Cooper’s Problematic Pilot: “Unrighteous Ambition” in a Patriotic Cause

Donald Darnell (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)

Presented at the 7ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 135-142).

Copyright © 1989 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

In the sixth chapter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Redskins, the protagonist-narrator Hugh Littlepage records his amusement at Opportunity Newcome’s translation of the inscriptions beneath some engravings of female figures intended to represent the cardinal virtues. La Virtue, La Solitude, La Charite are rendered aloud by the girl as “The Virtue.” “The Solitude,” “The Charity.” This display of erudition brings a smile to Hugh and the genteel heroine of the novel, Mary Warren, who, Hugh informs the reader, comprehended perfectly the difference between La Solitude and The Solitude (56-87). 1 The intent of the scene is clear; Hugh wishes to make invidious comparisons between Opportunity, the sister of the Snopes-like Seneca Newcome, and Mary Warren, the girl he will later marry. The achieved effect of the scene notwithstanding, there is something troubling about the creator of Natty Bumppo, the world’s greatest marksman, shooting fish in a barrel. Opportunity is ridiculous in her own right, and the reader doesn’t need a genteel commentator to remark on her commanding ignorance. The reader of the earlier Cooper novels is further troubled by a protagonist who would descend to concern himself with such observations. Cooper’s romantic heroes, lower class to a man, lacked the knowledge for such commentary, and his gentlemen heroes deigned not to criticize the manners of women beneath them socially.

Although Hugh Littlepage is a radically different protagonist from these earlier gentlemen, Cooper’s interest in social behavior and manners appropriate to class is not new; in fact, it is a constant throughout his published works, both fiction and nonfiction. On the same page that Opportunity translates the titles, Hugh contrasts her “accent, and jumping, hitching mode of speaking” with the pronunciation of Mary Warren, whose modulations of voice are “even and agreeable, as is usual with well-bred women.” Cooper is describing manners here and relating -them implicitly to a larger thematic concern. While the anti-rent controversy is the avowed theme of The Redskins, Cooper’s emphasis falls equally on the necessity of protecting a stable, genteel society, which alone can save America from becoming a cultural wasteland. Hugh’s observations, then, provide further evidence of Cooper’s strong and abiding interest in manners, which began in his first novel, Precaution, and continued to his last, The Ways of the Hour. It seems appropriate, then, at this time of Cooper’s Bicentennial Celebration to examine a theme that, given its prominence in his canon, has been virtually ignored.

A writer who explores the drama and tension inherent in social distinctions and class separation, Cooper constantly focuses on the significance of birth, breeding, property, and inheritance. The plots of eighteen of Cooper’s novels involve an inheritance that significantly increases the wealth of the genteel character, often making him or her the {136} financial equal of his intended spouse. In twenty-seven of the thirty-two novels the characters’ class is integrally related to the plot. Invariably the question raised in the novels is: “What is the hero’s or the heroine’s social rank?” Above all else Cooper’s theme is Know Your Place. He judges his characters by how closely they adhere to this doctrine, and in the process he establishes the criteria by which a lady and a gentleman are identified. He is not, however, prescribing how to be a lady or a gentleman, but rather how to recognize, respect, and defer to one.

How Cooper came to be interested in manners — how and why he was as sensitive as he was to the nuances of class, place, and family — may be explained in large measure by the tensions he experienced in his own life — the early loss of fortune and prestige, the conflict with aristocratic in-laws, the snobbery he experienced in Europe, the vulgarity he found when he returned home, the lack of tone in American society. It would be strange indeed if such experiences in his personal life did not figure prominently in his fiction.

Although Cooper drew more upon his imagination than upon these personal experiences in creating his great romances of the forest and the sea, within many of these same romances he invariably treats the matter of manners. In developing this theme Cooper employs his upper-class characters in a particular role. They are present to instruct, to demonstrate how a lady and a gentleman conduct their lives in all situations and under all circumstances, in peace and in war. Wherever the plot might lead them and the more memorable romantic heroes of Cooper’s imagination — Leatherstocking, Uncas, Harvey Birch, Jacopo Frontoni, the Pilot — their thematic function never varies. In no novel of Cooper’s is this function more evident than in The Pilot, where Edward Griffith, the author’s spokesman evaluates the conduct and motivation of the hero John Paul Jones.

To understand fully Cooper’s view of the interrelationship of heroism, patriotism, and social class, it is helpful to compare The Pilot with his first novel about the American Revolution, The Spy. Both novels treat a love interest between an upper-class hero and heroine in a isolated setting alternately controlled by British and American military forces. The class and manners theme, however, find its center in the romantic hero of the novel, John Paul Jones (Mr. Gray), who is notable among Cooper’s heroes for the ambivalent attitude the author displays toward him. Just as he includes Washington in The Spy for the instant appeal the character would have for American audience, Cooper introduces another American hero into The Pilot, with a vastly different method of presentation. Washington of The Spy is idealized and inactive. Jones of The Pilot is a dynamic commander but one whose motivation and ethics are criticized by characters who speak for the author. What accounts for this change in the depiction of legendary American heroes from one novel to another is attributable, in part, to the social class from which each came. Suffice it to say that Jones was not gentry and that he was ambitious. In Cooper’s lexicon this invariably means being excessively ambitious, or ambitious in the wrong way. In the context of manners and class, Jones is a hero whose accomplishments on the sea make him an honored naval officer but whose birth and manners unfit him for a place in Cooper’s pantheon of genteel heroes.

{137} The reader perceives this theme of class and manners when he examines the differences separating Jones from the upper-class characters in the novel. In many ways the characters and setting (at least on land) resemble those of The Spy. In a converted abbey on the northwest coast of England, the sixty-year-old Colonel George Howard, a Loyalist, has fled his home in South Carolina with his orphaned niece Cecilia Howard and his ward Katherine Plowden, both of whom are loyal to the American cause. Their isolated position like that of the “Locusts” in The Spy makes them vulnerable to a raid led by John Paul Jones and two young American naval officers, Lieutenants Edward Griffith and Richard Barnstable — in love with Cecilia and Katherine respectively. The colonel, girls and Griffith are upper class, the younger characters all typical of Cooper’s genteel heroes and heroines. Griffith, who at the novel’s conclusion renders Cooper’s judgment on Jones, is particularly described as to class. He can aid a dying seaman’s mother because he is the master of his own fortune and is rich (415). 2 He has spent four years in college “poring over Latin Grammars and Syntaxes” and can read the Testament in Greek (322). And he is a man of family. Because he is who he is and because of the dangerous duty assigned the Americans, he challenges Jones, who is known to him only as Mr. Gray, to identify himself. The ensuing conversation between Griffith, Captain Munson, his commander, and Jones crystallizes the class and manners theme of the novel: “I am known to all to be the man I seem [Griffith announces] — am in the service of my country — belong to a family, and enjoy a name, that is a pledge of my loyalty to the cause of America. ... Who and what is the man who thus enjoys your confidence, Captain Munson?” (81). Reluctant to reveal Jones’ identity and insistent upon his authority, Captain Munson establishes his status: “I have not your pretensions, sir, by birth or education, and yet Congress have not seen proper to overlook my years and services. I command this frigate — ” (81-82). At this point he is interrupted by Jones who produces “a parchment decorated with ribbons and bearing a massive seal,” which he shows Griffith. The emphasis falls equally on Griffith’s enthusiastic response to Jones’ identity and the satisfaction Jones derives in displaying the honors conferred upon him by Louis XVI:

As he pointed with his finger, impressively, to different parts of the writing, his eye kindled with a look of unusual fire, and there was a faint tinge discernible on his pallid features as he spoke.

“See!” he said. “Royalty itself does not hesitate to bear witness in my favour. ... ” (82).

The scene concerns identity and class. Griffith’s identity comes from his family; Captain Munson’s identity comes from merit, which Congress has rewarded. Jones also has risen by merit, and, as the reader discovers later in the novel, revels in the acclaim he has won. But in Cooper’s treatment of Jones there is no indication that the naval hero has the security or peace of mind typical of Cooper’s gentlemen. Rather there is something approaching bombast in his passionate outburst about the injustices done him by “aristocrats.” As a consequence the reader is presented with a hero who exhibits a tension in his motivation: a concern for human rights and liberty {138} in competition with pride, egotism, and class consciousness.

Jones reveals himself in two roles: as the pilot who maneuvers the frigate through the dangerous shoals in chapters three through five and fights the British warship in chapter thirty-three, and as the rebel who defends his actions to his former fiancee in chapter fourteen. In the latter chapter Cooper establishes the social position of Jones and takes some liberties with the facts of his life. Finding “nothing but oppression and injustice” in his native Scotland, Jones had left Alice Dunscombe six years earlier because he could not ask her to “become the bride of a wanderer, without either name or fortune” (148). This has changed, however, since he took service with America. (Internal evidence in the novel indicates that the story takes place in 1780. He has commanded the Bon Homme Richard and won fame for other exploits.) Now he is honored by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. As he shows the parchment and other articles from the sovereigns to Alice “a glowing pride [lights] his countenance” (151).

Jones’ happiness is not without alloy, however, as he is attacked and thwarted, in his words, by “high born miscreants, who envy the merit they cannot equal, and detract from the glory of deeds that they dare not attempt to emulate” (155). His constant theme is that his merit is not rewarded by the French aristocracy. His triumphs over his English enemies at sea have been tame in comparison with the “heartfelt exultation which places [him] immeasureably above those false and craven hypocrites” (156). He had begged the French for ships, but envy and jealousy robbed him of his just dues and of more than half his glory. Later he confides to Griffith his hostility toward the aristocracy: “I was born without the nobility of twenty generations to corrupt my blood and deaden my soul, and am not trusted by the degenerate wretches who rule the French marine” (214).

Much of the passion in Jones’ speech is owing to his need to defend his actions against the British to Alice, who is loyal to the king. Possessing, in his words, a “generous ardor that impels a man to fight in the defence of sacred liberty,” Jones is a man with “a soul not to be limited by the arbitrary boundaries of tyrants and hirelings, but one who has the right as well as the inclination to grapple with oppression, in whose name soever it is exercised, or in whatever hollow and specious shape it founds its claim to abuse our race” (151).

But as Kay Seymour House and H. Daniel Peck have pointed out, Jones is driven as much by a desire for fame as for liberty. 3 And while Cooper is unequivocal in his respect for Jones’ seamanship he is ambivalent about, if not disapproving of, the manners of his protagonist. 4

Ultimately Cooper’s evaluation of Jones’ character is determined by the Pilot’s social class. The evaluation is undertaken by Griffith, who having retired from the navy and married Cecilia Howard, reads a notice of Jones’ death. It is significant that Jones is judged by one who is unequivocally a Cooper gentleman. Responding to Cecilia’s queries about the mysterious pilot who figured in their lives twelve years earlier (Griffith has kept Jones’ identity a secret), Griffith prepares a surprisingly critical epitaph for America’s greatest naval hero: A man motivated by “romantic notions of {139} glory,” his “devotion to America proceeded from desire of distinction, his ruling passion, and perhaps a little also from some resentment at some injustice which he claimed to have suffered from his own countrymen” (425-26). His renown would have been unsurpassed if two conditions had been met: Had he lived at a time when his “consummate knowledge of his profession” and “cool, deliberate, and even desperate courage, could have been exercised in a regular and well-supported Navy, and had the habits of his youth better qualified him to have borne, meekly, the honors he acquired in his age” (426). In other words, had Jones been born a gentleman his demeanor would have been that of a hero secure of his identity who modestly wears his laurels.

The inability of Jones to do just that is the crux of the manners theme in The Pilot. He is too ambitious and mercurial for the kind of gentleman Cooper admired and depicted in his novels. Twice in authorial commentary Cooper cites the “smothering” of Jones’ feeling of generosity and disinteredness, once by “restless ambition and the pride of success” (362) and once by “the visionary expectations of a wild ambition, and perhaps of fierce resentments” (369).

In The Spy desire for glory is an admirable attribute in young Wharton Dunwoodie, who possesses the ardor of an “enthusiast” and the desire to emulate “in some degree” the renown of Washington (423-24). 5 It is admirable too in Edward Griffith, who in contrast to Jones has formed habits in his youth that will enable him to bear meekly the honors he will acquire with age. In essence, Jones’ birth, demeanor, and motivation, which make him a commanding naval officer, preclude his inclusion in the circle of gentlemen heroes to which Washington belongs and to which the Whartons and Griffiths can legitimately aspire owing to their elevated social status.

Two statements from the ambivalent epitaph Cooper’s spokesman delivers further cloud Jones’ achievement. One is Griffith’s questioning of Jones’ often professed love of liberty: “For if he commenced his deeds in the cause of these free States, they terminated in the cause of a despot!” (425). (Samuel Eliot Morison notes that “Only when Congress made it clear that it had no use for him did Jones seek service under the French and Russian flag” [411].) The other judgment concerns Jones’ assumed name of Mr. Gray: Because he was a man who had “formed romantic notions of glory,” he “wished every thing concealed in which he acted a part that he thought would not contribute to his renown” (425). The contrast between the motivation of Jones, the son of a Scottish gardener, and that of Wharton Dunwoodie, son of General Dunwoodie, soldier, patriot, and Virginia plantation owner, is illuminating. The latter has a name to live up to and a hero, Washington, to emulate, not excel.

But more to the point is the contrast and its implications between Jones and another protagonist of humble birth, Harvey Birch of The Spy. Jones’ willingness to risk his life, as well as those of the American seaman and their frigate on a dangerous mission, prompts Griffith to ask if its success is worth the hazard incurred. The answer, “There is glory in it ... if it be purchased with danger, it shall be rewarded by fame,” identifies the force driving Jones (214). Yet, aware that the plan to carry off members of Parliament to the Colonies might meet with defeat, Jones adopts the name of {140} Mr. Gray to shield himself from the ignominy of failure. How different from Harvey Birch who hides his identity as the patriot in order that he might be a more effective spy, who in fact purchases infamy by his selfless action. While readers may argue who is the greater hero, Cooper would acknowledge Harvey the greater patriot.

The effect the two men have on their respective worlds provides further evidence of Cooper’s concern with class. Harvey’s actions have contributed to the birth of a nation and the perpetuation of a patriotic and genteel landed class epitomized by Wharton Dunwoodie. A stable world is established because of Harvey, while in The Pilot a stable world exists despite Jones, who is more the destroyer of the old regime than the builder of the new republic. Consequently his death lacks the pathos attendant on Harvey’s death on the battlefield at Niagara.

Despite the excellence of its sea scenes, The Pilot is a flawed novel. The action on land where the young couples attempt to carry on their courtship is drawn out, and the capture-rescue episodes between the British and Americans ashore are farcical. The real problem, however, is a thematic one: Cooper’s failure to focus the novel’s conflicting social and political views by bringing their best representatives into dramatic confrontation. Jones, who opposes the old order and sees himself as a citizen of the world whose cause is liberty, denounces in virtually every speech the status quo and calls for an end to rank and privilege. Although his acknowledged antagonists are the British press, who attack him, and the French aristocrats who frustrate him by withholding commission and ships, they are never seen and exist only as the victims of Jones’ vitriol in his speeches to Alice Dunscombe. Alice may question Jones’ revolutionary views, but she is too meek and pious to challenge him effectively.

Although they never confront one another in the novel, Jones’ real thematic antagonist is Colonel Howard, the sixty-year-old Loyalist whose conception of the conflict between king and rebels manifests itself in images of moral order reminiscent of Shakespeare’s history plays. In his denunciation of the “act of foul rebellion,” Colonel Howard counters Jones’ view of revolution:

Is it not an accursed attempt to deny the rights of our gracious sovereign, and to place tyrants, reared in kennels, on the throne of princes! a scheme to elevate the wicked at the expense of the good! a project to aid unrighteous ambition, under the mask of sacred liberty and the popular cry of equality! as if there could be liberty without order! or equality of rights, where the privileges of the sovereign are not as sacred as those of the people! (232)

A passionate spokesman for loyalty and order, Colonel Howard makes an eloquent close to his life, stating that he goes to a world where “We shall find but one Lord to serve” (408). He thus offers an effective contrast to Jones, who, however heroic in the sea scenes, is in the final analysis, the man of ambition, the riser whose motivation is ultimately suspect.

{141} One can only speculate as to why Cooper did not bring these two representatives of order and revolution together in a scene. His ambivalent attitude towards his ambitious lower-class pilot may have influenced his decision. Perhaps he was unwilling to undercut Jones further by pitting him against so formidable an antagonist as Colonel Howard. One thing is certain, however: Cooper never again introduced into his fiction a protagonist of humble birth who aspired to a higher status.

The University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The History of the Navy of the United States. Vol. I. London: Richard Bentley, 1839.
  • ------. The Pilot. Ed. Kay Seymour House. Albany: SUNY Press, 1986.
  • ------. The Redskins. Mohawk Edition. New York: G. P. Putnams’ Sons, 1896.
  • ------. The Spy. Mohawk Edition. New York: G. P. Putnams’ Sons, 1896.
  • House, Kay Seymour. Cooper’s Americans. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965.
  • McWilliams, John P., Jr. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. John Paul Jones, A Sailor’s Biography. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1959.
  • Peck, Henry Daniel. A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, The Redskins, Mohawk Edition (New York: G. P. Putnams’ Sons, 1896). Hereafter, all citations to The Redskins will be to this edition.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pilot (Albany: SUNY Press, 1986). Hereafter all citations to The Pilot will be to this edition.

3 Several critics have commented on Jones’ motivation: John P. McWilliams, Jr., writes, “whether Cooper’s treatment of John Paul Jones is an act of deliberate debunking or uneasy praise is difficult to assess” (67). He concludes that Cooper is “unwittingly expressing his own divided feelings concerning the integrity of the revolutionary hero” (71). H. Daniel Peck notes “The Pilot’s deep and ineradicable flaw is willful pride; he is motivated not by selfless idealism but by ‘wild ambition’” (25). Kay Seymour House see Jones as the “most purely Byronic of Cooper’s naval commanders,” a man obsessed with securing fame. “His motivation is that of the mercenary except that Jones asks to be paid in glory” (190-91).

4 Cooper introduces a further complication in the manners theme when Alice condemns Jones’ using his knowledge of the local waters to pilot the American warships. Although her disapproval stems from her unthinking loyalty to the king, she appears also to reflect Cooper’s uneasiness about Jones’ role, an uneasiness clearly evident in his subsequent commentary on the incident fifteen years later. In his History of the Navy of the United States (1839), Cooper examines the historical Jones’ conduct in the raid on St. Mary’s, the incident upon which the raid in The Pilot is based. He notes that the raid itself was justified by British attacks on the American coast and that personal vilification of Jones by the British press “weakened any remains of national attachment that he may formerly have entertained.” It is the ambiguous clause introducing the justification, however, that tips Cooper’s hand: “Whatever may be thought of the conduct of Captain Jones, in turning a local knowledge acquired in his youth, in the manner mentioned, to such an account. ... ” (172). Cooper apparently thought that under certain conditions, piloting like spying, is not the act of a gentleman.

5 James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy, Mohawk Edition.