Democracy as Failure and Refusal in Lionel Lincoln

Nels E. Olson (Michigan State University)

Presented at the James Fenimore Cooper’s International Dimensions Panel of the 2014 Conference of the American Literature Association in Washington, D.C.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 31, May, 2015, pp. 8-11.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In this essay, I argue that an underappreciated political aspect of James Fenimore Cooper’s fiction is the way he uses literature, by which I mean the art of writing, to challenge established legal orders. 1 In his classic work of myth and symbol criticism, Henry Nash Smith reads legal order as synonymous with justice for Cooper. With Cooper’s introduction of Natty Bumppo in his second novel, The Pioneers, Smith argues that even though Cooper points to various challenges a democratic society mounts against legal proceduralism, “Cooper displays a genuine ambivalence toward all [of them]... in every case his strongest commitment is to the forces of order” (62). The notion that a commitment to order equals a commitment to justice has since become a common way to read Cooper. His ambivalence to the same order he seems to insist on at other moments is often read as evidence of Cooper’s lack of a clear politics. In contrast, I read his ambivalence as a political and artistic challenge to existing political orders and aesthetic forms. His challenge to political and aesthetic order is especially apparent in his third novel of the American Revolution published in 1825, Lionel Lincoln; or The Leaguer of Boston. This novel can be read as a discourse on what Cooper would later call in The American Democrat, democracy’s refusal to lend itself to the “unnatural and arbitrary distinctions” that always organize societies (61). Though he often celebrates democracy, Cooper just as often expresses concern over the anarchy of a democratic world order devoid of codified systems of representation.

What emerges, then, in the romance that accompanies Cooper’s careful historical depiction of Revolutionary Boston in Lionel Lincoln is a profound meditation on the anarchic politics of democracy and literature alike. In the end, democracy’s refusal of artificial order is amoral by Cooper’s pen; it does not operate by any divine or natural justice. The amorality of democracy also constitutes its danger. Though the politics of the United States’ break from Britain had been settled by 1825, the revolution in democratic political ideals was far from settled. Fifty years out from the Revolution, the enlightenment promise of liberty and justice for all had not yet come to pass and Cooper, like other Americans, feared the United States was on the verge of trading in one form of aristocracy for another. Like his contemporaries, Cooper worried that democracy had failed to provide a suitable alternative to the ancien régime.

More recent re-conceptions of Cooper’s legacy assert that his preoccupation with the ways natural justice is and is not translated into existing forms of government and legal codes coincides with his chief professional concerns. Cooper was struggling to support himself as a professional author at a time when being an author was not yet an established profession. As a struggling author whose primary subject matter was a young country still very much defining itself, Cooper undoubtedly would not have been very certain about the course of his literary career or the young county. What he was more certain about was that sustained engagement with inherited forms was a necessity not only for his survival as an artist, but also for the survival of his country. Jerome McGann, in describing what he terms Cooper’s anti-aesthetic, has argued that for Cooper, challenging inherited forms was in fact more important than achieving aesthetic symmetry. He writes, “Cooper’s fictions do not turn on normative moral character, the resolution of elaborated plots, or the construction of self-subsistent imaginative worlds. Their artistic center — their source and test and end — lies in Cooper’s effort to provoke critical reflection” (126). The fact that Cooper was firmly entrenched in the nuanced political currents that affected all Americans in the early republic is starkly different from the picture much of the critical history paints of Cooper as an ambivalent democrat or a lofty gentleman of letters cranky about a literary market that did not appreciate his talent and originality.

The political engagement I outline above largely mirrors Cooper’s aesthetic engagement with Sir Walter Scott’s model for the historical romance, Waverley. 2 In Scott’s novel, the chaos of history can always be made to fit into a classical aristocratic order that underscores the infallibility of the English national form. In Lionel Lincoln, Cooper raises questions about how Waverley orders history and the nation by re-crafting Scott’s wavering romantic hero. 3 McGann rightfully argues that instead of sharing Scott’s overriding concerns over “imaginative and aesthetic issues,” Cooper instead exposes the limits of Scott’s model, particularly “their illusions — factual, ideological, [and] aesthetic” (129). Whereas the aesthetic of Scott’s historical romances mirror hierarchical aristocratic orders, Cooper finds aristocratic politics and aesthetics ultimately antithetical to a democratic republic and insists that a writer must subsume aesthetic and formal concern, “to elucidate the history, manners, usages, and scenery, of his native land” (Cooper qtd. in McGann, 129). I argue that Cooper’s commitment to historical accuracy makes Scott’s aristocratic resolution to Waverley an unsuitable model for the romance in Lionel Lincoln. Cooper cannot make the British-bred Lionel convert to an American rebel because his careful historical portrayal of revolutionary Boston casts doubt on the justness of the rebels’ position. The two most developed patriotic characters are the maniac Ralph and the idiot Job. The political complexities surrounding the Revolution require a more nuanced position than both Scott’s blueprint and the opposing sides Cooper sets up in Lionel Lincoln would allow. At the end of the novel the main characters are dead from communicable disease, infestations of human weakness that have contaminated their political convictions, or, out of human fallibility, have realigned themselves with old hierarchies already proven corrupt. Thus, Cooper could not reconcile himself to the marketable aesthetic mold set by his predecessor because of his meticulous historical research. The resulting novel was considered a failure by Cooper and his readers alike. Yet, I argue, this failure also constitutes literary resistance. 4 As result of this resistance, Cooper succeeds at opening up a space for the possibility of an alternative democratic subject position that refuses corrupt ordering systems, but ultimately fails to describe it.

Jacques Rancière’s definition of the political activity of literature provides a useful framework for understanding how Cooper links literature and politics. Ranciére writes, “Political activity ... introduces new objects and subjects onto the common stage. It makes visible what was invisible, it makes audible as speaking beings those who were previously heard as noisy animals. [ ... ] The expression ‘politics of literature’ thereby implies that literature intervenes as literature in this carving up of space and time, the visible and the invisible, speech and noise” (Politics of Literature 4). The “carving up” in which literature participates is strikingly similar to Cooper’s portrayal of how democracy refuses order. Both literature and democracy exist as pure political activity; that is, their politics are not driven by any ethic or morality other than, as Ranciére puts it in another work, the fact that “there is no reason why some persons should rule over the others” (“Should Democracy Come?” 377).

Cooper’s conception of the amorality of democracy arguably comes from his commitment to historicity in the novel. In the 1832 preface, though admitting the novel was “not what its author hoped it would have been,” Cooper maintains that the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill were

to be as faithfully described as is possible to have been done by one who was not an eye-witness of the important events. No pains were spared in examining all the documents, both English and American; and many private authorities were consulted with a strong desire to ascertain the truth. The ground was visited and examined, and the differing testimony was subjected to a close comparison between the statements and the probability. (7)

In fact, his historical accounts of these battles were praised by historians of his generation for their accuracy. For example, in his memorial of Cooper, George Bancroft said, “In Lionel Lincoln, Cooper has described the battle of Bunker Hill better than it is described in any other work” (Qtd. in McWilliams 90-91). Rather than using Bunker Hill as an origin story for democratic republicanism, Cooper’s telling of the battle from the point of view of an American-born British-bred Major in the Royal Army with mixed loyalties suggests that the history of the early days of the Revolution was far more complex. However, as Cooper also learned from the somewhat tepid response to the novel, “there is no blunder more sure to be visited by punishment, than that which tempts a writer to instruct his readers when they wish only to be amused” (6). Market tastes preferred portrayals of revolutionary era Boston that were peopled with clear-eyed patriots, not portrayals of reticent loyalists who find themselves mired in the complexities of a civil war.

John P. McWilliams has noted that the historical chapters of Lionel Lincoln “lie outside the Massachusetts commemorative tradition” because “Cooper the author was an impartial and accurate historian in fiction” (91). He notes that the narratives of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill that had been prevalent almost since the conclusion of the battles themselves provided “sudden historical validation of the patriots collective identity as oppressed farmers and homespun martyr-heroes” (91). McWilliams argues that Cooper’s “decision to describe the battles from a worriedly impartial point of view,” provided by his wavering protagonist Lionel, amounts to a serious critique of the New England commemorative tradition. 5

In particular, Cooper describes the Battle of Bunker Hill from two perspectives. Each point of view provides a different historical meaning. First, the battle is described from an aerial perspective as the reader sits with Lionel atop Copp’s Hill across the Charles River from Breeds Hill, the actual sight of the Battle. From this vantage point, the gathered militia is described gallantly. “[T]hey stood, sustained only by the righteousness of their cause, and those deep moral principles which they had received from their fathers, and which they intended this day should show, were to be transmitted to their children” (178). McWilliams argues that through this description, “Cooper provides his reader, in one ringing sentence, perhaps the most concise summary in American literature of the way antebellum Americans wished to remember the Revolutionary patriots” (105). Though the major events of the battle are described from the same perspective, the narrative progressively obscures the clarity of this initial vision. The scene is clouded in smoke from the battle, and Cooper stresses “the overwhelming anxiety of the moment,” and draws the reader’s attention to the odd temporality of combat where “time flies as imperceptibly as life slides from beneath the feet of age” (183). British soldiers gathered near Lionel provide the main commentary on the battle. Job, the only patriotic voice, is literally ejected from the scene by the other onlookers. Without any patriotic commentary, the scene starts to become strange, and the reader must question his own framework for understanding the meaning of the event.

The perspective then shifts to the middle of the battle. After the Americans repel the second British charge, Lionel finds his resolve. “Until this moment the feelings of Lionel had vacillated between the pride of country and military spirit, but losing all other feelings in the latter sensation, he looked fiercely about him, as if he would seek the man who dare exult in the repulse of his comrades” (185). From here, the reader enters the battle aligned with Lionel’s point of view as he joins in Major Pitcairn’s charge: “A scene of wild and savage confusion succeeded to the order of the fight” (187). Along with Lionel, we see “the dying and despairing look from [Pitcairn’s] eyes after he falls into the arms of his son” (187). When Lionel’s uniform “caught the glaring-eyeballs of a dying yeoman, who exerted his wasting strength to sacrifice one more worthy victim to the manes of his countrymen,” Lionel is shot, falling unconscious in the field. (188) Cooper writes, “The fall of a single officer, in such a contest, was a circumstance not to be regarded, and regiments passed over him” (188). Though the British end the day with a marginal victory, the royal lieutenants “mourn their victory” (188). The chaos of battle exposes the powerlessness of what was initially termed a “righteous cause” springing from “deep moral principles.” The result of the day’s battle is a refusal of the rule of an existing hierarchy, but a failure to institute a new order. Such is the rule of democracy.

The tragic image of the despairing Pitcairn collapsing dead into his son’s arms foreshadows several tragic transmissions from fathers to sons that occur in the novel’s romance of the Lincoln family. A quick list includes the Lincoln family baronetcy, the family’s tendency towards “morbid sensibility” that Ralph and Lionel both inherit, and Job’s simple mindedness. These transmissions trouble patriarchic notions of inheritance in ways that make the militiamen’s intention to transmit moral principles to their children at the beginning of the battle scene nefarious. In doing so, Cooper also draws into question the cultural value of historical narratives of the Revolution that claim it as an origin of clear morals. By Cooper’s pen, the Revolution is instead made a tragic event that that makes political discord its chief legacy.

Mark Chou contends that tragedy emerged alongside the rise of western democracy in Athens as “an intrinsically democratic art form” (6). Chou notes that, though like all political forms, democracy tends towards privileging a rational and ordered state, the challenge that disorder presents to the ordered state is an integral part of the democratic process. Disorder is what keeps democracies vibrant and challenges the political fictions that, through force-cum-rationality, become instituted as reality. Tragedy is one of the chief means through which people and ideas de-politicized by official channels have been given a public voice. As entrenched as the novel is in an aristocratic literary form inherited by Scott, Cooper, unlike his predecessor, leaves discord among the primary actors unresolved.

Though the novel ends with Lionel’s thoroughly dissatisfying preference for the aristocratic order of the family baronetcy, the tragic staging of democracy nonetheless leaves the novel unresolved. The lack of resolution is not an artistic failure by Cooper. Instead, as McGann’s argument concerning Cooper’s anti-aesthetic suggests, it makes the novel a sight for a critical reflection on what in antebellum America were prevailing uncertainties over whether or not the confederated States constituted a nation, what the predominate character of that nation was or would be, and what the outcome of the experiment in republican government would be. In a more profound sense, Cooper suggests that democracy is always incumbent on disorder, refusal, and failure. Cooper’s representation of the disorder of the Revolution arguably gives a more provocative account of the Revolution’s democratic legacy than those accounts given by many of his own contemporaries. His depiction of democracy even unsettles our current political realities.

Works Cited

  • Chou, Mark. Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Democracy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Lionel Lincoln, Or, The Leaguer of Boston, 1825. Ed. Donald A. and Lucy B. Ringe. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. Print.
  • ------. The American Democrat, 1838. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2004. Print.
  • Dekker, George. The American Historical Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print.
  • Dennis, Ian. “Radical Father, Moderate Son: Cooper’s Lionel Lincoln.” American Transcendental Quarterly 11.2 (1997): 77-91. Print.
  • ------. “The Worthlessness of Duncan Heyward: A Waverly Hero in America.” Studies in the Novel 29 (1997): 1-16. Print.
  • Frank, Armin Paul. “Writing Literary Independence: The Case of Cooper — the ‘American Scott’ and the Un-Scottish American.” Comparative Literature Studies 34 (1997): 41-70. Print.
  • Long, James Weldon. “A Romance of the Revolutionary Atlantic: Shifting Patriotic Loyalties in James Fenimore Cooper’s Lionel Lincoln.” Symbiosis 15.1 (2011): 63-76. Print.
  • McGann, Jerome. “Fenimore Cooper’s Anti-Aesthetic and the Representation of Conflicted History.” Modern Language Quarterly 73.2 (2012): 123-155. Print.
  • McWilliams, John P. “Revolt in Massachusetts: The Midnight March of Lionel Lincoln.” James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Criticism. Ed. W. M. Verhoeven. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993. 89-108. Print.
  • Rancière, Jacques. Politics of Literature. Cambridge: Polity, 2011. Print.
  • ------. “Should Democracy Come?: Ethics and Politics in Derrida.” Derrida and the Time of the Political. Ed. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. 274-288. Print.
  • Shields, Juliet. “Savage and Scott-Ish Masculinity in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie: James Fenimore Cooper and the Diasporic Origins of American Identity.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 64.2 (2009): 137-162. Print.
  • Smith, Henry Nasth. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970. Print.


1 I borrow the concept of literature as the art of writing from Jacques Rancière. For more see The Politics of Literature (4-8).

2 George Dekker, in Chapter 2 of The American Historical Romance, discusses the influence of Scott and particularly Waverley as providing an aesthetic model for Cooper. Joseph Rezek examines how the English literary marketplace shaped the writing of both Scott and Cooper. Juliet Shield has recently reassessed Scott’s influence on Cooper in her article “Savage and Scott-ish Masculinity in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie: James Fenimore Cooper and the Diasporic Origins of American Identity.” She examines how “the Leather-Stocking Tales borrow selectively from the Waverley novels, rejecting their valorization of feudal chivalry while incorporating their representation of cultural appropriation as a mechanism of teleological social development” (140). For another relatively recent comparison of Scott and Cooper, see Armin Paul Frank, “Writing Literary Independence: The Case of Cooper — the ‘American Scott’ and the Un-Scottish American.” In “Radical Father, Moderate Son: Cooper’s Lionel Lincoln,” Ian Dennis makes specific comparisons between central characters in Lionel Lincoln and characters from several of Scott’s novels. See pages 78 and 79. Dennis expands on his comparison between Cooper and Scott in Nationalism and Desire in Early Historical Fiction.

3 For another take on how Cooper critically re-crafted Scott’s Waverley character, see Ian Dennis, “The Worthlessness of Duncan Heyward: A Waverley Hero in America.”

4 James Weldon Long also reads Lionel Lincoln as constituting a form of what I have called literary resistance. He argues that the critical history has predominately read the novel in two ways: “one perceives Cooper’s project as a patriotic attempt at providing an accurate, historically valuable depiction of the Revolution; the other regards it as a critique of America’s growing national mythology” (71). Long aligns himself with the second reading and argues that Lionel represents an Atlantic perspective that offers a space for antebellum Americans to escape America’s “growing fanatical devotion to its role as a national power” (72).

5 McWilliams’ primary example of the Massachusetts commemorative tradition is Edward Everett’s oration commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, delivered April 19ᵗʰ, 1825 (See McWilliams 96-98). See too his list of antebellum writers, orators, and men and women of letters who reflected on the early days of the Revolution in and around Boston (90).