The Terror in Templeton: Burkean Communities in The Pioneers

Ryan McWilliams (University of California, Berkeley)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and the Winds of Change” at the 2018 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.2 (Summer 2019), pp. 38-46.

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

The Pioneers (1823) could easily be mistaken for local color writing. But far from screening out the wider world, Cooper’s diverse band of American settlers and international emigrants anxiously await news of the revolutions occurring in France and the Caribbean. Cooper does more than use these international events as backdrop. The novel slyly restages the central issues of the so-called transatlantic “pamphlet war” that pitted the conservative English Whig Edmund Burke against Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Joel Barlow, and other Anglophone proponents of the French Revolution. This is not to say that Cooper refers to their texts directly in The Pioneers. In fact, despite sharing many of Burke’s conservative inclinations, Cooper only explicitly mentions Burke twice in all his writings. ¹ Nonetheless, the hunting disputes between Natty Bumppo and Judge Temple revive and revise Burke and Paine’s most important themes: the relative importance of natural and civil rights, the basis of community and state authority, and the proper pace of historical change. This paper intervenes in a long line of political readings of The Pioneers by suggesting that we reconsider Natty Bumppo — often miscast as emerging from a state of nature and even representing Jacobinism — as an unlikely proponent of conservative, Burkean intergenerational ethics.

The Pioneers timeline specifically mirrors the Reign of Terror, which began on September 17, 1793, and ended with the execution of Maximilian Robespierre on July 28, 1794. The novel explores the immediate aftermath of two deer hunts. The first takes place in December of 1793, and the second occurs the same week in July of 1794 that Robespierre was imprisoned. On the very days that the Reign of Terror reached its chilling climax, Natty Bumppo challenges Judge Temple’s jurisdiction over nature, questions the state monopoly on violence, and turns his rifle against agents of the government. As a result, Natty — like Robespierre — is imprisoned, though spared the guillotine. Attuned to the news out of France, the Templeton settlers associate Natty Bumppo’s unfettered life in the woods with Rousseauvian primitivism and the natural rights that philosophically underpinned the age of revolution. Though Judge Temple punishes Natty’s transgressions, he affirms that Natty’s hunting prerogative predates civil society by claiming that Natty “has a kind of natural right to gain a livelihood in these mountains” (Pioneers 112). Even Sheriff Richard Jones, who usually defends Judge Temple’s property rights as absolute, suggests that Natty’s compatriot Chingachgook “may have some right, being a native” to hunt on the Judge’s land (93). In these instances, the settlement authority figures imply that natural rights — here imagined as emerging from direct contact with the nonhuman world prior to white settlement — guarantee a more durable set of privileges than those constituted through social compacts.

Despite acknowledging such rights in principle, many of the settlers object when Natty exercises them. In the first scene of the novel, Natty, Oliver, and Judge Temple dispute which of them killed a deer. Rather than treating Natty’s rights as equal (or prior) to his own, the Judge cedes the point like a magnanimous dictator, claiming that he had previously “granted” Natty the “privilege” or “right” to “shoot deer, or bears, or any thing thou pleasest in my woods, forever” (25). By emphasizing how his land ownership allows him to bestow liberties as gifts, the Judge reconfigures a natural “right” into a “privilege” rooted in his own Lockean appropriation of natural objects into property. Later, when Natty kills a second deer, this time outside of the hunting season, the Judge not only denies the applicability of Natty’s “natural” right, but also conveniently forgets that Natty’s civil hunting license had been granted “forever.” His faulty memory betrays broader suppositions about power and liberty. Unlike a natural right, which admits of no compromise, civil liberties can be revoked when an individual breaks the social contract by challenging the basis of state authority. In order to disenfranchise Natty, corrupt surveyor Hiram Doolittle suggests that Natty’s hunting violation legitimates broader anarchy. He denounces Natty not for an isolated act of lawbreaking, but for offering “an example of rebellion to the laws” (355).

By accepting Doolittle’s rhetorical yoking of natural rights and the cascading violence of rebellion, the settlers express the same fears as opponents of the French Revolution: namely, that claiming transcendent rights directly from pre-social nature gradually but inexorably unleashes inhuman barbarism. At one point, the Judge and Monsieur Le Quoi, a former sugar plantation owner fleeing a slave rebellion on a Caribbean Island, explicitly discuss the Terror. The Judge, who has fond memories of the French soldiers as “men of great humanity and goodness of heart,” argues that the Jacobins have devolved and are now “as bloodthirsty as bull-dogs” (160). The comparison of revolutionaries to unruly canines gains particular weight later in the novel, when Natty’s hounds pursue a deer through the woods. Inspired by their cries and caught up in the blood-lust of the chase, Natty forgets his usual restraint and commits the gratuitous, fatal blow that leads to the crisis of the novel. It seems to matter little that the hounds were deliberately set free by Squire Doolittle, or that elsewhere in the narrative all of the settlers (including Judge Temple) are at least once overcome by the spirit of the hunt while pursuing deer, pigeons, or fish. ² In the eyes of the settlement’s authority figures, Natty’s second deer hunt — an exercise of his supposed natural rights — unleashes a chain of events that leads directly to his rebellion against state authority. He becomes, in Doolittle and Jones’s telling, combustible as a Jacobin, as bloodthirsty as the hounds that always accompany him.

Several generations of scholars have sided with the Templeton settlers by interpreting the hunter’s solitude, association with natural rights, and preference for wilderness over settlement as proof that Natty embodies Rousseau, Locke, or Paine’s state of nature. ³ Nearly all agree that the central drama of The Leatherstocking novels revolves around the stadial transition from the state of nature to the emergent state of society. Some go even further, dwelling on the French Revolution and ratifying the settlers’ reading of Natty as a symbolic Jacobin. Richard Gravil maps these foundational tensions onto the Burke-Paine debate, arguing that while Temple represents Burke’s claim that a man in society “abandons the right to self-defence, the first law of nature,” Natty represents Paine’s view that an individual in a state of nature is freer because he is “at full liberty to defend [him]self, or make a reprisal” (75). But by ascribing each character to a particular side, Gravil downplays the ways that both Natty and Judge Temple are torn between Burke and Paine’s positions. As the Judge strives to create a sustainable nature/culture, he directly echoes revolutionary proponents such as Thomas Jefferson and Gilbert Imlay by promoting rectilinear land transformation — a tendency that Burke associated with French landscapers and political thinkers efforts to establish universal order by ignoring local contour, context, and complexity. Meanwhile Natty, whose solitary reveries in the forest sometimes lend credence to those who view him as shaped by the state of nature, also repeatedly and forcefully emphasizes tradition, gradualism, contextual adaptation to circumstance, and prescription.

Our picture of Cooper’s most iconic character significantly alters if we consider Natty’s nostalgic strains as Burkean inheritances rather than individual idiosyncrasies. In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk defined Burke’s term prescription as representing “the customary right which grows out of the conventions and compacts of many successive generations” (42). For Burke and Kirk, the “right” that develops through intergenerational social custom is more vital than those rights imagined as inhering directly in nature or constituted through an originary social contract. Though Natty views God as a transcendent authority and renews his sense of moral purpose in the wilderness, he imagines his hunting rights as emerging from social conventions passed through “successive generations.”

Such distinctions play an important role in the divergent ways that Natty and other characters talk about rights. Even though the other characters consistently associate Natty with “natural rights” (as we have seen), Natty tends to appeal to human history. When Natty argues with the Judge after killing the first deer, he maintains: “I don’t love to give up my lawful dues in a free country. — Though, for the matter of that, might often makes right here, as well as in the old country, for what I can see” (21-22). Natty’s appeal to “lawful dues” invokes society, not nature. By noting that “might often makes right here,” he hints that the state of society only masks a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (war of all against all). Stressing continuities between American injustice and European feudal privilege and refusing to separate the American Constitution from the unwritten constitutions of the “old country,” Natty, like Burke, suggests that gradually accreted traditions and positive law fulfill similar functions and can conceal parallel pitfalls.

In the same dispute, Natty claims that his hunting rights existed prior to white settlement of the region, maintaining that “there’s them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo’s right ... is of older date than Marmaduke Temple’s right to forbid him” (25). Once again, Natty does not appeal to natural law, but to social ratification: “them living can verify.” In these characteristic, backward-looking moments, Natty tendentiously and repetitively invokes his social “edication” with a loose but interconnected society of early white settlers, Natives, and nonhuman ecosystem participants. Templeton residents downplay such influences, in part to justify their broader erasure of Native culture. By contrast, Natty’s characteristic response to settlers who try to accelerate the pace of change is to remind them that New York was never an untouched wilderness, never a blank slate; but instead a palimpsest of communities and traditions.

Natty invokes his upbringing among the Delaware tribe at least as often as he fetishizes solitude in the woods. He may directly imbibe the “book of nature” from the leaves of trees rather than books, but he does so by applying reading practices gained from both white and Native communities. Additionally, though guilty of insisting that certain essentialized and racialized “gifts” come from “natur’,” Natty generally preaches that success in the woods comes from adapting as much as possible to the cultural practices of those who live there. There are certain lines Natty refuses to cross (especially interracial sexuality or scalping), but at times Natty treats Native cultural practices as more durable than white laws (for example: he has few compunctions about breaking out of jail in The Pioneers, but when taken captive by the Hurons in The Deerslayer, he treats his return from furlough as a binding commitment). Even though white hunting restrictions — which Natty violates in the second deer killing — are meant to preserve the deer population during breeding season, Natty scorns them because in his view, any well-taught and environmentally attentive hunter would understand the underlying rationale behind such laws and behave with a more durable, contextually adaptable restraint than that imposed through arbitrary dates on the calendar. ¹⁰ And in the second deer hunt, it is important that he kills a buck, rather than a nursing doe. For only a “green one” (that is, a “greenhorn” — someone insufficiently experienced and negligently tutored) “would wish to kill a doe with a fa’n by its side,” he exclaims (160).

Here, as in his critiques of Hurry Harry’s precipitate, trigger-happy tendencies in The Deerslayer, Natty asserts that the right to hunt — or violate hunting laws — is not a free gift granted all at once from nature, but culturally inherited, gradually earned, and re-iterated through lived experience. A lifetime spent in accordance with this culturally prescribed, but self-enforced, ethic of restraint, timeliness, and humility prepares Natty to notice environmental patterns and relationships. In a moment of ecological prescience, he correctly recognizes that the decline in deer population has less to do with overhunting than habitat loss caused by fences, “clearings and betterments” (22). ¹¹ In Natty’s Burkean criticism of “wasty ways,” the settlers’ accelerated ecosystem transformations emerge as far more disruptive — and in fact far more revolutionary — than Natty’s own moment of venatic over-exuberance and defiance of state orders.

By the end of the novel, both sides accuse one another of revolutionary excesses. What is at stake is not a clear-cut contrast between Paine’s state of nature and Burke’s state of society, but divergent interpretations about where and when to locate social traditions and stability. The novel essentially offers a choice between two temporal orientations towards similarly Burkean societies. For Judge Temple, who looks out from Mount Vision and imagines that the land is totally empty (“not the vestige of a man could I trace” 235), the conditions of the American wilderness necessitate the active, planned creation of a community that might someday attain the social and environmental stability that Burke locates in England’s gradualist past. ¹² By orienting himself toward the future as he imagines “becoming native” to a place (in bioregionalist terms), the Judge’s community building resonates with Wai Chee Dimock’s validation of “prospective rather than retrospective” modes of belonging (178). By contrast, when Natty Bumppo looks to the past, he reminds the settlers (and readers) of the longstanding presence of Native, white squatter, and nonhuman communities. Ultimately, Natty objects to the effort to establish a settlement of white land-appropriators not because he opposes progress generally, but because he recognizes that the new society will violently uproot the Burkean traditions and institutions that already existed and effectively regulated environmental practices for generations. Thus, Cooper’s novel exposes the complexities — and potential — of grounding Burkean communities in American environments, reminding us that in the intercultural, interspecies frontier contact-zone, the creation of seemingly organic social cohesion often depends upon violence, erasure, and over-writing prior communities. By recognizing that Natty and Chingachgook were shaped not solely by the state of nature, but also by social encounters and traditional norms, we can follow Natty in resisting the habitual and deterministic equation of society with a narrow set of white settler colonial practices.

Works Cited

  • Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat and Other Political Writings. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2000.
  • ------. Last of the Mohicans. 1826. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
  • ------. The Pioneers. 1823. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
  • Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Godden, Richard. “Pioneer Properties; or, What’s in a Hut?” James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Clark. Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1985.
  • Gravil, Richard. Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776-1862. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
  • McWilliams, John P. Political Justice in a Republic. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972.
  • Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
  • Swann, Charles. “Guns Mean Democracy.” James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Clark. Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1985.
  • Taylor, Alan. William Cooper’s Town. New York: Random House, 1996.
  • Zoellner, Robert H. “Conceptual Ambiguity in Cooper’s Leatherstocking.” American Literature 31.4 (Jan. 1960): 397-420.


1. In A Letter to His Countrymen (one of Cooper’s only direct mentions of Burke), Cooper says that Americans should reject British influence lest they be “Burked out of our constitutional existence” (American Democrat 324). The moment is telling: Cooper over-performs his rejection of Burke, but by maintaining that cultural traditions developed over time by a polis in a particular place should not be hastily abrogated, he exhibits Burkean logic.

2. Richard exults in his massacres of pigeons with a cannon; the Judge cites his exhilaration at hearing Natty’s hound as an excuse for mistakenly shooting Oliver during a hunt; Oliver participates in the pigeon shoot; and even Elizabeth Temple, usually the voice of moderation and conciliation, enjoys the spectacle of the fish being taken in giant seines.

3. While many critics have made similar claims, John P. McWilliams goes into the most detail delineating the “four types of law” in Cooper’s writings: civil, moral, divine and natural. According to McWilliams, Natty stands for natural, divine, and moral law, in some combination, while Judge Temple enacts civil laws (20).

4. Ever since D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, most accounts of the novel argue that the binary opposition between Natty and Temple is the key to understanding Cooper’s seemingly incompatible desires for heroic wilderness and refined civilization. Noting that Marmaduke Temple is a thinly-veiled version of William Cooper, a series of critics have argued that The Pioneers constitutes James’s defense of his father’s legacy. Zoellner contrasts Natty’s “moral infantilism” with Temple’s “maturity” (131), and Alan Taylor claims that James aims to “neutralize” the claims of “his father’s competitors in the conclusion” (54).

5. Richard Slotkin dwells on the ways that Natty plays a Jacobin role “in at least one sense” (Regeneration Through Violence 115). Charles Swann’s undercited article “Guns Mean Democracy” offers the most prolonged account of the relation between game laws and French Revolution in the novel.

6. Jefferson envisioned that the nation of yeoman farmers would overturn the English common law practice of marking property lines via metes and bounds, or local landmarks. Instead, by proposing surveying the land and dividing it into one-mile square parcels, Jefferson suggested that abstract reason could be equally applied regardless of topography. Gilbert Imlay situated the land-grid as a central feature of the ideal American community in The Emigrants, his under-studied epistolary novel published in 1793. By contrast, Burke chastised French political philosophers and ornamental gardeners alike for “clearing away as mere rubbish whatever they found” and trying to “form every thing into an exact level” (173).

7. Those who argue that Natty’s rights emerge directly from nature, rather than society, are too numerous to comprehensively list here. John P. McWilliams ultimately concludes that Natty and the other white characters in the “romances are wholly within the Lockean State of Nature,” even though they disagree about how to apply Locke’s fundamental dictum that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (242). Additionally, see Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper, The Novelist, and Thomas, Cross-Examinations of Law and Literature for similar views. In “Pioneer Properties; or, What’s in A Hut” Godden charts a subtler course, arguing that “Natty has been aptly (if over-) read as a Lockean hero of the pre-social state” (123).

8. Not everyone has claimed that Natty’s rights are exclusively from nature. For instance, Charles Swann argues that Natty “is caught between rights deriving from the past, rights embodied in the contemporary radical political language, and rights that, in a sense, are either outside or precede history.” (116).

9. For example: “Whoever comes into the woods to deal with the natives, must use Indian fashions, if he would wish to prosper in his undertakings” (TheLast of the Mohicans 48).

10. Natty is not an environmental saint. At times, he brags about how many animals he has killed, he is accused of being less “prutent” in his youth, and even references shooting “fa’ns” (Pioneers 161). But if such changes in behavior are Natty’s way of responding to the decline in the deer population, they indicate not so much a shift in ethical priorities as proof that a Burkean ethic of restraint adapts to evolving circumstances rather than positing universal truths and practices.

11. In noting that Natty’s account of habitat loss depends upon ecological logic (in contrast with Temple’s more atomistic conservationism) I follow a range of ecocritics, including Matthew Wynn Sivils (American Environmental Fiction, 1782-1847) and Lloyd Willis (Environmental Evasion).

12. Temple’s description of his view of the empty wilderness directly adapts a scene from William Cooper’s memoir entitled A Guide in the Wilderness. As Alan Taylor and others have noted, The Pioneers challenges both William Cooper and Judge Temple’s interpretations by portraying many earlier inhabitants and mentioning Native ruins, signs of ongoing Native life, remnants of Native agriculture, and several squatter residences (54).