“Sweet but Commanding”: The Disobedient Daughter in Cooper’s The Pioneers

Nancy Sweet (Columbia University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2003 Conference of the American Literature Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 18, August 2003, pp. 8-12.

Copyright © 2003, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

The female characters of James Fenimore Cooper can appear little more than “wooden ingénues” and “monsters of virtue,” as Leslie Fiedler once put it, but a closer look at Elizabeth Temple of The Pioneers shows Cooper to treat gender with more nuance than critics have recognized. 1 The Pioneers is an historical romance and its mission is to elucidate the transformation of America from a rugged frontier into the neat and prosperous nation of 1823 that Cooper describes in the very first pages of the novel. Set in the frontier town of Templeton — a fictionalized Cooperstown — the novel features a heroine remarkable for her independence and disobedience. Young but sophisticated, Elizabeth Temple is the daughter of town-founder Judge Marmaduke Temple. She brings to the Otsego frontier an urban refinement and educated sensibility crucial for the conversion of the rough settlement into a civilized society. Elizabeth’s filial defiance also plays a critical role in this conversion. Civilization in The Pioneers hinges on the ability of this rational daughter to counteract and manage the self-interested machinations of her servants, uncle, father, and townsmen.

The filial disobedience of the Judge’s daughter might surprise us given theories of nineteenth-century American literature that usually credit sons with an independency of mind deemed unattainable by daughters constrained by the demands of feminine submissiveness. By placing a daughter and not a son in the very position Cooper himself occupied in this semi-autobiographical tale, Cooper empowers the daughter figure to accomplish what a male character cannot in representing a future America of refinement, moderation, and social responsibility. Few readers have made much of Elizabeth Temple’s insubordination, though in the course of the novel her disobedience will extend even into criminality as she aids and abets the flight of the Leatherstocking character, Natty Bumppo, from the law imposed by her own father.

This conflict between Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo stands at the heart of the novel. Temple’s market-based entrepreneurship is pitted against what we might call Natty’s “forest ethic” — Natty’s abiding regard for Nature, his plain, unambitious style of living, and his commitment to an old-fashioned honor. But critical focus on this conflict has led readers to overlook Elizabeth’s intercessionary role between the two principal male figures and between the competing aspects of American culture that they represent.

The process of civilizing the frontier comes at a high cost in The Pioneers as Judge Temple’s ideals of commerce and progress overshadow older values of honor and social obligation, a transformation Cooper both celebrates and fears. Characters in The Pioneers who honor their moral indebtedness to others end up losing wealth, land, and social significance, while those who steadfastly pursue their self-interest, including Judge Temple, are rewarded with prosperity, reputation, and positions of civil authority. The characters of Natty, Indian John and Major Effingham are throwbacks to an earlier world in which honor and obligation mattered; all are dispossessed of the Otsego lands now owned by Judge Temple. The capitalism that drives the settling of the frontier privileges the pursuit of self-interest over loyalty to people or ideals. Frontier capitalism likewise impels the settlers to disavow any obligation to the natural world. The mining, timber, and maple sugar industries, as Cooper depicts them in The Pioneers, wreak ecological devastation, as do the settlers’ practice of slaughtering far more fish and game than they can ever use or nature ever replenish. Cooper, like Judge Temple, valorizes the commerce that leads to the neat and orderly civilization of 1823. At the same time, he yearns nostalgically for a restrained and gentlemanly code of conduct seemingly at odds with the capitalist democracy of America.

Frontier capitalism, as Cooper portrays it, undermines the role of social hon constructing a zero-sum game in which economic gain necessitates loss somewhere else. When Judge Temple’s cousin fears squatters are secretly conducting a mining operation on Temple’s lands, he piques the Judge by telling him, “as they grow rich, you grow poor.” 2 Even in this land of seemingly endless forests and inexhaustible supplies of timber and game, a fear of diminishing resources stokes the fires of self-interest. While Cooper lauds the progress of civilization on the frontier, his novel laments the rapacity of unmediated American expansion. For resolution he looks to Elizabeth Temple, who is uniquely poised to mediate between the constructive and destructive forces of capitalistic progress.

As a daughter of wealth, Elizabeth sits pivotally in what seems an irreconcilable conflict between self-restrained honor and self-interested capitalism. Elizabeth’s refinement and her status as the primary domestic figure of the novel set her apart from the realm of the marketplace and its self-serving value system. But as the heiress to Judge Temple’s self-made fortunes, Elizabeth and her gentility are also products of that very same marketplace. Elizabeth’s stature as a lady derives not only from inherited social rank, but also from her high elocution and the costly education behind it, from her fur cloaks and silk gowns, her command over servants, and her leisure. Notably Elizabeth is the only female character in The Pioneers who does not work to earn her bread. She is unstained by the “trucking disposition” that the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith identified as the fuel of economic progress, but she owes the luxury of that purity to her father’s mercantilistic ambitions, of which she is both product and antithesis. 3

Elizabeth has inherited the social rank of her mother, but her vigor of mind and body prove her to be just as much her father’s daughter. Her “sweet but commanding disposition” (66) synthesizes her two parental influences. Cooper emphasizes the dynamism of Elizabeth’s character by pairing her with a submissive and passive friend, Louisa Grant. “[M]eek,” “light and fragile” (125, 126), Louisa is ever devoted to her own father, in contrast to Elizabeth, for whom filial obedience is tempered by her sense of propriety and justice. Louisa, with her propensity for trembling bouts and fainting spells, represents the shrinking feminine delicacy so often attributed to Cooper’s female characters generally. Consider, though, that Cooper rejects this model of femininity for his heroine and even rewards her at the end of this romance with marriage to the novel’s hero, Oliver Edwards, a handsome young man whom the delicate Louisa Grant fails to win.

At the outset of the novel Elizabeth is “just entering upon womanhood” and newly returned to Templeton after four years in a New York City seminary (18). Her acquisition of authority is a gradual process that begins in the domestic setting of Judge Temple’s home where she is reintroduced to the servants as the “mistress of the mansion” (209), her mother now being deceased. Elizabeth first sets in line her recalcitrant housekeeper Remarkable Pettibone, a snuff-taking, sharp-featured woman who evokes the moral coarseness of Temple’s domestic space and the frontier settlement at large. Elizabeth puts an end to Remarkable Pettibone’s insubordinations with a single curt dismissal that recalls her servant to her place and effectually banishes her from the remainder of the novel (170). The scene firmly establishes Elizabeth’s authority in the domestic arena of the mansion, a space where a woman of Elizabeth’s rank would be expected to assert dominance. But Elizabeth soon establishes supremacy over characters outside the domestic sphere of the Judge’s home, including Temple’s steward Ben Pump and the man Temple appoints Sheriff, his cousin Richard Jones (387, 183).

For Elizabeth to carry moral authority, Cooper must give her a certain distance from her father and from the domestic space that has been corrupted by his market values. She achieves this distance through an autonomy and disobedience enacted out-of-doors, in the woods and on the mountain where she often encounters Natty Bumppo, whose life in the Otsego forests predates the arrival of Judge Temple and his laws, settlers, and industries. Natty and Elizabeth at first seem an unlikely pair. Here, the Leatherstocking is imagined not as the virile Hawkeye of The Last of the Mohicans, but as a gap-toothed rustic in his seventies. What the two share, however, is a reverence for Nature and a disapprobation for the self-interestedness of the settlers.

Inevitably, Elizabeth’s burgeoning authority gives rise to conflict between father and daughter. The Judge takes pride in the free-spiritedness of his daughter, but he also fears her independence, and with some justification, as natural hazards in the form of wild animals, falling trees, and forest fires invariably threaten Elizabeth in her romps out-of-doors. Elizabeth and her father find themselves in direct conflict when Judge Temple places Natty in jail for a crime that has been orchestrated by Temple’s own magistrate. Natty is alleged to have killed a deer out of season-a punishable offense under Temple’s jurisdiction — on the same day that he has also rescued Elizabeth from a panther in the forest. Making matters worse, Natty violently resists the execution of a search warrant procured by Temple’s scheming magistrate in his quest to pin a crime on Natty.

Natty has risked his life to rescue Elizabeth, and she in turn accepts a larger moral indebtedness to him while also gaining appreciation for his situation and understanding. Her father, in contrast, disavows any obligation to treat Natty leniently in court, which he demonstrates by sentencing Natty to pay a stiff fine and serve a prison sentence. Temple reasons that “It would sound ill indeed to report that a judge had extended favour to a convicted criminal because he had saved the life of his child” (382). Temple has a point; if the rule of law is to reign in the settlement, then personal considerations must not be permitted to undermine an impartial application of the law. The game laws of Templeton are intended to restrain the waste of natural resources otherwise sure to be committed by Templeton’s rapacious settlers. Ironically, Natty needs no laws to restrain him from such wasteful practices because he abides by a forest ethic of prudent frugality, yet he alone stands afoul of the law prohibiting such profligacy. Elizabeth recognizes the injustice of this application of law; she apprehends Natty to be a man governed not by self-interest, but rather by an internalized ethic of respect for people and the land. In his self-sacrificing heroism, Natty stands in alliance with Elizabeth’s notions of civility, to which her father has placed himself in opposition.

Elizabeth protests the severe sentence her father imposes on Natty, and her father responds by agreeing to pay Natty’s fine and to offer him a “harmless life in ease and plenty” (387) once his prison sentence has been served, a proposal that represents not justice so much as co-optation. Ever devoted to the values of the marketplace, Temple assumes that money can solve all problems. Natty feels his honor affronted by Temple’s offer, which he refuses by preparing to break out of jail even as Elizabeth visits his cell. As Natty readies his escape, Elizabeth must finally choose her allegiances. She hesitates momentarily but is soon managing Natty’s flight, supplying crucial direction during the escape, and even providing the Judge’s own boat as a getaway vehicle. As Cooper makes clear, the success of the jailbreak hinges on this intervention of the Judge’s daughter. In her recognition of a higher justice, Elizabeth here acts as a kind of court of appeal, asserting authority over her father’s law.

Complicit in Natty’s escape, Elizabeth soon becomes a fully calculating co-conspirator when she promises to buy and deliver gunpowder for the fugitive Leatherstocking. The further Elizabeth delves into this mission of aiding Natty, the more she resembles the traditional male hero of the American novel. Elizabeth sets off for the forest by herself — Louisa being too timid to accompany her — thereby repudiating father, community and law much as do Natty, Ishmael, and Huck Finn in their respective missions of individualist freedom. Elizabeth’s journey into the woods is, like Huck’s, a flight from ladyhood, decorum and “sivilization.”

Cooper places Elizabeth away from home and village in order to give her moral distance from Judge Temple. But it won’t do to have Elizabeth repudiate civilization if she is also to serve as its harbinger in Templeton. Elizabeth’s feminine gentility proves an essential, non-contingent quality, as the finery that she wears even into the woods clearly signifies. When fire breaks out on the mountain where Elizabeth delivers Natty’s gunpowder, her dress renders her vulnerable to the flames: “those flowing robes, that gave such softness and grace to her form, seemed now to be formed for the instruments of her destruction” (407). No more can she divest herself of these flammable robes than can she from her refined grace. Elizabeth’s survival in the treacherous wilderness depends again on the arrival of Natty, who has come prepared “to envelope her whole person” with a buckskin that will contain her “fatal dress“(415). Wrapped in the borrowed deerskin, representative of the natural world to which Natty is so attuned, Elizabeth symbolically weds his masculine Nature-oriented ruggedness to her own feminine refinement — a marriage critical to the denouement of the novel in which Elizabeth must carry the mantle of Natty’s forest ethic even as she stewards the progress of civilization in Templeton.

Elizabeth has risked her life to aid Natty, setting an example of loyalty, selflessness, and commitment to justice that catalyzes the remaining action of the novel. Judge Temple acquires a governor’s pardon for Natty-thereby fulfilling justice in seeing Natty released while staying true to the law. Elizabeth’s suitor, Oliver Edwards Effingham, reveals his identity as the son of Judge Temple’s long-lost business partner, to whom Temple has been indebted for his own claim to the Otsego lands. When Judge Temple recognizes Oliver as the Effingham heir, Temple yields half of his estate to his future son-in-law. This is Temple’s last action in the novel. Honoring his obligations to his former partner, he too ends up dispossessed in The Pioneers and vanishes from its final scenes.

Elizabeth’s presence in the forest fire serves the novel’s end in another way. Cooper repeatedly makes allusion to the erstwhile claim to the Otsego lands by their original inhabitants, the Delaware Indians. In the forest-fire scene, Indian John, the Delaware’s last representative, acknowledges Elizabeth as “Daughter” in the moments before his death. He has no blood tie to Elizabeth but honors her longstanding kindness and respect. Formerly a respected warrior, Indian John recognizes in Elizabeth the nobility that he has lost. With no blood heirs of his own, Indian John has also christened Elizabeth’s suitor Oliver Edwards as a son, Young Eagle. In so doing, the Delaware chief transfers his moral claim on the land to Elizabeth and Oliver as his chosen heirs.

Legally, the entire Temple estate belongs to Oliver Edwards Effingham once he marries Elizabeth, but she heads and maintains the social hierarchy in Templeton after their marriage. Transformed into Mrs. Effingham, Elizabeth shows no sign of relinquishing her independence nor her ultimate control. In her words, “You know, Effingham, that my father has told you that I ruled him, and that I should rule you” (449). As Cooper calls her in the end, Elizabeth is a great but subtle manager, often operating behind the scenes. It is to her stewardship ultimately that we can attribute the neat, orderliness of the Otsego lands in 1823 as Cooper represents them in the beginning of the novel.

Attention to Elizabeth’s autonomy and agency invite us to revise our understanding of the workings of gender in this early Cooper novel. Cooper devises a daughter-heroine who engages in filial disobedience without compromising her virtue, her marriageability, or her status as the leading lady of Otsego, an astonishing construction for the times. That the rebelliousness of Elizabeth Temple has gone so little noticed testifies to Cooper’s success in rendering her disobedience consistent with feminine honor — a considerable feat in an era when submissiveness played an essential role in what Barbara Welter has called “True Womanhood.” 4 The legitimacy of Elizabeth Temple’s resistance to parental authority lies ultimately in the justice furthered by her insubordination. Hers is not an exercise in self-interested insurrection, but in social progress that can be wrought only through measured filial disobedience. Uniquely positioned to enact a virtuous and rational rebellion that will prove crucial to Cooper’s depiction of the historical development of America as a just nation, Elizabeth Temple synthesizes values of self-governance and restraint, independence and fidelity, self-interest and obligation. Chaste, pious, and educated, Elizabeth stewards the arrival of a better society through a filial duty most fully realized in a potent license to disobey.


1 Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, 1960, Reprint (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997) 24, 185.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 320. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically.

3 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: Oxford UP, 1993) 23.

4 Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly (Summer 1966): 151-174.