The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin and James Fenimore Cooper’s Continuing Historical Paradox

Michael J. Pikus (Niagara County Community College)

Presented at the 11ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 93-97).

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

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

James Fenimore Cooper’s reaction to events that affected his homeland while he was abroad in Europe with his family from 1826 through 1833 is well documented. Every biography notes his contempt for the alteration of American society during the Jacksonian years; many of Cooper’s post-1833 novels reflect his reaction to an America transformed. Of course, Home as Found is most often noted as the best example of a work that illustrates Cooper’s transformation from patriot to critic of the changing nation. Cooper’s 1846 final volume of the Littlepage Manuscripts, The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin, also reflects this evolution in his thinking, but this later piece has the landed gentry concede their once powerful role in Cooper’s America. This novel reads as both a condemnation of the nation’s political direction and a confirmation of Cooper’s own instincts where he justifies his repudiation of what has become of his nation and then reflects on aspects of Old World civilization he has come to support.

This conversion from defender of his nation to one of its harshest judges reflects a paradox in Cooper’s thinking as he presents an intellectually internal struggle between his regard for the Old World and his defense of the New World. James Beard writes:

[He] could not, for all the intensity of his desire, return to the country he had left more than seven years before. The era of Andrew Jackson, now in its fifth year, was emphatically not the era of James Monroe or John Quincy Adams; and long and privileged associations in the most cultivated circles of Europe had accustomed Cooper to a degree of personal and intellectual freedom his own countrymen, despite their republican institutions, could scarcely conceive. He felt the full force of the paradox. (L & J, III: 3)

Although impressed with and culturally engaged by the Old World during his seven-year stay in Europe, Cooper never lost sight of the qualities that, to him, made the United States a more attractive nation than any in Europe. Writing to Charles Wilkes in 1831, while much of Europe is in the throes of revolution, Cooper stresses that a three-year visit to the Continent would give any American “the best possible opinions not only of our institutions but of the men who are in power. Both are so much better than what one sees here [Europe] that it puts an American with [sic] perfect good humor with himself.” Moreover, in the same letter Cooper suggests that the influence of the New World will eventually dominate world affairs (L & J, II: 76).

While observing the revolutions of 1830 first hand, Cooper writes to Peter Augustus Jay and describes a less than ideal Europe. The political, social, and cultural chaos he experiences there are anathema to much he cherished and idealized, that is the placid, rural, democratic experience of the early American republic. Cooper sees 1830 Europe as a divided polity, with two ideologies seeking hegemony; he observes: “One side is struggling to reap the advantages of the revolutions, and the other to arrest them. Of course the latter class is composed of all those who are in possession of power and emoluments. ... ” (L & J, I: 422). Moreover, Cooper fears America will go the way of Europe if it imitates Old World politics and institutions. He continues: “The great error at home, appears to me to be a wish to apply European theories to our state of things. We are unique as a government, and we must look for our maxims in the natural corollaries of the Constitution” (L & J, I: 422)

Despite his appreciation of the American aristocracy and landholding classes, the power of these classes in Europe dismays Cooper:

In America property is taxed as it should be ... ; but in Europe as much is extorted as is possible from the pittance of the laborer, by means of excises. It is not unusual to term the political contests of the world, the struggle of the poor against the rich; but in Europe it is, in fact, the struggle of the rich against the poor. Governments, in this quarter of the world, are in fact degenerating into stock-jobbing companies, in which the mass are treated as so many producers to enable the few to get good securities for their money. (L & J, II: 345-46)

The sensitivity he displays toward the European working classes reflects a benevolent republicanism.

But the world into which Cooper stepped when he disembarked from the Samson with his family in 1833 was not the world he remembered. The ascendancy to the Presidency by Andrew Jackson in 1828 signaled a major triumph for democracy and marked the political emergence of the common man in America. Politically the American aristocracy and landed gentry became marginalized; moreover, it was considered a political liability to associate with the gentry (D. T. Miller 16). Consequently, tensions between the classes increased, with the upper classes tending toward arrogance to protect their status and the lower classes growing more angry and resentful toward the landed gentry (D. T. Miller 61)

Believing in a distinction between a natural aristoi of talent and virtue and an artificial aristocracy of birth and wealth (L & J, 11:180), Cooper was appalled by the shift from land as the measure of social and economic status to money earned in speculation (read commerce and industry) as the accepted index (Bewley 66). In Cooper’s estimation, this alteration was leading the nation toward political, social, and cultural disruption: “The present political struggle, in this country, appears to be a contest between men and dollars, and it is a bad omen for the first are so easily duped by the arch enemy. ... ” (L & J, III: 317). Cooper’s response to what he perceived as the political predicament of the United States caused a shift in his perception of Europe as well. Letters to friends on the Continent verify his disenchantment with America and posit a renewed fondness for Europe as the character of the Old and New Worlds become an arena of comparison for the disillusioned Cooper:

My heart is in Italy, and has been ever since I left it. Bad as so many of the Italians are, they are not worse than our own people have got to be. All of my family agrees that the lies, frauds, and meanness that used to disgust us, at Florence, have been enacted here before our own eyes. ... The fact cannot be concealed, it [the United States] is a country of mediocrity of a high order, but after all, of mediocrity. ... The extraordinary material prosperity of the nation has forced so much dross to the surface, that it is difficult to get to the pure ore. (L & J, III: 329-30)

So much of what Cooper cherished about America, the “ore” as he remembers it, became lost in the era’s preoccupation with commercial prosperity.

Cooper, furthermore, takes aim at the ascendancy of the masses into the national power structure, a sentiment that is in sharp contrast to the regard he expressed for this group while in Europe (L & J, IV: 276). In fact, Cooper blames his native land’s “aristocracy” for the changing political climate in America: they had failed as political and social leaders of the nation because their preoccupation with self-interest allowed “demagogues” to control the fortunes of all. He develops this issue within the context of ownership and property rights and the morality an individual’s attachment to the land promotes (L & J, IV: 303). This sentiment reflects his high regard for the liberality of the European landed upper class, and what he perceives as their leading the way in prudent liberalization rather than inciting ineffective and dangerous confrontations with the masses:

After having passed years in foreign countries, I affirm that I know no state of society in which liberal sentiments are so little relished as in our own, among the upper classes. It may not be always safe to speak freely in Europe, but take a Russian even, out of his own country, and he will have, (as a rule) more sympathy with political freedom, than an American of the higher classes. (L & J, III: 316)

This comment better exemplifies Cooper’s thinking than any other, for after reproving the newly enfranchised he criticizes his fellow landholders for excluding the lower classes from their political agenda.

Through the 1830’s and 1840’s Cooper’s beliefs evolve in a tangle of political, cultural, and economic contradictions and misperceptions fueled by personal disruptions in his life. This paradox is played out in his novels as the events of American history become a part of his experience, and The Redskins reflects these inconsistencies.

In this final volume of the Littlepage Manuscripts, a group of Native Americans comes to the assistance of the landowning Littlepage family as they defend their estate, Ravensnest, from attacks by “Injins,” anti-renters disguised as Indians. In that both have become dispossessed of their land and power, this union is both logical and appropriate considering Cooper’s thinking by the mid 1840’s. For, by The Redskins, landholders, the foundation of Cooper’s stable republic, and the natives had historically become ineffectual inhabitants of the New World. Both the landed gentry and the Indians had become “relics” of an older age who could not adapt, were not invited to adapt, or did not care to adapt to the economic and social present and future the Jacksonian experience initiated (Bewley 67-68).

In some ways the anti-rent movement mirrored the revolutionary uprisings Cooper witnessed in Europe. This New York State movement originated with the distinction between political and social equality that existed in the early republic affected by the Jacksonian changes in both institutions. In pre-Jacksonian New York, the classes generally [95] acknowledged political equality as a desired and realistic aim, while they considered social parity, based on landholding, as a more difficult accomplishment (D. T. Miller ix). Jacksonian democracy brought a resentment of these distinctions, and the New York system of landholding was a most obvious target of those who sought to alter the social and political system (D. T. Miller 62). Based on the Dutch Patroon tradition, the landholding system limited or repressed the rights and economic progress of the tenants who, by the mid-1840’s, were largely transplanted New Englanders (D. T. Miller 58)

Through uprisings and legal decisions, the rent strikers were eventually triumphant, and, of course, Cooper could not remain silent. In a 1844 letter to Jedidiah Hunt, Jr., Cooper predictably and specifically targets the success of the anti-renters as a triumph of a tyrannical majority over a minority:

The worst description of tyranny — popular misrule — exists at the moment, in large portions of the counties of Rensselaer and Albany, and what is still more ominous, men defer to it, as a species of sublimated liberty! They call possession of the land a monopoly, when we have more land than any one thing else; they call paying rent in work and fat hens feudal service. ... (L & J, IV: 477)

Cooper, a man who writes of history, fails to comprehend fully the inevitability of historical dynamics.

In the Preface to The Redskins, Cooper advances his argument concerning the anti-rent movement by linking it directly to the tyranny the colonists faced on the eve of the revolution. He labels the 1840’s measures challenging autonomy of the landed gentry more tyrannical and deserving of rebellion than the policies of the British during colonial days (xiii). Paradoxically, Cooper suggests rebellion to stop rebellion; he seeks to parallel the urgency of the present events with the glory and magnitude of the most formative events in our early history while defending a pattern of landholding and lifestyle that was no longer relevant in the changing polity. Upon this basis, The Redskins becomes a political tract that defends not only a lifestyle but also presents the fading gentry class as beneficent, reasoned, and misunderstood.

The landed gentry represented by Hugh Roger Littlepage, the younger (known as Hugh), his uncle Hugh Roger Littlepage, the elder (known as Ro), and a variety of Littlepages, all descendants of the great Littlepage family about whom the series is written, largely reflects the ideals of American civilization for which Cooper has been arguing through most of his post-1833 novels. He defines the class insistently and comparatively throughout, with special emphasis placed on the national influence of the gentry. Cooper stresses the “tone” the aristocracy provides for a society, for he argues that in a democracy the mingling of classes becomes an exchange of ideas and lifestyles that advances the entire civilization (460). Through Uncle Ro, Cooper carefully distinguishes European aristocracy from the American version by stressing that the Old World form, unlike the New World variation, requires a court and its finery to maintain its pretension and thus its power (460). Again, speaking through Ro, Cooper offers the following prescription for American society, one that reflects his regard for the liberalized gentry of Europe:

It is from such men [gentry], indeed, from their enterprise and their means, that nearly all the greater benefits come. ... A body of intelligent, well-educated, liberalized landlords, scattered through New York, would have more effect in advancing the highest interests of the community than all the ‘small potato’ lawyers and governors you can name. ... [T]his is just the state of society in which to reap all of the benefits of such a class, without the evils of a real aristocracy. ... Rich and poor we must have; ... (461).

Ro, in fact, qualifies Cooper’s continuing argument by advancing the idea that the abundance of land in America precludes the development of the “evil” general social monopoly that exists in Europe (461). Thus, in America, a landed aristocracy can never dominate, it can only contribute. For Cooper, as for many, the abundance of land in America represents the potential for true equality. Possession and/or the possibility of possession of land is the common denominator that the anti-rent Injins seem to both desire and disdain as they seek to dismantle the social and economic system that dominates yet, by Cooper’s estimation, also provides.

Ironically, many of American characters in The Redskins use European civilization as a point of reference in order for Cooper to further his assertions. Disguised as German travelers so as not to be recognized, Hugh and Ro involve themselves in life around Ravensnest and make some poignant and Cooperian observations about America:

Vhat ist der matter in dis coontry? I hear in Europe how America ist a free lant, ant how efery man hast his rights; but since I got here dey do nothin’ but talk of barons, and noples, and tenants, and arisdograts, and all der bat dings I might leaf behint me in der olt worlt. (165)

[96] To which the reasonable American, Tom Miller, replies:

The plain matter is, friend, that they who have got little, envy them that’s got much; and the struggle is to see which is the strongest. On the one side is law, and right, and bargains, and contracts; on the other thousands — not of dollars, but of men. Thousands of voters; d’ye understand? (167)

Cooper’s appreciation of democracy, his idealization of the role of the gentry, and the reality of majority rule place him in a dilemma.

Through Hugh and Ro, Cooper also outlines the distinctions between the American landholding system and the Old World landholding system. Unlike the New World system practiced in New York State, to Cooper the European system scaled the laws largely in favor of the landowner, thus eliminating the tenant from any involvement in the land and its development. The American system not only bound the parties to one another for success, but also provided the lessees the opportunity to learn from the experience on the land (45). For this reason, the landholders in The Redskins cannot understand why the tenants rebel for they see the special relationship between landowner and tenant as a natural privilege quite compatible with democracy (44-45). In fact, upon hearing of the anti-rent rebellion and the violent acts of its participants before arriving home, Hugh compares what he visualizes occurring in New York’s rural counties to “scenes of the middle ages — scenes connected with real wrongs and gross abuses of human rights — [that] were about to be enacted in his own land; that country which boasted itself, not only to be an asylum of the oppressed, but the conservator of the right. ... ” (50). To Cooper it is not the dominion of the landholders that reflects the Middle Ages, but rather the behavior of the tenants acting like New World serfs dressed in calico and disguised as Indians.

Cooper, however, doesn’t just fear the Old World past, for the present also threatens his world. After observing and experiencing the European revolutions of the 1830’s, Cooper became even less positive about the worth of rebellion. He observes in 1832 that the French Revolution of 1789 only installed another “besotted caste,” and that the 1830 Revolution set up an even more “vulgar aristocracy” (L & J, II: 312). What threatens Cooper even more is the will of the government to mollify the voting majority at the expense of justice. He fears this desire to humor the masses reflects the French government’s will to appease the people by proclaiming the aristocrats’ property for sale (L & J, V: 334)

Add to this mingling of perceptions the fact that Cooper’s anti-rent Injins, those who pursue a new system of New World landholding and seek to overthrow the legal rights of the minority in favor of their “majority,” understand their situation and cause in Old World terms. They, among others, label the New York system of landholding as feudal and Old World without knowing both systems well (275-80). Ultimately, Cooper reveals the Old World predilection of the Injins when he has them sarcastically address Hugh Littlepage as King (498). In fact, the confrontation between the Injins and the Littlepages reveals an Old World connection that cannot be altered within the context of New World independence and Jacksonian ideology. This mentality places the issue of European imitation in a position that Cooper had sought to substantiate since The Pioneers. Despite the desire for social, political, and economic equality and identity, Americans seem to define their condition via Old World terms.

The alliance of the Native Americans with the gentry in defense of land brings the issues of property and possession to the forefront as Cooper seeks to resolve his historical paradox. After the successful last defense of Ravensnest, Susquesus, the aged and venerable Onondago, addresses the historical issue of possession and law in the New World:

The pale-faces came with their papers, and made laws, and said ‘It is well! We want this land. There is plenty further west for you red-men. Go there, and hunt and fish, and plant your corn, and leave us this land.’ Our red brethren did as they were asked to do. The pale-faces had it as they wished. ... But the wicked spirit that drove out the red-man is now about to drive off the pale-face chiefs. It is the same devil, and it is no other. He wanted land then, and he wants land now. There is one difference, and it is this. When the pale-face drove off the red-man there was no treaty between them. They had not smoked together, and given wampum, and signed a paper. ... When the pale-face drives off the pale-face, there is a treaty; ... Indian will keep his word with Indian; pale-face will not keep his word with pale-face. (512-13)

Unlike the relative optimism of Tamenund’s remarks in The Last of the Mohicans (310,313, 350), Susquesus’s insights accept regretfully the mastery of the “pale-faces” in the New World. Furthermore, Susquesus strengthens the bond that brings Indian and gentry together, that experience of the loss of land and ownership. Just as the natives of the New World lost their possessions through manipulation, so too do the gentry lose their rightful possessions through the impulses of a society undergoing alteration.

[97] To drive the Native American and the American gentry from both land and prominence identifies, for Cooper, the great American disaster of the Jacksonian years, for through their common identity found in loss lies the New World Cooper sought to recover in his historical romances. With Cooper’s more “worldly” comprehension of the New World’s plight via Old World experience, by the 1840’s he represents his own paradox as he seeks to instruct, warn, preserve, and identify through his work. As a chronicler of American life, Cooper is definitely biased, for he gives the masses, whom he both defends and defies, little legitimate and authoritative voice in his version of history. To Cooper his experience is the “research” that places facts into perspective, and this research is revealed in The Redskins.

Works Cited

  • Axelrad, Allan M., “Cooper, Aristocracy, and Capitalism.” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers, No. 7 - 1996 ALA Papers. Cooperstown, NY: James Fenimore Cooper Society, 1996. 3-10.
  • Bewley, Marius, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classical American Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 Vols. Ed. James Franklin Beard. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1960-1968.
  • ------. The American Democrat [1838]. Eds. George Dekker and Larry Johnston. London: Penguin, 1989.
  • ------. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 [1826]. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • ------. The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale [1823]. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1980.
  • ------. The Redskins; or, Indian and Injin [1846]. New York: Appleton and Company, 1892.
  • Miller, Douglas T., Jacksonian Aristocracy: Class and Democracy in New York, 1830-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.