Shaping the American Political Landscape: James Fenimore Cooper’s and Susan Cooper’s Perspectives on Property and Polity

James J. Schramer (Youngstown State University)

Presented at the 16ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2007.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 87-91).

Copyright © 2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Although James Fenimore Cooper wrote extensively about the sea and much of his writing emerged from his European travels, like many readers, I associate Cooper with this lovely area of New York State where we are currently meeting. However, on a recent family vacation to California, I had occasion to think about Cooper in a wholly different geographical context. In one of the areas in which we stayed, the present owners of an old land holding were engaged in a dispute with the owners of a newer development over access rights to the beach below the headlands on which each property was situated. Originally, the older tract had included the land on which the new development sat but, over time, the property had been divided, eroded by the tides of family disputes, divorce, and rising tax rates. Property that had once included a sweeping view of the coastline and free (if not easy) access to the shoreline, had been cut up so that part of the view was obstructed by structures on the newer parcel and the beach access had contracted to a narrow path that led to an even narrower set of stairs down the side of a cliff. This situation, pitting the purchasers of an older tract of land, who wanted to preserve the essence of an earlier and simpler time, against the demands of newer conceptions of land use reminded me of the dispute over the picnic grounds on Three Mile Point that led Cooper to write The American Democrat (1838).

In their splendid introduction to The American Democrat, George Dekker and Larry Johnston sum up Cooper’s reaction as a private landowner to public incursions on a space that he and his family had believed was theirs. “He [Cooper] believed that a majority of those who denounced him and his title to the Point ... were presumptuous newcomers to Cooperstown, who of all people were least qualified, but most ready to decide questions of local usages and rights” (27). As Dekker and Johnston point out, the rather petty dispute over Three Mile Point was quickly taken up by the Whig press that depicted Cooper as a landed aristocrat who also supported “’King Andrew’ [Jackson] and ‘Crown Prince’ Martin Van Buren” (27). If Cooper had ignored these attacks, the dispute over Three Mile Point would have rapidly faded from public memory. But Cooper would not or could not remain silent on the issue. Dekker and Johnston sum up the “lessons” Cooper drew from the experience:

First ... there was a dangerous assumption current in America that the convenience of the public took precedence over the rights of the private individual. Second, that deference to public opinion ... and uncritical acceptance of rumour in the form of gossip or newspaper reports were becoming habits which threatened the basis of any enlightened democratic action. Third ... political party hostilities had become as fierce and destructive of truth ... as ever they were during the ... Federalist-Republican rivalry. And fourth, that the migratory habits of Americans began to menace American civilization by assuring that they would tend to look out for themselves rather than for a community. ... (28).

Always the writer, Cooper decided to share these “lessons” with the reading public in The American Democrat and, as Dekker and Johnston remind us, in three other works also published in 1838: The Chronicles of Cooperstown, Homeward Bound, and Home as Found. In this paper, I examine what Cooper has to say in The American Democrat on three of the many headings into which he subdivided his text: “On the Duties of Station,” “On Demagogues,” “On Property.” Once we have some sense of how Cooper envisioned duty, demagoguery, and property, I will apply these concepts to a reading of Wyandotté (1843), a novel from that period of Cooper’s writings marking his return to historical fiction but strongly colored by his reactions to the Anti-Rent Wars in New York in the late 1830s.

To understand Cooper’s views on democracy and on the rights and responsibilities he associates with the ownership of property, we should begin by looking at his concepts of social station and the “Duties of Station.” In defining station, Cooper distinguishes between what he terms “political, or publick station” (135) and social station. The latter, he argues is the natural “consequence of property” (135). Social station does confer advantages and the primary aim of democracies is to “prevent the advantages which accompany social station from accumulating rights that do not properly belong to the condition” (135). Cooper accepts it as logical conclusion from observing the human condition that “one man is not as good as another in natural qualities” (136). According to Cooper, inequality of ability is the reason for the democratic system of elections. If everyone were equally good and equally qualified, he argues, democratic societies may as well dispense with elections and select representatives by a lottery. “Choice,” he contends, “supposes a preference, and preference an inequality of merit, or of fitness” (137). Although he argues that social station based purely on the arbitrary distinction conferred by being born into an hereditary ruling class has been the source of many social evils, he admits “that birth should produce some advantages, in a social sense, even in the most democratical of American communities” (139).

But with advantages come responsibilities and these Cooper addresses in his remarks “On the Duties of Station.” Chief among the duties of those who have a superior social station is to protect the rights of others. “It is peculiarly graceful in the American, whom the accidents of life have raised above the mass of the nation, to show himself conscious of his duties in this respect, by asserting at all times the true principles of government, avoiding equally, the cant of demagoguism [sic] with the impracticable theories of visionaries, and the narrow and selfish dogmas of those who would limit power by castes” (149). What see here, as elsewhere in Cooper’s political thinking, is an attempt to steer a course between two extremes.

Like many of the characters in his novels, politically, Cooper often found himself defending contradictory positions. On the question of property rights, he steadfastly upheld the rights of property owners like him who had inherited large tracts of land. On the question of who was entitled to participate in American democracy, he identified himself with the tenets of Jackson democracy. However, as Dekker and Johnston observe, this balancing act became increasingly difficult for him to maintain and he grew more uneasy as he observed what he perceived as appeals to demagoguery in both presidential and state politics (30-31). The shifting political ideologies of the 1830s make it very difficult to pin down what Cooper meant when he identified himself as a democrat. Dekker and Johnston conclude that rather than trying to answer the question of Cooper’s loyalty to the principles of the Democratic party, “it would be better to say that he was a Jeffersonian and a staunch anti-Whig” (34). As they observe, Cooper’s position on property lies at the core of his political ideology.

In the section “On Property” in The American Democrat, Cooper refers to property as “the base of all civilization” and he considers its preservation “indispensable to social improvement” (186). No socialist, he contends that “a rigid equality of condition, as well as of rights” leads only to mediocrity (187). While he admits there are communities (religious sects among them) in which property is held in common, he argues that such communities deal with “the idle and dissolute” by expelling them — “a remedy that society itself cannot apply” (187). For Cooper, “the principle of individuality, or to use a less winning term, of selfishness,” is what motivates people to produce or achieve beyond the levels required for the preservation of life (187).

As Cooper constructs it in the passages above, property can be broadly understood to be any kind of material possession but elsewhere in this section, Cooper specifically links the term with the ownership of land. He argues that property and property rights need to be protected but that ownership of property does not mean that “one may do what he please with his own” (188). One can do only what the law allows. Ideally, and Cooper is certainly being idealistic here, property “elevates the national character, by affording the means of cultivating knowledge and the tastes” (190). Addressing the envy that the less propertied may have of the wealthy, he argues that “Great estates are generally of more benefit to the community than to their owners. They bring with them anxiety, cares, demands, and, usually, exaggerated notions, on the part of the publick, of the duties of the rich” (190-91). He closes this passage with remarks that might have come directly from Samuel Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes”: “So far from being the objects of envy,” men of property “are oftener the subjects of commiseration; he who has enough for his rational wants, agreeably to his habits and education, always proving the happier man” (191).

As I have written elsewhere in observations on Cooper’s and his daughter’s views on land ownership and land stewardship, Cooper took seriously his duties and responsibilities as a person belonging to an elevated social station who owned large tracts of land 1 In the management of his estate, Cooper tried to combine the concerns of the practical agriculturalist with the more aesthetic concerns of a gentleman of taste and culture. On the practical side, he served as the Secretary of the Otsego County agricultural society and attended to the details of his farms with an eye to improving their fertility and productivity. As for the aesthetics of land management, both he and his daughter, Susan, felt that the owners of large estates could be a positive force for change in American attitudes about landscape and landscape aesthetics. Both the Coopers were instrumental in introducing European concepts of landscape design to American estates.

During the period from 1836-1838, Cooper busied himself publishing five volumes on his European travels and writing The American Democrat, Homeward Bound, and Home as Found partly in response to the Three Mile Point dispute. In 1839, he published his History of the Navy of the United States of America and turned his political attentions to the developing storm over the management of the great hereditary estates in New York that culminated in the “Anti-rent Wars.” During the early years of the next decade, he returned to historical romances but, as we shall see, even this diversion was affected by his position as a landowner and an advocate for private stewardship of lands.

“One of the misfortunes of a nation, “James Fenimore Cooper observed in his Preface to Wyandotté (1843), “is to hear little besides its own praises” (3). He might have added that one of the misfortunes of American authorship is to be confronted by a reading public that wants to read little but its own praises. 2 In 1843, as Cooper readied Wyandotté for publication, the Republic was undergoing one of its periodic flirtations with chauvinism. Three years earlier, voters had chosen William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe, as President. In June 1843, John Tyler (who assumed the presidency after Harrison died in office in 1841) and Daniel Webster were to dedicate the Bunker Hill Monument — an icon to the early heroes of the Revolution. Perhaps Cooper, still battling the Whig press and smarting from criticism leveled at his portrait of Commodore Perry in The History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), thought a novel based on the Revolution would recapture public favor.

If Cooper sought to curry public favor, he could hardly have produced a novel less likely to do so. Wyandotté, or the Hutted Knoll showed the darker side of the Revolution, openly equating what he referred to as pseudo-patriotism with demagoguery. Reviews of the novel focused on Cooper’s devaluation of patriotism. In language that foreshadowed the exclusivist rhetoric of twentieth-century McCarthyism, the Southern Literary Messenger advocated exile: “Away with the author of any kind, who, in any way, would intimate to us, that we are too proud of our country.” 3

What provoked such a response was a novel in which Cooper asked his readers to take a critical look at the legacy of the Revolution and at their own attitudes about patriotism, property, and prosperity.

We have been so much accustomed to hear everything extolled, of late years, that could be dragged into the remotest connection with that great event, and the principles which led to it, that there is a danger of overlooking the truth, in a pseudo patriotism. ... That there were demagogues in 1776, is as certain as the there were demagogues in 1843, and will continue to be demagogues as long as means for misleading the common mind shall exist. (3)

Two decades after he first turned to the Revolution as the subject of fiction 4, Cooper once more surveys the landscape of American history. But where he once found virtue, he now finds venality. With the Anti-Rent Wars of the 1830s fresh in his mind, he sees the Revolution’s rhetoric of egalitarianism as a prelude to unbridled social leveling. His faith in the common man as an untapped reservoir of patriotic virtue has begun to wane. In Wyandotté, the lowborn revolutionary is no longer a stoic patriot; he has become a rabble rousing demagogue. Harvey Birch, the self-sacrificing Yankee peddler and Washington’s secret agent of The Spy (1821), is displaced by Joel Strides, the self-aggrandizing Yankee trickster. Like a prototypical Flem Snopes, Strides profits from the social disintegration that accompanies the prelude to the Revolution. Emblematic of Cooper’s fears that demagoguery would supplant democracy, Strides triumphs because he aligns himself with the forces of political and historical change. Captain Willoughby, the novel’s protagonist, fails because he willfully misreads the directions that such forces will take.

A study in self-deceptive complacency, Captain Willoughby (in some ways he mirrors the behavior of Mr. Wharton in The Spy who disastrously tries to remain in the “neutral ground” between the British and their Revolutionary foes) sees only what he wants to see and hears only what he wants to hear. A veteran of the French and Indian Wars, he has sold out his commission and applied for a land patent. To realize his dream of a peaceful rural retreat, he claims a parcel of land that “Saucy Nick,” a Tuscarora chief, has helped him locate. One the Indian title to the land has been “extinguished,” Willoughby sues for his patent and becomes the master of a four hundred acre beaver pond, some three thousand acres of bottomlands, and another three thousand acres of highlands.

When he sees first-hand what his patent entails, Willoughby sets about transforming the landscape to match his vision. He surveys the beaver pond — the landscape’s dominant feature — from two perspectives. As a former soldier, he recognizes that the rocky knoll in the middle of the pond affords a natural strong point. He decides that this will be the site of a “hut” with a surrounding palisade. As a prospective farmer, however, he sees the pond differently. Beneath the impounded waters lie cleared acres ready to plant. The pastoral vision wins out over the military reading of the terrain: Willoughby decides to destroy the beaver dam and drain the pond. In realizing his agriculturalist’s vision, Willoughby destroys the natural beauty of the place. The pond is replaced by “an open expanse of wet mud ... with a small river running through the slime” (14). 5 The effect of this transformation, “though the prospect was cheering to the agriculturist,” is pictorially “melancholy” (14). Willoughby almost regrets the act but he is so dazzled by his pastoral vision that he ignores the ugliness he has created. As Wayne Franklin observes, this “blind pastoral streak” causes Willoughby to disregard his best military instincts (162). In draining the pond, he violates one of the principals that any good field officer should follow — he exposes his position, by removing the moat-like protection the pond’s waters had provided. Although he has his workmen construct a palisade around his family compound, the site is no longer as defensible as it was before the pond was drained. Additionally, by developing the land, Willoughby makes the tract attractive to and the envy of those he considers to be his social inferiors.

Willoughby is so secure in what he perceives as the tranquility of the setting that he dismisses his wife’s qualms about the family’s security in their frontier settlement. When she reminds him that twice in their previous history they had almost been destroyed by Indian attacks, he objects that she exaggerates the danger; the Indians would not dare attack “in a time of peace” (39). She persists in her fears; noting that the gates are not yet in place she says, “I do hope you will have the gates hung, at least” (39).

When the tale advances ten years to May 1775, the hutted knoll has assumed the look of a permanent settlement. Fields have been neatly laid out and fenced; barns and outbuildings have been raised; discreetly tucked away in the woods (so as not to interfere with the prospect from the knoll) are the cabins of the Dutch and Yankee laborers who work in the sawmill (also hidden out of sight of the knoll). Captain Willoughby has created a tidy world, a seemingly contented mixture of races and religions, in which everything appears orderly, peaceful, and secure. Significant among all these changes, the gates are still leaning against their intended gateways, their hinges rusting with age.

When the news reaches Willoughby that rebellion has broken out in Massachusetts, he retreats into his library with Reverend Woods to conduct a gentlemanly “war of words” (67). Inside the library, Willoughby and Woods benignly argue and ultimately switch sides. Woods, the would-be revolutionary, embraces the Loyalist cause; Willoughby, a former officer of the Crown, leans toward revolution. As Wayne Franklin notes, outside of the library events are moving far more quickly: “a grammar of action ... replaces the grammar of words” (169). Although his sympathies lie with the colonists, Willoughby stops short of endorsing open rebellion. For all the spacious vistas it affords, the world that Willoughby has created “will not allow his political development” (Franklin 169). To the men in the sawmill below who have been listening to Joel Strides, Captain Willoughby is not a man of the people; he is the king of the hill — a symbol of royal authority.

Like Cooper himself and many other of Cooper’s middle-of-the road characters, Willoughby tries to be both a man of station and property and a supporter of revolutionary ideals. He refuses to take sides in the coming fray. When the Tuscarora chief Wyandotté, or Saucy Nick as he is known to the whites, asks him “Who he sarve — King George — Congress,” Willoughby asserts his neutrality. “I am neutral ... in the present quarrel. I only defend myself and the rights which the laws assure to me, let whichever party govern that may” (309). Wyandott” warns him that he is making a mistake. “Dat Bad. Nebber neutral in hot war. Get rob from bot’ side. Always be one or t’ oder, cap’in” (309).

For a time Willoughby enjoys his separate peace. The excitement over the battles of Lexington and Concord dies away, and rumors of the battle of Bunker Hill fail to stir the passions of the settlement. But, still the reality of the war intrudes into the world of the hutted knoll. Willoughby’s daughter, Beulah, worries about her husband, Evert Beekman, who has joined the rebel forces, while his adopted daughter, Maud Meredith, waits anxiously for word from Robert Willoughby, who is with the British troops in Boston. The war may be on their minds yet it is far away. Much closer to home, violence is about to break out. Joel Strides has been busily arranging his own rebellion. Disguised as Indians, the workers in the settlement below the knoll have joined with the Mohawks in attacking Willoughby’s stronghold. Strides has quite literally undermined the knoll’s defenses, at first by delaying the emplacement of the gates and later by springing a mine that dislodges one of the gates from its hinges. Just as Willoughby had let the protective waters of the pond escape when he had the beaver dam destroyed, so Joel allows the destructive forces of rebellion to enter the compound by dislodging the gates. In the melee that follows, Captain Willoughby is killed by Wyandotté, who has nursed a long standing grudge against the Captain who had punished him with flogging during his service in the French and Indian wars. Mrs. Willoughby dies if a heart attack as the Mohawks and Oneidas force their way into the compound. Beulah is killed by a stray shot. The Revolution may have been a noble cause but, as Cooper rightly perceived, it was also a class war and men such as Joel Strides could profit from the confusion. Neither station nor property can protect Willoughby and his family from the envy of men such as Strides and the revenge that Wyandott” exacts for his previous humiliation.

In his prose essays on station, demagoguery, and property, Cooper rationally sets forth the case for the necessity of status and station based on property. In his fictional treatment of landowners who seek to remove themselves from social strife, Cooper explores the irrationality of war and class envy and the impossibility of avoiding the forces of social change. Until very recently, however, most Americans have enjoyed such a degree of social mobility that they have been able to ignore the realities of class strife. So, how, if at all, can we apply Cooper’s “lessons” to our time? Perhaps they are best applied in an ecological rather than a political manner.

On the same trip to California that I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, my family and I had driven to and walked through the magnificent redwood groves on the northern California coast. These groves, which had been significantly reduced in the heyday of the timber industry, had survived because subsequent owners of the groves (some of them descendants of the “timber barons” who had built their fortunes on exploiting these resources) had put the lands into trust, placing a number of them under the stewardship of organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. This combination of private ownership combined with public stewardship would, I think, have appealed to Cooper and his daughter. Still, there is no easy way to satisfy the often contending wants and desires of private landowners with the desires and needs of those whose livelihood is connected to the use of those lands. As a preservationist, I applaud the efforts of those who have preserved (or conserved) the lands that I visit. As a unionist, sympathetic to the plight of working people, I have witnessed the poverty and frustration that result when an industry once based on the uncontrolled consumption of a natural resource shrinks in importance. Cooper, the “American Democrat,” who tried to balance a private commitment to conservancy (if not conservatism) with an equally strong commitment to democracy might have had similarly mixed feelings.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The American Democrat [1838]. Eds. George Dekker and Larry Johnston. New York: Penguin, 1989.
  • ------. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. [1821]. Ed. J. E. Morpurgo. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • ------. Wyandotté, or the Hutted Knoll A Tale [1843]. Eds. Thomas and Marianne Philbrick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
  • Franklin, Wayne, T he New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
  • Peck, H. Daniel, A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Railton, Stephen, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Ringe, Donald A., The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1971.


1 See my remarks in “’A Union of Art and Nature’: Cooper and American Landscape Aesthetics”.

2 In an earlier response to an admiring reader, Cooper wrote about the conditions of authorship in America: “This is the only country in which I have found it a positive personal disadvantage to be a writer” (quoted. in Railton, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination, 232.

3 See The Southern Literary Messenger 9 (November 1843): 700. For a summation of the literary reception of Wyandotté, see Thomas and Marianne Philbrick’s “Historical Introduction,” to Wyandotté (Albany: State University of New York, 1982), xxv.

4 Cooper’s first literary foray into the American Revolution was The Spy (1821).

5 The description of the rocky knoll, the slow flowing stream, and the primordial plain suggests the landscape of Thomas Cole’s The Arcadian or Pastoral State in his Course of Empire series of paintings (1835-36). As H. Daniel Peck observes in his study of Cooper’s pastoralism, like Cole, Cooper sought to unite “wilderness and agrarian images” (A World by Itself, 63-64). On Cooper’s pastoralism, see Donald A. Ringe, The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1971). On the pastoral concept in American thought, see Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America (London: Oxford University Press, 1964.