Constructing the Nation’s Memory: Excluded Historical Narratives in Cooper’s The Spy

James Long (Louisiana State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 1 (General Topics) of the 2008 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 25, May 2008, pp. 6-9.

Copyright © 2008, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In her article “Revolution in the Renaissance,” published in 2003, Betsy Erkkila argues that a possible way of re-conceptualizing our idea of the cultural period commonly referred to as the American Renaissance lies in placing the Revolution at its center. She claims that we can accomplish this by “relocating the Revolution not outside but inside the American Renaissance, as its underlying logic and specter” (emphasis original, 20). Such an argument attempts to reorient our understanding of the American Renaissance itself — particularly as F. O. Matthiessen originally defined it in his study of that name published in 1941 — by providing a new historical frame in which to consider its accomplishments. For Erkkila, the period displays an obsession with depicting the Revolution in order to use the event’s ideological implications as a critique of antebellum America. Writing about the Revolution, then, functions supposedly as a way of reminding readers how many of its goals remain unfulfilled. Erkkila writes that “The Revolution in the Renaissance manifested itself textually as a period not only of radical experimentation in the forms of American writing but also of sometimes violent social struggle in which writers gave voice to conflicting and at times radically alternate ideas of America” (25). Examining the texts of this period, however, reveals an underlying ideological conservatism that questions Erkkila’s argument. Rather than texts of “radical experimentation” that voice “alternate ideas of America,” many early-nineteenth-century novels dealing with the Revolution function instead as ideologically regressive documents attempting to construct a highly reductive image of the nation’s founding era. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, often cited as the first Revolutionary War romance, serves as a foundational text here through its depiction of a revolutionary hero being consciously excluded from the nation’s historical narrative.

In Cooper’s novel, Harvey Birch plays a central role in the Revolution as one of General Washington’s spies, but after the conflict learns that he can receive only private acknowledgement of his contribution. “Remember,” Washington tells Birch, “that in me you will always have a secret friend; but openly I cannot know you” (400). Since Birch’s role in the Revolution does not cohere with the narrative established by Washington and the other founding fathers, it is destined to be suppressed in favor of the already familiar concept that he was a British spy conspiring against the country. His “secret” friendship with Washington, then, constitutes a layer of what the historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker describe as “the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic,” which they define as “the lost history of the multiethnic class that was essential to the rise of capitalism and the modern, global economy.” The subjects of this drama often display an “historic invisibility” that Linebaugh and Rediker attribute to “the violence of abstraction in the writing of history, the severity of history that has long been the captive of the nation-state, which remains in most studies the largely unquestioned framework of analysis” (6-7). The Spy fits into this framework by making visible the process by which a central revolutionary figure is deliberately misrepresented in an historical narrative that charts the nation-state’s development.

But by depicting Birch’s exclusion from the national narrative, Cooper’s novel foregrounds the circumstances that prompt Washington’s rewriting as a conscious attempt to design the nation’s memory of the Revolution. In turn, by reinserting Birch into this narrative, the novel itself provides a frame in which to work against Washington’s actions. As such, the novel serves as both an endorsement and critique of its own cultural practices, implying an extension of the “neutral ground” of its subtitle to the text’s own interpretive apparatus. 1 Cooper reveals how America’s inability to acknowledge Birch’s role underscores the extent to which the country’s national past must remain an exceptionalist narrative fulfilling its ideological goals, even if this means ignoring figures central to its development.

Historian Michael Kammen identifies a cultural trend of misrepresentation in early-nineteenth-century America by arguing that antebellum authors of Revolutionary war novels attempted to conceal the event’s radical principles. By attempting to remove the so-called revolutionary acts and ideas from the event, antebellum writers began what Kammen describes as a period of historical reconstruction through which “by 1876 the American Revolution had entirely lost its historical reality. It had been allegorized on banners, cast in bronze, and baked upon the bulging sides of massive ceremonial urns” (84). This process of de-radicalization explains why later critics and historians, particularly Gordon S. Wood, have aimed at revealing the Revolution’s underlying radicalism by “measuring the amount of social change that actually took place-by transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other” (5). But a key proposition that arises here in response to Erkkila, Kammen, Wood, and others, concerns the means by which American historical consciousness has presented the Revolution’s ideological aims. Several recent historical studies, including not only Wood’s, but also Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution, suggest that even during the Revolution itself, its leaders aimed at constructing a very specific image of its character as an attempt to reorient the revolutionary trajectory away from some of its more radical potential consequences. Terry Bouton, whose study Taming Democracy provides a helpful term for characterizing this trend, describes it as a counter-revolution working to curtail or contain the Revolution’s more democratic currents oriented at the middle and lower classes. Subsequent historical accounts, which emphasize how such often marginalized groups as African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Colonial women participated in the Revolution, perform the critical cultural role of revealing central participants in the event often expunged from the national consciousness. 2 Antebellum novels that depict the Revolution, such as The Spy, reveal these practices clearly at work in early-nineteenth-century America. Instead of Kammen’s claim that they de-revolutionize the Revolution, these novels aim at conditioning readers to approach its supposed radicalism in highly specified ways, such as by idealizing figures like George Washington while ignoring the masses of anonymous soldiers who fought in the conflict. 3 Cooper’s novel presents such practices of historical revisionism as being evident during the war itself by depicting Washington’s conscious concealment of Birch’s real identity.

Thus, while Cooper’s novel does voice what Erkkila describes as “alternate ideas of America” by championing Birch, it simultaneously constructs a deified image of Washington and the Revolution as the nation’s dominant model to explain the necessity for this exclusion. In other words, The Spy aims at both endorsing and critiquing Washington’s handling of how the country will remember Birch. The malleability of Cooper’s text here foregrounds the extent to which antebellum Americans faced the daunting task of interpreting the Revolution’s claims and achievements, a process Joyce Appleby discusses in her study Inheriting the Revolution. Instead of condemning antebellum America for supposedly perverting the Revolution’s goals, Appleby stresses the extent to which the following generations who “inherited the revolution” were allocated the role of resolving their forefathers’ contradictory founding principles. She claims that “Working out the terms of democracy and nationhood became a self-imposed task for the first generation because the United States had been formally united with nothing but abstract notions about either. It fell to those born after the Revolution to mold national sentiments around their own unique experiences of opinion-forming and consensus-building, but these were not uniform” (53). Born in 1789, Cooper qualifies as a member of this first generation; his works, in turn, often engage the era’s central questions of how to define American nationhood and construct its corresponding cultural mythos. The Spy emphasizes the crucial position the Revolution holds in Cooper’s consciousness, as well as his willingness to question the nation’s dominant trends by presenting the mysterious Birch as a barely visible — and often misinterpreted — figure who repeatedly saves the lives of the novel’s central characters.

Birch’s relative absence from much of the novel emphasizes the extent to which he functions as an elusive presence the other characters are trying to decode. 4 Cooper’s readers find themselves in a similar position as the full extent of Birch’s role in the Revolution remains unstated until the novel’s closing chapters. It is only in the last two chapters that Cooper reveals that Birch functioned as a double agent providing approved intelligence reports to the British throughout the war. The manner in which Washington acknowledges Birch’s role, however, suggests that such figures are incompatible with the emerging national narrative because they challenge the general perception of who was responsible for the Revolution’s success. Although Washington cites Birch as evidence of “the patriotism that pervades the bosoms of [the country’s] lowest citizens,” the novel suggests that such people will receive little or no public — and subsequently official — recognition of their actions (399). Instead, they are regarded as marginal players overshadowed by more visible figures like Washington. Gary Nash discusses the “unknown” status of most colonial soldiers who fought in the Revolution by observing that “the majority of them served short terms, were poor when they enlisted, [and] came home to remain obscure for the rest of their lives, or became transients looking somewhere else for something better” (219). Birch provides a particularly poignant fictionalization of this cultural trend, as he willingly consents to live the rest of his life as an infamous British spy.

As the war’s end approaches, Washington stresses that Birch’s true role must remain hidden, telling him that he can offer only private recognition of his aid. Washington provides several reasons for this, including the implication that revealing Birch’s true identity would endanger other people serving the country. The final meeting between Birch and Washington takes place secretly in an isolated apartment in the middle of the American forces. This environment provides a suggestive setting for the meeting’s clandestine nature. The fact that Washington insists on meeting with Birch alone further emphasizes that very few other characters know about his true role. In fact, Washington suggests that he is the only one fully aware of the importance of Birch’s actions: “To me, and to me only of all the world, you seem to have acted with a strong attachment to the liberties of America” (397). For the rest of the nation, however, Birch is “branded as a foe to liberty” because its citizens lack the information regarding his true role as an agent working for Washington (399). Thus, Birch becomes doomed to remain known as an enemy of America, a fate he gladly accepts because it will ultimately benefit the developing nation. At one point, Birch even identifies his life as less valuable than the information he carried to and for Washington: “There are men living who could say that my life was nothing to me, compared to your secrets” (399). Cooper provides here a rationalization for why figures like Birch can remain forgotten-they are quite simply not as important as the world’s Washingtons, or even the information circulating around such cultural figureheads. Since Birch’s role in the Revolution does not cohere with the narrative established by Washington and the other founding fathers, it is suppressed in favor of the already familiar concept that Birch was a spy conspiring against the country.

The text strives to exonerate Washington of any culpability in Birch’s fate by depicting his attempts to provide his former spy with money to support himself and a note to redeem his name in the eyes of his future children. Birch declines any financial assistance by explaining, “No — no — no — not a dollar of your gold will I touch; poor America has need of it all!” (398). His willingness to accept the suppression of his actual role reveals his underlying devotion to the country, even though it guarantees him a life of painful infamy. For instance, he tells Washington that he will not have any children because he believes he should not “give to a family the infamy of [his] name” (399). By dooming himself to such an ignominious end, Birch predicts the title that Cooper bestows on him in the novel’s final line, “a martyr to [his country’s] liberties” (407). But the fact that Birch must accept such a role in order for America to flourish raises a troubling suggestion concerning the early national context explored by Cooper.

The novel ends with a potential acknowledgement of Birch’s revolutionary role after his death in the War of 1812. Found on his body is Washington’s note, which describes him as “a faithful and unrequited servant of his country” (407). Although the novel provides this final assertion of Birch’s role, it simultaneously stresses that such previously repressed figures can receive only minor recognition. Washington’s brief note only further enforces his standing as “the one great name of America,” as he here conveys his nationally esteemed sign of approval on a dead man who has lived the last thirty-three years of his life in obscure poverty (401). In fact, Washington writes in his note identifying Birch that “though man does not, may God reward him for his conduct!” (407). Thus, according to Washington, even in death, the nation remains incapable of fully acknowledging Birch’s service to the Revolution. By the time this note is discovered, however, Birch is not only dead, but his name is no longer remembered as an agent who “labored in secret against the rights of [his] countrymen” (400). If Birch has already been forgotten, even in his false role as a supposedly treasonous spy, then the ultimate impact of Washington’s note becomes unclear. Despite the note, the now-deceased Washington remains “the acknowledged hero of an age of reason and truth,” while Birch becomes another anonymous continental soldier subsumed into the national myth surrounding the general — rather than the crucial spy who assisted him. Thus, the novel provides no assertion that Birch’s role will assume any position in the nation’s historical consciousness of the Revolution. Instead, he appears destined to be forgotten again.

But Birch is not simply being written out of the narrative by Cooper or Washington-instead he is consciously excluding himself. In one sense, the novel works to reverse the situation of Birch’s anonymity; yet, at the same time, it presents a rationalization for why these events occurred. Birch’s willing exclusion of himself underscores the supposed cultural necessity of this process of historical reconstruction. If he is absent from the nation’s memory of the Revolution, the novel suggests, then it is partially because he has willingly accepted his designated role as a secret hero-and by extension, the claim that he has no assured place within the nation’s accepted narrative of the Revolution. Cooper captures here the dislocated cultural work faced by antebellum Americans attempting to make the Revolution’s goals coherent. Thus, he on the one hand offers a critique of Washington’s decision to expunge Birch from the national narrative, while simultaneously contextualizing the logic that precipitated its enactment. Although The Spy decodes a previously misinterpreted central figure in the American Revolution, it also provides a continued justification for the nation’s decision to exclude his role from its dominant narrative. In the end, the novel’s position on Birch recalls his own comments during his final meeting with Washington, in which he asks a series of rhetorical questions that assert the General’s superior status as so monumental that it makes his own life inconsequential:

What has brought your excellency into the field? For what do you daily and hourly expose your precious life to battle and the halter? What is there about me to mourn, when such men as you risk their all for our country? (398)

Cooper’s novel contextualizes such sentiments amid the neutral ground of antebellum America, which presents the Revolution’s conscious construction of its own memory as a foundational gesture toward establishing a coherent national narrative, in which the status of an elite general overshadows the spy who helped make his success possible. “What has brought [Washington] into the field,” then, appears to be the nation’s overriding compulsion to erase ambiguous figures like Birch from its memory.

Works Cited

  • Appleby, Joyce, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2000.
  • Bouton, Terry, Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor. Ed. Gary Williams. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
  • ------. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. New York: Penguin, 1997.
  • Erkkila, Betsy, “Revolution in the Renaissance.” ESQ 49 (2003): 17-32.
  • Kammen, Michael, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
  • Longmore, Paul K., The Invention of George Washington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
  • McWilliams, John P., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Motley, Warren, The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Nash, Gary B., The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America. New York: Penguin, 2005.
  • Reid, Margaret K., Cultural Secrets as Narrative Form: Storytelling in Nineteenth-Century America. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004.
  • Wood, Gordon S., The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1991.


1 Margaret Reid provides a reading of the novel that stresses the contradictory nature of Cooper’s process. She claims that Birch’s “narrative silence” causes his identity as a spy to register as a “cultural secret” (51-66). Such a reading implies that the novel’s structure replicates its content — i.e., that Birch’s exclusion from the country’s national narrative is replicated by Cooper’s obscuring of his character in the plot. For another reading of the novel’s contradictory effects, see John McWilliams (48-64).

2 Representative studies here include: Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Cynthia A. Kierner, Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700-1830 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), especially chapter 3; Gary B. Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); and Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston: Little & Brown, 1980).

3 Cooper’s description of a visit to Mount Vernon in Notions of the Americans (1828) presents Washington’s impact on the national consciousness via an architectural comparison: “The character of Washington was Doric in all its proportions. Its beauty, is the beauty of harmony between purpose and means, and its grandeur is owing to its chaste simplicity. Like the order of Architecture to which I have ventured to ascribe a resemblance, it is not liable to the details of criticism ... . His fame already resembles that which centuries have produced for other men, while it owes no portion of its purity to the mist of time. Truth, bold, clear and radiant, is the basis of his renown, and truth will bear his name to posterity, in precisely the same simple and just attributes as it was known to those who lived in his immediate presence” (417). By recasting Washington the man as a solid structure founded on “truth” that is thus beyond “criticism,” Cooper’s comments illustrate antebellum America’s idealization of the late general-president. A more critical assessment of Washington appears in Paul Longmore’s The Invention of George Washington, which charts the process through which he became a national icon. Longmore concludes that Washington’s “presence filled the king-shaped vacuum that followed the overthrow of George III. His conduct supplied a needed propaganda weapon to the revolutionary cause. His career and image bridged the gap between monarchy and republicanism, colonial subordination and nationhood. The myth of Washington completed the national myth of America as a republic of pure virtue” (210).

4 Washington occupies a similarly uncertain position since for much of the novel he is disguised as another character, Mr. Harper. Warren Motley reads this extended disguise-act as a representation of Washington’s “public and private selves” (106-7).