James Fenimore Cooper and “The Pledge”

Barbara Alice Mann (University of Toledo)

Presented at the No. 1 Cooper Panel of the 2012 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Copyright © 2012, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 29, May, 2012, pp. 2-5.

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

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Figure 1. Alcohol Rocks, lithograph by E. W. Bouvé, 1842. Web. 13 March 2012.

Scholars of James Fenimore Cooper are well aware of his disdain for anything smacking of the Puritans, including Boston and whatever was hapless enough to have proceeded from its self-righteous precincts. Thus, the much-dreaded “Pledge” of abstinence from the use of alcohol, starting in Boston in 1826 and growing into virulent moralism by the 1840s, rubbed every, last Cooperian nerve raw. Cooper ended before the movement did. After his death in 1851, the temperance bandwagon continued adding seats until Prohibition was locked into federal law. Happily for Cooper’s mental equilibrium, he did not live to see the alarming enactment of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution, but from 1820 on, he saw enough of Tea-Totalism to give him indigestion, right along with those miserable Boston biscuits. 1

It probably did not help that Tea-Totalism ran in tandem with the prodding of Cooper’s wife for her famous husband to abandon his tippling. Now, Cooper was a naval man at heart, and just below the heart of every naval man lay a hollow leg, suitable for filling with grog, so it is not surprising that, by 1825, the per capita consumption of distilled spirits for adults exceeded nine gallons annually, and it is a sure bet that a large percentage of those adults were donating their share to others. 2 Long after his own naval career had ended, Cooper would meet with the Old Salts of his glory days and make a “good time ... of it,” stimulating scandal among his acquaintances. 3 One tittering gossip rushed to Catherine Maria Sedgwick the question on inquiring minds in 1825: “I hear Cooper gets tipsey [sic] is it true?” 4 Yes, it was. Although Cooper was never a drunkard, he did enjoy his liquor, quaffing six glasses in a row at one party. 5 Sherry and Madeira seemed to top his list of favorites, while “muzzy” — a composite of “fuzzy” and “muddled” — was his prize term for someone edging past repair with drink.

Some of Cooper’s most charming prose proceeded from the cordial mood that attended his own glass of sherry. His letter of 15 August 1832 to his old buddy, Samuel Morse, for instance, delightfully described his solitary, and rather muzzy, ramble while in Germany, through a “deserted Convent of Benedictine nuns,” his “bottle of Liebfrauenmilchen at [his] elbow.” 6 He started imagining the place haunted, and was obviously enjoying himself thoroughly, until his wife “summoned” him to his “cell,” scolding that he had “tarried an indecent period already.” 7 His bottle of Liebfrauenmilchen undoubtedly had as much to do with her tone as his tardiness in coming to bed. His bottle-tucking continued, however.

In a similar mood around the fall of 1845, editor Lewis Gaylord Clark found out Cooper’s true feelings about John Gibson Lockhart over “a flagon of old Madeira and two wine glasses.” 8

It was undoubtedly experience, personal and observed, that allowed Cooper to draw some very believably muzzy settlers and sailors. For instance, Remarkable Pettibone and Ben Pump of The Pioneers (1823) drink themselves, first, silly and, next, sexually argumentative on grog. 9 In The Prairie (1827), the hopeless drunk who informed Duncan Uncas Middleton of the fate of Inez was a “miserable wretch,” his “obtruding eye-balls, his bloated countenance, and the nearly insufferable odours that were, even then, exhaling from his carcass” proclaiming his “intemperance.” 10

Such scenes in Cooper are downright visceral. They continue in, for instance, Oak Openings (1848), in which Gershom Waring, or “Whiskey Centre,” had “a face that carried a very decided top-light in it, like that of the notorious Bardolph.” 11 (Bardolph was, of course, the florid-faced, drinking buddy of Falstaff, who joked that Bardolph could light the way at night with his bright face. 12) “Whiskey had dyed the countenance of Gershom Waring” a similar, “tell-tale hue,” for Waring and whiskey were “sworn friends ... always to be found in company.” 13 At a point of great danger in the novel, Waring got drunk as a skunk, even after Boden had dumped out all his whiskey, for Boden had stashed “a jug of brandy among his stores, and Gershom found it out,” promptly guzzling it down. 14 This was a very sharp portrait of a far-gone alcoholic. Interestingly, Cooper included an alternative drinker in his alter ego of Oak Openings, Ben Boden. Although “not absolutely ‘afraid of a jug,’” Boden was, nonetheless, a “decidedly a temperate man” who drank “but seldom, and never to excess,” because he knew the dangers of forest and war, should he have been too inebriated to survive them. 15 Cooper faced no dangers of the forest, but the immediate dangers of the press, the law, and his wife kept him reasonably sober.

A popular engraving, “Alcohol Rocks” (1842), Figure 1, presaged the dangers of drinking at sea. This was something Cooper knew first-hand, nor was he polarized enough to pretend that no dangers lurked in sailors’ grog. In fact, precisely the scene depicted in “Alcohol Rocks” occurred in The Crater (1847), which Cooper published five years later, yet Cooper was unwilling to portray even fatality-laden drinking as sinful, wicked, or malevolent. It was, instead, unfortunate. As The Crater’s Captain Crutchely indulged his “one failing,” Cooper put in a good word for him as a normally “sober man,” despite his tendency to “gulp down three of four glasses of rum-and-water” at dinner. 16 On “the birthday of Mrs. Crutchely,” the day the ship foundered, “the captain had drunk even a little more than common.” 17 Quite interestingly, Cooper commented that, “when a man is in the habit of drinking rather more than is good for him, an addition of a little more than common is very apt to upset him.” 18 While the reader speculates on just how Cooper knew this, the report of breakers came in. Crutchely first ignored and then downplayed it, as he and his equally stumbling second mate Hillson “pondered with a sort of muzzy sagacity” over their charts, both too “muzzy” to apprehend the ship’s danger until it had broken upon the shoals. 19

As with so many of his socio-political positions, Cooper was out of step with the times in his accommodation of moderate imbibing, so that the Temperance Movement bedeviled his adult life. Like political campaign advertising in the months before a presidential election today, Temperance propaganda was simply unavoidable — and worse, rather consistently hysterical, indulging in the sort of overwrought melodrama that Cooper scorned lifelong as a “Lord Mortimer” rhapsody. 21 The media of Cooper’s day included illustrators, and they jumped into the fray with energy, for it was a paying fray. The popular British illustrator, George Cruikshank, provided harrowing scenes of alcoholism. Particularly after his own father died of alcoholism, Cruikshank turned his considerable talents to flogging the flagon with his eight-plate series, “The Bottle” (1847), which ended with the drunkard’s killing his wife and winding up in prison, thus orphaning his children. 21 A sequel, “The Drunkard’s Children” (1848), followed the blighted lives of the orphans, ending in suicide. This was Lord Mortimer Romance writ large, and such overblown emotionalism was emphatically not to Cooper’s taste.

Westerners are obsessed with “step” theories — e.g.: the five stages of grief, the ten steps to salvation, the twelve steps to sobriety — so it did not surprise me to learn that nineteenth-century Tea-Totalers had discovered that there were exactly nine, inexorable steps in “The Drunkard’s Progress, from the First Glass to the Grave.” These steps were endlessly reproduced in a variety of posters, especially by Currier and Ives, as, for example, in Figure 2:

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Figure 2. Nathaniel Currier, The Drunkard’s Progress, Poster, 1846. Web. 13 March 2012.

  • Step 1: A glass with a friend.
  • Step 2: A glass to keep the cold out.
  • Step 3: A glass too much (weaving).
  • Step 4: Drunk and riotous (policeman with club).
  • Step 5: The summit attained. Jolly companions. A confirmed drunkard.
  • Step 6: Poverty and Disease (with cane).
  • Step 7: Forsaken by Friends.
  • Step 8: Desperation and crime (with gun).
  • Step 9: Death by suicide.

Cooper, himself, tended to stop at some point before canes and guns came into play, but he had had enough experience to doubt the inevitability desperation and death by suicide. As though the propaganda mills were not already churning at capacity, the Tee-Totalers came up with an action plan, which included four steps:

  • Step 1: Meeting Hall condemnation of any and all drinking
  • Step 2: Social Nagging
  • Step 3: Posters Aplenty
  • Step 4: The Pledge

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Figure 3. The Pledge, from an 1837 incarnation. Web. 9 May 2012. Permission of Peter Stubb to use, granted.

The Pledge was a document gotten up by various Temperance Societies for imposition upon the hapless male relatives of the Tea-Totaler. (Women easily signed, and then drank in private.) Like “The Drunkard’s Progress,” the Pledge was ubiquitous yet appeared in slightly different words and design, depending upon the year and the city in which it was printed (see Figure 3). The thrust was always the same, however. It began with a ringing denunciation of the ills occasioned by inebriation and ended in a solemn vow by the undersigned to abstain from all forms of liquor, except when used as medicine or in religious services. Of course, these last two dispensations formed a wondrous loophole, allowing one simultaneously to sign and to obviate The Pledge, were one amenable to lying. (There was no pledge or campaign against that.)

Cooper was, of course, never one to dissemble. Disguised motives, double-dealing, or any form of deception struck Cooper as far more evil than downing a glass of Madeira. In fact, Cooper could easily have taken, and kept, the Boy Scout pledge, but under no consideration was he willing to sign the temperance Pledge. If he were going to drink — and he was — he was going to do so openly. Consequently, one of his most volcanic eruptions, coming in 1848, centered on the prissy Victorian hypocrisy of The Pledge, or rather, of its Pledgers. In an authorial interjection in Jack Tier, Cooper thundered:

In this age of moral tours de force, one scarcely dare say anything favorable of a liquid that even bears the name of wine, or extol the shape of a bottle. It is truly the era of exaggeration. Nothing is treated in the old-fashioned, natural, common-sense way. Virtue is no longer virtue, unless it get upon stilts; and, as for sin’s being confined to “transgression against the law of God,” audacious would be the wretch who should presume to limit the sway of the societies by any dogma so narrow! A man may be as abstemious as an anchorite, and get no credit for it, unless “he sign the pledge”; or signing the pledge, he may get fuddled in corners, and be cited as a miracle of sobriety. The test of morals is no longer in the abuse of the gifts of Providence, but in their use; prayers are deserting the closet for the corners of the streets, and charity (not in the giving of alms) has got to be so earnest in the demonstration of its nature, as to be pretty certain to “begin at home,” and to end where it begins. Even the art of mendacity has been aroused by the great progress which is making by all around it, and many manifest the strength of their ambition by telling ten lies where their fathers would have been satisfied with telling only one. 22

Jack Tier was not just accidentally a novel in which everyone drank, including the hero, Harry Mulford, the heroine, Rose Budd, and Jack Tier, herself, who was, of course, Molly Swash. 23

In case anyone missed his point in Jack Tier, two years later in the 1850 preface to The Ways of the Hour, Cooper asserted that it was “a pretty safe rule to suspect the man of hypocrisy who makes a parade of his religion.” 24 In the text, Cooper expanded on his disgust with the parade, noting that the “drinking, in moderation and of suitable liquors, convey no ideas of wrong-doing” to the refined. “As they have been accustomed” to habits of social drinking and gambling “from early life, and have seen them practised [sic] with decorum and a due regard to the habits of a refined society, there is no reason for concealment or consciousness.” Instead, it was “an exaggerated morality” that was “very apt to create a factitious conscience, that almost invariably” took “refuge in that vilest of all delinquency — direct hypocrisy.” 25 By this point of Cooper’s disgust, The Pledge was being included as inserts in family bibles, having by then actually progressed to something like an Eleventh Commandment (see Figure 4). To Cooper, this was simply proof that telling ten lies instead of one had become a daily exercise. Cooper could be bombastic and naively open with his opinions, to the point of childlike innocence, but he was no fraud and no liar. Neither did he countenance either corruption or deceit with equanimity. Temperance-Society arm-twisting was the War on Drugs of Cooper’s day, a movement as full of sleaze as of intolerance. As with many of the stands for which Cooper has yet to be given sufficient credit, his refusal to join in the rank parade of “virtue ... upon stilts” marked one of his better judgment calls. 26

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Figure 4. The Pledge as a Bible Insert. Web. 9 May 2012. Used with permission.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, Jr., ed., The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922) 2:731. Cooper also brought up “Boston biscuits” in a revolting way in James Fenimore Cooper, Jack Tier, or, The Florida Reefs (1848; New York: Appleton & Co., [1900]) 215.

2 David O. Whitten, Manufacturing: A Historiographical and Bibliographical Guide, in Handbook of American Business History (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990) 57.

3 James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960) 1:109.

4 Punctuation and spelling as in the original, quoted in Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper, The Early Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) 426.

5 Franklin, Cooper, 426.

6 Cooper, Correspondence, 1:278.

7 Cooper, Correspondence, 1:279.

8 L[ewis] Gaylord Clark, “Cooper, Scott, and Lockhart,” Lippincott’s Magazine (McBride’s Magazine) 8 (December, 1871): for date, 625 for quotation, 626.

9 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale, ed. James Franklin Beard (1823; Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980) 168-78.

10 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie: A Tale, ed. James Franklin Beard (1827; Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1985) 166.

11 James Fenimore Cooper, Oak Openings, or the Bee Hunter (1848; New York: W. A. Townsend and Company, 1860) as “Whiskey Center,” 15; description of, 13.

12 Henry IV, Part I, Act III, Scene 3. Bardolph is also in Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, in which his old friend, Hal (Henry) hangs him.

13 Cooper, Oak Openings, respectively, 13, 31.

14 Cooper, Oak Openings, 111.

15 Cooper, Oak Openings, 60.

16 James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak (1847; New York: The Co-operative Publication Society, 1900) 39.

17 Cooper, The Crater, 39.

18 Cooper, The Crater, 39.

19 Cooper, The Crater, 43-44.

20 For Cooper’s dislike of “Lord Mortimer” romances, see Fred Lewis Pattee, “James Fenimore Cooper,” American Mercury 4 (March, 1925): 292.

21 For the series, see R. L. Patten, George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art (Rutgers University Press 1992) Vol. 2, plates 1-8.

22 James Fenimore Cooper, Jack Tier, or, The Florida Reef (1848; New York: Appleton & Company, 18- [n.d.]) 367.

23 Cooper, Jack Tier, 368, 407.

24 James Fenimore Cooper, The Ways of the Hour (1850; New York and London: Co-operative Publication Society, 1900) 6.

25 Cooper, The Ways of the Hour, 362.

26 Cooper, Jack Tier, 367.