“Aristocracy forsooth! ... the Blackguard is the Aristocrat”: James Fenimore Cooper on Congress and Capitalism

Allen M. Axelrad (California State University at Fullerton)

Presented at the 10ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1995.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 10), Papers from the 1995 Cooper Seminar (No. 10), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 7-16).

Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Great manorial estates once dominated much of eastern New York, most notably the Hudson Valley. They were farmed by tenants who owed rent to landlords. Hoping to realize the economic promise of the American Revolution for themselves, from the late eighteenth century onward tenants actively sought to replace leasehold with freehold, and intermittently resorted to force. At the height of antirent strife in the 1840s, tenants disguised as Indians violently resisted rent collection. Their costumes evoked the Boston Tea Party, republican values, and the Founding Fathers’ heroic defiance of aristocracy. These Indians — along with many of their contemporaries and subsequent historians — saw their rebellion against landlords and leases as a repudiation of the last stronghold of aristocratic entitlement in the northern states.

James Fenimore Cooper’s 1846 novel, The Redskins, is about antirenters disguised as Indians and it is about republican values. It is also about what it means to be thought aristocratic in America. This is recognized in the Dictionary of American Regional English in providing the following passage from The Redskins for its first example of the American usage of the word aristocratic:

Ravensnest [was] termed an “aristocratic residence.” This word “aristocratic,” I find since my return home, has got to be a term of expansive signification, its meaning depending on the particular habits and opinions of the person who happens to use it. 1

The passage contains observations by the first person narrator of the novel, Hugh Littlepage, landlord of Ravensnest. It begins with a fragment of a sentence that establishes that “Ravensnest” was thought “aristocratic.” In England this would have suggested lower-class envy of upper-class elegance; on the other side of the Atlantic meanings varied and were situational. 2 The concluding sentence of the passage calls attention to the “expansive signification” of the “word ‘aristocratic’” in America. It also appears to contain a complaint; if “its meaning” depends “on the particular habits and opinions of the person who happens to use it,” there is license for abuse.

In truth, Cooper complained repeatedly about the “expansive signification” of the words aristocratic, aristocrat, and aristocracy, and repeatedly aired his opinions about their proper signification. Most of Cooper’s contemporaries were deaf to what he had to say. Most scholars have been deaf as well. Yet almost everybody — Cooper, other New Yorkers, later scholars — thought the antirent wars had to do with aristocracy. Most placed the aristocrats on the side of the landlords. But Cooper placed them on the side of the tenants. Despite vast differences, all agreed that to be aristocratic was elitist and undemocratic, and even, some felt, un-American.

This is not surprising since the American Revolution had been fought against an aristocratic regime. Before the Revolution (though often from a transatlantic distance), aristocracy had to do with class prerogatives — ranging from the establishment of taste to economic and political power — that became problematic afterward. But changes in status, the arbitration of taste, and political and economic power also took place within a context of a burgeoning commercialism that rapidly transformed the new republic into a vast capitalist civilization. New forms of power and prestige brought new challenges to republicanism and renewed charges of aristocracy, as Cooper and his contemporaries continued to use the term aristocratic to denounce unrepublican behavior. The confusion over signification resulted from contexts that ranged from the old European caste system to nineteenth-century capitalism. Cooper was caught up in this confusion for personal and ideological reasons, and our understanding of his legacy has remained confused as well.

This essay will attempt to clear up the confusion. I will begin by reporting what others, past and present, have had to say about Cooper and aristocracy, and then look closely at what Cooper had to say himself. His writings contain a surprising amount of commentary on the signification of the terms aristocratic, aristocrat, and aristocracy. At times the commentary takes the form of light-hearted banter on manners in the young republic; at other times the tone is more serious, with topics ranging from politics to economics, from Congress to capitalism. Cooper seemed to be obsessed with aristocracy. This essay seeks to explain why he cared so much.

[8] “When, after almost eight years abroad, the Coopers returned to America late in 1833,” in Lewis Leary’s words, “they must have seemed aloof and aristocratic, their attitude insinuating criticism of American ways. Everything about them was strange, their clothes, the furniture they imported, their foreign servants, and the manners of the children — ‘Even the cat was French.’” 3 Though a bit of a caricature, this is a common construction of what James Fenimore Cooper and his family seemed like on their return: they had “aristocratic” airs. This image was strengthened by their 1836 move to Otsego Hall, the family home in Cooperstown, now renovated as a gothic mansion. It was further reinforced by their battle with townsfolk over access to family property known as Three Mile Point in 1837. Then the image was firmly fixed in the popular mind in thinly disguised fiction in Home As Found in 1838.

Cooper might have been a literary hero, but he also was a Democrat; in the highly charged political atmosphere of the day, even the author of The Last of the Mohicans was considered fair game for Whig sharpshooters. Cooper’s “aristocratical airs” are “monstrous,” The New-Yorker reported in 1839, adding that they “would be ludicrous” if not so “peevish and malignant.” 4 Newspaper insults multiplied and Cooper filed libel suits against the Whig press in Cooperstown, Albany, and New York City. In the spirit of this acrimony, the epithet aristocrat was hurled back and forth.

Cooper’s adversarial relationship with the press and public was partly the outcome of partisan politics. Adopting their opponents’ strategy, the Whigs now sought to discredit Democrats by making them appear aristocratic. But much that he wrote on returning from Europe fed into their political strategy. 5 Many Americans, proud of their egalitarian society, were offended by Cooper’s patrician pronouncements. Americans are to be “reproached,” he stated in The American Democrat in 1838, for “want of a proper deference for social station,” and he thought it “unreasonable to expect high breeding in any but those who are trained to it” from early childhood. 6 “The class” at the top of the social hierarchy, he explained, “is the natural repository of the manners” and “tastes” and “principles of a country” (p. 84). As a member of that class, he undertook his obligation to elevate less-well-bred Americans. The enrichment Cooper offered was not received with gratitude. His unappreciative contemporaries instead thought him aristocratic.

By the mid-1840s the clamor over Cooper’s aristocratic behavior and pronouncements had subsided and the press all but ignored publications with volatile subject matter like the attack on antirentism in The Redskins. 7 Cooper’s contemporaries had lost their interest in aristocratic-Cooper-baiting. But his reputation was now well set. From the first full length biography of Cooper in 1882 by Thomas R. Lounsbury right up through Alan Taylor’s masterful 1995 study, William Cooper’s Town, scholars have continued to label James Fenimore Cooper an aristocrat. 8 Scholars have found Cooper to be an aristocrat in his personal tastes and/or an advocate of some combination of social or economic or political aristocracy. “The truth is that Cooper was a whole-hearted and vociferous aristocrat,” Dixon Ryan Fox announced, one of “the last among well-known Americans to take an unequivocal stand for aristocratic principles.” 9 Leslie Fiedler found him to be “the most class-conscious of all American writers, ” yet “class-conscious the way only a provincial New York aristocrat could be.” 10 Others have found him at least partly conflicted between aristocratic and republican values. “Every aspect of his life-his home, his gardens, his dress, and his deportment-would exemplify aristocratic taste,” wrote William P. Kelly, who nonetheless found him to be politically “republican.” 11 Somewhat similarly, Richard L. Bushman reported that, although Cooper was “devoted to republican principles,” he “campaigned for an American aristocracy as energetically as anyone.” 12 Such scholars have found aristocracy or aristocratic opinions in everything from Cooper’s birthright, marriage, lifestyle, politics, and early writings to later novels like The Redskins. 13

The most common view is that Cooper was an aristocrat or had aristocratic views and values. Yet a few scholars have found that even though he was an aristocrat himself and/or an advocate of an American aristocracy, he nonetheless did not like [other] aristocrats and/or foreign aristocracy. 14 Others, swayed by Cooper’s own vehement disclaimers, have argued that he was not an aristocrat or an advocate of aristocracy and that his dislike of both was unequivocal. 15 In their usage, all are correct. Thus the problem of “expansive signification” would appear to have followed Cooper from his time to ours.

Cooper had an abiding interest in the proper use of American English, 16 but he was extraordinarily insistent about getting the meaning of these particular words right. From the beginning of the 1830s onward, the terms aristocratic, aristocrat, and aristocracy appeared frequently in Cooper’s writings. Sometimes he satirized their misuse, sometimes he lectured his readers on their correct use, and he used the terms in ways that undoubtedly puzzled some of his contemporary readers and some modern scholars as well. Whatever else the terms might mean for others, we will see that Cooper was quite clear about what they meant to him.

[9] Meanings and manners were a bit confused in America, Cooper realized. “In this part of the world,” he thus complained, “it is thought aristocratic not to frequent taverns, and lounge at corners, squirting tobacco juice.” 17 One character in The Redskins reports that it was thought “aristocratic” for one “to pretend not to blow one’s nose with his fingers” (164). “Wa-a-l,” another confesses, “I hear a great deal about aristocrats, and I read a great deal about aristocrats, in this country, and I know that most folks look upon them as hateful, but I’m by no means sartain I know what an aristocrat is” (146). Thus a character in The Ways of the Hour laments, “not one in a thousand knows the meaning of the word” aristocrat. 18

In his 1843 novel, Autobiography Of a Pocket-Handkerchief, Cooper poked fun at the misuse of the word, for it is the story of “an exceedingly aristocratic pocket-handkerchief” whose “mesmeritic powers” — that is “handkerchiefly speaking” — enable observation even when stuffed in a drawer. 19 The pocket-handkerchief states the problem: being thought “aristocratic” in the United States “ranks as an eighth deadly sin, though no one seems to know precisely what it means.” To be so “stigmatized” is to be “tainted” with a “crime” that no “governor would dare to pardon” (44). Though “nothing is considered so disreputable in America as to be ‘aristocratic,’ a word of very extensive signification, as it embraces the tastes, the opinions, the habits, the virtues, and sometimes the religion of the offending party,” the handkerchief notes, “on the other hand, nothing is so certain to attract attention as nobility” (200). Americans were repelled by and drawn to aristocracy. Such is the case with “nouveaux riches” (51) like Eudosia Halfacre, who wishes to “pass for aristocratic” (128) and thus pays one-hundred dollars to buy “the highest-priced handkerchief, by twenty dollars, that ever crossed the Atlantic” (124). By contrast, Anne and Maria, “the daughters of a gentleman of very large estate” who “belonged to the true élite of the country” (117), turned down the opportunity to buy it: “They don’t believe that a night-cap is intended for a bed-quilt” (120).

The old “élite” had taste, Cooper acknowledged, but they were not aristocrats. Only briefly at the beginning of his literary career in The Spy (1821) would he acknowledge that there were any aristocrats in old New York society. However, he established that their “aristocratical” character was due to their Englishness; this explained why they were Loyalists during the American Revolution. 21 In 1821 he spoke of aristocrats dispassionately. His tone had changed by 1828 when he expressed outright distaste for aristocrats and aristocracy in Notions of the Americans, based on firsthand observations from a recent visit to England. In the formulation he developed and would thereafter maintain, commercial or financial wealth combined with political power — not title or family name — was the key to aristocracy. 21 Hence the distinction between a business and a landed elite was crucial, as was the distinction between rural gentry and aristocrats. Cooper was quick to take issue with what, in The American Democrat, he called “perversions of significations” of “American language” (110). One such perversion was the conflation of gentry and aristocracy. “To call a man who has the habits and opinions of a gentleman, aristocrat,” he declared in The American Democrat, “is an abuse of terms” (88). Gentry were not aristocrats, Cooper believed; they lacked political power. “The highest birth, the largest fortune, the most exclusive association, would not make an aristocrat, without the addition of a narrow political power” (472), explains a character in The Redskins. “Aristocracy means exclusive political privileges in the hands of a few; and it means nothing else,” confirms a character in The Ways of the Hour (117). Aristocracy was closely linked to political power in Cooper’s mind, and the danger of unchecked political power was widely understood and greatly feared in post revolutionary America. Cooper was cautiously hopeful, however, that under the correct form of government the opportunities for aristocrats to obtain political power might be minimized.

In The Politics Aristotle named three “correct” forms of government: “aristocracy, ” “kingship, ” and “polity. ” Moreover, each had a degenerative form: “oligarchy from aristocracy,” “tyranny from kingship,” and “democracy from polity.” 22 In Autobiography Of a Pocket-Handkerchief Cooper also named three forms of government: “aristocracy, monarchy, or democracy” (202). But where Aristotle claimed three “correct” and three degenerative forms, Cooper claimed only two “correct” forms: monarchy and republic. “It is to be regretted the world does not discriminate more justly in its use of political terms,” Cooper stated in his preface to The Bravo: “Governments are usually called either monarchies or republics.” 23 Most importantly, they share the same degenerative form: aristocracy. “Republicks” are either “democratical” or “aristocratical,” he noted in The American Democrat (11), and he believed that aristocracy is the degenerative form of monarchy as well. 24 Cooper believed that after the Glorious Revolution England began to change “its form of government, from that of a monarchy to that of an exceedingly oppressive aristocracy.” 25 He thought that attempts by the aristocracy to oppress the colonies produced the American Revolution. 26 Likewise, he thought that the French Revolution resulted from aristocrats conspiring to overthrow the monarchy. 27 All over Europe, Cooper maintained, aristocrats were conspiring to overthrow monarchies; soon aristocracy would become the only form of government. 28

[10] Cooper worried about the United States. “Aristocracies are oftener republicks than any thing else,” he wrote in The American Democrat, observing that “they have been among the most oppressive governments the world has ever known” (19-20). In his view, this was because aristocrats were particularly adept at manipulating the democratic masses. “Demagogues and editors” were a prime example of such “aristocrats,” he pointed out in The Redskins (472). In political affairs these aristocrats were motivated by economic se1f-interest, not the real interests of the people. Cooper thought the legislature was the center of their political power, so he was anxious about legislative infringement on executive rights. To counter the threat of aristocracy he advocated a powerful executive: a strong president such as Andrew Jackson. The office and the man, he hoped, would have the strength to withstand the intrigues of aristocratic demagogues.

Nonetheless, Cooper worried about the interconnectedness of business and Congress, for he was certain that the chief threat of aristocracy in America came from the commercial sector. “It is a mistake to suppose commerce favorable to liberty,” he explained in The American Democrat, for “the polity” preferred by “every community of merchants” was “a monied aristocracy” (160). Both as “a class” and “as politicians,” he wrote his English publisher in 1835, American merchants “are aristocrats.” 29 In a richly revealing 1836 letter to the sculptor Horatio Greenough, he exclaimed: “Alas! my good Greenough, this is no region for poets, so sell them your wares, and shut your ears. The foreigners have got to be so strong, among us, that they no longer creep but walk erect. They throng the presses, control one or two of the larger cities, and materially influence public opinion all over the Union.” Cooper was no nativist. “By foreigners, I do not mean the lower class of Irish voters,” he explained, “but the merchants and others a degree below them, who are almost to a man hostile in feeling to the country, and to all her interests, except as they may happen to be their interests.” 31 The real “foreigners” to American democracy, in his opinion, were not Irish-Catholic immigrants but native-born Protestant merchants, businessmen, and bankers. Fast accumulating influence and power, they sought to turn America into an aristocracy.

A Letter To His Countrymen (1834), like numerous letters in the mid-1830s to family, friends, and The Evening Post, expressed Cooper’s fear of the rise of aristocracy and subversion of the Constitution. In one response, a newly elected Whig Congressman from Massachusetts, Caleb Cushing, authored a pamphlet entitled A Reply To The Letter of J. Fenimore Cooper by One of His Countrymen. Speaking to Cooper’s central political issue, he wrote: “what I specially deny and impugn is the strange heresy [your letter] puts forth, — a misconception so palpable as not even to possess the faint lustre of mere paradox, — that, in the United States, the great object of public suspicion and watchfulness should be the legislative, rather than the executive, department of government.” As a Whig partisan and legislator, Cushing worried about “executive usurpation” and “tyranny” in President Andrew Jackson’s “monarchical” behavior. 31 But he was right that Congress was “the great object” of the Democrat Cooper’s “suspicion.”

Congress, in Cooper’s opinion, was the biggest threat to the Constitution and American liberty as it represented the business community and was thus inclined toward aristocracy. Everywhere he looked in the western world, legislators were trespassing on executive rights and promoting aristocracy. 32

For this reason the idyllic island community in Cooper’s 1847 South Pacific novel, The Crater, has no legislature and the chief executive is elected for life. But a two-house legislature, frequent elections, and other “fundamental” changes are introduced by lawyers, editors, and merchants. These new “élites” are “demagogues”; like “aristocrats” in “the state of New York,” they rely on cant, and their “new constitution” reflects Cooper’s low opinion of the New York constitution of 1846. 33 The original governor, who refused to “blow his nose with his fingers” (438), is accused of “aristocracy” and deposed (450), leaving us witness to the rise and fall of a good society.

The society in Cooper’s 1831 novel The Bravo is fallen from the start, providing a nightmarish vision of an evil aristocracy. Cooper’s choice of a city-state for the locale was consistent with his observation in The American Democrat that “aristocracy” was more likely to develop in a “metropolitan” environment (53, 54), and it also reflected his fear of urbanization in America. Though set in eighteenth-century Venice, Cooper claimed “the Bravo” is “in spirit, the most American book I ever wrote.” 34 Cooper clarified the “moral” of the tale in A Letter To His Countrymen (14). He noted that throughout history republics have been transformed into aristocracies. It happened to the Republic of Venice. It could happen in America as well. “I had an abundant occasion to observe that the great political contest of the age was not” between “monarchy and democracy” as most think, he wrote. The reason he gave was that monarchy, “except” when “fraudulently maintained as a cover” by “aristocrats,” was “virtually extinct in christendom” (11). Thus in Cooper’s view the real political contest of the nineteenth century was between aristocracy and democracy. The Bravo warned Americans of the threat of aristocracy from the dangerous combination of business interests and the legislature. 35 In The Bravo the Doge is “a tool of the aristocracy” (367) and chief of state in name only; like the King of England, his power was long [11] ago usurped by a “luxurious and affluent aristocracy” (104). Real power lies in the Senate with a small, self-serving, hereditary aristocracy that controls government, business, and finance. During the story Cooper observes that the “director of a moneyed institution” in his relation “to his corporation” is analogous to an “aristocrat”/“senator” in his “relation to the state” (91). With their power and disdain for republican values, separately they would be formidable enemies of republics. But in The Bravo businessman and legislator are one and the same.

In The Bravo the powerful Venetian aristocracy has deprived the people of their rights, it uses informants and secret police to invade their privacy, and there is no protection of the law. Trials and executions are secret, except when the aristocracy chooses otherwise. Jacopo, the Bravo, is secretly tried and convicted, but sentenced to a public execution. Though his head is placed upon the block, a last minute reprieve is expected since a priest provided authorities with incontrovertible proof of his innocence. Thus when the palace gives a signal, the Bravo’s ladylove “uttered a cry of delight, and turned to throw herself upon the bosom of the reprieved.” Instead of a reprieve, “the head of Jacopo rolled upon the stones, as if to meet her” (381). It is at this moment at the end of the story, just when we are hopeful of a happy ending, that Cooper brings home the full terror of Venice and absolute aristocracy.

In the era of the American Revolution, Venice was a symbol of what could happen to a free people who were not vigilant about their rights. At the heart of the republican ideology of the Founding Fathers was an intense awareness of both the preciousness and fragility of the liberty for which they fought. Cooper drew upon that ideology and the symbol of Venice to express his fear of an American business aristocracy, the effacement of the Constitution, and ensuing loss of liberty.

The Bravo presented his worst-case scenario. Yet Cooper granted that a mixed government-monarchy and aristocracy or democracy and aristocracy-might be tolerable if the aristocracy was mild. “States” like “Virginia” might “be termed representative democracies” from the perspective of “their white population,” he pointed out in A Letter To His Countrymen; nonetheless, he concluded, “they are in truth, even now, mild aristocracies” when “their whole population” is “considered” (61). The problem, of course, was slavery. Cooper recognized an affinity between aristocracy and slavery. “So long as slavery exists in the country,” he observed in The American Democrat, “some portion of this aristocratic infusion will probably remain” (20-21). In his view, an “aristocracy” built upon slavery was “more” compatible with “republicanism than democracy.” Full citizenship was restricted in a republic; in a democracy it was open to all men. For that reason, slavery belonged to America’s republican past, not its democratic future. “It is opposed to the spirit of the age,” he thus concluded. 36

In the main, however, his fears of aristocracy were generated by business activity in the North, particularly when it benefited from Legislative patronage and was controlled by corporations. From the 1780s onward Americans had heatedly debated the growing presence of corporations in their land. For many, corporations were anti-republican and aristocratic because they received special privilege and corrupted the political system. 37 Their proliferation reinforced and graphically illustrated Cooper’s fear of an aristocratic subversion of American democracy, since acts of incorporation required the active complicity of legislators and businessmen. Susan Fenimore Cooper reported that her father thought that “aristocracy,” like other “corporate” institutions, tended to be “coldly selfish, tyrannical, and treacherous.” 38 Specifically linking “aristocracy” and “corporations,” The Bravo looked into Europe’s past to caution against a future America ruled by “a soulless corporation” (pp. 146, 148). 39 Driven by a sense of urgency, Cooper repeatedly warned his countrymen of the threat of business aristocracy. Had he belonged to a later generation he would have called this peril capitalism. 41

At first glance, Autobiography Of a Pocket-Handkerchief appears to make light-hearted fun of aristocrats and aristocratic pretensions. On closer inspection the work seems more somber, for it is a tale about capitalist exploitation. 41 Eudosia Halfacre, the nouveau riche American who paid one hundred dollars for the handkerchief, calls upon trickle-down economics to rationalize such extravagance. “The luxuries of the rich, ” she thinks, “give employment to the poor, and cause money to circulate.” She innocently assumes that workers receive a fair return on their labor: “Now, this handkerchief of mine, no doubt, has given employment to some poor French girl for four or five months, and, of course, food and raiment.” She confidently but naively asserts that the seamstress must have “earned fifty of the hundred dollars” she “paid” (142). The pocket-handkerchief knows better, “Alas, poor Adrienne!” it says, thinking of the unfortunate “French girl” who labored for months on the embroidery. “Thou did’st not receive for me as many francs as this fair calculator gave thee dollars” (143). As evidence, Cooper inserted a table itemizing expenses and profits associated with the production and sale of the pocket-handkerchief (144), thereby supporting the handkerchief’s understated conclusion that Adrienne would have been “richer” and “much happier” had she “spared” herself “so many, many hours of painful and anxious toil!” (143).

[12] Adrienne had been born into a good family that fell onto hard times due to the subversion of the French monarchy by aristocrats. The family chateau was turned into a factory. Nearly destitute and the sole support of her aged grandmother, by day she worked for a milliner who paid her poorly, keeping her “in ignorance of her own value.” By night she embroidered the pocket-handkerchief. In both cases the products are sold at a considerable profit, but in neither case does she receive a fair return on her labor. In assessing the cost of aristocratic “frivolities,” the pocket-handkerchief explains: “their luxuries, have two sets of victims to plunder — the consumer, and the real producer, or the operative” (73).

Though “misery” and “oppression” (73) are the worker’s usual lot, this tale ends otherwise. Adrienne crosses the Atlantic to be a governess, falls in love with a New York gentleman of large estate (who turns out to be a distant cousin), reunites with the pocket-handkerchief, and presumably lives happily ever after. We learn that breeding, not money, is the key to true upper-class membership. The fairy tale ending does not mask the ascendant economic forces that drive the narrative: inadequate wages, dehumanized labor, charging a market price rather than fair price, reckless speculation, and a generally unfeeling and irresponsible system that objectifies people and desensitizes businessmen to the human consequences of their activities. Moreover, we recognize that Adrienne was quite lucky to have escaped the “slavish“ labor (73, my italics) that had seemed to be her fate. In recalling her “days of want and sorrow” when she was a “trodden on and abused hireling, ” Adrienne says, “I toiled for bread like an Eastern slave” (227, my italics). Her lament links business and aristocracy (what we call capitalism) to slavery.

Fear of slavery was a marked concern in ante-bellum republican thought. This fear had multiple sources. Most obvious was slavery in the South, providing a constant reminder to all Americans what loss of freedom meant. But as Adrienne’s lament demonstrates, Cooper was well aware of the condition popularly known as wage slavery in the North. Wage slavery occurred in factories, or, potentially, wherever there was hired labor. Banks, corporations, monopolies were other forms of economic enterprise that were often thought to be harbingers of slavery at this time. 42 Southern plantations, northern industry, banks, corporations, and monopolies were all included under the rubric aristocracy in Cooper’s lexicon, and all were linked to slavery.

Fear of slavery had been central to the republican ideology of the leaders of the American Revolution. 43 Cooper was a conservative republican, 44 ideologically closer to that generation than his own, who clung to an idealized vision of old New York, led by rural gentry motivated by noblesse oblige. If this world were turned upside down, the old order would be replaced by an urban, business aristocracy. As imaginative constructs, these worlds were polar opposites. The pastoral world of the gentry could be characterized by a warm paternalism, republican virtue, human dignity, and liberty. The urban world of the aristocracy could be characterized by corporate impersonality, business (or capitalist) greed, human degradation, and slavery.

It is no wonder, in The American Democrat, that Cooper railed against the “vulgar use” of “the term aristocracy” that “perverted its signification” to include “gentry of democracies” (54) like himself. Venting his frustration over the “common” misnomer that “confounded a gentleman with an aristocrat” (317), a Cooper character in The Ways of the Hour exclaims: “Aristocracy, forsooth! If there be aristocracy in America, the blackguard is the aristocrat” (316). He was right, for in post colonial America “the blackguard” was “the aristocrat.” Aristocrat was a term of opprobrium used to vilify political or economic enemies. Like most of his fellow countrymen, Cooper detested aristocrats, agreed that aristocratic behavior was unrepublican, and was vehemently opposed to aristocracy. Cooper’s aristocrats were businessmen (we would call them capitalists). In The Redskins landlord Littlepage, disguised as a German for protection against antirenters, further explains: “dem as vat you calls dimigogues be der American arisdograts. Dey gets all der money of der pooblic, und haf all der power” (154). Using oratory and the press to manipulate public opinion, they sought economic privilege for themselves. If their legislative power was unchecked, the republic would degenerate into an aristocracy.

Fear of aristocracy caused Cooper to worry about increasing commercialism and particularly the spread of monopolistic corporations. From his early writings onward he warned about “congress” granting “monopoly” causing exploitation and ultimately “tyranny.” 45 The problem was capitalism, or, more accurately, corporate capitalism. “Aristocracies,” he stated in The American Democrat, exhibited “the irresponsible nature of corporations”; without “personal feelings” or “human impulses,” they had an insatiable appetite for economic power (66). Under aristocracy the people could be callously exploited, deprived of basic rights, and even reduced to slavery. That was the consummate signification of aristocracy for Cooper.

[13] If the antirent wars and Cooper’s novel, The Redskins, were both about aristocracy, they were also both about capitalism. As many commentators have noted, New York’s great manorial estates obstructed economic development in agriculture, commercial enterprise, and industry. Arguing for the public’s interest in development, corporations had called upon the power of eminent domain to build turnpikes, canals, and railroads, thus providing a serviceable model for tenants seeking their right to unrestricted enterprise. In this manner, small entrepreneurs and corporations found common cause under the banner of capitalism against great estates and old wealth. The tenants’ desire to become independent entrepreneurs was supported by foresighted leaders of New York’s political parties. Landlordism spoke to the past. Antirentism spoke to the economic future of the state. But the landlords had also practiced capitalism, seeking profit from private property based on inherited privileges. The landlords’ defeat in the antirent wars signaled the succession of a newer and more dynamic form of capitalism, the rearrangement of the social structure, and reconstitution of economic and political power in the State of New York. 46

Cooper was fearful of these changes. He responded with a powerful case about the threat to republican values posed by the emerging capitalist system. His insight into the potentially dangerous nexus of corporate capitalism and Congress has survived the test of time. He also responded with a comfortable and reassuring myth of pre-capitalist New York based on a romanticized rural gentry tradition. In situating himself in a tradition supposedly untarnished by capitalism, he had to ignore his family background — his father’s rise to wealth as a real estate entrepreneur, and the commercial basis of his wife’s family fortune — as well as his own sharp business dealings as a professional author in a literary marketplace. 47 In truth, all parties in the antirent debate supported capitalism. In the expansive signification of American English, it might be construed that all supported aristocracy as well.


1 Dictionary of American Regional English, ed. Frederic C. Cassidy. 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), I: 85. The example is quoted exactly as it appears; nothing is added or deleted. The identical quote from Cooper’s The Redskins also was used as the first example of the American meaning of aristocratic in A Dictionary of American English, eds. Sir William A. Craigie and James R. Hulbert. 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938), I: 73. For the source of the quote, see James Fenimore Cooper, The Redskins (1846; New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1906), 164. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

2 The American meaning of aristocratic is “Stylish; culturally superior” according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, I: 85. The closest English counterpart to the American meaning of the word aristocratic is “Befitting an aristocrat; grand, stylish” according to The Oxford English Dictionary, 2ⁿᵈ ed., prepared by J. A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner. 20 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), I: 630. However, where the American examples show a range of possible meanings and suggest disapproval for deviating from republican simplicity, the English examples represent a lower-class view of upper-class lifestyle.

3 Lewis Leary, Soundings: Some Early American Writers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975), 277.

4 The New-Yorker, VI (2 Feb. 1839), 323. For the classic study of Cooper branded an aristocrat by the Whig press, see Dorothy Waples, The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938).

5 Especially A Letter to His Countrymen (1834), The Monikins (1835), five European travel books (1836-38), The American Democrat (1838), and the Effingham novels, Homeward Bound and Home As Found (1838). The Effingham controversy continued into 1842, with Cooper responding to ongoing ridicule in the press with a series of letters in Brother Jonathan plus a “Lost Chapter” of Home As Found.

6 James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (1838; New York: Minerva Press, 1969), 145, 143. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

7 An exception, the Albany Freeholder, the official antirent organ, issued a vigorous denunciation of The Redskins. See Henry Christman, Tin Horns and Calico: A Decisive Episode in the Emergence of Democracy (New York: Henry Holt, 1945), 256-57.

8 Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882), 82; Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 291.

9 Dixon Ryan Fox, “James Fenimore Cooper, Aristocrat,” New York History, 22 (Jan. 1941), 20.

10 Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960), 177.

11 William P. Kelly, Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 40.

12 Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Random House, 1992), 417.

13 For a sample of the consistency of such views over time, see Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (Volume Two, 1800-1860: The Romantic Revolution in America) (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927) , 215, 223; Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper: Critic Of His Times (New York: Minton, Balch, 1931), ix, 212, 301, 311; Henry Seidel Canby, Classic Americans: A Study of Eminent American Writers from Irving to Whitman (1939; New York: Russell & Russell, 1959) , 117; Van Wyck Brooks, The World of Washington Irving (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1944), 263; Alexander Cowie, The Rise of the American Novel (New York: American Book Co., 1948), 118, 156, 157; Richard Chase, The American Novel And Its Tradition (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), 54; Nina Baym, “The Women of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales,” American Quarterly, 23 (Dec. 1971), 700; Eric I. Sundquist, Home As Found: Authority and Genealogy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 3, 19; Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800- 1890 (New York: Athenaeum, 1985), 105; Alfred Kazin, A Writer’s America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 99; Robert Emmet Long, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Continuum, 1990), 194; John G. Cawelti , “Cooper and the Frontier Myth and Anti-Myth,” in James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts, ed. W. M. Verhoeven (Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993), 158. 14. A. N. Kaul, The American Vision: Actual and Ideal Society in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 95, 100; John P. McWilliams, Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 148, 228-29, 299; Daniel Marder, Exiles At Home: A Story of Literature in Nineteenth Century America (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 26, 28, 59.

14 A. N. Kaul, The American Vision: Actual and Ideal Society in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 95, 100; John P. McWilliams, Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 148, 228-29, 299; Daniel Marder, Exiles at Home: A Story of Literature in Nineteenth Century America (Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America, 1984), 26, 28, 59.

15 Allan M. Axelrad, History and Utopia: A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper (Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978), 175-80; Kay Seymour House, Cooper’s Americans (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965), 9; Robert S. Levine, Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne and Melville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 61; Donald A. Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper: Updated Edition (Boston: Twayne, 1988), 121-22.

16 For a discussion of Cooper’s fascination with American English, see Thomas Gustafson, Representative Words: Politics, Literature. and the American Language, 1776-1865 (New York: Cambridge University. Press, 1992), 334-39; Michael P. Framer, Imagining Language in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 18, 23, 28, 29; David Simpson, The Politics of American English, 1776-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 149-229.

17 Quoted by Taylor, William Cooper’s Town, 426.

18 James Fenimore Cooper, The Ways of the Hour (1850; New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1906), 316. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

19 James Fenimore Cooper, Autobiography Of a Pocket-Handkerchief (1843; Evanston: Golden Press, 1897), 201, 182. Hereafter cited parenthetically. After serialization in Graham’s Magazine with the title “Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief,” the first separate edition of the novel was titled Le Mouchoir; An Autobiographical Romance (1843).

20 James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy, introd. William Crary Brownell (1821; New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1906), 16.

21 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor, ed. Gary Williams (1828; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 530-32.

22 Aristotle, The Politics, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 119-20.

23 James Fenimore Cooper, The Bravo, introd. Donald A. Ringe (1831; New Haven: College & University Press, 1963), 17. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

24 Accordingly, England was a monarchy that had degenerated into an aristocracy; America was a democratic republic, not an aristocratic republic. Yet he also sometimes made a simple distinction between “Aristocracy” in England and “Democracy” in America. For example, see Cooper, Notions of the Americans, 282. Moreover, he was not absolutely consistent. He sometimes distinguished democracy from republic on the basis of its broader franchise and thought of democracy as a type of republic, though he also used the terms interchangeably. The republican/democratic form of government, in his opinion, was at least as good and possibly better than monarchy. Their wider base of support gave republics/democracies an advantage over monarchies; their disadvantage was the ease with which monied aristocrats might manipulate the masses through demagoguery and thus create an aristocracy. Monarchies were better fortified against this danger.

25 James Fenimore Cooper, A Letter To His Countrymen (New York: John Wiley, 1834), 88. Hereafter cited parenthetically. Though he no doubt meant the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in A Letter To His Countrymen he mistakenly referred to the change in government in England as the “revolution of 1668” (65).

26 See James Fenimore Cooper, Homeward Bound; or, The Chase (1838; New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1906), 421.

27 See James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland, eds. Robert E. Spiller and James F. Beard (1836; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), 108.

28 See James Fenimore Cooper to Benjamin Silliman, 10 June 1831, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University. Press, 1960-68), II: 95.

29 James Fenimore Cooper to Richard Bentley, 6 April 1835, Letters and Journals, III: 143.

30 James Fenimore Cooper to Horatio Greenough, 14 June 1836, Letters and Journals, III: 220.

31 Caleb Cushing, A Reply To The Letter of J. Fenimore Cooper by One of His Countrymen (Boston: J. T. Buckingham, 1834), 5-6, 62, 61.

32 See James Fenimore Cooper to William Cullen Bryant and William Leggett, for The Evening Post, 28? March 1835, Letters and Journals, III: 132.

33 James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater; or, Vulcan’s Peak, ed. Thomas Philbrick (1847; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 440, 441, 442. See Philbrick’s footnote on the New York constitution of 1846, The Crater, 441. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

34 James Fenimore Cooper to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, 27 May-June? 1844, Letters and Journals, IV: 461. Emphasis in the original.

35 For discussions of The Bravo, see Axelrad, History and Utopia, 179-90; John P. Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue Self-Interest, and the Foundations of Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) , 180-91; Levine, Conspiracy and Romance, 71-103; Ringe, introd. to The Bravo, 5-16; Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper, 40-49.

36 James Fenimore Cooper, “New York,” in Spirit of the Fair (7 April 1864), 30.

37 Pauline Maier, “The Revolutionary Origins of the American Corporation,” William and Mary Quarterly, 50 (Jan. 1993), 52, 62, 66, 72; Rush Welter, The Mind of America, 1820-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 77-80, 89, 168-69.

38 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures, From the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1861), 249.

39 On the Venetian corporation in The Bravo, see Levine, Conspiracy and Romance, 75-96.

40 Although the term capitalism was not part of his vocabulary, James Fenimore Cooper used the term “capitalists” as early as 1821. See his book review: “(Commercial Restrictions). An Examination of the new Tariff by One of the People” in Early Critical Essays (1820-1822), ed. James F. Beard, Jr. (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1955), 26, 29. Dictionary examples of the first appearance of the term capitalism are dated after Cooper’s death: in 1854 in the O.E.D., I: 334; in 1886 in A Dictionary of American English, I: 418.

41 James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographic and Critical Study (1949; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 170-75; Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (1957; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960), 82-84.

42 David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991), 66-67. 43.

43 In the words of Bernard Bailyn: “’Slavery’ was a central concept in eighteenth-century political discourse. As the absolute political evil, it appears in every statement of political principle, in every discussion of constitutionalism or legal rights, in every exhortation to resistance.” See Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 232.

44 For discussions of Cooper’s conservative republican ideology, see Axelrad, History and Utopia; Diggins, Lost Soul of American Politics, 180-91; Levine, Conspiracy and Romance, 58-103; McWilliams, Political Justice in a Republic; Meyers, Jacksonian Persuasion. 57-100.

45 Cooper, “(Commercial Restrictions). An Examination of the New Tariff, by One of the People,” 37, 38, 40. On this linkage of economic monopoly, political power, and exploitation, also see James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: England, eds. Donald A. Ringe, Kenneth W. Staggs, James P. Elliot, and R. D. Madison (1837; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 146, 149; and Cooper, The American Democrat, 60.

46 Patricia U. Bonomi, A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 5-10, 69-75, 179-200; Martin Bruegel, “Unrest: Manorial Society and the Market in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1850,” Journal of American History, 82 (March 1996), 1393-1424; Christman, Tin Horns and Calico, 39, 318; David Maldwyn Ellis, Landlords and Farmers in the Hudson-Mohawk Region, 1790-1850 (1946; New York: Octagon Books, 1967), 274-75, 287; Dixon Ryan Fox, The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York, 1801-1840 (1919; New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 438; Kermit L. Hall, The Magic Mirror: Law in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 100; Morton J. Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 31, 63-66, 259-61; Sung Bok Kim, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society, 1664-1775 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978), 234-80.

47 On the economic enterprise of Cooper’s father, William Cooper, and the creation of the family’s estate, see Taylor, William Cooper’s Town. Cooper’s wife was a De Lancey. On the role of old New York merchant families like the De Lanceys, see Bonomi, A Factious People, 60-68. On Cooper as a professional author, see Cooper’s correspondence with his publishers in his Letters and Journals; William Charvat, “Cooper As Professional Author,” in James Fenimore Cooper: a Re-Appraisal, ed. Mary E. Cunningham (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1954), 128-43; James Wallace, Early Cooper and His Audience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).