Cooper and Democratic Elitism

Ma Yueling (South China University of Technology)

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. 47-53.

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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


During Cooper’s seven-year sojourn (1826-1833) in Europe, America saw the riding power of the demos, which was best revealed by Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency, followed by an era of the “common man.” Cooper, who had been favoring the civil rights of the common people, should have been happy to hear about this. Even when he heard from his friend about the despairing changes at home, 1 he still showed signs of pride and positiveness. 2

However, as his daughter Susan recalled, on returning home, Cooper was “struck with the fact that in some important particulars, the country had lost ground” (299). The previous timidity and want of self-reliance had been replaced by “a vapid and sensitive public vanity” (299). It is probably such disappointments that led to Cooper’s transition from defending America, as he had done in Europe, to criticizing it, even caricaturing it, as he did in the two Home fictions and also his political treatise, The American Democrat, all of which came out in 1838, one of his most productive years.

With those unwelcomed criticisms, and also the lawsuits and quarrels that he engaged in, Cooper had a hard time with his fellow Americans. The severest charge that Cooper could hardly bear was the one that accused him of being aristocratic (Franklin 217-219). In an era when mass democracy was viewed as a sort of “political correctness,” such a term as “aristocratic elite” was used derogatorily as an epithet of opprobrium, or as a strong political attack between the Whig and the Democrat. Ironically, Cooper was also seen by the other side of the Atlantic as “an intolerable rube” (Mann), partly due to his public defenses for the democratic American values, and partly due to his personal uneasiness about aristocratic manners while he was with the British (Franklin 37).

Such polarizing views on Cooper went on after he passed away. He was still attacked as being aristocratic, 3 but he was also re-established as a democrat in a conservative sense. 4 In this discussion, however, I would like to suggest that Cooper is both a democrat and an elitist — in fact, a pioneering democratic elitist. I will base my discussion mainly on the little book The American Democrat, which, as Kirk says, has more comprehensively summarized Cooper’s views on the American system than any of his other writings (198).

Democracy and elitism are traditionally viewed as two contradictory principles, since the common supposition is that democracy is “rule by the many” and elitism is “rule by the few.” Classical elite theories stress more the tension between the two, but these terms remained only for academic analysis and did not enter daily speech until the late eighteenth century when the two nouns “democrat” and “aristocrat” were just coined in order to deal with emerging political realities (Palmer 14). It was not until the late nineteenth century that “democratic elitism,” a new theory which sought to reconcile democracy with elitism, started to come into force, and since then, there exists an undercurrent of political thought which treats the two as not opposite and conflicting, but rather, distinct and yet mutually interdependent. In this sense, Cooper’s re-examination of elitism and democracy can be seen as one of the pioneering attempts to merge the two antagonistic terms.


Cooper, as he claims, is first of all a democrat. Cooper locates democracy in general principles, and these principles are rooted in his firm belief in the reliable instincts and abilities of the common man, which remains the essential feature of the creation of his ideal American heroes like Harvey Birch, John Paul Jones, and Natty Bumppo, all of whom are from the lowest class in society and yet are endowed with noble feelings, a first in literature. Aristocracy, the old political system in the mother country, provides little space for the self-fulfillment of the citizens, or “subjects,” let alone for bolstering human dignity. Democracy, on the other hand, although not the perfect system, remains the best for realizing individual promise, because it allows everybody, even the oppressed, to be elevated “to a condition not unworthy of their manhood” (61). 5

However, the irony lies in the fact that the democratic system intended for the benefit of the people is, in effect, built “by the elites,” as Cooper reminds us: “The notion that the people of the United States, in the popular signification of the word, frame the government, is contrary to fact” (19). The Founding Fathers of the United States, all of whom were undoubtedly members of the cultural and economic elite, believed that the government should be built on the consent of the governed, but they simultaneously held that the decision should be made by the “representatives,” which, to some extent, betrays their skepticism of the ruled. In the same vein, Cooper argues that representation “lies at the root of the entire American system” (105) because he believes that in all societies, the better opinion “is necessarily in the keeping of a few” (133) and that “the intention of the representative system is to constitute the representative a judge between the conflicting opinions” (108). This fact is important because it means that the society is ruled by the people only in the sense that they elect the elites who are assumed to be able to rule for the common good, and as Cooper plainly points out, after the election, “the power of the constituency to interfere ... is very questionable” (109).

The most significant difference between democracy and aristocracy lies in whether there are exclusive rights in the hands of a few, since in a representative democracy, the power of the legislators derives from their election by the populace, as Cooper said while explaining his primary aim of The Bravo in A Letter to His Countrymen:

I had had abundant occasion to observe that the great political contest of the age was not, as is usually pretended, between the two antagonist principles of monarchy and democracy, but in reality between those who, under the shallow pretence of limiting power to the èlite of society, were contending for exclusive advantages at the expense of the mass of their fellow-creatures. (11)

Cooper clearly states that what he really denies is the “exclusive advantages” to everyone; for him, even the president “has no prerogative” (41). However, Cooper does not deny the necessary power of the elites; rather, he sees it as a “greater evil to attempt reducing them ... that to endure them” (41). Cooper’s view anticipates the definition of democratic elitism by modern theorists: “a tolerance of arbitrary rights and powers vested in elites, however impossible it may be to justify these rights and powers ab initio, it is necessary to prevent a profitless battle of all against all in a world devoid of universal values” (Heinrich Best and John Higley 332). The confusion between the exclusive political rights and the mandatory power constitutes part of the reason why Cooper was wrongfully described in his own day as an aristocrat. To put it another way, a “ruler” in a democracy only performs his duties of a specific position, while that in a monarchy or aristocracy can impose his personal will on ruling the country without regard to the constitution — but it turns out, as later discussion will unfold, that the political schemers in a democracy would also utilize the mass for personal gains, without regard to the constitution and the laws, and simultaneously enjoy some privileges that the others have no access to.

Therefore, in the treatise, Cooper stresses more the differences between public duties and private duties — that is, the person who rules only has a political power that can never transcend what is designated to that position by common will. However, Cooper reminds us that, even in this case, the safety of democracy cannot be guaranteed, because it is still possible for a state to place the governmental power in “any dozen families” and make it “perpetual and hereditary” (26), which will reduce the superficial democracy into actual aristocracy or even monarchy. Against this possibility, Cooper argues that only “the discretion of the people” can guarantee against such a purpose (26). Such is the tension between the elite and the people; the latter bears a responsibility no less important than the former. Therefore, the suffrage is a “sacred public duty,” and anyone who violates it is “unfit to be a freeman” (85).


For Cooper, the leveling tendency of Jacksonian democracy, which is also the problem that Susan points out, resulted mostly from people’s confusion of some key concepts, among which equality and individuality are the most important for Cooper to reconcile elitism and democracy.

The major advantage of democracy, as Cooper sees it, is that democracy is the best soil for individuality; as he states, “Democracy leaves every man the master of his acts and time, his tastes and habits, so long as he discharges his duty to the public and respects the laws” (138). Individuality is so important that Cooper regards it as the sole aim of political liberty (182). Indeed, individuality is also the prerequisite of democracy, since people should remain mentally independent so as to discover and to select the competent one to be their representative. However, the problem is that democracy is simultaneously the one that is most likely to undermine individuality, because, as Cooper points out, the mass is more “liable to popular impulse” (68), a development which, if it happens, would render the best system the worst (99).

This false tendency comes from people’s confusion of another term, “equality,” which is also key to democracy. To some extent, Cooper defines democracy as equality of rights, or “an absence of privileges” (43). However, another irony is that such equality is the “very means of producing the inequality of condition that actually exists” (80), which sharply points to the problem of that era — that is, people were striving for equal condition of all, and such pursuit had led to the leveling tendency which tended to undermine the democratic order. Against this situation, Cooper cannot stress enough that such inequality is a must for a democracy, because the contrary would only lead to “common misery” (42) and “a condition of barbarism” (82). Cooper also argues that such inequality of condition opens space for the mass to gain power. This system thus makes upward social mobility possible, which in turn strengthens the democratic elite system because people are equally capable of taking the power position, which, as Bachrach observes, “nicely brings the concept of equality back in line with the major premise underlying democratic elitism” (84). It happens that Thomas R. Dye and Harmon Zeigler also argue that “an elite system is strengthened when talented and ambitious individuals from the masses enter governing circles” (2). In a word, Cooper maintains that a well-functioning community requires the participation of the public-spirited individuals who are mentally independent and capable of autonomy, because trust, which constitutes the foundation of democracy, can only be built among these people.

Cooper is especially concerned about the vicious effect of public opinion on the rights of the individuals; as he states, “it is a great mistake for the American citizen to take sides with the public, in doubtful cases affecting the rights of individuals, as this is the precise form in which oppression is the most likely to exhibit itself in a popular government” (57). To a large extent, it is due to the leveling quality that mass democracy rose while individualism declined. Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America (1835) was just published three years before Cooper’s American Democrat, argues that “Individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of conditions.” 6

Indeed, both individuality and the pursuit of equal conditions are typically of democratic origins and their relationship is intriguing; as Beteille observes, equality and individualism can be made to reinforce each other, but they may also fall to another extreme as to limit, or even exclude each other (121).

Cooper is also vigilant about this issue, maintaining that “the man who would dare to resist a monarch, shrinks from opposing an entire community” (70). And what makes things worse is that the community’s judgments often “fluctuate” without any rationality to speak of (70). Therefore, nearly two decades after the revised New York constitution of 1821 which granted suffrage to “every male citizen of the age of twenty-one years,” Cooper shows his concerns over the threats posed to democracy by both the masses and the “thin-skinned moralists” (A Letter 15). In the preface to his 1843 novel Wyandotté, Cooper shows preference toward the deliberation and voluntariness of the individual, as he states, “In the eye of reason, the man who deliberately and voluntarily contracts civil engagements is more strictly bound to their fulfillment, than he whose whole obligations consist of an accident over which he has not the smallest control, that of birth” (Wyandotté vi).

Therefore, mass democracy is dangerous not only in that it would violate the rights of the individuals and thus undermine individuality, but also in that it would allow manipulation by demagogues and immoral politicians, whom Cooper refers to as “leader[s] of the rabble” (98), or “a class of doubtful moralists” (102). Cooper contends that demagogues meet four criteria, which is of practical importance even today: they would “flatter the people” in order to lead them; they would disregard the law and “[put] the people before the constitution and the laws”; they would “oppose the will of the entire people” just for effecting their own purposes with a part of the people; they would seek “private advancement” “by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people” (99-100). As can be seen, all the four are about how the political schemers seek private benefits by catering to the sentiments and irrationality of the people. It is true that the masses are subjected to feelings rather than rationality, which renders them vulnerable to be taken advantage of. However, it should be noted that Cooper puts more blame on “the faults and designs of men” rather than “the propensities of the people” (69). This indicates that he is not “elite-driven,” as some critics claim, but sides more with the people.

Indeed, as early as in Cooper’s first American tale The Spy (1821), Cooper showed that both George Washington/Mr. Harper and Harvey Birch, an ill-educated but selfless Yankee peddler, are indispensable for the establishment and survival of the new republic. With many ordinary men of great spirit like Harvey, it would be hard for a person, even if he is as charismatic as Washington, to turn the new republic into another monarch or aristocracy. Probably this is why Cooper put Harvey and the spirit represented by both him and Washington at the center of the book. In other words, for Cooper, the “New Man” of the new nation, who is both ordinary and unusual, matters the most for a new nation, and yet a wise politician is also indispensable for the people to get aligned with; these leaders, as Cooper argues, should “avoid, equally, the cant of demagoguism with the impracticable theories of visionaries, and the narrow and selfish dogmas of those who would limit power by castes” (92). In a word, dealing with the demagogues and morally-problematic elites would require the watchfulness of the common man and the disinterested guidance of moral and social elites. Therefore, Cooper’s elitist democracy was not meant to promote or justify self-interested control of the masses by the upper class. For him, the social and political functions of those elites are indispensable for public welfare and the survival of America’s representative system.


Ironically, both those who accuse Cooper of being a member of the aristocratic elite or a conservative democrat would draw “evidences” from Cooper’s advocacy of genteel manners, apart from the “unfortunate” fact that he was the son of a wealthy landlord who was also a member of Congress with many seemingly powerful social connections. However, traditionally, gentlemen and commoners were believed to be distinct as two kinds of beings with different manners (Wood 27). That is to say, in traditional hierarchical aristocracy, the aristocrat not only enjoys exclusive political privileges, but also an exclusive human nature. Therefore, such “evidences” only speak more of Cooper as being a democratic elitist who believes firmly that “[birth] is by no means indispensable to the character” (94).

It should be added that, as with other concepts, it is still hard to reach a consensus regarding the definition of the term “democratic elitism,” even regarding its name: apart from the more commonly used “democratic elitism,” as it is termed by Bachrach (1967), there exists also “demo-elite perspective” termed by Eva Etzioni-Halevy and “elitist democratic theory.” Notwithstanding, according to Jens Borchert, there are three tenets which are commonly embraced by different theorists, including:

(a) The idea of popular sovereignty must be subordinated — “sacrificed” — to a purely representative system, in which citizen participation is largely restricted to the periodic act of voting.

(b) The existence of a political elite is natural and unavoidable, even in democracy.

(c) Elite autonomy in governing is a desirable feature of any functioning democracy because elites promise to be more “enlightened” and more likely to promote the common good than the uneducated and self-interested masses. (25)

Judging from these tenets, Cooper makes a good democratic elitist; no wonder why, as Samuel M. Shaw, the editor of A Centennial Offering, recalled, Cooper commented to him in 1850, “Then of course you are a Democrat, Mr. Shaw. I also am one, and I suppose for the reason that it takes a first-class aristocrat to make a first-class Democrat” (Shaw 206).


My gratitude goes to Prof. Wayne Franklin who has reviewed this paper and gave to it detailed and incisive criticism. This work is also supported in part by a scholarship from China Scholarship Council (Project No. 201706280037).

Works Cited

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  • Béteille, André, et al. “Individualism and Equality.” Current Anthropology 27.2 (Apr. 1986): 121-134.
  • Borchert, Jens. “‘They ain’t Making Elites like They Used to’: The Never-Ending Trouble with Democratic Elitism.” In Democratic Elitism: New Theoretical and Comparative Perspective. Edited by Heinrich Best and John Higley. Boston: Leiden, 2010.
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  • ------. Wyandotté, or, the Hutted Knoll, a Tale (Vol. 1). Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1843. 2 vols.
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1 See James Fenimore Cooper (grandson), Correspondence, 267-268.

2 See Correspondence, 274.

3 Mann observes that Mark Twain reviled Cooper as democratic elite, while modern critic Fox also argues that Cooper “was a whole-hearted and vociferous aristocrat.” See Mann; Fox, 20.

4 Some critics see Cooper as a “conservative democrat” or “limited democrat” because they think that he stresses too much the importance of the gentlemen. For instance, Kirk locates Cooper in the conservative tradition and argues that “Cooper believed the hope for democracy lay in the survival of gentlemen.” Moore also holds that for Cooper, “[the democracy] only flourishes when its leaders are gentlemen.” See: Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 222; Moore, American Aristocracies, 90.

5 See Cooper, The American Democrat, 61. Throughout, all citations from the text are from this edition.

6 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Part the Second) (New York: J. & H.G. Langley, 1840), 98; Quoted in Beteille et al.