Enabling and Disabling the Lake Erie Discussion: James Fenimore Cooper and Alexander Slidell Mackenzie Respond to the Perry/Elliott Controversy

Hugh Egan * (Ithaca College)

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 343-350).

Copyright © 1997, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts and reproduced with its kind permission.

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

{343} At half past two, the wind springing up, Captain Elliott was enabled to bring his vessel, the Niagara, gallantly into close action. I immediately went on board of her, when he anticipated my wishes, by volunteering to bring the schooners, which had been kept astern by the lightness of the wind, into closer action. 1

This extract is taken from Oliver Hazard Perry’s “after action” report to the Secretary of the Navy, 13 September 1813. It concerns a crucial juncture in the Battle of Lake Erie three days earlier, during which Perry’s squadron had captured the British squadron under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay, That one word, “enabled,” perhaps hinting at a distinction between the ability to act and action itself, has disabled historical discourse on this matter, and goes to the heart of a controversy involving the performance of Captain Jesse D. Elliott during battle, the interpretation of that performance by Captain Perry, and the analysis of Captain Perry’s interpretation by second generation commentators James Fenimore Cooper and Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.

Beginning with Perry’s report — which has been alternately termed sincere or strategic — the battle of Lake Erie has generated such a voluminous and rarified textual response that a naval controversy begins increasingly to resemble a literary controversy. The affair has raised questions, for instance, about the elusive relationship between deed and document, about what constitutes appropriate evidence for an “objective” account of history, about author intention, textual ambiguity, and rhetorical strategy. The overlap of the military with the literary is all but inevitable, perhaps, given the participation in this affair of Cooper and Mackenzie. They both had careers which spanned naval and authorial ambition, and which crossed at a number of historical flash points. At the very center of the issues, Perry’s text serves as a sign of how opaque and resistant are those very accounts of the affair which was purported to be the most straightforward.

The circumstances of the battle are now the stuff of legend. With his own flagship Lawrence battered and crippled, Perry transferred his pennant by boat to the Niagara. He took over command of that vessel from Jesse D. Elliott, revived the American effort, divided the British squadron, and in fairly short order overwhelmed the two main British vessels, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte. Shortly after the battle, Perry wrote his famous message to Major-General William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy — and they are ours.” 2

The victory at Lake Erie straddles any number of paradoxes — such as the fact that Perry, {344} after inspiring his crew never to give up the ship, did exactly that — but a whole series of historical ironies swirl around Perry’s second in command, Jesse Elliott, for whom victory constituted a kind of professional defeat. 3 In the course of the three-hour battle, Elliott, commanding a vessel identical with Perry’s, stayed largely out of the action for two-and-half hours, while the Lawrence was enduring heavy attack. He engaged in some distant fire with the British squadron, but never came to the direct aid of the Lawrence. Elliott claimed that the lightness of the wind kept him away and that, in addition, he did not want to break the line of battle established by Perry. After the conflict, however, both British and American seamen questioned Elliott’s courage for avoiding the heavy fighting for as long as he did. The American resentment was spurred by the fact that the Lawrence had twenty-two men and officers killed, while the Niagara had only two.

It is in this context that we read Perry’s after-action report, in which he officially praises Elliott, by saying that at a certain point Elliott was “enabled” to engage his vessel in close action with the enemy. The unanswered question is: did he do so? Perry states further:

Of Captain Elliott, already so well known to the government, it would be almost superfluous to speak. In this action he evinced his characteristic bravery and judgment; and, since the close of the action, has given me the most able and essential assistance. 4

The naval bureaucracy followed suit with its own official praise of Elliott’s conduct, even in the face of persistent rumors that condemned it. Newspaper accounts from England, reporting on the court of inquiry assembled to assess the performance of British commander Barclay, described Elliott as “making away” during the height of battle. In response to these allegations, Elliott demanded that an American Court of Inquiry clear his name, and this was done in April, 1815. 5

Here the matter rested until 1818, when Perry himself instituted court-martial charges against Elliott — both for his conduct during the battle and for his post-battle “intrigues” against Perry. Perry claims that his initial words of praise for Elliott were written in the interest of maintaining naval harmony after a great victory and screening Elliott from censure. 6 On the other hand, it was Perry’s feeling that Elliott’s conduct since the battle — in expressing public and covert resentment over Perry’s exalted status — could no longer be met with silence or praise. Perry’s charges were never officially examined or prosecuted. He was dead within a year, and perhaps the accusations seemed irrelevant as a result. At any rate, the circumstances of their withdrawal remain unresolved. 7

The affair lay largely dormant for nearly twenty more years, although in the meantime Elliott managed to offend the Whig press on a number of political matters (he was a notorious Jacksonian) and each time would stir up the accusations of his cowardice during the Battle of Lake Erie. 8 James Fenimore Cooper then published his History of the Navy in two volumes in 1839. His account of the Lake Erie affair attempts painstakingly to avoid controversy, and follows the official line of praise for all concerned. He simply noted the transfer of power on the Niagara from one commander to another, and summarized in this fashion:

The personal deportment of Captain Perry, throughout the day, was worthy of all praise. He did not quit his own vessel when she became useless, to retire from the battle, but to gain it; an end that was fully obtained, and an effort which resulted in triumph. ... For his conduct in this battle, Captain Perry received a gold medal from Congress. Captain Elliott also received a gold medal. 9

Cooper included in his history Perry’s praise for Elliott, but does not mention that Perry withdrew that praise and filed court-martial charges five years later.

In attempting to avoid controversy, Cooper created it. He, too, was accused of “making {345} away” from close action on this issue. In quick order there appeared three different condemnations of his account — authored by William Duer, Tristam Burges, and Alexander Mackenzie. 10 In each instance, Cooper proved immensely resistant to criticism. He went as far as to prosecute the publisher of Duer’s review for libel, earning a judgment of $300. The Burges review, in turn, is perhaps best known for focusing upon that word “enabled” and seeing it as an equivocation on Perry’s part. Perry’s camp was called upon to answer the question: why did the commander first praise Elliott and then, five years later, turn on him? Burges says that the praise wasn’t really praise at all:

Here he saved Elliott by a benevolent ambiguity. He says ‘at half past two, the wind springing up, Captain Elliott was ENABLED to bring his vessel, the Niagara, gallantly into close action.’ He was ENABLED, he could say; he could not say he DID bring the Niagara into close action. 11

A literary critic looking for signs of rhetorical hesitation or ambiguity in a text will almost certainly find them, and it appears that here Burges has wilfully taken on that task. By magnifying a single word, he creates a stereoscopic view of Perry-as-warrior and Perry-as-author. His argument appears precious and overwrought, born of loyalty and defensiveness rather than a “search for truth,” but once introduced it is difficult to dispense with. In fact, if read as a strategic exercise, Perry’s report gives one plenty to work with. In addition to his use of “enabled,” he praises Elliott first by claiming it is superfluous to speak of him, then by saying Elliott “evinced his characteristic bravery and judgment” (characteristically limited?), and finally by thanking him for able and essential assistance “since the close of the action” (hinting, perhaps, that he didn’t render such assistance during the action).

Opened to this kind of analysis, Perry’s official account, whose purpose was to give “the most important particulars of the action,” is no longer the sincere, reflective narrative of an American hero, one whose motive was simply to match words to actions, but something more self-conscious and cagy, the beginning of a different kind of battle altogether. His report is but the first sign that, as the actual events of 1813 recede, deeds and texts begin to dissolve into one another, with texts becoming deeds, and the straightforwardness of a military victory remaking itself as a meditation on the nature of authorship and the control of historical discourse. In the Lake Erie affair, the thunder of canister would give way to the thunder of criticism and interpretation, with each succeeding layer of commentary received by the opponent as a blow which demanded equal response. As the battle moved into the realm of interpretation, the effects of these volleys could not be measured in terms of victory, defeat, or statistical tables of the wounded and dead. The rhetorical firepower, in fact, often undermines the very cause it seeks to serve.

Of all the reviews published, none struck home more deeply with Cooper, and none framed the issues of history and authorship more acutely, than those of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. Mackenzie was related by marriage to the Perry clan and was, like Cooper himself, something of a sailor-author. Cooper had served three years in the Navy (1808-1811), stationed on Lake Ontario; Mackenzie was a career Navy man who rose to the rank of captain. Both had published travel books on England in the 1830s, and both had published lead articles in the short-lived Naval Magazine in 1836 and 1837. They were, in a sense, literary competitors. In a letter to his wife in 1836, Cooper compared the sales of his own Sketches of Switzerland (1836)with Mackenzie’s Spain Revisited (1836): “The Sketches have not sold very well, but stand very fair. About twice as many have sold as of Slidell’s book, but they are puffing away at him, might and main. 12 A year later, the British Quarterly Review compared Cooper’s irascible England (1837) unfavorably to Mackenzie’s The American in England (1835):

... no one complains of Captain Slidell’s {346} book — because it is written in good faith, and with good manners. His views, when erroneous, are not distorted either by vanity or malice; and hitting, as he does, much harder, and on sorer places than Mr. Cooper, his strictures may be read by an Englishman sometimes with profit — often with regret — but never with anything like the mingled disgust and contempt which are excited by the rancorous triviality of Mr. Cooper. 13

Fanatically loyal to Perry, Mackenzie first commented on Naval History in the North American Review of October 1839. He himself engages in some equivocal praise at the beginning:

Mr. Cooper has made a valuable addition to the history of the country, in the work before us. He appears to have used a commendable diligence in searching out whatever facts our early history affords, illustrative of the origin and growth of the national navy, and has dressed them out in a form as attractive, perhaps, as the unconnected nature of the events, and the meagreness of the annals from which he derived his materials, permitted. 14

Soon, however, Mackenzie is into the battle of Lake Erie, accusing Cooper of tarnishing Perry’s reputation by refusing to criticize Elliott, and by presenting “gross misrepresentations” of the battle itself. Twelve pages of the 35-page review are devoted to correcting Cooper’s rendition of Lake Erie.

Mackenzie’s review put in motion a widening spiral of charge and counter-charge between the two authors, with name-calling escalating and pages increasing in every exchange. In his Life of Perry (1840), a biography written largely to refute Cooper’s history, Mackenzie embraces Burges’ view that the word “enabled” is an equivocation, explaining:

He leaves to Captain Elliott the benefit of the inference that, more than two hours after the Lawrence had been in close action, he actually did what he was enabled to do; which, by concurrent testimony of the officers of the squadron, except a few of those on the Niagara, he never did. 15

In his post-battle report, according to Mackenzie, Perry “was torturing his ingenuity to keep honestly out of view the palpable misconduct of Captain Elliott.” 16

Because some of the material issues relating to Lake Erie were a matter for litigation in his suit against the publisher of William Duer’s article, Cooper could not respond fully until 1843, when he published a hundred-page pamphlet, The Battle of Lake Erie, Or Answers to Messrs. Duer, Burges, and Mackenzie. Indeed, part of this story involved Cooper’s continual promise throughout 1841 and 1842 to “do up” the whole Lake Erie matter in a form which could not be refuted. 17 When he did finally respond, he opened as an avenging angel, sounding a note of biblical portentousness:

The writer has not sought this discussion. It has been forced on him by his assailants, who must now face the consequences. For years the writer has submitted in comparative silence to gross injustice, in connection with this matter, not from any want of confidence in the justice of his case or any ability to defend himself but, because he ‘bided his time, knowing, when that day should arrive, he had truth to fall back upon. ... The day of reckoning has come at length, and the judgment of men will infallibly follow. 18

Central to Cooper’s attack is his impatience with the notion that Perry would “meditate any evasion” in his official report. He ridicules the idea of any “benevolent ambiguity” on Perry’s part:

In this section of the country, we have a good many ‘benevolent ambiguities’ {347} practiced by a certain caste of lawyers ... Among gentlemen, every where, the benevolence would meet with but little respect. while the ‘ambiguity’ would excite disgust. 19

As Cooper works through the layered nature of his refutation, however, he too begins to sound like a textual critic, examining specific word choice and weighing author intention. Focusing upon Perry’s phrase, “I immediately went on board of her” (in the sentence which follows the “enabled” passage) Cooper says:

Here we see Capt. Perry expressly referring to this change of position, this coming into close action ... as giving him (Perry) an opportunity of making the change of vessel of which he speaks. The use of the word ‘immediately,’ too, shows this. It refers to time, of course; and to what time can Mr. Burges apply it, if it be not immediately after Capt. Elliot got ‘into close action.’ Does he think Perry would have said ‘immediately after Capt. Elliott was ENABLED to get into close action, I went on board the Niagara?’ This would have been a very complicated falsifying of the truth. Perry’s language had no such object, it is simple, direct and not to he misunderstood. 21

The complexity of Cooper’s analysis has the paradoxical effect of undermining the straightforwardness of his final statement. Cooper noted that Perry used the word “enabled” at another point in his official report, where it was “unequivocally used in direct connection with performance, and without any ‘benevolent ambiguity.’” But again, the more Cooper assigned deliberate strategy to Perry’s choice of specific words, the further he entered the realm of rhetorical instability and conceived of the battle as a text rather than an event. One might even read a tortured ingenuity into Cooper’s historical summary: “For his conduct in battle, Captain Perry received a gold medal from Congress. Captain Elliott also received a gold medal.” An implicit question — why did Elliott receive a medal? — is left unanswered. To the extent that his account engages in its own evasions, and that the very making of textual narrative invites this slipperiness, Cooper himself was guilty of the duplicity he found so impossible in Perry.

Still, Cooper pronounced, here and elsewhere in his writings from this period, a blunt philosophical positivism whereby facts should precede and determine opinions in a republic, and the corruption in the Perry case (and in America at large) is that these poles have been reversed. Opinions about Elliott’s misconduct were, according to Cooper, “clearly in an unfit state to be received at all into the pages of history. 21

Left unexamined, of course, is how the “pages of history” help to create the very events they receive. Cooper was clearly uncomfortable with the fragmentary, fluid, and irresolute path of historical truth as it makes its way into written accounts. In his pamphlet, some rather delicate textual exegeses on the positions of the vessels, the relative strengths of the British and American forces, the number of seamen dead or wounded — all of which respond to points of Mackenzie’s — are weirdly combined with an ad hominem passion that ail but overwhelms his scholarship. At times, Cooper’s own fixed opinions determined his facts. The precision of the analysis often appears to have no historical purpose at all. Rather, framed by his own sense of outrage and irritation, Cooper’s meticulous dissection of events illustrated his dilemma rather eloquently. He wished to demonstrate that the events of Lake Erie simply happened, and thereby fall outside any need for interpretation, but became increasingly implicated in the textual strategies he sought to discredit, including the ratcheting-up of condemnatory rhetoric. At one point he wrote: “I hope those persons who are ready to canonize Capt. Mackenzie as a saint, without waiting the customary century, will bear this whole matter in mind.” 22

The exchanges between Cooper and Mackenzie endured over four years, with their polemics {348} spanning a variety of textual genres, including history, biography, essay, and review. Of course, these men were employed in other arenas during this time, Cooper as a novelist and Mackenzie as a naval captain. During the four-year span of controversy over Lake Erie, Cooper published eight novels, including The Pathfinder (1840), The Deerslayer (1841), and a number of sea novels. Mackenzie was involved in his own controversy when he hanged three men at sea aboard the Somers in December 1842. The men were suspected of mutiny, although no overt act of mutiny ever occurred, no trial was held to determine the truth of the accusation, and no chance given the accused to refute the charges against them. Mackenzie was tried for murder and other charges in a naval court; he was acquitted on all counts.

In fact, the Somers affair occurred just as Cooper was writing his Lake Erie pamphlet, and be could not resist adding references to the “mutiny” to his rhetorical arsenal. Speaking of how Elliott’s reputation has been damaged by Mackenzie, Cooper wrote: “Let it be imagined, for a moment, that he had assumed the responsibility of executing three men without a trial, and then fancy the result! His life, justly or unjustly, would have been the forfeit.” 23 There are more oblique references as well, such as when Cooper describes Mackenzie’s character:

I think Captain Mackenzie’s mind to be very singularly constituted and that he did not mean all he has so clearly said. So many instances of this peculiarity of moral conformation have forced themselves on my notice, as to leave no doubt of its existence. Capt. Mackenzie can see only one side of a question. He is a man of prejudice and denunciation, and he accuses, less under evidence, than under convictions. Were he inspired, this last might do well enough; but, as he is only a man, and quite often wrong as right, fearful consequences have followed from his mistakes. 24

At this point, Cooper appears to have moved from the historical events of Lake Erie to the more personal and less winnable battle of character assassination. In so doing, he left himself vulnerable to the very charge he leveled at Mackenzie: that he was a man of prejudice and denunciation.

Cooper would write an eighty-page “elaborate review” of Mackenzie’s court-martial trial, condemning once again the Emersonian tendency of the captain to “regard things as he has at first conceived them to be, and act under his conviction, rather than under the authority of evidence.” 25 The Somers case, even more than the Lake Erie affair, inhered so fully in the complexities of language — in codes, handwriting, dictation, translation; in Mackenzie’s own stylistic affectations in his written account of the incident; in contemporary sea fiction (including Cooper’s own) which was said to have corrupted one of the conspirators; in literary grudges and literary fame — that the whole incident seems to issue from, as well as proceed into, written documents. 26 Cooper’s review of Mackenzie’s court-martial trial is, in its own right, an interesting and conflicted attempt to separate deeds from texts, facts from interpretation. In the Somers affair, this was simply impossible.

On the subject of Lake Erie, at least, Cooper began with the clarity of a victory at sea. The capture of six British vessels was not open to dispute, the facts were recorded and acclaimed, and they had, in this sense, the authority of evidence. Cooper assumed that the results of his textual assault would be similarly obvious. In a letter to Elliott, Cooper promised that Mackenzie “will be demolished.” He later claimed that his Lake Erie pamphlet had “struck deep wherever it has been read,” and that “Poor McKenzie is losing ground daily.” 27 In the same drive for closure, some reviewers celebrated Cooper’s Lake Erie pamphlet as the last word on the subject. One wrote in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review:

The controversy may now be considered at an end. Mr. Cooper has performed an operation analogous to that of the Niag{349}ara in the battle itself: He has not come into “close action ” till rather late in the day, perhaps, but after he has once fairly entered the enemy’s line, scarce more than a single broadside of his heavy metal has been necessary to settle the question. 28

Even this amusing conceit has its own paradox and loose end, demonstrating again that the battle cannot move from history to text in anything resembling a direct path. Cooper, the champion of Jesse Elliott, is metaphorically put in the position of Oliver Hazard Perry as he destroys the opposition. Cooper’s pamphlet was not the last word, of course. In 1844, the embattled Mackenzie came out with a new edition of the Life of Perry, which contained a 57-page appendix responding to Cooper. 29 Here, he took Cooper’s seamanship to task, saying it was all right for writing novels, but not for naval history. Cooper immediately promised another response, but none has been located. No doubt still “enabled,” Cooper may have simply decided not to. Beginning with Perry’s use of this term, a first sign that the battle had moved from the sea to the page, the authority of evidence in the Lake Erie affair yields increasingly to the predisposition of its interpreter.

Appendix: Cooper/Mackenzie Exchanges on the Subject of Lake Erie

  • May 1839: Cooper’s Naval History published.
  • October 1839: Mackenzie’s review in the North American Review.
  • 1840: Mackenzie’s Life of Perry published, the purpose of which is to restore the admiration of Perry which Cooper had sought to diminish. Long chapters on Lake Erie directly refute Cooper. Thirty-page appendix contains record of charges Perry brought against Elliott in 1818.
  • 29 March 1841: Cooper’s preliminary reply to Mackenzie’s review of Life of Perry published in The Evening Post. Cooper says he cannot reply fully because the Duer suit is still being prosecuted, and some of the facts bear materially on the Mackenzie review.
  • 7 April 1841: Mackenzie’s reply to Cooper published in The Evening Post.
  • May/June 1843: Cooper publishes his own brief biography of Perry in Graham’s Magazine. Fifty-five of the eighty-six pages concern Lake Erie and its aftermath; they respond directly to Mackenzie’s criticisms.
  • July 1843: Cooper responds fully to the Lake Erie affair with a pamphlet, The Battle of Lake Erie, Or Answers to Messrs. Burges, Duer, and Mackenzie.
  • 1844: Mackenzie brings out a new edition of his Life of Perry, which contains a 57-page appendix devoted to answering Cooper’s points from the Graham’s Magazine biography and The Battle of Lake Erie pamphlet.


1 William S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1992), 2:557-558.

2 Gerard T. Altoff, “The Battle of Lake Erie: A Narrative,” in William Jeffrey Welsh and David Curtis Skaggs, War on the Great Lakes (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1991), 5-16. For an account that includes maps illustrating the relative positions of the vessels during each half-hour of the battle, see Robert and Thomas Malcomson, HMS Detroit: The Battle for Lake Erie (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 94-111.

3 Before battle, Perry raised a flag with James Lawrence’s famous words, “Don’t give up the ship!” emblazoned on it. Edward L. Beach, The United States Navy; 200 Years (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1986), 122.

4 The Naval War of 1812, 558.

5 David Curtis Skaggs, “Aiming at the Truth: James Fenimore Cooper and the Battle of Lake Erie,” The Journal of Military History 59 (April 1995), 250.

6 Perry’s charges and supporting materials are published in the appendix of Russell Jarvis, A Biographical Notice of Com. Jesse D. Elliott (Philadelphia, 1835), 447 ff.

7 Skaggs, “Aiming at the Truth,” 248-249.

8 For an account of the strange career of Jesse D. Elliott, see Lawrence J. Friedman and David Curtis Skaggs, “Jesse Duncan Elliott and the Battle of Lake Erie: the Issue of Mental Instability,” Journal of the Early Republic, 10 (Winter 1990), 493-516.

9 James Fenimore Cooper, History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1839), 402-404.

10 Duer’s review was published serially in the New-York Commercial Advertiser on 8, 11, 14, and 19 June 1839; Tristam Burges, The Battle of Lake Erie (Philadelphia: Wm. Marshall & Co., 1839); [Alexander Slidell Mackenzie], The North American Review 49 (October 1839), 432-467.

11 Burges, 52.

12 James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-68), vol. 3, 228.

13 Quarterly Review, 59 (October 1837), 329.

14 Mackenzie, The North American Review, 432.

15 Mackenzie, The Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1849), 1:275.

16 Mackenzie, The Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, 277.

17 Cooper’s letter of 29 March 1841 to The Evening Post, in which he gives a preliminary response to Mackenzie’s Life of Perry. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 4:134.

18 Cooper, The Battle of Lake Erie, Or Answers to Messrs. Burges, Duer. and Mackenzie (Cooperstown: Phinney, 1843), iii-iv.

19 Cooper, The Battle of Lake Erie, 23.

20 Cooper, The Battle of Lake Erie, 24.

21 Cooper, The Battle of Lake Erie, 35.

22 Cooper, The Battle of Lake Erie, 83.

23 Cooper, The Battle of Lake Erie, 49.

24 Cooper, The Battle of Lake Erie, 58.

25 Proceedings of the Naval Court-Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (Delmar, NY: Scholars Facsimiles & Reprints, 1992), 279.

26 For my own account of the Somers affair, see the “Introduction” to Proceedings.

27 The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 4:389, 400-401, 409.

28 Reprinted in The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, vol. 4, 402.

29 Mackenzie, The Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1844), 271-328.

* Hugh Egan is the Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Ithaca College. His research interests focus upon nineteenth century American literature, and he has published on Irving, Dana, and Cooper. He is currently working on a project involving Cooper’s mid-career works.