised to give a speech in Albany. Everyone expected it would be an Indian panegyric upon the President. Instead, he launched a prolonged anti-Jackson tirade composed of unfavorable juxtapositions of Jackson and Washington (448).
6. Robert Clark’s History and Myth in American Fiction argues that Cooper suppressed the real history of the Delaware and Iroquois, and substituted the feminization myth to validate his writing and his family’s land claims. Clark’s reading is persuasive in biographical terms but it does not explain other consequences the myth produces in the fiction. As Stockdon argues at length, Heckewelder never claimed the myth was historical fact: it was a traditional story. And as a story, it provides an intriguing framework for understanding the transformational effects of rhetoric in Cooper’s novel.