Race-Science Rhetoric as Political Panacea: James Fenimore Cooper’s Influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe

Philip Kadish (Hunter College, CUNY)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and American Women Writers” at the 2017 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Copyright © 2018, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Spring 2018, pp. 26-34.

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

{p. 26} Although James Fenimore Cooper’s various influences on American literature are well established in literary criticism, one of his innovations has escaped much critical attention — that is, Cooper’s pioneering use of race-science theories as political rhetoric. In this paper, I will argue that Cooper didn’t simply succumb to the strong influence of his era’s race science, but that instead Cooper exercised a great deal of creative latitude in the selective application and combination of various theories as suited his racial-political objectives. Moreover, I will argue that this strategic and flexible deployment of race science proved particularly appealing to American women authors of the mid-nineteenth century, for which Harriet Beecher Stowe shall stand as the exemplar. In essence, the influential strategy amounts to using elements of race-science theories within fiction to solve specific racialpolitical problems.

Throughout the 1820s, Cooper marshaled selective elements of scientific race theory in iterative attempts to solve the conundrum of how Anglo-Americans could establish national legitimacy as somehow native to North America without losing their status as white Europeans. What critic Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has described as the problem of formulating a new American national subjecthood (848) pivots on the dominant European conception that nations are racial as well as political entities and that legitimate nations are built from races with long historical ties to the lands they occupy. Cooper’s solution to this problem was to use elements of Europe’s own scientific theories of race to triangulate Anglo-American white identity with the racial identities constructed for Native Americans and Africans, a move entirely consistent with the general theorization of the formation of American white identity put forth by critical-race theory. To this end, Cooper deployed in his works of the 1820s racial theories developed by two eighteenth-century Frenchmen, the Comte de Buffon and the Marquis de Condorcet.

Buffon, the most influential biologist of the late-eighteenth century, theorized that races represent varying degrees of degeneration from the perfection of Adam and Eve, the degree and nature of the degradation determined by environmental factors. Thus certain peoples had particular traits because of where their ancestors had lived; new traits {27} would take many generations to develop, and peoples had natural habitats outside of which they could not thrive. Buffon had specifically predicted that Europeans would never be able to thrive in North America, and were doomed to sickness, frailty, and infertility in an environment to which they had not adapted over many centuries. The first time that Buffon’s ideas of slow racial adaptation to climate appear in Cooper’s work — in The Pioneers (1823), the first of the Leatherstocking novels — Cooper happily presents Buffon’s analysis as entirely correct in the case of Africans transplanted to North America. In The Pioneers, Cooper depicts black characters as physically incapable of thriving in the climate of North America to which Indians and whites were supposedly well adapted. Cooper tells the reader that Aggy, an African servant, is not physically adapted to Northern cold:

His face, which nature had coloured with a glistening black, was now mottled with the cold, and his large shining eyes filled with tears; a tribute to its power, that the keen frosts of those regions always extracted from one of his African origin. (12-13)

Cooper repeated this Buffonian assertion five years later in Notions of the Americans; Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828). That work’s narrator opines that “All experience proves, that ages and generations must elapse before the descendants of Africa can acquire habits of endurance which shall enable him to resist frost, if, indeed, it can ever be done,” adding that “The free blacks are found hovering as near as possible to the slave States, because the climate of the south is what they crave” (287). Meanwhile, white characters in Cooper’s works are depicted as equally well adapted to the North American climate as Native Americans.

In The Pioneers, Cooper is content to use this demonstration of Anglo-Saxons’ Indian-like comfort in North America and the contrast to the supposed response of African bodies to that climate to refute Buffon’s expectation that Anglo-Saxons, as Europeans, are inherently foreign to North America and doomed to biological as well as national failure there. By the time he’d penned The Prairie, in 1827, however, Cooper seemed to feel compelled to make a more direct assault on Buffon’s evaluation. In this novel, Cooper describes the male members (so to speak) of a family of white settlers as “sturdy men” who moved “with the strides of a giant,” and were endowed with the “unwieldy, but terrible, strength of the elephant” (11, 363, 12), invoking just the sort of large mammal species whose absence in the Americas Buffon interpreted as a sign of continental inferiority. A sexualized, or Freudian, interpretation of this preoccupation with size comparisons between the {28} peoples of Europe and the Americas is all too precise, considering that Buffon had claimed that

in the savage [and eventually, he predicted, in Europeans settled in the Americas], the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female”. [H]is sensations are less acute; and yet he is more timid and cowardly. (130)

Cooper mocks Buffon in The Prairie, having an incompetent and pompous acolyte of Buffon summarize the Frenchman’s claims — “Now, it is known in philosophy that the stature of man hath degenerated and must degenerate in these regions, in obedience to established laws of nature” (198) — and lecture on the “differences in formation, which occur in the different families of man,” before identifying as an Indian a young man who is almost immediately proved to be white (202).

Cooper invokes the notion that races cannot successfully move beyond their original habitat again in 1829’s The Borderers; or, the Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish, but in contradictory ways. Famously, Cooper has the Indian chief Conanchet declare to his white wife in true Buffonian style

that the Spirit that made the earth ... is very cunning. He has known where to put the hemlock, and where the oak should grow. He has left the moose and the deer to the Indian hunter, and he has given the horse and the ox to a pale-face ... . Conanchet is a tall and straight hemlock, and the father of Narra-mattah [Ruth, his wife] is a tree of the clearing, that bears the red fruit. The Great Spirit was angry when they grew together. (357)

This has been interpreted, most famously by Leslie Fiedler, as antimiscegenation (204-05) expressed in Buffonian terms. However, this denunciation of their marriage occurs as Conanchet is attempting to convince his wife to flee with their child from the attack in which he has been fatally wounded, and its intended sincerity can be questioned. It is a poor assertion of Buffonian principles for the Indian character to die and the white wife and their mixed-race child to survive and go on to continue populating the continent. In fact, in a passage that has received much less critical attention, Cooper has a Connecticut frontiersman describe delegates from the English court as having the “most abject and ludicrous apprehension of the prowess” of Indians, essentially thinking that their culturally acquired skills are biologically innate. Cooper has the man correct this notion, declaring

{29} that the white man, when placed in situations to acquire such knowledge, readily becomes the master of most of that peculiar skill for which the North American Indian is so remarkable, and which enables him, among other things, to detect the signs of a forest trail, with a quickness and an accuracy of intelligence that amount nearly to an instinct. (73)

These are just a handful of examples of the ways that Cooper applied the ideas of Buffon and Condorcet selectively when it suited his racialpolitical purposes while feeling free to disparage the same set of race theories when they did not. The central point of Cooper’s deployment of Buffon’s theories, then, is to establish that the Anglo-Saxon, unlike the African, easily adapts to the land and practices of the Indian. This left Cooper with the problem of explaining why the American AngloSaxon did not welcome Indians as equals into American society. It was to solve that dilemma that Cooper brought in the ideas of Condorcet.

Condorcet proposed that civilizations mature through progressive developmental stages, an idea that was racialized in transatlantic culture into the claim that races develop through those stages at different rates, which is known as “romantic historicism.” Cooper applied this theory to frame Indians as well adapted to their native environment but unable to adapt quickly to Anglo-American culture because Indians as a race were stuck for the time being at a more “primitive” stage of civilization. In The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cooper’s narrator claims that the love that the Indian Uncas has for the mulatta Cora has “elevated him far above the intelligence and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation” since the young Mohican warrior’s eyes “had already lost their fierceness, and were beaming with “sympathy” (138). This concept of a period of civilized development required before Indians can live as equals with whites in America is evident in the novel’s final scene. Cooper introduces the spirit of the long-dead Indian leader Tamenund and has him declare that “[t]he pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again” (424). This line’s implication that Indians must now cede the continent to the whites has long been discussed by scholars; the line’s implication of a future return of more “developed” Indians — the Condorcet scenario, if you will — has largely gone unnoticed.

This romantic-historicist view of Indians and its implications for the present and future of white-Indian relations in America reappears in more detail in Notions. That work’s fictional narrator opines that “[a]s a rule, the red man disappears before the superior moral and physical influence of the white” (77) and that Indians living near whites are “all {30} alike, a stunted, dirty, and degraded race” (281). The narrator thus argues that Indians cannot at present thrive within Anglo-American culture, before supporting the removal of Indians to Western territories being carried out in this era, speculating on the value to Indians of a safe space in which “they may continue to advance in civilization to maturity” (286). That said, the narrator observes that

[a]s there is little reluctance to mingle the white and red blood, (for the physical difference is far less than in the case of the blacks, and the Indians have never been menial slaves,) I think an amalgamation of the two races [white and Indian] would in time occur. (287)

Interestingly, in Notions Cooper suggests that the barrier to African-Americans joining Anglo-Saxons as equals within American civilization was, unlike climatic adaptation, due primarily to a social prejudice rather than biological inferiority, commenting that “[w]ith few exceptions, the blacks of America belong to an ill-educated and inferior class” (269) and therefore the “time of the intermingling of the races to any great extent is still remote” (275). Nonetheless, the end result of Cooper’s customized formulation of race science within his fiction was to establish Anglo-Saxons as capable of thriving in both North American climate (unlike Africans) and European-style civilization (unlike either Africans or Indians), a form of white national subjecthood found throughout his work.

I have identified a similarly flexible and strategic use of race science to solve racial-political dilemmas in the work of a number of midnineteenth-century women authors, most significantly in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Since critic George M. Fredrickson identified the influence of Alexander Kinmont’s “romantic racialism” on Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852), Stowe has been the exemplar of a race-science theory influencing an American author (104). Kinmont was a minister in Stowe’s hometown of Cincinnati whose theological-scientific theory postulated that “negroes” were innately childlike and Christlike — that is to say, loving, forgiving, nonviolent — a framing of African-American character that shaped Stowe’s depiction of the central character, Uncle Tom. Although Stowe had described Uncle Tom as a “large, broadchested, powerfully-made man,” she had immediately stressed, in line with Kinmont’s theory, that Tom’s face was “characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence” (40-41), thus crafting a complexly gendered figure in line with feminine sentimental Christian virtues. From the start of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe stresses that African-Americans are “essentially {31} unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race” (v). This race-science theory helped Stowe solve the racial-political problem of how to reframe African-Americans more sympathetically and less threateningly in the minds of white readers. Kinmont’s theories accomplish this by framing African-Americans as virtuous and in need of paternal protection, while leaving Anglo-Saxon self-perception of superiority intact.

Importantly, the critical consensus since Fredrickson has been that Stowe was permanently influenced by Kinmont’s romantic racialism. However, my research shows that Stowe in fact switched race-science” theory allegiances, abandoning Kinmont’s theories just four years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in favor of a new theory that better suited changing political circumstances. Stowe casts as the hero of her very next novel, Dred; a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), an escaped slave plotting a violent slave rebellion whose aim is to “slay [white slaveholders] utterly, and consume them from off the face of the earth!” (460) As Stowe wrote the novel that would become Dred, abolitionists in Kansas were being murdered by proslavery forces and her friend Senator Charles Sumner had been beaten nearly to death by a proslavery congressman. Having come to support violent resistance to slavery, Stowe now faced a new racial-political problem in her novel: how to depict a slave revolt that would have been biologically impossible under Kinmont’s theories without denying the near-monopoly on “pride” (the refusal to be oppressed) that American white culture held to be owned by Anglo-Saxons and that was a foundational element of American white identity.

The solution that Stowe struck upon was to parse African-Americans by their supposed African ethnic heritage, and to claim that a small minority of Africans, the Mandingos, shared the trait of pride and rebellion with Anglo-Saxons while the vast majority did not. When the fugitive slave and guerilla fighter Dred first appears in the novel that bears his name, Stowe informs the reader that his mother was a “Mandingo slave woman,” and that

the Mandingos are one of the finest of African tribes, distinguished for intelligence, beauty of form, and an indomitable pride and energy of nature. As slaves, they are considered particularly valuable by those who have tact enough to govern them, because of their great capability and their proud faithfulness; but they resent government of brute force, and under such are always fractious and dangerous. (208)

{32} Stowe infers that another highly independent slave may also be Mandingo when she explains that this formidable woman “was a fine specimen of one of those warlike and splendid races, of whom, as they have seldom been reduced to slavery, there are but few and rare specimens among the slaves of the South” (49). In 1868, in a biographical sketch of Frederick Douglass included in her collection Men of Our Times, Stowe lays out this theory in greater detail and clarity, explaining that

the Mandingo has European features, a fine form, wavy, not wool hair, is intelligent, vigorous, proud and brave. The Guinea negro has a coarse, animal head, is stupid, dirty, cunning. Yet the argument on negro powers is generally based on some such sweeping classification as takes the Guinea negro for its type. (385-86)

I have traced this theory to a previously unrecognized transatlantic racial discourse that I have dubbed “Mandingo-Saxonism,” which was popularized in the mid-nineteenth century by two leading, and opposed, ethnologists: Louis Agassiz and James Cowles Prichard.

The proslavery Agassiz wrote that the “chimpanzee and gorilla do not differ more from one another than the Mandingo and the Guinea Negro; they together do not differ more from the orang[utan] than the Malay or white man differs from the Negro” (lxxv). In attempting to establish species-like differences between whites and blacks, Agassiz popularized the notion that sub-Saharan Africans were divided into numerous subraces, with the greatest contrast made between the supposedly more Saxon-like Mandingo and the benighted “Guinea Negroes.” For all that Prichard disagreed with Agassiz on many questions of race, this most eminent of antislavery ethnologists claimed that the racial category of negro is “exemplified in the natives of Guinea in Western Africa, and in their descendants in America and the West Indies” (319) and that tribes “who are in the greatest degree remarkable for deformed countenances, projecting jaws, flat foreheads and for other Negro peculiarities, are the most savage and morally degraded. ... The converse of this remark,” Prichard goes on to explain, “is applicable to all the most civilized races”. Mandingos ... have ... nearly European countenances and a corresponding configuration of the head. ... [They are] more intelligent ... [and] physically superior” (97). I conclude that Stowe adopted Mandingo-Saxonism as a means of allowing room for greater capacity within a small minority of African-Americans (both fictional and real) without disrupting a racial order throughout American culture, North and South, predicated on belief in negro inferiority to {33} Anglo-Saxons. Tellingly, Stowe used this theory to praise both Dred Scott and Frederick Douglass while constraining the social and political implications of the accomplishments of each.

I have identified similar deployment of race-science theories in the work of a number of other mid-nineteenth-century American women authors, among them the antislavery novelist Lydia Maria Child and the proslavery novelist Caroline Lee Hentz. Given that scientific theories of race developed a far greater scope of social and political influence at mid-century, a general increase in race-science rhetoric in American literature is unsurprising. Thus far, however, I have found that women writers of the mid-nineteenth century seem to have adopted the strategic and selective use of race-science theories pioneered by Cooper more than their male counterparts. I would speculate that this may be due to a particular advantage that race science offered to women writers of the period facing the gender taboo against women writing directly about the (man’s) world of politics. Since race-science theories were always inherently political in their implication, Stowe and other women writers could deploy race science as an indirect means of commenting on politics in their narratives. Furthermore, employing the theories of male race theorists could allow women writers to maintain the appearance of deference to male authority while, in fact, acting upon their own intelligence and agency to appropriate elements of male race-science theories as a means of expressing their own views on race, slavery, gender, and politics. Thus this literary-political practice can be added to the list of Cooper’s contributions to American literature and culture.

Mandingo Chief & His Sword Bearer (1854)

“Mandingo Chief and His Sword Bearer,” illustration from Captain Canot, Or, Twenty years of an African Slave, by Theodore Canot (1854).

Works Cited

  • Agassiz, Louis, et al. Types of Mankind; or, Ethnological Researches. 4ᵗʰ ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Company, 1854. Print.
  • Buffon, Comte de. Selections from “Natural History: General and Particular”: History of Ecology, 1749-1788. Vol. 14. North Stratford, NH: Ayer Co. Pub, 1978. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Borderers; or, the Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish. 1829. Paris: Baudry’sEuropean Library, 1835. Print.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans. 1826. Ed. Charles F. Richardson. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897. Print.
  • ------. Notions of the Americans; Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor. 1828. Vol. II. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1848. Print.
  • ------. The Pioneers; or, the Source of the Susquehanna. 1823. New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1852. Print.
  • ------. The Prairie. Ed. James P. Elliot. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. Print.
  • {34} Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein and Day, 1960. Print.
  • Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on AfroAmerican Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1971. Print.
  • Prichard, James Cowles. Researches into the Physical History of Mankind. Vol. II. London: Houston and Stoneman, 1851. Print.
  • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “Dis-Covering the Subject of the ‘Great Constitutional Discussion,’ 1786-1789.” The Journal of American History 79.3 (1992): 841-73. Print.
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Dred; a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. 1856. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Print.
  • ------. Men of Our Times; or, Leading Patriots of the Day. Hartford: Hartford Publishing Co., 1868. Print.
  • ------. Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1852. Print.