Cooper on Corporal Punishment

James D. Wallace (Boston College)

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 should explain at the outset that I am interested in Cooper’s representations of corporal punishment because of the crucial role flogging plays in Satanstoe (1845). In that novel, Corny Littlepage’s personal slave, Jaap, captures Musquerusque, a Huron, at the battle of Fort Ticonderoga. His owner orders Jaap to release the prisoner, and Jaap reluctantly does so, but first, as an assertion of his own “mastery,” he beats the Indian. Susquesus, the “good Indian” of this novel, warns Jaap, “Black-man 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.” Moreover, Jaap reveals that Corny beats him, and Jaap is only serving Muss as he has been served himself: “When he flog me, who ebber hear me grumble?” (345). The rest of the action, however, bears out Susquesus’ warning. The humiliated Musquerusque rallies his warriors and leads an attack that kills a great many more British troops, including Guert Ten Eyck, Corny’s best friend and spiritual double. The flogging that was justifiable — Corny’s beating Jaap is legally and ethically correct, according to the laws and customs of Dutch and English New York — leads directly to the flogging that is a horrible mistake. The broader implications of the catastrophe of Satanstoe is that slavery and the violence of the master-slave relation is the source of a still deadlier violence in the history of American culture.

In his seminal essay on corporal punishment, “Sparing the Rod,” Richard Brodhead lists the ways we could think about nineteenth- century representations of whipping:

We could analyze the particular contours that these picturings give to their subject — could note how they foreground the embod iedness 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 the dramatization of his powerlessness; or the erotics of authoritarianism that whipping both excites and discharges (141-42).

But none of these methodological sophistications or textual subtleties are necessary, Brodhead adds, in order for us to know what whipping means in nineteenth-century texts: “whipping means slavery. It emblematizes both an actual practice and the whole structure of relations that identify Southern slavery as a system” (142). Brodhead’s generalization is emphatically confirmed in the crucial scene of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. As the irascible captain of the Pilgrim wrestles with the unfortunate Sam, he cries out:

“Answer my question, or I’ll make a spread eagle of you! I’ll flog you, by G-d.” “I’m no negro slave,” said Sam. “Then I’ll make one of you,” said the captain ... (83).

If the scene of the flogging “always already” implicates the tormentor and his or her victim in “the whole structure of relations” of slavery, then flogging in non-slave narratives will always signify more than its immediate context will allow — a kind of narrative excess. This observation certainly applies to the writings of Cooper, where the representation of corporal punishment enters into the debate over “the rule of law” that can be called one of his obsessive themes. In fact, Cooper’s representations of whipping constitute a sort of latent history of the effects of slavery on culture in the United States — a critique of the very system of social privilege, legal authority, and ossified custom that Cooper is often accused of endorsing. I have in mind here the kind of reading given Cooper’s works in, for instance, Charles Hansford Adams’ “The Guardian of the Law”: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper, where we are told that Cooper’s “deepest imaginative psychic need” is order: “At the center of Cooper’s moral vision is a desire for order, a need to believe that there is a law pervading and binding all levels of life” (23).

My own view is that Cooper’s writings are more honest and therefore more conflicted and self-contradictory than Adams’ account allows. Indeed, Cooper’s works accurately represent the profound cultural divisions of the nation whose history he labored to chronicle. My intention here is to show how representations of the “scene of whipping” expose the effect of slavery on American cultural practices. I want first to examine the contradictions in Cooper’s own position on corporal punishment as a weapon of enforcement and then to focus on an autobiographical essay from 1831, “The Eclipse,” for its representation of the wider meaning of flogging.

In October, 1841, James Fenimore Cooper wrote to an old acquaintance, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., to acknowledge receiving a copy of Dana’s son’s new book, Two Years Before the Mast. This was more than a year after the book’s publication, but Harper and Brothers had just gotten around to presenting Cooper with the copy Dana, Sr. had requested they send him. Cooper explained the delay and then added this note:

The book has been known to me, since its appearance, and, I do not know whether your son will be inclined to take it as a compliment or not, it was first introduced to me by a question from Jos. R. Ingersoll, who wished to know if Dana were not a nom de guerre I had taken to write a sea narrative. He did not suppose the book fiction, but truth barbecued a little. The work has at once put the youngster down in the midst of us where he will probably remain long after we are gone. (Letters and Journals, IV, 181)

This pleasant anecdote seems to have stuck in Cooper’s mind, since four years later, when he again had occasion to write to Dana, Sr., he asked about Dana, Jr. once more:

What has become of your chap? I think I see him backing hides at Monterey, at this moment his back might have suffered more from a contact with hides, while his head appears to have escaped. I do not know whether the compliment is to me, or to himself, but many persons asked me if I had not written his book, when it first appeared. (Letters and Journals, V, 94)

This second reference to Two Years Before the Mast is a little more charged than the first, since it carries an allusion to the thing that had made Dana’s book famous: the flogging scene. The allusion is glancing, since it plays off another part of Dana’s book. Chapter XIII of Two Years Before the Mast is entitled “Trading at Monterey,” and it describes briefly how hides valued at $2.00 in California are bartered for goods from Boston worth $0.75. Chapter XV, “Flogging,” contains the vivid account of a terrible flogging which took place in the year 1839 and of the grim atmosphere on the Pilgrim in its aftermath: sailors answered remarks about their home port with a bitter joke:

“Boston, is it? You may thank your stars if you ever see that place. You had better have your back sheathed, and your head coppered, and your feet shod, and make out your log for California for life!” or else something of this kind: “Before you get to Boston the hides will wear all the hair off your head, and you’ll take up all your wages in clothes, and won’t have enough left to buy a wig with!” (Dana, 89)

All this is significant because it indicates that Cooper was thoroughly familiar with what we would now call the cultural work of Two Years Before the Mast. Dana’s account of the flogging concludes with his sense of the tyrannical injustice of flogging as a punishment. “I vowed that, if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redress the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that class of beings with whom my lot had so long been cast” (Dana, 86). As Harold Langley wrote in Social Reform in the United States Navy, 1798-1862, “Dana’s work was widely read, and his pledge was fulfilled beyond his expectations. His words added to the growing literature of protest on the subject of flogging” (157). By 1850, corporal punishment was banned in the United States Navy.

There is, however, a certain irony in Cooper’s name being associated with Dana’s reformist zeal. In fact, Cooper really was associated with quite a different “true” account of life at sea; he acted as editor for a text published in 1843 and entitled, Ned Myers, or A Life Before the Mast. The subtitle of Ned Myers’ memoir seemed destined to trump Dana’s with the greater authority and authenticity of a lifetime of experience: no Boston lawyer in disguise, Myers was a true “old salt.” And while his exact role in the production of Myers’ book is not known, Cooper did lavishly praise its literary power in a footnote to the revised edition of the Naval History: “The account which is given of the loss of the Scourge, in a little sketch of the life of this old salt, and nearly in the words that came from his own mouth, is one of the most interesting, simple and thrilling narratives in the English language” (quoted in Grossman, 185n). Ned Myers also disagreed strongly with Dana’s objections to flogging, and one of the more emotional moments of his memoir concerns a “whole pack of quakers” who have him fined $60 for striking “a black steward who had neglected in bad weather to get him something warm for breakfast” (Grossman, 185).

The suspicion that Myers’ view regarding flogging was closer to Cooper’s own than that of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. is confirmed by the new preface that Cooper wrote in 1849 for The Pilot. There he alludes to the reform movement (by then on the brink of success) as misguided at best:

It is not easy to make the public comprehend all the necessities of a service afloat. With several hundred rude beings confined within the narrow limits of a vessel, men of all nations and of the lowest habits, it would be to the last degree indiscreet, to commence their reformation by relaxing the bonds of discipline, under the mistaken impulses of a false philanthropy. It has a lofty sound, to be sure, to talk about American citizens being too good to be brought under the lash, upon the high seas; but he must have a very mistaken notion who does not see that tens of thousands of these pretending persons on shore, even, would be greatly benefited by a little judicious flogging. (Pilot, 7-8)

This bluff and brusque way with the softhearted and reform minded seems typical of the Cooper of later years, when the maddening propensity of American democrats run amok to pry into one’s private affairs, picnic on one’s private land, and run slanderous articles in the popular press had just about driven him to distraction. This is the iron- souled Cooper who has been sketched to us in a good deal of recent criticism, the Cooper who chased ball-playing boys off his lawn, sued newspaper editors by the score, raged against the illegalities of the Anti- Rent wars, and seemed to have a position — and usually a testy one — on every issue facing his town, his state, his nation, Europe, and the world.

But this notion of Cooper as the crusty, dyspeptic old man isn’t entirely accurate. The notion that he approved of — indeed, rather relished the idea of — corporal punishment, for instance, is hard simply to accept when we recall that flogging plays a major role in several of his frontier novels — not only in Satanstoe (1845), but also T he Last of the Mohicans (1826), and Wyandotté (1843). In each of these novels, the flogging of a Native American breeds a violent hatred and a patient, watchful spirit of vengeance in the beaten man; each man takes the chance to betray his tormenter to his enemies; and each man exacts a terrible revenge.

A further qualification of Cooper’s attitude toward corporal punishment emerges from an autobiographic essay he seems to have written in 1831, 1 though it did not appear in print until Putnam’s Monthly Magazine published it in 1869. This piece is entitled “The Eclipse,” and it recalls a total eclipse of the sun that was visible in Cooperstown in 1806, when Cooper was sixteen years old. For the most part, it is a straightforward anecdote about big excitement in a small town, a memory chiefly notable, as Alan Taylor has pointed out, for its evidence that Cooper was already planning his attempt to run away to sea (366). But exactly in the middle of “The Eclipse,” there is a remarkable digression:

I was looking upward, intently watching for the first moment where the dark outline of the moon should be visible to the naked eye, when an acquaintance passed. “Come with me!” he said quietly, at the same moment drawing his arm within my own, and leading me away. He was a man of few words, and there was an expression in his face which induced me to accompany him without hesitation.

The “acquaintance” leads Cooper to the courthouse and then disappears from the text, his function complete. He has brought Cooper to see a prisoner — “A man with haggard face, and fettered arms, a prisoner under sentence of death” — who has been let out of the Otsego County jail long enough to view the eclipse:

A painful tragedy has been recently enacted in our little town. The schoolmaster of a small hamlet in the county had beaten a child under his charge very severely — and for a very trifling error. The sufferer was a little girl, his own niece, and it was said that natural infirmity had prevented the child from clearly pronouncing certain words which her teacher required her to utter distinctly. To conquer what he considered the obstinacy of the child, this man continued to beat her so severely that she never recovered from the effects of the blows, and died some days after. The wretched man was arrested, tried for murder, condemned, and sentenced to the gallows.

The compassionate way Cooper treats the schoolmaster and his crime is notable. The restraint of his account contrasts vividly with that of the contemporary news stories, or even with modern historical summaries of the case. Louis C. Jones recounted “The Crime and Punishment of Stephen Arnold” in a 1966 issue of New York History, and it makes gruesome reading, as such cases usually do: Arnold beat a six-year-old child, Betsey VanAmburgh, six separate times over the course of an evening because she kept pronouncing the word “gig” as “jig.” She died four days later. 2 Not surprisingly, the Otsego Herald fired up the rhetorical engines for the occasion, calling Arnold a “tiger in human shape” and describing the child’s body as “a mass of bruised, lacerated raw flesh ... deeply cut in several places, exhibiting a sight to chill the blood of the most insensible of the human race” (quoted in Jones, 12). Although Arnold’s horror at his own brutality and obvious penitence for his crime later softened public opinion in his favor, it is remarkable that Cooper omits any real reference to the “scene of whipping.” The reader is given no hint for visualizing the schoolmaster’s actions. In this regard, “The Eclipse” contrasts markedly with other, reform-minding tales of the abusive flogging of school children. Consider, for example, the villainization of the schoolmaster in one of Walt Whitman’s early muckraking news pieces, “Death in the School- Room” (A Fact.)”:

That teacher was one little fitted for his important and responsible office. Hasty to decide, and inflexibly severe, he was the terror of the little world he ruled so despotically. Punishment he seemed to delight in. Knowing little of those sweet fountains which in children’s breasts ever open quickly at the call of gentleness and kind words, he was fear’d by all for his sternness, and loved by none. I would that he were an isolated instance in his profession. (1082)

Whitman’s schoolmaster not only beats his pupil to death, in his enthusiasm he goes on beating the boy for a while after he has died.

By contrast, Cooper’s schoolmaster is designed to arouse our sympathies. “The Eclipse” recounts the Dostoyevskian scene in which the governor’s commutation of the death sentence arrives just after the last prayer has been offered for Arnold’s soul on the scaffold, as he cringes away from the sight of the noose. The narrative also stresses the suffering Arnold has had to endure in the Otsego jail:

During the twelve-month previous, he had seen the sun but once. The prisons of those days were literally dungeons, cut off from the light of day. That striking figure, the very picture of utter misery, his emotion, his wretchedness, I can never forget. I can see him now, standing at the window, pallid and emaciated by a year’s confinement, stricken with grief, his cheeks furrowed with constant weeping, his whole frame attesting the deep and ravaging influences of conscious guilt and remorse.

This representation does not belong to reform literature, but rather to those fictions of the languishing prisoner so popular in the nineteenth century, most notably in Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon,” but also in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, in Hugo’s Les Miserables, and so on. It is also a topos Cooper himself had just employed in his 1831 novel The Bravo, about a man forced to serve as an assassin by the despotic government of Venice, which has his father in prison.

By shifting the focus of attention away from the victim to the flogger, Cooper introduces a new element to the scene of whipping-guilt, remorse, and penitence; the horror of losing control. “He was deeply, and beyond all doubt unfeignedly, penitent for the crime into which he had been led, more, apparently, from false ideas of duty, than from natural severity of temper. He had been entirely unaware of the great physical injury he was doing the child.” A combination of the unrestrained power of the teacher, the vulnerability of the weak in a system without protection or the right of appeal, a rigid adherence to “false ideas of duty,” and maddening inability of the child to follow direction creates the condition for the child’s death, and the schoolmaster is as much a victim of these circumstances as the child herself. This realization, which is a subtler but, in some ways, more effective appeal not necessarily for reform, but for self-examination, self-control, compassion, and understanding — this realization stands at the center of “The Eclipse” and constitutes the “meaning” of the event. Leaving the courthouse, the narrator muses, “Perhaps human invention could not have conceived of a more powerful moral accessory, to heighten the effect of the sublime movement of the heavenly bodies, than this spectacle of penitent human guilt afforded. It was an incident to stamp on the memory for life. It was a lesson not lost on me.”

In the narrative, of course, this relation is reversed: that is, the eclipse of the sun becomes a powerful metaphor for those moments when passion or stupidity blot out the ethical enlightenment that nourishes human life. At its center, “The Eclipse” is a meditation on the way that any master/slave or domination/subjugation relations creates moral dangers for the master (or schoolmaster) and gives too free rein to human weaknesses. This is a minor item in Cooper’s bibliography, but it is an important part of that latent history of the effects of slavery and corporal punishment in Cooper’s works.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Charles Hanford. “The Guardian of the Law”: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
  • Brodhead, Richard. “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America.” In Philip Fisher, ed., The New American Studies: Essays from Representations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. “The Eclipse.” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine 21 (n.s. 4) (Sept. 1869), 352-359.
  • ------. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-58.
  • ------. ed. Ned Myers: A Life before the Mast. 1843; rpt. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989.
  • ------. Satanstoe, or The Littlepage Manuscripts. 1845; rpt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast. 1839; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1964.
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949.
  • Jones, Louis C. “The Crime and Punishment of Stephen Arnold.” New York History, 47:3 (July 1966), 248-70.
  • Langley, Harold D. Social Reform in the United States Navy, 1798-1862. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1967.
  • Whitman, Walt. Poetry and Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1982.


1 [Although Cooper’s daughter Susan dated the manuscript of “The Eclipse” to 1831, I would suggest that it was written later. A comparison of the details of the eclipse as given in the essay with those in the appropriate issue of Cooperstown’s Otsego Herald in 1806 strongly suggests that Cooper had recently read (or reread) the newspaper account when he composed the essay; this would date “The Eclipse” to 1836-37, after Cooper had returned to America and Cooperstown, and while he was reading the back files of the Otsego Herald in preparation for his Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838). Hugh C. McDougall]

2 I want to thank Hugh C. McDougall for pointing out to me Jones’ article and sending me a copy of the pamphlet reprint.