Cooper’s Place in American Naval Writing

Robert D. Madison (Northwestern University)

Presented at the 4ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1982.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1982 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 17-32).

Copyright © 1982 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

JAMES Fenimore Cooper’s History of the Navy (1839) was the single most important and influential American naval history down to the publication of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s writings on sea power, beginning in 1890. Although naval bibliographies — notably those by Harbeck and Smith 1 — cite several works on American naval history by his contemporaries, they were mainly journal extracts or compilations of letters and documents. These were part of a fairly recent movement, dating from the beginning of the seventeenth century, of treating naval history as a discipline apart from general history.

No writer before the seventeenth century, however, had focused on the history of an independent national marine, for the good reason that there was none: most naval establishments were outgrowths of normal mercantile shipping activity or were branches of the military in general. Even in the seventeenth century naval chronicles partook largely of the form of travel narrative, or told of personal exploits upon the seas. One thinks, for example, of Captain John Smith, author of The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624); his rescue on land by Pocahontas was just one of many adventures related, including Indian fights and shipwrecks.

By the eighteenth century, the subject matter of a few historical works was restricted to accounts of maritime affairs. The earliest of these were highly apocryphal in content and eclectic in form. John Charnock used biographical form in his Biographia Navalis (1794-8), limited to the lives of fairly recent officers (after 1660). The change to biography indicated an interest in personal achievement. More important than the change in form, though, was the change in attitude towards the material shown by Robert Beatson in his Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain 1727-1783. This work, according to the British naval historiographer J. K. Laughton, “abounds in detail and in careful, judicious criticism.” 2 The idea that the events of naval history could be connected by a tissue of critical analysis did not make its appearance, then, until nearly the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In America, naval history had to wait until there was a separate American navy, for during the period of colonization protection on the seas was provided by the British navy. The colonies developed a major sea-borne trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and did commission some privateers during the wars with France. But even after the creation of a navy during the American Revolution there was not enough material to inspire an independent record of naval events. And perhaps the insignificance of the actions of the American navy in the Mediterranean, when compared with the exploits of Nelson, contributed to the lack of a specifically naval commemoration of the War with Tripoli.

It was not until the United States was engaged in the War of 1812, a naval conflict against the most powerful navy the world had seen, that a combination of patriotism, morale, and the events themselves inspired independent treatment. Following the pattern of most of the eighteenth-century English chroniclers, Thomas Clark assembled a jumbled collection of government reports, statistics, and acts of Congress under the name Naval History of the United States (1813). It was a feeble attempt, as the future writer of Latin textbooks had little practical familiarity with his subject. Though aided by Jefferson and Adams, he never completed the work through the end of the War of 1812, as he had promised in the first and second (1814) editions.

The most sophisticated naval writing of the war appeared in The Analectic Review, which for part of the war was under the editorship of Washinton Irving. Irving had met officers of our navy while travelling in Europe and was a friend of Decatur. His own contributions to the Analectic included biographical sketches of Lawrence, Burrows, Perry, and Porter. While some of the Analectic pieces are extremely good, Irving’s are surprisingly not among them. Irving’s talents for writing the biographical history of a naval hero did not emerge until his Columbus project in 1826-27.

An era of American naval writing had begun, however, and the post-war years were flooded with naval “Monuments,” “Temples,” and “General Views,” whose purpose was to glorify the young American marine through a species of epideictic writing which by its very inflatedness betrayed its scant relation to truth. While this exaggerated eulogy could be called narrative, it did not provide any historical commentary of value. When the hyperbole was absent, the material was in most cases simply a hodge-podge of newspaper reports. One work published during this period had a juster claim to truth, although in form it was a compendium and no more, as its name implied. This was Charles Washington Goldsborough’s United States Naval Chronicle (1824), the first volume of which covered events from the Revolutionary War through the establishment of peace in 1801. Despite the similarity in names there is no direct relation between this work and the English Naval Chronicle. The latter work, compiled by James S. Clark and John McArthur, was published every six months during the “Great French War,” and ran to forty volumes. Throughout his career, Goldsborough had posts of various kinds within the navy or government which gave him access to first-hand accounts of policy making and, through officers’ letters, the cruises and battles of the vessels of the navy. After only fourteen pages of ragged narrative, he wrote a series of biographical sketches, printed diplomatic correspondence, and patched together articles on docks and administration of the navy. It is probably a blessing that Goldsborough gave up the attempt at a narrative history, as his ponderous first sentence indicates:

During the Revolutionary War, the superintending direction of the Navy was committed, in the first instance, to a committee of three members of Congress, viz: Messrs. Deane, Langdon, and Gadsden, who were, in October, 1775, required to fit out two swift sailing vessels, the one of 10, the other of 14 guns, and a proportionate number of swivels and men, to cruize “eastward,” for the purpose of intercepting such transports as might be laden with munitions of war, and other supplies for the British, then in possession of the town of Boston, and for such other purposes as Congress might direct. 3

Goldsborough’s information, however, was copious, and it is unfortunate for later historians who found his work extremely helpful that he compiled no further volumes than the first.

The histories of the first quarter of the nineteenth century lacked unifying themes and were confusing in chronology and focus. As a result of his dissatisfaction with these compilations Cooper began his own History. He succeeded in writing the first comprehensive narrative history of the American navy. Cooper’s theme was the high character of the American naval officer and its development from the earliest period of American history. When in the navy, he had known such gentleman-officers as Captain James Lawrence, who died a hero on the deck of the Chesapeake. It was the true character of these men that Cooper sought to celebrate, but he insisted that a just relation of their actions was encomium enough. He wrote with autobiographical enthusiasm of the attachment of the younger officers to Lawrence, and ended his own eulogy with Lawrence’s last words: “Never strike the flag of my ship.” He objected strongly when, with hyperbolic tampering, other writers changed Lawrence’s dying words to “Don’t give up the ship.” He disliked historical writing marred by the characteristics of Romantic fiction such as describing an escape or victory in so exaggerated a way that it defied likelihood or even the laws of nature. And though he had used, and would continue to use, a highly idealized conception of characterization in his novels, neither the Byronic portrait of John Paul Jones which had appeared in earlier history, and which Cooper himself had drawn upon in The Pilot (1824), nor the supermen he had objected to in Sir Waiter Scott’s Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (1827) had any place in Cooper’s concept of historical writing. He had written in the Preface to The Pilot:

The privileges of the Historian and of the writer of Romances are very different, and it behoves them equally to respect each other’s rights. The latter is permitted to garnish a probable fiction, while he is sternly prohibited from dwelling on improbable truths; but it is the duty of the former to record facts as they have occurred, without a reference to consequences, resting his reputation on a firm foundation of realities, and vindicating his integrity by his authorities. (London: Miller, 1824; I. [vi])

Though Cooper wrote history without Romantic excess as in fact or language, his focus on history as a vehicle for presenting the deeds of men — heroes perhaps — defines him as a Romantic historian. For him the events of the naval past were not mere dusty statistics but heroic actions of individual officers. While he describes these heroes with deliberately imposed modesty, his narrative is not lackluster. At his best, Cooper transferred the heroic qualities from the men to the ships themselves, as he did in describing the chase of the Constitution.

In this species of description his historical writing is closest to his fiction, as shown in the personification of the vessel Feu-Follet in his novel The Wing-and-Wing (1842). He had at one time, in fact, considered writing a novel in which the only characters were the vessels themselves. Perhaps this idea grew out of his deliberate separation of the kinds of description used for men and ships in the History.

Occasionally Cooper was able to enliven his narrative of such a scene as the fight between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis, or the explosion of the Intrepid, by describing the sublimity and awesomeness of the conflict in detail. Cooper’s prediliction for fire passages and his powers of visually describing them in a manner akin to Turner’s paintings, are the same as those responsible for the chiaroscuro of the flaming chimneys of a steam vessel at night in his novel Jack Tier (1846-8) and the midnight fire and explosion of the Coquette in The Water-Witch (1830). Where the nautical description in no way distorts the the character of the actors, Cooper draws on his fullest abilities as a Romantic marine writer and — not inappropriately — marine artist.

Cooper’s historical writing thus falls between that of the chronicler Goldsborough and that of the Romantic historian George Bancroft. The first two volumes of Bancroft’s History of the United States — full of “notoriously effusive patriotism” 4 — and Goldsborough’s work were acknowledged sources of Cooper’s own History, though only Bancroft came close to exhibiting the literary ability Cooper brought to history.

The only other writer of established literary reputation to attempt a full-length naval history was Robert Southey, whose Lives of the British Admirals with an Introductory View of the Naval History of England (1833-40) reached five volumes but was never completed. Apparently his Lives gained little popularity; surprisingly indeed, this work by the author of the immensely popular and plainly written Life of Nelson is not even mentioned in the standard bibliography of British naval history. 5 While there is evidence that Cooper had read Southey’s Life of Nelson, there is none that he was aware at all of the poet Laureate’s longer naval work.

The Lives could not compete, as a sourcebook for later historians, with the standard English naval history of that time, The Naval History of Great Britain (five volumes, 1822-4). Its author, William James, was a “conceited, dogmatic, and prejudiced” writer, according to Laughton (42). Cooper, who had also recognized the personal bias in James’s writing, considered him as often factually unreliable.

Cooper’s rejection or acceptance of facts from James’s work — or from any other writer — was based on his extensive reading of published naval works such as Clark’s and Goldsborough’s, on manuscripts, and on interviews with living naval officers, such as his best friend William Branford Shubrick, his former commanders Isaac Chauncey and Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, and John Paul Jones’s lieutenant Richard Dale. By comparing the different oral and written accounts, Cooper arrived at the carefully reasoned line of facts and analysis which underlies his narrative. The reasoning behind the selection of facts does not always remain invisible behind the writing. Frequently it is presented in the text, although Cooper himself saw the logistical problem of citing every source and explaining his reasoning in every case. After only a few pages he stopped regularly citing authorities in footnotes and referred to them in the text only when necessary. In no other American naval history of the period, however, is there any evidence that such critical investigation and analysis as his had taken place at all. Cooper weighed every account, every writer or speaker, every fact.

Cooper certainly inherited the eighteenth-century skepticism towards uncritical history. Another legacy of Rationalism he inherited was the conclusion that absolute certainty could not be arrived at through historical evidence. The next best thing was proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Cooper, with his contemporaries, called this “moral certainty,” a phrase that occurs throughout his writing. By using this phrase he reveals that he still depended on the character of individuals as an indication of the value of their evidence; that is, the “moral” value of the evidence could be depended upon, even in the absence of actual proof. He wrote before the advent of the psychological evaluation of testimony, or considering a person’s evidence in the light of the person’s sensory processes. But he was writing at a time when most rational men believed that no amount of testimony could counterbalance a law of the universe. It is the latter idea that led him to weigh cannonballs as well as testimony, and led him to consider so adamantly the physical properties of ships and armaments. Cooper’s “moral certainty” therefore was two-fold: it depended on testimony of a high order, and it depended on the agreement of the testimony with the laws of the universe.

Cooper faced a special problem in that his subjects were often his sources, and their character — the theme of the History — was also the determining factor in evaluating evidence. Here he could easily have been trapped by circular logic. Did his concentration on character vitiate his history? His prescriptive characterization of naval officers constitutes a bias that has been seen to eliminate certain categories of action — notably the accounts of privateering — from his consideration in naval history. But did he also eliminate any strictly naval events because the character shown in them doesn’t agree with the overall picture of character? Are there any actions he misrepresented with a deliberate view of fitting the characterization to the scheme? To this last question, I should answer strongly in the negative. And although he was undoubtedly not all-inclusive — no historian can expect to be — there is no evidence that he refrained from recording a relevant naval action on thematic grounds. Cooper’s motive is what must be examined here. He arrived at his conception of the high character of the naval officer inductively — through an examination of men and events — rather than deductively. Still, by the time of the writing of the History, Cooper viewed naval officers as a class, and it is this view which allows him to set the navy apart from other American institutions as a model of society. Cooper constructed his History through critical research, but the factuality of his account did not detract from his didactic intention to show naval officers and their deeds as models for emulation.

Neither Cooper’s reputation as a man of letters nor his thoroughness as a critical historian was enough to keep his History from partisan attacks upon its appearance in 1839. At that time Cooper was involved in lawsuits he had brought against several New York newspapers for their libellous reviews of his two previous novels, Homeward Bound and Home as Found (both published in 1838). 6 He was at once attacked in the same newspapers for his account of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Cooper had deliberately ignored the dispute between the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, and his second in command, Jesse D. Elliott, concerning the latter’s supposed failure to bring his ship into action during the battle. Since the controversy did not reach full height until the early 1830’s, long after the battle, and since it was highly political in character, Cooper thought it did not deserve a place in a history of the battle proper.

Perry himself had died in 1819. Elliott later became a political favorite under President Jackson, who had appointed him to command the Boston navy yard, in the heart of political opposition. Not a particularly tactful man, Elliott did more to widen than close the political gap, including having a figurehead of Andrew Jackson affixed to the U. S. S. Constitution. New England was also Perry country, and a pamphlet was printed bringing up the Lake Erie question. In 1835 Elliott responded with an entire book.

Members of the Perry clan, John Duer and Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, who wrote reviews of the History, and Matthew C. Perry, a former friend of Cooper’s, renewed the controversy by leading the attack on the new work. Aside from Cooper, Mackenzie was the foremost nautical writer of America at that time; his writing career offers uncanny parallels to that of Cooper. Both authors wrote lead articles for The Naval Magazine, of which there were only two volumes: one begun by Cooper’s article, the other by Mackenzie’s (then Slidell). Both authors wrote travel works on England, and published other European travels. Mackenzie had contributed an appendix and suggestions on naval matters to Irving’s Columbus, which Cooper was later to use in connection with his novel Mercedes of Castile. Each wrote a biography of John Paul Jones and one of Oliver Hazard Perry. The two writers clashed frequently, but after the Somers mutiny affair Mackenzie was “used up” — his last long work, a biography of Decatur, dropped the polemical style that had marked his writing from his discussion of Cooper’s History in the North American Review through the fifth edition of his Life of Perry.

The newspapers, eager to attack the author of the History, sided with the Perry faction in accusing Cooper of covering up Elliott’s cowardice. Cooper sued again, and won — justifying his historiographical method as well as the accuracy of his narrative of the battle. He did this by reading his narrative in court, bringing out the conflicting evidence in the sources he found, and showing point by point how he analyzed the facts and came to his conclusions.

While the defensive newspapers still ridiculed Cooper and his court actions, they did not and could not prevent the work from becoming accepted as an authority at once. Indeed, it is still unequalled in it kind, for after the many and complex naval events of the Civil War, to write a comprehensive naval history in such full detail as Cooper’s was no longer practical. Such later histories as David Dixon Porter’s Naval History of the Civil War (1886) necessarily limited themselves to particular wars or eras. Similarly, the most useful earlier naval works had not been general histories at all, but had limited themselves to specific cruises, events, or persons. David Porter, father of the naval historian, had written the Journal of a Cruise ... to the Pacific (1815) which narrated the exploits of the commerce raider Essex; Thomas Harris’s Life and Services of ... Bainbridge (1839) was the standard biography of that officer; Robert C. Sands’s Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones (1830) was the best of several biographies of Jones. Each of these was in form a biography or journal rather than the history of an entire naval service or even an entire war, so in the context of writings both earlier and later, Cooper’s History still stands alone.

Naval history written in the next fifty years after the publication of Cooper’s History had to reckon with his book one way or another. John Frost’s Book of the Navy (1842) took a partisan stand against it. After Cooper himself — and the controversy about Lake Erie — had died, his work became standard. Charles J. Peterson, a minor literary figure, wrote in a history modelled on the biographical pattern of Southey’s Lives:

The author, after perusing every thing which had been published on the subject of his work, is more than ever convinced of the value of the late Mr. Cooper’s History of the American Navy. Had that gentleman fulfilled his favorite scheme of writing a series of naval biographies ... the present compilation would never have seen the light. Where that thorough writer had preceded, no one else could have followed, unless, perhaps, merely to abridge. ... [T]he author takes this occasion to acknowledge his indebtedness to that eminent and faithful writer. 7

A year later, George F. Emmons published his statistical history, The Navy of the United States, from the Commencement: 1775 to 1853, a book of lists of naval vessels, engagements, commanders, and related ancillary data. He wrote in his discussion of sources:

Among those most worthy of mention are, the files of the State and Navy Departments — the American Archives and State Papers — Clark’s, Goldsborough’s, and Cooper’s Naval Histories, and Niles’ Register. 8

(Niles’ Weekly Register, a general record of events, had published what appear to be copies of the official correspondence of officers during the War of 1812.)

Events of the Civil War drew public and scholarly attention away from earlier naval history, But when Theodore Roosevelt published The Naval War of 1812 (1882), he cited Cooper’s History among his three principal authorities, with the qualification that it is

much less an authority than James’s [naval history], both because it is written without great regard for exactness, and because all figures for the American side need to be supplied from Lieutenant (now Admiral) George E. Emmons’ statistical “History of the United States Navy.” 9

But Roosevelt’s evaluation is quite inaccurate in both form and substance: he wrote it without a careful check of either Emmons’s middle initial or the title of his work, and, more significantly, without considering the import of Emmons’s acknowledgment of his debt to Cooper. In light of what we know about Cooper’s extensive research and conscientious effort to arrive at truth, Roosevelt’s evaluation of Cooper’s regard for exactness must itself be regarded as simply wrong.

In tone, such later histories as Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812 and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s Sea Power in its Relation to the War of 1812 (1905) might be classified as somewhat Romantic, with their pervasive rhetoric of honor (rather than, say, of politics or economics). But even so Roosevelt and Mahan approach scientific history in their philosophical analysis of strategy — as if naval history were a laboratory experiment — and in showing the integral relationship of naval affairs to the shaping of general history. Unlike Cooper, neither could forbear from analyzing what bygone commanders “should have” done, which, however helpful it might be in developing theories of strategy, is but boggy ground to build on in a fair evaluation of the historical personages. For instance, in their evaluation of Elliott’s behavior at Lake Erie, the later authors say that he should have followed the well-established pattern of Nelson in breaking the line to engage the enemy. Strong as his example may have been, Nelson’s action had occurred only a few years before Elliott’s. In the historical context, one could hardly blame Elliott for his hesitation: the first fleet action in the history of the United States Navy had occurred only a few weeks before, on Lake Ontario. It had failed, chiefly through the fact that two vessels broke the line. Both were captured. The later historians overlook this context in their concentration on theory. Their hindsight, if it does not actually distort history itself, at least gives history a different purpose, not necessarily to show what men had done, but what they could have done.

In the later writing, the focus is no longer, as in Cooper, on the character of individuals or on a class of men. The individual, rather than determining events, is himself molded by larger forces. Readers sharing this view of history naturally turned from Cooper to Mahan. Only relatively recently, beginning with Walter Muir Whitehill’s brief essay in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal (1954), 10 has Cooper’s History begun to be recognized as the classic of its type, and as valid history even for modern readers. Whitehill had never read a Cooper novel, and did not regard the History of the Navy as a by-product of the novelist’s career. Instead he realized the unique value of a comprehensive history of the early navy, written by a talented author among whose informants were the living subjects of his pen.

Still, in bringing Cooper’s work to the attention of modern readers, there remains much to overcome when a writer of the high calibre of Robert G. Albion, the most prominent of contemporary naval historians, believes that when a new history is written there is little or no need to consult the earlier. 11 But Cooper’s History is valuable now, a hundred and forty years after its publication, not only because of its erudition and style, but also because Cooper himself is now history. He was the major naval writer of the first half of the nineteenth century, and his views on naval subjects are as important to an understanding of his time as Mahan and his writings are to our own century.


1 Charles T. Harbeck, A Contribution to the Bibliography of the History of the United States Navy (Cambridge: n.p., 1906) and Myron J. Smith, Jr., The American Navy 1789-1860: A Bibliography (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1974).

2 J. K. Laughton, “Historians and Naval History,” Cornhill Magazine, 35 (July 1913), 41.

3 (Washington: James Wilson, 1824), p. [5].

4 David Levin, History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959), [vii].

5 G. E. Manwaring, A Bibliography of British Naval History (1930; rpt. n.p.: Conway Maritime Press, 1970).

6 For a full discussion, see Ethel R. Outland, The “Effingham” Libels on Cooper (University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, 28 [1929]).

7 A History of the United States Navy and Biographical Sketches of American Naval Heroes (Philadelphia: J. and J. L. Gihon, 1852), vii.

8 (Washington: Gideon & Co., 1853), [vii].

9 (1882; rpt. New York: Review of Reviews Co., 1910), 1-2.

10 “Cooper as Naval Historian,” ed. Mary E. Cunningham. New York History, 35 (1954), 468-479.

11 Robert Greenhalgh Albion, Naval & Maritime History: An Annotated Bibliography, 4ᵗʰ ed. (Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 1973), p. 228: “This [Potter and Nimitz’s Sea Power] supplants not only this previous Annapolis text, E. B. Potter, ed. The United States and World Sea Power, 1955, but also the general histories by J. Fenimore Cooper (2 v. 1840 [sic]), J. R. Spears (4 v. 1897), E. S. Maclay, (3 v. 1894-1907) and D. W. Knox, above.”