Exploring the Alliances of Political Economy: The Financial Panic of 1819 and The Last of the Mohicans

Karen Rosenthall (Rice University)

Presented at the No. 2 Cooper Panel of the 2012 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 29, May, 2012, pp. 17-20.

Copyright © 2012, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In his 2007 biography, Wayne Franklin labeled James Fenimore Cooper as the inventor of “the key forms of American fiction-the Western, the sea tale, [and] the Revolutionary romance” (James Fenimore Cooper xi). Along with praising Cooper’s foundational impact on U.S. literature, Franklin highlights that which motivated Cooper to write, the loss of his family inheritance. Initially Cooper rejected his father’s politics — Republican — and career path — lawyer — but after his father’s death and his older brothers’ inability to manage the family estate, Cooper had to face the reality that his presumed life of leisure now necessitated work. This work produced richly complex early American narratives that arguably sparked the potential for U.S. literary culture. Cooper’s narratives have continued to foster critical conversation about the early American historical romance, the role Native Americans played in nation formation, and the significance of U.S. expansion for over one hundred and eighty-five years. Traditionally, scholars emphasize the way Cooper romanticizes or mythologizes the pat in his historical novels, and this paper contends that these narrations of actual events look forward to address issues that plagued the U.S. during Cooper’s lifetime.

While The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian war for colonial control over North America, this paper will anachronistically consider the influence that historical events which altered Cooper’s life had upon his representation of the past. Economic historians emphasize the significance of the French and Indian War as a moment of transition that showed the colonists how intertwined their financial security was with the health of the British economy (Breen 235). The purpose of this reading is to juxtapose the French and Indian War and the War of 1812 and to explore how Cooper’s personal financial losses and political ties led him to conflate the two moments to construct a cautionary tale about the deregulated early American economy and the impact international ties could have on the U.S. To prove these claims, I will begin by drawing a parallel between the causes and effects of the War of 1812 with the loss of the Cooper family estate. Then, turning to The Last of the Mohicans, I contend that Cooper’s mythic characterization of the French and the British, his treatment of transactional negotiation, and his juxtaposition of Cora and Alice present a sustained reflection upon the United States’ developing role on the global stage, both politically and economically. This study will assert that the ambient economic and political issues that influenced Cooper’s own life and the evolution of American policy appear in nascent form in The Last of the Mohicans as a foreshadowing of what could occur if the U.S. did not protect against foreign intervention.

Numerous scholars have grappled with the meaning of the Native American in Cooper’s narrative and what the significance is of his portrayal of the extermination of the Mohicans. Along with this strand of thought, I believe it is also important to ask why a Native American nation is portrayed as vanishing during the French and Indian War, a New World continuation of Old World conflicts. The Last of the Mohicans takes place during the final stages of the French and Indian War, when the French and British colonial powers fought for control of North American land, resources, and access to waterway trade routes. The participants and instigators of the French and Indian War are remarkably similar to the catalysts that sparked the War of 1812. While some historians take issue with the insinuation that the British provoked the U.S. into war, the battles Britain and France waged via ocean commerce during the Napoleonic wars led to the U.S.’s non-Intercourse Act of 1809 and then the War of 1812. Economic warfare between the French and the British impacted the U.S. via ship and sailor impressment, embargoes, and increased insurance costs (Latimer 16-26). After the war, the U.S. relaxed its restrictive tariffs and the British flooded the American market with goods. This influx of products priced cheaper than those manufactured in the U.S coincided temporally with a fluctuation in the value of American currency.

The Cooper family’s assets were mostly comprised of real estate holdings, and during the War of 1812, the value of land, especially near the Canadian border, plummeted. These consecutive deflations of land, currency, and product value caused the financial panic of 1819 (Taussig 19-20). By 1819, Cooper realized that he must work, and he turned to international trade and whaling and worked for Republican New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton before settling into his writing career (A Historical Guide 33-7). Cooper’s chosen employments exposed him to the hotly contested debates happening at both the state and federal level regarding tariffs and industry protection for the U.S.’s fledgling industries. The issue at the heart of these political economy discussions centered on defining involvement: whether the U.S. should continue to become involved in global disputes; whether the federal government should be involved in levying tariffs for states, and whether the U.S. should limit foreign involvement in national markets to protect its own businesses. These debates gained national attention during the Panic of 1819, but they were by no means resolved for many decades. And, I postulate that after Cooper’s personal finances were decimated by these economic events that he looked to history for examples of the consequences of allowing other nations to dictate the terms of American involvement, from the battlefield to the marketplace.

The problems of foreign intervention in the United States were not conclusively worked out by 1826; so instead, I assert that Cooper mythologizes the French and Indian War to foreshadow how perpetuating problems of international involvement could have dire consequences for American political economy. In Manifest and Other Destinies, Stephanie LeMenager defines the historical romance as “displacing [contemporary political problems] onto a deep past in which similar problems have already been conclusively worked out” (53-4), and she uses this definition in order to separate Cooper’s The Prairie from traditional understandings of historical romance. Cooper harnessed circulating questions of political economy, global commerce, and international relations and looked to the past to elucidate the potential costs if the U.S did not start regulating its own markets and limiting foreign intervention. Lindsay Claire Smith contends that Cooper’s novel “offers a more complex — though often subtle — presentation of cross-cultural contact — and even reciprocity — than most critics have recognized” (528). And though Smith uses this interpretation to nuance Cooper’s portrayal of Native Americans and their contact with other cultures, I assert that these moments of cross-cultural contact on North American soil reflect early nineteenth-century American fears. I will examine moments of contact between Native Americans, colonial Americans, the British, and the French in order to contend that inherent within the novel’s critique of these outside influences is Cooper’s understanding of geopolitics and the indirect and direct interventions that imperial forces continued to make into U.S. national affairs. This reading will emphasize that it is no coincidence that Cooper’s novelistic portrayal of a war that changed how colonial America was impacted by the power of Old World forces was published to national acclaim around ten years after the War of 1812 and the panic of 1819.

Contrary to the way that early Americans are typically presumed to laud European knowledge or culture, Cooper’s novel privileges Native American familiarity and expertise. Heywood, the British soldier, is quickly subordinated to Hawkeye, who explains: “[w]hoever comes in the woods to deal with the natives, must use Indian fashions, if he would wish to prosper in his undertakings” (Mohicans 34). Both the British and the French ally with the Native Americans because the North American wilderness presents an unfamiliar obstacle. Cooper introduces alliances between Old and New World peoples as detrimental to both indigenous and colonial Americans. The British are hindered by “[t]he imbecility of her military leaders and the fatal want of energy in her councils at home, [which] had lowered the character of Great Britain. ... In this mortifying abasement, the colonists, though innocent of her imbecility, and too humble to be the agents of her blunders, were but the natural participators” (Mohicans 3). While the decline of the British Empire was evident in the scope of Cooper’s hindsight, it was not apparent to the naïve colonists or the Native Americans who aided the English in their fight for more territory and international clout in the 1750s and 60s. By hinting at the lowered character of Great Britain, Cooper constructs a genealogy from the moment described to the moment of publication, which incorporates the knowledge that the British Empire would falter and that a separation would occur between the North American colonists and the English. It is only through this retrospective understanding of what would happen to the British Empire that Cooper can portray the consequences to becoming embroiled in the imperialism of other nations. I compare this cautionary moment to the claims that the U.S. did not willingly enter into the War of 1812. Cooper’s critique of involvement in wars waged by others projects fears that if the U.S. continues becoming the pawn of other nations’ international wars and schemes that it may experience the same fate as Native Americans like Magua and Uncas.

The consequences of British and French involvement in North America were significantly worse for Native American tribes and nations than for early American colonists. I analogize Cooper’s characterization of these Old World alliances with Native Americans to that of the early Americans to hypothesize that Cooper imagined these events as a potential consequence to not preventing the intervention of foreign forces in U.S. political and economic systems. By the time Cooper was writing The Last of the Mohicans, the French had less of a presence in North America, yet Cooper is no more complimentary of the French and their leadership of the Native Americans than he is of the British. He describes the French commander Montcalm as “[an] expert in those political practices, which do not always respect the nicer obligations of morality” (Mohicans 93). This condemnation of the French style of leadership speaks directly to their ability to diplomatically manage the relationships between the Native Americans and the colonists. Cooper passed these judgments on the French once they had lost the majority of their North American land holdings, and it is through historical hindsight that Cooper is able to challenge the strength of these imperial forces and their dealings on the global stage to undermine how they were interacting with the U.S. during his lifetime.

Negotiation appears as a reoccurring theme in The Last of the Mohicans and it suggests the potential impact foreign influence and involvement could have upon the U.S as it took a place on the geopolitical stage. Shirley Samuels refers to “frontier transactions [as] ... produc[ing] a radically crossed or miscegenated identity, producing, in effect, a miscegenation between nature and culture” (Samuels 89). Samuels emphasizes that hybridization creates an identity that mingles nature and culture, which gives negotiation the power of production. Given that natural resources and an “untamed” wilderness were seen as the sources of U.S. economic potential, I argue that isolating the mingling of nature and culture turns negotiation and bargaining into a representation of how the U.S. had to form its own political economy amidst potentially overpowering influencing forces. Mark Rifkin’s recent exploration of how transnational studies “potentially open onto analyses of how the reifying figure of the Indian helps [to] cohere transnational structures of Euro-settlement” offers an alternative for reading the alliances that appear in The Last of the Mohicans (338). Samuels argues that examples of how Native Americans engage in transactional negotiations suggest that a uniquely American identity formed from these dealings; Rifkin privileges the interactions indigenous Americans had with Europeans in order to complicate settlement narratives. These theories seem somewhat oppositional, but I read both interpretations of indigenous American resources, culture, and populace as arguing for utilization of that which enables national hegemony and autonomy. And all these features comprise and cannot be divorced from national political economy.

The Last of the Mohicans stages negotiation and transaction between national players in the American wilderness, and these barters take place in exchanges of information, land holdings, people, and colonial power. Heywood quickly realizes the unequal terms for barter when he has to negotiate between his guide and Hawkeye to protect Alice and Cora and to safely travel to the Fort. As relations between Magua and Heywood are beginning to break down, Heywood asks, “are we not friends? Why should there be bitter words between us? Munro has promised you a gift for your services when performed, and I shall be your debtor for another” (Mohicans 35). Heywood’s confidence that gifts will purchase Magua’s loyalty shows that he underestimates the Native American’s commitment to his own agenda. While Magua has the advantage, Heywood leans on the cultural capital of gift exchange in order to assert his own power. Rather than simply reading this moment as a betrayal, Magua’s manipulation reflects a staunch refusal to help the British and his half-hearted alliance with the French also signifies that his political leanings go beyond those of a hired mercenary. The Native Americans in the novel are able to go between the worlds of the French and the British in order to attempt to further their own causes. Ultimately these efforts may have been unsuccessful, but Cooper’s portrayal nuances the connection between the natural American world and the culture of North America and supports those who understand how to inhabit rather than conquer the land.

When Montcalm accepts the British surrender of Fort William Henry, Magua immediately transitions to acting independently and he declares that his alliances do not overpower his allegiance to his own people. The French achieve their desired outcome with a peaceful capture of the fort, yet for their allies, this victory does not offer the same sort of spoils. Magua informs Montcalm, “[w]here is the sun! Behind the hill; and it is dark and cold. But when he comes again, it will be bright and warm. Le Subtil is the sun of his tribe. There have been clouds and many mountains between him and his nation; but now he shines, and it is a clear sky” (Mohicans 174). There is potential for notoriety and for the Hurons to assert their presence in the fight for North American land. Magua takes advantage of the tenuous peace between the French and the British to curry favor with his own nation and to prevent alliance between the two imperial powers. Magua is not a redeemable character in this novel, but his fight for a Native American position that is separate from that of the British or French is a challenge to reading the text as simply predicting the inevitability of indigenous extermination.

The novel presents the Huron uprising against the British in the context of both its historical moment and Cooper’s retrospective understanding of it. This historicization remembers the incident as a, “bloody and inhuman scene, [which is] rather incidentally mentioned than described in the preceding chapter, [and] is conspicuous in the pages of colonial history ... It so far deepened the stain which a previous and very similar event had left upon the reputation of the French commander” (Mohicans 186). Much like Magua’s betrayal of Heywood, this “massacre” can be interpreted simply as a perpetuation of the stereotype of the uncivilized, dishonest Native American. But Cooper also inscribes the moment in the trajectory of colonial history and makes mention of the failures of the French commander, which links the Huron uprising to the narrative genealogy of the American Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, and other upheavals against European powers in North America. By calling attention to the historical trajectory of broken alliances and supposedly justifiable uprisings, The Last of the Mohicans complicates how hybridizing transactions can privilege Europe’s influence on the indigenous or colonial populations instead of looking at how these groups attempted to preserve their nationalities or defend themselves from the incursion of outside forces.

Negotiations and barters also appear in the novel in the form of marriage proposals for Cora and Alice. The family unit has often stood as a metaphor for the health, unity, and future of nation, and the multicultural makeup of Colonel Munro’s family and the men trying to enter it typify the populations fighting for control of the New World and the means they used to do so. Heywood and Magua pursue the girls. By examining the ethnic backgrounds of Cora, Alice, and their suitors, these discussions portray one way the novel attends to American political economy. While many scholars have addressed the juxtaposition of Cora and Alice in racialized terms and how their characters challenge or adhere to stereotypes, their father focuses on the economic disparities of their backgrounds. Munro met and married Cora’s mother when he did not have the wealth to marry Alice’s mother; Munro’s financial situation exemplifies the decline of European landed aristocracy and the expansion of the mercantile class and professionalization. When Munro presents this situation to Heywood, he differentiates between his first and second wives on the basis of their social position, yet even though Cora’s background includes slavery and miscegenation; her father still assumes that Heywood seeks Cora’s hand over Alice’s. Instead of looking at Cora as an example of racial mixing, her heritage represents how commerce was the impetus for cross-cultural contact. Magua covets Cora and although the terms he presents are not necessarily ideal, he uses any form of manipulation he can to barter with Cora and to convince her to be his wife. While Alice is the blonde, sweet, beautiful, ingenuous daughter, Cora is presented as dark, steady, protective, and resourceful, yet by the end of the novel, Cora is the female protagonist who must die. Cora, who represents international commercial interaction, Uncas, who stands as the last member of his race, and Magua, who attempts to fight for his race against empirical interlopers, are those who cannot survive. I do not mean to simplify these complex characters, but typifying their traits as representative of political economy and international relations complicates suppositions that antebellum U.S. economic policy was reactionary and haphazard. Cooper was tuned into policy debates, national changes, and proposed regulations, and those formative national measures were key to his themes of national stability.

Cooper’s letters have been compiled into one volume entitled, Notions of the Americans, and, he does specifically address the impact of the War of 1812 on the United States and the American mindset. Cooper writes, “[i]t is a mistaken idea that the Americans are a people so much engaged in commerce as to be indifferent to the nicer points of national honor and military renown ... Conquest the Americans do not need, and there is no fear of injuries growing into precedent against a people who are rich, out of debt, free, intelligent, intrinsically brave” (The American Democrat 89). In this post-1815 moment, Cooper asserts that while the U.S. is dedicated to its economic prosperity that it does have the capability to defend those endeavors, should the need arise. This assertion displays that the U.S. was globally involved yet not imperial. While these ideals are clearly contradicted by government policy, they do point to the ambient economic logics and fears circulating in the U.S. at the time. Reading novels like The Last of the Mohicans as expressing the potential of and concern for America’s economic future shows that the American populace was exposed to and capable of linking the consequences of previous historical events and contemporaneous problems to the success of national development.

Works Cited

  • Breen, T.H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat and Other Political Writings. Ed. Bradley J. Birzer and John Willson. Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 2000.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Franklin, Wayne. “James Fenimore Cooper, 1789-1851: A Brief Biography.” A Historical Guide to James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. Leland S. Person. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Latimer, Jon. 1812: War with America. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.
  • LeManager, Stephanie. Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth Century United States. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Print.
  • Rifkin, Mark. “The Transatlantic Indian Problem.” American Literary History 24.2 (2012): 337-55. Print.
  • Samuels, Shirley. “Generation through Violence: Cooper and the Making of Americans.” New Essays on The Last of the Mohicans. Ed. H. Daniel Peck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Print.
  • Smith, Lindsey Claire. “Cross-Cultural Hybridity in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.” American Transcendental Quarterly 20.3 (2006): 527-52. Print.
  • Taussig, F.W. The Tariff History of the United States. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1923. Print.