Romancing History: The Pioneers and the Problem of Slavery

Ezra F. Tawil (Brown University)

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. 98-101).

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

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


This paper revisits a question which Cooper scholarship has been asking for decades: what is the relationship between the Leatherstocking novels and the political concerns of their historical moment? Though Cooper’s fiction perhaps more than any other canonical American literature, has seemed peculiarly susceptible to historical and political analysis, a crucial question has yet to be posed: what did Cooper’s stories of racial conflict in the colonial past have to do with the most pressing and divisive political issue of Cooper’s own time — slavery? By connecting the frontier romance to the problem of slavery in the ante-bellum period, I hope to contribute to the ongoing work of reframing the racial politics of Cooper’s fiction and the historicity of the historical romance. I propose to do this by reading The Pioneers against the backdrop of political debates about slavery and scientific work on race. It emphasizes the question of slavery not in order to put aside the “Indian” in favor of the “slave,” but to compensate for a widespread critical tendency to do the reverse. I begin by examining the discussion of slavery in Cooper’s political writings of the 1820s and 1830s — writings in which slavery is both a central preoccupation and a source of difficulty. Then I suggest that the frontier romance was important in part because through it Cooper could think about the crises and contradictions surrounding slavery during a period when political discourse itself, including his own political writings, seemed at a loss to account for it. My working hypothesis is that, since these novels focused not on the conflict between slave and slave owner, but rather on the confrontation between the English and the Indians on the frontier, they could engage issues central to the crisis of slavery without discussing it as such. By popularizing and disseminating a particular notion of race as a natural fact, historical romances provided the culture with a new way of thinking about, explaining, and even defending the institution of slavery. In this way, I want to use one genre to read another, to show how fiction was capable of translating contemporary conflicts into stories of past violence and generating narrative solutions to intractable political problems.

In order to understand Cooper’s political writings best, it is necessary to set them in the context of the body of political theory to which they are related. Along with contemporaries such as John Taylor and John Randolph, Cooper set out in his political writings to describe the structure of American government in a language inherited from enlightenment political theory. In fact the central questions of these works are identical to those asked by writers from Sidney and Locke to Rousseau and Montesquieu: what is the foundation of civil society? What were the origins of civil society in the state of nature? How did natural man become social man? Cooper’s starting point was the solemn triumvirate of natural rights: liberty, equality, and property. Yet when it came to slavery, Cooper would discover — as had the founders — that American slavery could not be reconciled with the discourse of natural rights. Before talking about Cooper’s own political writings, I’m going to (very briefly and schematically) discuss the European and American tradition of natural rights theory and the status of “slavery” in that tradition.

My way into this tradition will be through a peculiar historical phenomenon: the relative political silence on the issue of slavery in the US during the period of slavery’s most vigorous expansion to date. Though the decades following the revolution oversaw massive increases in the demand for slaves, the importation of slaves, and the size of the American slave population, American national politics between around 1790 and 1844 was characterized by a remarkable silence about slavery punctuated by brief periods of intense debate. The Constitution had in effect inaugurated this era of silence in 1787 by offering three provisions relating directly to chattel slavery without ever using the terms “slaves” or “slavery” (Art. 1, sec. 2; Art. 1, sec. 9; Art. 4, sec. 2). In 1835, on President Jackson’s urging, Congress moved to prohibit the circulation of writing about slavery through the public mails. And in 1836, Congress instituted a gag rule, in effect until 1844, barring all discussion of slavery in either house. How to explain this national-political silence on such an important issue? An answer emerges if we look at what immediately preceded the silence: a conflict between slavery and natural rights.

Natural rights theory posited relationships among the concepts “man,” property,” and “equality,” that made it impossible to account for the institution of slavery. This political tradition rested on a particular definition of “man”: he was “Master of himself, and proprietor of his own Person, and the Actions or Labour of it” (Locke 11.44). This conception of man in turn rested on a story of man’s origins in the “state of nature” — a “State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man” (Locke II.4). It is not difficult to see how this definition of man and this conception of natural equality made the concept of slavery scandalous and unjustifiable. Above all, slavery clashed with the enlightenment conception of property. According to perhaps the most famous formulation of Locke’s Second Treatise:

[99] every man has Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others. (II.27)

The “slave” troubled a system of classification according to which one could not be at once a man and a thing, person and property: Man could not have property, in his “person” and in the fruits of his labor, and be property.

American political discourse late in the eighteenth century drew on the enlightenment theory of natural man, sharpened it, and made it central to the opposition to English imperial rule. In so doing, they repeated and extended the very tenets of enlightenment theory according to which chattel slavery — a formidable presence in the colonies — could only represent a crime against nature. By the 1770s, condemnations of this “glaring inconsistence” were a commonplace in American print culture (244). Bernard Bailyn has assigned to this phenomenon an interesting trope: “the contagion of liberty” (230-46).

Thus, Early Republican politics could be conducted under the aegis of enlightenment thought only by suppressing talk about slavery. Before slavery could emerge from its fifty year silence and become the focus of a strongly polarized national debate, the basic categories and tenets of natural rights were to undergo a thorough revision. I want to think about Cooper’s writings and how they participated in this transformation. Since he sets out to describe the structure of American politics in a language derived from the enlightenment system, Cooper’s political writings are a place where we can see this system was ripping at the seams over the problem of slavery.

Slavery commands a curious presence in Cooper’s two works of political theory, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828) and The American Democrat (1838). On the one hand, references to it are digressive and have the quality of an afterthought. Yet, with remarkable regularity, references to slavery in these texts are accompanied by the language of deviation and anomaly: every time slavery enters the discussion, it does so either as an “exception” to a rule or as a “distinction” that must be made in order to outline an otherwise “essential” principle. In both, slavery repeatedly frustrates generalizations, confuses classifications, and produces crises of definition. In Notions, the attempt to contrast American democracy with the inequality and tyranny of an aristocratic Europe founders on the apparent paradox of chattel slavery flourishing in a republic in which “[t]he influence of birth” is supposed not to exist “in any thing like the extent or even under the same forms as in Europe” (141). Slavery thus interrupts the celebration of American society and manners and causes Cooper to abandon panegyric for apologetics. In The American Democrat, the work of delineating and extolling the principles of an enlightened “republick” must confront slavery as a thriving, if “exceptional,” feature of American social life. This is a tension to which the text continually returns: though the principles of American government are supposed to assure “less inequality” than a Europe tainted by hereditary rule, slavery imposes on American society admittedly “stronger” forms of inequality than those known in Europe. In both texts, slavery provokes a distinct and inescapable clash between the theory of natural rights and American political practice.


Cooper would find a solution in the “frontier romance” — a solution that had everything to do with the emergence of modern race as a way of thinking about slavery. Why this genre? Like modern fiction in general, frontier romances could do political work precisely because they claimed to be “private” writing, entertainment, and diversion — and hence something quite different than a political vehicle. Set not only in the colonial past, but also on the “savage” frontier, they seemed able to strip the social and contemporary from the essential and primordial, and hence could claim an unprecedented power to speak the truth about nature — particularly the nature of race. To read the frontier romance in this way is to ask a different question than is usually asked of historical fictions. For rather than asking what was “historical” about historical romance, I am in a sense turning this question inside out: what did fiction seem to place outside of history, and hence designate as natural? I turn to The Pioneers to answer this question because the notion of race which seems so prominent in Mohicans and the rest of the Leatherstocking novels can be seen just emerging there. Race becomes central to The Pioneers in the context of the conflict over ownership at the heart of the novel — a conflict on which some of the most interesting scholarship on The Pioneers has focused. For the purposes of this paper it is important that the novel’s concern with property not simply be posed as the question of “who owns America?” and hence turned into an allegory of white-Indian conflicts over land. Rather, the thematics of Indian dispossession ought to be regarded as one aspect of a contemporary discussion in which the politics of slavery, no less than Indian land ownership, was at stake. By taking up questions of entitlement and ownership, The Pioneers was able to engage and begin to resolve the problems attending slavery in a way that political discourse alone could not.

[100] From the very beginning, The Pioneers concerns itself with the problem of ownership as such. Footnotes and digressive passages strain to describe the peculiar conditions under which Temple, whose Quaker principles find slavery repellent, nonetheless indirectly owns the labor of Aggy (54-55, 55n). Most of Chapter Two is devoted to the complexities of Temple’s claim to his “own” land. The complexity and technicality alone of Temple’s land claim leads one to suspect that the novel is struggling to make sense of something; the incidental references to Temple’s equally complex claim to Aggy’s labor are an early indication that this semiotic struggle has everything to do with slavery.

The history of Temple’s land is the backdrop to the hunting dispute early in the novel, involving Temple, Natty Bumppo, and Oliver Edwards. The episode has been written about a lot. What I want to focus on is that the dispute poses the question at the heart of enlightenment theory: what is the basis of property? The enlightenment account of property, moreover, is the very thing with which American political theorists from the Federalists to Cooper had clashed when they attempted to explain slavery. It is no coincidence that the entire episode strongly echoes one of the most famous passages in Locke: “Thus this Law of reason,” Locke had written in the Second Treatise, “makes the Deer, that Indian’s who hath killed it; ‘tis allowed to be his goods who hath bestowed his labour upon it” (II.30). To understand what Cooper’s early fiction did to the Lockean account of property, it is necessary to consider how the conflict over property is linked to the question of Edwards’s descent.

From the moment Edwards is introduced as the unknown young hunter at Natty Bumppo’s side, the novel generates a sense of mystery about his origins: there are hints throughout that Edwards is “mixed with the blood of the Indians” (143), having descended from a chief of the Delaware tribe. The suggestion of a mixture gives rise to speculation about a kind of competition between Edwards’s “Indian” and “white blood.” Different characters construe the suggestion of a blood mixture differently. Yet whatever the particulars of these speculations, what runs through them is simply the presumption that there are such things as “Indian nature” and “white nature,” and that something called “blood” is the repository of such natures.

These speculations about Edwards’s origins have nothing to do with the visible surface of his body. However carefully the novel may have painted for us the intricacies of Edwards’s countenance and figure, not one of the countless attributions of Indian descent take this exterior as its basis. They circulate, rather, around the question of interior qualities. If there is a single quality that is most often imputed to Indian blood in The Pioneers, it is surely the propensity to violence, particularly the thirst for revenge.

The figure of Indian vengeance serves a purpose in this novel well beyond the production of a “stereotype”: it links the speculation about Edwards’s Indian blood with the question of entitlement. Thus, as the suggestions of Edwards’s Indian descent multiply, so do indications that he is susceptible to the “hereditary violence” of revenge:

“I trust, my young friend, [Mr. Grant cautions Edwards] that the education you have received, has eradicated most of those revengeful principles, which you may have inherited by descent; for I understand, from the expressions of John, that you have some of the blood of the Delaware tribe.” (141-2).

In an extension and generalization of the earlier hunting dispute, Edwards and Temple become pitted against one another in a land dispute. It is significant that, in relation to this dispute, the novel first uses the word “race” in a specifically nineteenth-century sense:

“Who could have foreseen this, a month since! [Edwards soliloquizes] I have consented to serve Marmaduke Temple! to be an inmate in the dwelling of the greatest enemy of my race.” (206)

Like the earlier hunting dispute, this plot line links the question of entitlement to that of descent. The notion of Indian vengeance cements this link by suggesting that Edwards’s resentment — described as a “volcano” threatening to “burst its boundaries” — has its origin in his descent, in “the blood ... in his veins” (138).

The link between entitlement and blood is in no way canceled out by the fact that Oliver Edwards turns out to be “white” and hence “unmixed” after all. It is true that when the secret of his descent is revealed-namely, that he is none other than Edward Oliver Effingham, the son of Temple’s sometime friend and original owner of Temple’s land — the many assertions of Edwards’s mixed “blood” turn out to have been enabled by an elaborate kind of narrative duplicity. Thus, the words “race” and “blood” in association with Edwards’s descent are refigured: they now seem to refer not to nineteenth-century racial biology, but to an older European notion of kinship.

Yet, although the disclosure of Edwards’s identity may seem to take back the notion of blood nature the mystery had introduced, exactly the reverse is true. For what is most important about this revelation is that it completely transforms Edwards’s relationship to property. His true identity having been discovered, Edwards/Effingham is now without hesitation granted the title he had unsuccessfully sought under the presumption of a different origin. This transaction [101] entails not only the recovery of his father’s land, but marriage to Judge Temple’s daughter, Elizabeth. In this way, the resolution of the question of descent thus converges with the resolution of the property conflict: “’One half of my estates shall be thine as soon as they can be conveyed to thee;’” the now benevolent Temple assures Edwards, “’and if what my suspicions tell me, be true, I suppose the other must follow speedily.’ He took the hand which he held, and united it with that of his daughter” (444). Thus, if the mystery of Edwards’s identity connects the question of entitlement to that of descent, and defines descent in terms of blood, the fact that Edwards “turns out” to be white only strengthens the connection and emphasizes the definition. The spurious attribution of Indian blood to Edwards links entitlement to race; the novel’s resolution does this all the more emphatically by conveying to the “white” Effingham what had been denied the “Indian” Edwards.

Slavery had produced a crisis for American political discourse having to do with property, equality and the nature of man. The elaborate narrative of entitlement Cooper mobilized in his first frontier romance centered around precisely these categories. Hence, the novel was able to add something to the discourse of slavery that would change it significantly. By linking ownership to blood of a particular kind, the novel reorganized these categories in such a way as to alter substantially the account of man offered by natural rights theory. There is no such thing, the resolution of The Pioneers tells us, as a man’s natural right to property, for strictly speaking, there is no political being such as “man” as the Enlightenment had conceived him. Instead, Lockean “man” has been displaced by distinct varieties of men with different claims to property. In this sense, the category “man” is fractured, along with the political rights that had constituted him. Oliver Edwards’s right of property, the novel suggests, rests not on his political status as a “man,” but on his racial status as a “white man.” The Pioneers thus reformulated the terms of political debate and provided a narrative logic capable of overcoming the contradictions of American slavery. What was most powerful about it, however, was that it did so without talking about slavery as such. At an historical moment in which slavery could not be discussed in national politics, the novel engaged its fundamental issues by linking the question of property to the diversity of bodies and “blood” and telling a story about the relationship between entitlement and race. In so doing, it prepared the ground for the next generation of political debate about slavery. To be sure, the notion of race nascent in The Pioneers could not have acquired the status of cultural common sense had it not been extended through insistent repetition and elaboration, not only in the subsequent frontier romances of Cooper and others, but elsewhere in the culture as well. Once this cultural logic was in place, it was possible for the subject of slavery to emerge from a fifty-year silence to become the subject of a raging national debate. By 1850, the very rules of producing statements about slavery had shifted so completely that all sides of the debate — no matter how diametrically opposed — tacitly agreed to make race a central term. “Race” had come to precede the condition of “slavery” in the American political imaginary, and now seemed in some important way to explain it. The conception of race on which the new discourse of slavery relied can be found in its emergent form in The Pioneers.

Works Cited

  • Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967)
  • James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat [1838]. (Penguin Classics, 1989)
  • James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers; or, the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale [1823]. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980)
  • James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor [1828]. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991)
  • John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government [1690]. [known as The Second Treatise of Government] (many editions; cited to paragraph number)