Cooper, Slavery, and the Spirit of the Fair

Robert D. Madison (United States Naval Academy)

Presented at the 8ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1991.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 8), Papers from the 1991 Conference, State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 37-47).

Copyright © 1991, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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


A dozen years after his death, James Fenimore Cooper was “called upon” to be a spokesman for northern sentiment by the organizers of the great sanitary fair of 1864 in New York City. The “National Author” came to the aid of the national cause through his unpublished manuscript, “New York.”

The New York sanitary fair was perhaps the largest fair held to raise funds for the United States Sanitary Commission, a quasi-government agency designed, as Katherine Prescott Wormeley put it, as the “great artery which bears the people’s love to the people’s army.” Since April of 1861 the U. S. Sanitary Commission had acted as the umbrella organization coordinating the donations of hundreds of individual soldiers, aid societies throughout the North, funnelling hospital and relief supplies to central depots and thence to the various fronts on which troops were stationed. By 1864, the Sanitary Commission was recognized as a major American institution and was certainly the most ambitious civilian undertaking of the Civil War era.

The “metropolitan Fair” was not the first large-scale fair in support of the Commission, but it was the most elaborate. Others had been held in Chicago, Cincinnati, Boston, and Brooklyn, with the stated purpose of rejuvenating the flagging efforts of relief organizations:

Private charity was not adequate to the enormous task of providing for the sick and wounded of our large and widely scattered armies. Some kind of social organization was necessary to ensure the prompt and efficient accomplishment of our duty toward our soldiers; and no better plan than the Fairs could have been devised. Each Fair has been the centre of an active social interest. It has caused a useful concentration of effort, and quickened throughout the entire community the sentiment of nationality. (p. 4:)

As part of the ephemera generated by the sanitary fair in New York, Augustus R. MacDonough edited a daily newspaper entitled Spirit of the Fair, which ran from April 5 to April 23, 1864. Its intended place in the literary universe was clearly stated in the first issue to be a modest one, safe from criticism by virtue of its youth and brevity of duration, as well as its unpolitical spirit. Nevertheless, the editorial committee intended Spirit of the Fair to be a keepsake with literary value far greater than might be suggested by its newspaper format:

Brief, however, as is the number of its days, it will be apparent that there are names among its {38} contributors powerful enough to immortalize any publication, however humble, that may be touched by the wands of their genius. ... Many visitors to the Fair will preserve their copies of this journal as a record and memento of an event of which New York is justly proud; and it is hardly a stretch of imagination to presume that many people yet unborn will turn over these pages with a curiosity and interest equal to our own. (p. 6)

Among the writers whose contributions, it was anticipated, would immortalize Spirit of the Fair were Mrs. Kemble, W. C. Bryant, C. P. Cranch, George William Curtis, Frederic S. Cozzens, James Russell Lowell, Washington Irving, and — of course — James Fenimore Cooper, whose “New York” was the first feature article of Spirit of the Fair and which ran through April 15. The work was introduced under the heading of “Unpublished Mss. of James Fenimore Cooper”:

Our national novelist died in the autumn of 1850 [sic]; previous to his fatal illness he was engaged upon a historical work, to be entitled “The Men of Manhattan,” only the Introduction to which had been sent to the press: the printing office was destroyed by fire, and with it the opening chapters of this work; fortunately a few pages had been set up, and the impression sent to a literary gentleman, then editor of a popular critical journal, and were thus saved from destruction: to him we are indebted for the posthumous articles of Cooper, wherewith, by a coincidence as remarkable as it is auspicious, we now enrich our columns with a contribution from the American pioneer in letters. In discussing the growth of New York and speculating on her future destiny, the patriotic and sagacious author seems to have anticipated the terrible crisis through which the nation is now passing; there is a prescience in the views he expresses, which is all the more impressive inasmuch as they are uttered by a voice now silent for ever. They have a solemn interest, and were inspired by a genuine attachment to his native State, and an earnest sympathy in the progress and prosperity of the nation. It should be remembered that, when these observations were written, the public mind had been and was still highly excited by the “Compromise Measures” — the last vain expedient to propitiate the traitors who have since filled the land with the horrors of civil war. (p. 6)

The “New York” series was likewise concluded with editorial comment:

{39} The Cooper Papers, which have attracted attention from so many appreciative people, will render the series of the Spirit of the Fair of great value to those who intend binding and preserving the paper. The views expressed on secession and State rights, twelve years ago, show a wonderful degree of acute penetration and foresight, as proved by subsequent events. (p. 111)

These two paragraphs immediately struck me as portraying Cooper in light that appeared at least artificial, if not downright misinformed (witness the erroneous year of death and state of nativity). But what most nagged at me was the idea that Cooper, whose notions on race seem so troublesome to us today, could come to be a spokesman for the North so late in the war — after the New York draft riots and well after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Cooper’s reputation may well have been at its zenith in the early years of the Civil War. W. A. Townsend’s ambitious project of printing all of Cooper’s novels in an edition illustrated by F. O. C. Darley straddled the year 1860, while the epitome of that edition’s illustrations, with additional art by James Hamilton, was published by Susan Fenimore Cooper as Pages and Pictures in 1861, with a Preface dated September 15, 1860. Cooper’s novels continued to be published in old editions as well as new right through the war, with abridgments like James G. Gregory’s Stories of the Woods and Stories of the Sea (the latter published in 1863, with a preface dated 1862). Even the prose works Notions of the Americans and Ned Myers continued to be reprinted on the eve of the war. Cooper’s History of the Navy ... Continued to 1860, published in New York by Oakley & Mason in 1866, extended to its nominal author the courtesy, if not the fact, of being the comprehensive historian of the pre-Civil-War navy. But if Cooper was being widely read during the War, then even more — it seems to me — would he be recognized as someone who had been cool on Blacks and even cooler on Abolition, however much he may have been a supporter of emancipation in the abstract. How would his views in these areas offset strong federalist leanings when the idea of dissolution of the union was brought up? My attempt to clarify these issues is based on a look at Cooper’s statements on union and slavery in Notions of the Americans (1828), The Chainbearer (1845), and “New York” itself (1850-51?).

Cooper wrote his Notions if not in the absolute wake of the Missouri Compromise, at least with that struggle in mind. But it is more important, I think, to remember what audience Notions was intended to address. It is highly unlikely that Cooper would appear as the prophet of doom (as he does elsewhere) while acting as the defender of American democracy. It is therefore unfortunate that we must look to Notions for Cooper’s most elaborate statement on the problem of slavery and its effect on American government and society.

The problem of slavery and race is always near the surface of Notions, even as Cooper deliberately attempts to subordinate it. As early as the dedication itself, the fictional Bachelor betrays the essential role of Blacks {40} in American society when he designs a coat of arms for his friend Cadwallader: “a constellation of twenty four stars, surrounded by a cloud of nebulae, with a liberty cap for a crest and two young negroes as supporters” (p. 4). Moreover, the condition of the Black race underlies Cooper’s discussion of, for instance, population figures for the northern states:

It will be well to recollect that the State of New York, so far from being a place avoided by the blacks, is rather one they seek. The scarcity of domestics, and the large proportion of families who keep servants, induce thousands of free people of colour to resort there for employment. A great many are also hired as labourers on board of vessels. Still they do not increase amid the vast increase of the whites. A trifling migration to Hayti (sic) may have affected the returns a little, but there is no doubt that the migration into the state exceeds that from it. One must remember how few marriages take place among these people; their moral condition, their vagrant habits, their exposure, their dirt, and all the accumulated misfortunes of their race.

I think it is quite fair to infer from these statements that freedom is not favorable to the continuation of the blacks. ... (pp. 240-41)

The issue of slavery and race even underlies his impression of landscape: “Before we quitted the state of Pennsylvania, there was a sensible change for the worse, in the appearance of the country, and we entered Maryland at a point but little adapted to give us the most favourable impressions of the effects of a slave population” (p. 261). And yet despite misgivings about freedom and about the black race in general, Cooper is willing to begin a major discussion of slavery in the United States by giving lip service to “so desirable an object” as emancipation. But the espousal — in the mouth of the Bachelor — is a backhanded one:

It has often been said that a people claiming to be the freest of the earth, ought to have brought their practice more in conformity with their professions, and to have abolished slavery at the time they declared their independence. There are many unanswerable reasons against this allegation, or reasons that will be deemed unanswerable by that portion of mankind who regard life as it actually exists in its practical aspects and influences. There is not, now, nor has there ever been, since the separation of the Colonies from the Mother Country, any power to emancipate the slaves, except that which belongs to their masters. This reason might satisfy most practical men of the impossibility of instantly achieving so desirable an object. (p. 469)

One supposes the Bachelor, of course, to be one of these practical men; one wonders, though if this voice for Cooper’s own thoughts isn’t more than usually tempered by consideration for his best friend, the South Carolinian Shubrick. In fact, one wonders how much of slavery Cooper had really seen first hand, or if his views are derivative. It is hard to imagine a New Yorker, even in the 1820’s, describing Southern slavery the way the Bachelor does here:

The condition of the American slave varies, of course, with circumstances. In some few portions of the Country he is ill dealt by. In most districts his labor is sufficiently light, his clothing is adapted to the climate, and his food is, I believe, every where abundant. The strongest evidence, after all, which can be given, that the amount of animal suffering among the American slaves is not great, (there are exceptions of course) is the fact that they are a light hearted and a laughing race. I am very ready to grant, that ignorance and absence of care are apt to produce hilarity and that some of the most degraded and least intellectual people of the earth are among the gayest, but I believe that it is a rule in nature, that where there is much animal suffering there is an animal exhibition of its existence.

There is still a higher and a very numerous class of American slaves, who are far better instructed, better clothed, and better fed, and who are altogether a superior race to the lowest class of the European peasants. I mean the domestic servants, and those who labour as mechanics and artisans. (p. 470)

Cooper’s first statement here seems more a racist generality than an acute observation, and the latter seems much more likely to be Cooper’s observations of free Blacks in New York than extensive observation of Southern slaves. In any case, Cooper goes on to observe, things are getting better for the slave: “public opinion is making a steady advance to the general improvement, and, I think, to the final liberation of the race.” The unconscious identification of “slavery” with “race” is indicative of what should come as no surprise: most of Cooper’s problem with emancipation is inextricably linked with his inability to accept the Black race as entitled to the same political freedoms as the Whites — a stance clearly based on social and racial — not political — considerations. Nor does Cooper — through the mouth of the Bachelor — have any sense of the preeminence of political rights for Blacks espoused by abolitionists, to whom Cooper refers as “mere declaimers and pretenders.”

“It would not be safe,” Cooper writes of the Black man, “to consider him a citizen in a country of equal political rights, since he is far too ignorant and must for a generation at least, remain too ignorant to exercise with {42} sufficient discretion the privileges of a citizen in a free government” (p. 474). But all of Cooper’s argument in Notions boils down to one single notion, and that ultimately is the incursion of a new order on society as Cooper envisions it, with its stuffy Cadwalladers and Effinghams at the top and the lowly slave at the bottom. Without considering the achievements of all the free blacks he had mentioned earlier, or of the transition from slave-state to free in the North, Cooper opposes immediate emancipation because it threatens the society to which he and his friends would like to be accustomed:

I feel confident that no discreet father, or husband or brother could ask a Carolinian who was living in a state of highly polished society, and who enjoyed all the advantages of great moral improvement to admit, at once, a body of men, who had been nurtured in the habits of slavery, with all their ignorance and animal qualities, and who are numerically superior, to a participation of equal political rights. Such a measure would induce an absolute abandonment of their country and property on the part of the whites, or it would involve a degradation and abuses that are horrible to reflect on. Individuals may and have parted with their means of personal indulgence to give liberty to their slaves, but it is too much to expect it from communities. ... The true question, and that in which the friends of humanity should feel the deepest interest, is that concerned with the steps that are taken to lead to the general emancipation which must sooner or later arrive. (pp. 474-75)

But Cooper does not address this “true question.” Instead he maintains that the economic and social welfare of the White is more important than the political rights of the Black: “Although an ardent wisher for the happy moment of general emancipation I always turn with disgust from those cold and heartless paragraphs which occasionally appear in the Northern journals of this Country, and which, under a superficial pretension to humanity, trifle with the safety and happiness of two of their fellow citizens in order to give an affected aid to the undoubtedly righteous cause of one black man” (p. 482). In another letter, summarizing the Bachelor’s Southern tour, Cooper elaborates on Southern society as the product of slavery — not the degrading of the slaveowner, but just the opposite:

The owner of slaves, whatever may be his co-relative standing with men of his own colour, is a species of aristocrat, so far as manners are concerned. He is kept, in his own person, from the pursuits and employments that are commonly thought to degrade men, and of course he acquires the opinions of a superior caste. ... I am of opinion that, in proportion to the population, there are more men who belong to what is termed the class of gentlemen in the old Southern {43} States of America, than in any other Country of the world. ... I do not know where to find Gentlemen of better air or better breeding throughout than most of those I have met in the Southern Atlantic States. (p. 495)

Nevertheless, Cooper must have caught something in the rhetoric of the abolitionist press, for his concluding paragraph of his Notions letter on slavery uncharacteristically echoes — or rather prefigures — sentiments more worthy of Thomas Wentworth Higginson or Harriet Beecher Stowe:

But physical suffering, especially in a Country like this, is not the prominent grievance of slavery. It is its deep moral degradation, which no man has a right to entail on another, that forms the essence of its shame God has planted in all our spirits, secret but lasting aspirations after a state of existence higher than that which we enjoy, and no one has a right to say that such are the limits beyond which your reason, and consequently, your material being, shall not pass. That men, equally degraded, exist under systems that do not openly avow the principle of domestic slavery, is no excuse for the perpetuation of such a scourge. ... (p. 482)

How does Cooper summarize the effect of slavery and the distinctions of race on America? “One might acknowledge,” Cooper writes in his concluding letter of Notions, “a danger of a difference of habits arising under the slave policy,” but ultimately, he concluded, “My own opinion is, that the United States are now passing, or in fact have in a great measure passed, the ordeal of the durability of the Union” (p. 536).

Even though Cooper acknowledges racial prejudice to be “not the smallest evil of slavery,” and even though he claims that such prejudice in New York has been “rapidly disappearing” over the last twenty years (p. 476), it still would appear that a deep-seated prejudice against the Black race, so strong that it can overcome Cooper’s powerful philosophical distaste for slavery as an institution, determines the Bachelor’s ultimate description of the effect of slavery on America of the 1820’s. How it affects the America of Cooper’s fictive imagination can be best seen through the character of Jaap in The Chainbearer.

Jaap (spelled and pronounced after the Dutch fashion), is only one of many powerful “minority” characters in Cooper’s fiction. Unlike Brom Freeman, the free Black of the famous turkey-shoot scene in The Pioneers, Jaap is a critical character, a slave — and he does not get fair play. Jaap is the beloved faithful but unnurtured slave of Mordaunt Littlepage. Although he has been the slave of Mordaunt’s father, he had carried a musket against the Indians and had drilled with the Whites. By way of background, Mordaunt relates a tale of Jaap’s coming to his economic rescue by fiddling for their supper and lodging — a foreshadowing of Jaap’s role as the plot thickens (pp. {44} 26-27). In the character of a freedman, Jaap raises enough money to give his master a stake for the next leg of their journey, but Mordaunt stops at the next gentleman’s house, explains his destitute condition, and borrows five silver dollars for the return trip. Mordaunt is careful to explain that he repays the White — but neglects to mention whether he ever repaid Jaap or not.

Jaap is thus established as a savior figure, but one whose role Mordaunt is incapable of appreciating. Instead, Andries Coejemans, the chainbearer, is the nominal savior of the book — a sort of Dutch Natty Bumppo, whose worth is clearly recognized by Mordaunt in words that unconsciously and ironically draw our attention directly to Jaap’s condition of slavery: “Let me tell you, the man who carries chain is not the least important member of a surveying party. ... After serving most gallantly through the whole war, he has gone back to his chains; and many is the joke he has about remaining still in chains, after fighting so long and so often in the cause of liberty” (p. 69). For Coejemans it is a joke that grows out of economic necessity; for Jaap’s equally figurative “chains” (we assume he had never been in shackles) no thought is given. Coejemans himself, of course, is not of the same class as the Littlepages — at least not economically: the question is complicated here because the chainbearer has to be rustic enough to act as the woodsman figure in this novel, while having genteel blood enough to allow a near relative to be worthy of Mordaunt’s hand in marriage. But Andries’s condition hints at a different view of slaves — and perhaps his own origins as a Dutchman give him this flexibility. Mordaunt’s father relates the tale of Coejemans’s fidelity:

Andries had three slaves while he was with us; a man, a woman, and their daughter. ... He would not sell them, he said, on any consideration. ... ‘They were born Coejemans,’ he always said, ‘as much as I was born one myself, and they shall die Coejemans.’ (p. 81)

But Andries’s sentiment is undermined when we see the true role of these slaves: to keep his niece Ursula from having to perform menial offices. Mordaunt describes his formal introduction to “Dus” Malbone: “I felt a gratification I cannot describe in finding the hand was so soft, since the fact gave me the assurance that necessity had not yet reduced her to any of the toil that is unsuited to a gentlewoman. I knew that Andries had slaves ... and these slaves, old and worn out as they must be by this time, were probably the means of saving the niece from the performance of offices that were menial” (p. 153-54). Mordaunt is later stunned to discover that Ursula “can carry chain,” in fact that she is perfectly capable of caring for herself. At this point in the novel, of course, the title takes on a double — or triple, if we count Jaap — meaning, as Mordaunt’s quest from now on will be to give Dus a home in which she will no longer need to “carry chain.”

Of course, although “Natur’ made t’at fery gal for a chainbearer!” as Andries exclaims, “she is town at only half-price, woman’s work peing only woman’s work” (p. 176).

Ursula is content to work for her uncle and half-pay, Jaap is content to work for his master and be flogged, but Aaron “Thousandacres” works for {45} himself, content only insofar as he believes that labor is the key to property interest: “What a man sweats for, he has a right to.”

Mordaunt’s commentary on Thousandacre’s philosophy shows his monolithic approach to the rights of man:

This was somewhat loose morality, it is true, since a man might sweat in bearing away his neighbor’s goods; but a portion of the human race is a good deal disposed to feel and reason on principles but little more sound than this of old Thousandacres. (p. 244-45)

But whatever the philosophy of individuals, the great stupidity of Mordaunt finally results in all the whites being captured by Thousandacres — even Susquesus, the Indian who replaces Jaap in the woods as being perhaps freer in his own person as well as philosophy, ends up back in the squatter’s “jail.” Only Jaap, the Black slave, is at large. “Luckily,” narrates Mordaunt, “Jaap had escaped, for I could see no signs of even his presence being known to Thousandacres or to his sons. It was something to have so practiced a woodsman and so true a friend still at large” (p. 354).

What is Cooper doing here? He has consistently undercut the character Jaap, and now has set him up to be the savior again? Will Cooper acknowledge that a Black slave is worthy of being a hero? In short order, Jaap frees Susquesus, perhaps the individual most deserving of freedom, and Mordaunt once more begins to reflect on the skill — not of Jaap, but of the Indian:

The truth, however, was now apparent to me. Jaap had come in from the forest, forced the fastenings of the Onondago’s prison, given him arms, and they were both out in the darkness, prowling round the building, watching for the moment to strike a blow, or an opportunity to communicate with me. How they had ascertained the fact of Chainbearer’s being shot, I was left to conjecture; though Susquesus must have heard the report of the rifle; and an Indian [note that Jaap now disappears], on such a night as that, left to pursue his own course, would soon ascertain all the leading points of any circumstance in which he felt an interest. (p. 391)

But it is the Black, not Susquesus, who is the architect of the rescue which follows: “Your black acted as guide,” reports Dus’s brother Frank, “and brought us down on the place so skillfully, that it was not my intention to resort to arms at all” (p. 395). And what recognition does Jaap receive from his master for his skill and fidelity? —

Jaap, or Jaaf, had been humbly waiting for his turn to be noticed. There existed perfect confidence, as between him and myself, but there were also bounds, {46} in the way of respect, that the slave never presumed to pass, without direct encouragement from the master. Had I not seen fit to speak to the black that night, he would not have commenced a conversation, which, begun by me, be entered into with the utmost frankness and freedom from restraint.

“You seem to have managed your part of this affair, Jaap,” I said, “with discretion and spirit. I have every reason to be satisfied with you; more especially for liberating the Indian, and for the manner in which you guided the posse down into the clearing, from the woods.” (p. 410)

“To be satisfied with you” is not the phrase one would expect between savior and saved, but it is all that passes between master and slave. What are we to make of this? Are we to believe the structure of the book, that Jaap is fully capable of manhood? If we do, then we must detach ourselves from the views of Mordaunt, and in doing so, must we endorse Thousandacres? Surely Cooper cannot mean for us to do that? But if we accept Mordaunt as Cooper’s own voice, then we find that not only do race and condition perpetually keep Jaap from getting “fair play,” we also endorse slavery as the institution that makes the gentle condition of the upper crust of society possible — as Cooper had stated through the voice of the Bachelor, and now reiterates through the narration of Mordaunt Littlepage. The Chainbearer must remain, I think, a forceful and insidious anti-labor, pro-slavery document.


In “New York,” Cooper refers specifically to his predictions of twenty-three years before — presumably to Notions — concerning the growth of Manhattan. He continues in the optimistic vein of Notions as he discusses the homogeneous character of the United States:

The American Union ... has much more adhesiveness than is commonly imagined. The diversity and complexity of its interests form a network that will be found, like the web of the spider, to possess a power of resistance far exceeding its gossamer appearance — one strong enough to hold all that it was ever intended to inclose. The slave interest is now making its final effort for supremacy, and men are deceived by the throes of a departing power. The institution of domestic slavery cannot last. It is opposed to the spirit of the age. (p. 30)

Cooper goes on to state his view that slavery never was recognized by the Constitution, though that document did not recognize the equality of the negro. But it is not slavery that is the issue in “New York.” Instead, Cooper devotes a dozen paragraphs to an argument specifically denying the sovereignty of individual states, which concludes, “The only manner in which {47} the right of secession could exist in one of the American States, would be by an express reservation to that effect, in the Constitution. There is no such clause; did it exist it would change the whole character of the government, rendering it a mere alliance, instead of being that which it now is — a lasting Union” (p. 42). This might seem to put Cooper in the mainstream of Civil War thought, but he only hints at the extreme course the slave states might take: “But, whatever may be the legal principles connected with this serious subject, there always exists, in large bodies of men, a power to change their institutions by means of the strong hand. This is termed the right of revolution.” Here Cooper drops such an idea. Instead he maintains that most Northerners are comfortable with the fugitive slave laws, and, despite the spirit of the age to which he so often refers, it would seem his spirit is very much for maintaining the security of the property of the South: “Penal laws should be passed, punishing those who meddle with this grave interest out of the limits of the State in which the parties reside; and energy should be shown in rendering such an act of justice effective and sure. Good-neighborhood, alone, would exact some such provision from every well-disposed community, and there cannot be a doubt that good policy coincides” (p. 54).

“Civil war,” Cooper concludes, “in our view, can alone produce any material checks to the prosperity of these towns of Manhattan. Against the malign influence of so great a source of evil no one can with discretion venture to predict the consequences. But we do not think that it enters into the spirit of the true American character, so remarkable for its mildness and disposition to mercy, in carrying out the powers of government, to permit such a struggle as would be likely to produce long-continued, or very withering local distress” (p. 102).

In “New York” Cooper displays no racism, as he did throughout The Chainbearer, but it is hard to conceive a writer less appropriate for the occasion than this one. Totally wrong — and proved so by three years of cruel, vindictive war — with a conciliatory policy toward the maintenance of slavery that had vanished with Lincoln’s proclamations, Cooper’s article could not possibly have fulfilled the claims of the editor of Spirit of the Fair. It can only be surmised that Cooper’s reputation in 1864 — at least among the organizers of the great sanitary fair — was based on a fuzzy memory, and had nothing to do with critical reading, either of his earlier works or the piece at hand.

Works Cited

All quotations are from Notions of the Americans: Picked Up By a Travelling Bachelor, ed. Gary Williams (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); The Chainbearer or the Littlepage Manuscripts (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, n.d.); and “New York” in Spirit of the Fair (April 5-10, 13-15, 1864).