James Fenimore Cooper on Manipulation, Corruption, and Enfranchisement in the Jacksonian Age

By Barbara Rumbinas (Independent Scholar)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and the Literary Age of Jackson” at the 30ᵗʰ Annual American Literature Association Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, May 23-26, 2019.

Originally published in  The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 27-33.

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

As he traveled throughout Europe, James Fenimore Cooper witnessed waves of revolutionary sentiment rolling almost continuously across the continent. He often remarked about the incredible gift the American people had been given when their leaders created a republican form of government. By July 1830, he observed: “the whole of this quarter of the world is divided into two great parties. They have different names, in different countries ... One side is struggling to reap the advantages of the revolutions, and the other to arrest them. Of course the latter class is composed of all those who are in possession of power and emoluments“ (Beard, L&J 1:418, emphasis added).

In August 1832, he had even written from Belgium to his brother Richard Cooper lauding the progress of liberality in America, claiming “you are a century in advance of every other country” (L&J 2:295). Ironically, when he returned to America in 1833, he was confronted with a similar power struggle at home. During his absence, America continued to undergo significant changes geographically, economically, spiritually, and politically. Cooper could identify with and support the noble cause of people in Belgium, who daily fought for the right of liberty from a government which effected to “crush the spirit of the people” (L&J 2:295). However, once back on his native soil, he was less willing to apprehend the position of, or support the escape from, “the grasps of ...[the] taskmasters” (L&J 2:295) who ruled the lower classes in America with the same iron determination as the governments of Europe. While European peasants struggled valiantly for freedom from the power and politics of the monarchies and wealthy nobility, the Americans believed they were fighting the power and politics of wealthy landowners and businessmen, who they believed were determined to replace physical ownership as a means of controlling the lower classes with wage slavery. The right to vote, to have a voice in the political process, and to the right to self-determination, irrespective of their ability to own property became a cause that ignited riots along the Eastern seaboard throughout 1834. Yet Cooper could see what so many could not, that ambitious politicians were playing to the passions of the lower classes simply to further their own political agenda.

Cooper’s overt attention to political themes began in serious form before his return to America with the publication of his European novels — The Bravo: A Tale (1831), The Heidenmauer; or, The Benedictines; A Story of the Rhine (1832), and, The Headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons (1833). Though scholars debate the precise moment when Cooper increased his political intensity, beginning with the publication of The Bravo, socio-political issues are drawn ever closer to the center of his works, often competing with, and sometimes overshadowing the adventure plot. Many critics have speculated over the years about the cause of Cooper’s political angst. One anonymous reviewer in the Knickerbocker concluded, Cooper must have become infected with “a spirit of social and political strife” while living in France because it is endemic in “the people of that turmoiling (sic) and mercurial nation” (“Literary Notices” 152). Other critics assert that the cause was the hard-feelings generated when he attempted to stop the villagers of Cooperstown from using a spit of land known as Three Mile Point, or perhaps the libel suits initiated by the Whig press; yet Boynton’s biography suggests that the political currents were underway in Cooper’s creative mind long before he departed for Europe or the unpleasantness that he encountered upon his return.

In his efforts to reflect upon social and political changes and mediate them for his audience, Cooper anticipates what modern cultural theorists currently postulate, “[that] the political and the cultural [literary arts included] can no longer be decoupled” (Dean 2). By the time he published Homeward Bound; or, The Chase (1838), however, Cooper no longer paeaned the heroic struggle of the people in America as he had sung about those fighting in Belgium. Instead, it is replaced by a lamentation in the voice of John Effingham, heir to the Effinghams of The Pioneers, “you have been dreaming abroad, Ned Effingham, while your country has retrograded in all that is respectable and good” (Homeward Bound 1:262-63). In an era of a boom and bust economy, party leaders of the ‘thirties and ‘forties agitated regional and national differences until “the extremists and conservatives within each party exceeded the differences between the parties as a whole” (Waples 36), while the political rhetoric on both sides of the sectional divide grew dark and ominous.

Cooper’s apparent support for the manorial landlords during the Anti-Rent crisis has often been held up as proof that his European journey brought to the surface his latent aristocratic1 tendencies. Even in a recent publication, Philip F. Gura claims that Cooper “used his novels to buttress and older, aristocratic world view” (40). Professor Gura boldly asserts that he “resented common citizens who believed themselves his social and political equals” (40), a position apparently heavily influenced by repeated misreadings of Cooper’s works. Unfortunately, Gura’s assessment of Cooper’s motivation distorts, inflates, and projects a solidified position with regards to the Patroons which, as Wayne Franklin has detailed, was at best hesitant and nuanced. Demagogues such as William H. Seward perceived the political vulnerability of the landed gentry and exploited the tensions between the Patroons and the Anti-Rent agitators to further his own political ambitions. According to Charles McCurdy, the competition for voters not only helped to sustain the political crisis, it prevented “statesmanlike solutions” (McCurdy 333) that could have successfully resolved it. Seward became a champion of the working man’s causes to garner enough political power (Dekker 237) and votes to become the first Whig Governor of New York (1838-1842). George Dekker argues that Cooper viewed Seward as “one of the most vicious and dangerous demagogues of the day” (238). From Cooper’s perspective, he stood for nothing, owned nothing, and therefore was not invested in anything. He was a professional politician, a political outsider with no hereditary ties to New York and felt no allegiance to the status quo.

The Patroons had historically dominated New York State politics. Prior to the Revolution, the power of the “Proprietors, or Lords of the Mannors (sic)” was so strong that they could “determine every Election in the County” (Colden 394). Governor Cadwallader Colden claimed that the “People of the City and county ... [perceive their vote] as dangerous to them ...” (394). The Lords of the Manor continued to control New York State politics well into the middle of the nineteenth century by regulating property qualifications (Irving 94), which determined who could vote. Mark Irving points out that the majority of the rural electorate lived on the lords’ manors and estates and voted publicly under the watchful eye of the proprietor. Tenants knew it was better for them if they “followed the lead of their manorial lords” (95) in making their election choices. Andrew Jackson had taken the position that the majority should rule, and by the middle of the decade, the majority felt entitled to vote. Daniel Walker Howe reports that by the 1830s every white American male came to expect the right to vote (489), irrespective of whether they met the property qualifications. The extension of the franchise during the 1820s had been aimed principally at “enfranchising tenant farmers and squatters on the public domain, [those lands in the Louisiana territory] small shopkeepers, and craftsmen” (490, emphasis added). However, the swelling ranks of working poor in the urban centers on the East coast seized the opportunity to demand the vote as well. During 1834, there were mass public protests in twenty-four cities up and down the East coast in which public opinions on political, social, and economic matters were expressed, sometimes violently (Reitano 43). Cooper had returned to an America in complete chaos! The majority had ruled in favor of Andrew Jackson, but could Jackson rule the majority? One supporter of the Workingman’s party claimed they were “tinctured with the spirit of Jacksonism” and they would support him, but only “so long as Jackson is so strongly tinctured with the spirit of workeyism” (Schlesinger 185).

Cooper was critical of men who could shape public opinion – who could form the public will from fear and the shards of near-truths that had settled in the bottom of their cups, which when gazed upon through eyes turned glassy by hard cider, constructed a public will that largely benefited themselves and not the public good at all. The “pell-mell that rages,” John Effingham declared, has wiped away “a century [of progress] in a dozen years” (Homeward Bound 1:262). The power of the demagogue to manipulate the common man concerned Cooper greatly. According to John P. McWilliams, Cooper feared they would use the constitutional provisions that allow changes to protect the nation, to destroy it instead (632). Lance Schachterle believes that Cooper’s fear was that the commercial interests in Congress threatened the constitutional integrity of the nation (10-12). The power of the demagogue looms large in both scenarios because, as Jennifer R. Mercieca has observed, after 1827 “national and local elections were bound together through a well-organized and energized party system ... that demanded and rewarded party loyalty” (174). In a letter written to Andrew Jackson on February 4ᵗʰ, 1827, Major Allan Campbell bragged that he had a system in place that coordinated a flow of information from the central committee down to the “ward of [every] town and to the Captains Company in the country” (qtd. in Mercieca 174). Local elections set the slate for state-wide and national elections, making it a “life or death necessity ... not [to] vote on principle, but [rather] on party lines” (Waples 36, emphasis added). In addition, local participation shaped the composition of the pool of delegates sent to constitutional conventions. According to Alexander Keyssar, between 1790-1850, all the states admitted to the union held at least one constitutional convention, and many held several to address the issues of who was entitled to the right to suffrage and how the power of those votes would be allocated among the legislature. There was intense competition to draw legislative districts to a presumed competitive advantage as members struggled to retain power among an increasingly diverse population in the expanding nation (22). The debate over who represented the people, indeed, who precisely qualified as being the people, raged nationally, in state legislatures, as well as in the partisan newspapers across the country, with each side claiming the right to speak with representative authority. In the battle for the heart of the voters, both Federalists and Democrats employed demagogues to sway public opinion in their favor.

Cooper advocated a republican form of government. He did so, not because he thought it was perfect, rather, he would opine, because “it is less imperfect than any other” (American Democrat 53). He had great faith that our republican institutions would act as a bulwark against the capriciousness of rule of the majority, but as time passed, he began to fear for the integrity of said institutions. One of the central tenets that ensures the longevity of a republic is the participation of an educated and virtuous society. Cooper took to heart Samuel Adams’ instruction to “keep a watchful Eye” (Cushing 305) on those entrusted to conduct the public affairs in the republic of America. He recognized that large democracies were susceptible to the influence of “demagogues and political schemers” (American Democrat 69) because they too often “substitute publick (sic) opinion for law” (71). Some scholars, Philip F. Gura among them, have anachronistically interpreted Cooper’s refusal to support the rule of the majority that Andrew Jackson harnessed to attain the White House, to mean that Cooper was an elitist, who had little regard for the ‘common man’. However, Cooper shared with Thomas Jefferson the belief that though popular opinion was an integral part of a republican government, for the majority will to be taken seriously, it must be fair and reasonable, supporting a reasonable cause in a reasonable manner. Cooper understood and shared many of fears aired by political leaders in generations before him, such as Elbridge Gerry who opined that “the evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy” when there are not “sufficient checks against democracy” (Farrand 48, 47) to keep the nation safe. His experiences in Europe sharpened his gaze and he could see America with a perspicacity that most Americans were unwilling or unable to appreciate. His analysis of “the Jackson revolution” revealed that political and social power had shifted into the hands of the corporations, financiers, and a class of professional politicians who fabricated a “majority,” while the minorities, those of talent, reason, education, and property begrudgingly relinquished their rights in the hopes of preserving the republic so that the center political ground could reappear in the future. Cooper’s keen political insight foresaw the manipulation of the legislative process by designing men with an agenda to amend the Constitution in favor of commercial, political, or religious interests. He was keenly aware that an uneducated polity “are peculiarly exposed to become the dupes of demagogues and political schemers, most of the crimes of democracies arising from the faults and designs of men of this character” (American Democrat 69). Given the current political climate in America, one could argue that Cooper was prophetic in his observations.

Works Cited

  • Beard, James F., ed. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-68. 6 vols.
  • Gura, Philip F. Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
  • Colden, Cadwallader. Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1877; The Colden Letter Books, Vol. II. 1765-1775. New York Historical Society, 1877.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat. Cooperstown: H. & E. Phinney, 1838.
  • ------. Homeward Bound; Or, The Chase. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1838. 2 vols.
  • Cushing, Harry Alonzo. The Writings of Samuel Adams: 1778-1802. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904.
  • Dean, Jodi. “Introduction: The Interface of Political Theory and Cultural Studies.” Cultural Studies and Political Theory. Ed. Jodi Dean. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
  • Farrand, Max. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Volume 1. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911.
  • Howe, Daniel. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Irving, Mark. Agrarian Conflicts in Colonial New York, 1711-1775. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.
  • Alexander Keyssar, The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in The United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • “Literary Notices: The Monikins: By the Author of ‘The Spy,’ ‘Red Rover,’ etc.” Knickerbocker 6.2 (August 1835): 152-53.
  • McCurdy, Charles. The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • McWilliams, “The Crater and the Constitution.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 12 (1971): 631-645.
  • Mercieca, Jennifer R. Founding Fictions. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.
  • Reitano, Joanne. The Restless City: A Short History of New York from Colonial Times to the Present. 2ⁿᵈ ed. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Schachterle, Lance. “The ‘soulless corporation’ in Venice, England, France, and America: Cooper’s The Bravo (1831).” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 28 (2011): 7-14.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1945.
  • Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938.


1. For the shifting connotations in the use of the term aristocrat, see: Allen M. Axelrad, “‘Aristocracy forsooth! ... the Blackguard is the Aristocrat”: James Fenimore Cooper on Congress and Capitalism.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, No. 10 (1995): 7-16.