Cooper, Basil Hall, and Anglo-American Cultural Wars

Steven Blakemore (Florida Atlantic University)

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 16-19).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

I want to lead into Cooper and Basil Hall with a historical context. After the War of Independence, there was an Anglo-American cultural war over the meaning and significance of the new American Republic and its people. We sometimes forget how intense the trans-Atlantic cultural war was and how it contributed to American literary nationalism. During the French and Indian War (1754-63), many of the British had denigrated the American military endeavor, generalizing about supposed American sloth and cowardice. This argument and attitude was brought forth again and injected at the beginning of the Revolutionary War when British generals, officers, and parliamentarians mocked American military will and prowess. Having been subsequently contradicted on the battlefield, the British, those who were still hostile to America and who wanted to see the democratic experiment fail, changed the terms of the argument from “arms” to the “arts.” In pamphlets, newspapers, journals, and books, Americans were depicted as a culturally inferior people who would never produce a great civilization. The British, in effect, employed the old savagism vs. civilization paradigm that Europeans had often recurred to when explaining the mysteries of America. Almost as soon as the Treaty of Paris (1783) ended formal hostilities, prominent British reviewers and critics proclaimed that the Americans would never produce a culture that would be commensurate with the great civilization of Europe.

This accounts, in part, for the extraordinary sensitivity and self-consciousness of Americans who became preoccupied with liberating themselves from British cultural dominion. Since it was understood that the country could not be completely independent without being culturally independent as well, there were voluminous declarations of cultural independence throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth as well. 1 For their part, the British engaged in this cultural war succeeded in instilling a cultural inferiority complex that was partially behind the new assertion of American literary nationalism. These cultural wars culminated in the flurry of British travelers who came to America roughly between 1820-1840 to assess the new republic with what seemed to be preconceived anti-American agendas. Basil Hall was one of these travelers. In 1810 Charles Jared Ingersoll began an American counter offensive in Inchiquin’s Letters by responding to European charges of American physical, moral, social, political, and cultural deficiency. Robert Walsh continued the cultural counteroffensive in An Appeal from the Judgments of Great Britain Respecting the United States of America (1819), in which he made the paradigmatic American case against the British, from the origin of the colonies through the post-revolutionary era, documenting what he considered to be the libels and slanders of British travelers and members of the British cultural establishment. In “English Writers on America,” an essay in the Sketch Book (1819-20), Washington Irving attempted to assuage hard feelings on both sides of the Atlantic by diplomatically discussing English cultural aggression and the correspondent American reaction. James Fenimore Cooper’s Notions of the Americans (1828) was a continuation of the cultural war.

Enter Basil Hall. Hall was a Scottish British naval officer, a traveler, and an author who arrived with his family in New York on May 15, 1827, and soon began an arduous fourteen month investigation of the new American Republic and its experiment in democracy. Arriving with letters of recommendation, Hall was wined and dined and shown generous hospitality by scores of prominent, and not so prominent, Americans who were aware that he probably intended to publish his observations and, consequently, were anxious that he would report favorably to Great Britain. The result was Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, a three-volume cultural travelogue. Valuable for its many insights into nineteenth-century America, Hall’s volumes were, nevertheless, a nationalistic attack on American democracy from a Scotsman who identified himself with “High Toryism” and who had a distinctly English view of the former “colonies.” 2 Consequently, his Travels ignited a firestorm of protest throughout America, where it was read, discussed, and analyzed in newspapers and journals and among the American people for more than a decade. Most Americans felt that Hall had abused the country’s hospitality by deliberately telling lies and distortions, and a chamber pot with his portrait affixed to the bottom soon became a hot selling item. Despite his assurances, in the Travels, that he had come to America with an open mind and a disposition to think favorably of America’s institutions and people, the Travels is, in fact, a snarky commentary on an American democracy that Hall felt was culturally deficient and politically dangerous.

Cooper knew that Hall was in America to write a book and having just published Notions of the Americans in 1828, a book that deals with, among other things, the Anglo-American cultural war and British misconceptions of America, he, like everyone else, was interested in how Hall would respond. Charles Wilkes, a friend and prominent New York businessman, had written him on June 30, 1828, informing him that Basil Hall was on the eve of departing for England and that he had come to America “very much inclined to think most favorably of our people, our country, and our institutions — perhaps too favorably, for I think he has been disappointed.” Adding that a year was not a sufficient time to thoroughly study a country, Wilkes, nevertheless, defends him by noting that he “never found any ground for the calumnies against him,” a reference to a prevalent rumor that Hall had been paid by the British government to report unfavorably on the Americans, and adding that Hall must have lacked “a good tact in his intercourse with us, to have created such a hostility. If he does publish, I think his work will be at least very amusing, for he writes extremely well.” 3 Apparently, at this point, Cooper and his friend were not exactly sure just how Hall would respond, but Hall was certainly not disposed to think favorably of the country, even though he represented himself as doing just that in America and in print. A year later, Cooper certainly suspected what everyone else in America was thinking, since he had received a letter from his friend and attorney, Peter Jay, on May 29, 1829, in which Jay noted that “Capt. Basil Hall we are told is going to lash us. Few men have been better received here than he was, yet he left us I believe in a sour humor. His condescension and desire to instruct us, tho’ meant to show humility and kindness were felt as arrogance, and his wife indulged herself in certain criticisms upon the American ladies which justly displeased the latter.” 4

Soon after, Cooper read Hall’s Travels. On September 8, 1830, Cooper wrote Peter Jay from Paris about the national tensions between England and France, adding that “Capt. Basil Hall to the contrary, the nations do not like each other — Where has that man lived, that he should come out and tell us gravely of the courtesy that England and France love to manifest to each other during war. Five and twenty years of experience seems lost on him” 5 Indeed, in the second volume of the Travels, Hall had insisted that despite the national wars between England and France, there was “a spirit of generous rivalry and cordial international respect, which both parties delight to cherish — but of which, alas! there are but few feeble traces in our relations with America — and not the slightest spark, I greatly fear, in theirs with us” 6 Cooper’s astonishment that Hall’s twenty-five years of experience had come to nothing is in context of the life-and-death war that Great Britain had recently fought with, first, revolutionary France and then with the Napoleonic Empire, an Anglo-Franco war waged from 1793 to 1815, a war in which both countries tried to demonize and destroy each other, and which Hall had criticized the Americans, in Volume 2, for not assisting Great Britain (2.18-19). In the simmering aftermath of the Hall controversy, Jay wrote Cooper again on February 21, 1832, informing him that he had just visited Québec and that “Basil Hall’s prejudices never appeared to me more ridiculous than when I passed through upper Canada.” 7 The reference was to Hall’s praise of Canada as a loyal British colony in contradistinction to the degenerate, messy democracy on its southern border, a set of thematic comparisons and contrasts that cover a large portion of the second half of Volume 1 of the Travels.

Hall continued to be on Cooper’s mind. In a letter (2 July 1831) to his English publishers, Colburn and Bentley, he promises “Mr. Hall an article for the next number of the New Monthly (2.116). “Mr. Hall” was Samuel Taylor Hall, one of the editors of the Monthly, and in 1831, The New Monthly Magazine had become a radical journal, so it was the perfect British forum for Cooper’s upcoming attack on Basil Hall. In a follow-up letter to Colburn and Bentley (29 August 1831), Cooper notes that he had finished the article and asks them to forward it to the New Monthly, adding that he thought it “would make Mr. Basil Hall cautious how he meddles with American finances, all his life.” 8 In a letter to Charles Wilkes, written between August 29 and September 29, his mind was still on the article: “Apropos [of] Capt. Hall, I sent a short article to the New Monthly, on the subject of his book ... and by that you will see how easy it is to drive a coach and six through his facts. ‘Figures cannot lie,’ and I have given a specimen of his accuracy in respect to statistics — I do assure you, that it would not be difficult to cut up, nearly all of his facts, in the manner you will there see. I never read so faulty a book.” 9

Cooper’s article appeared in the October 1831 issue of the New Monthly Magazine. 10 Considering all the criticisms Hall makes in the Travels, Cooper selects and highlights several “figures” — facts that cannot be controverted — since other details may be arguably subjective or personal. He starts with Hall’s point that an American stage coach resembles a French diligence (Travels, 1.93) and through a series of contrasts clearly suggests that if Hall can be so mistaken on something so conspicuously trivial, then he cannot be trusted on other more substantial matters. 11

This leads to his statistical attack on Hall, since, as he had noted, “Figures cannot lie.”

Focusing on Tables 3 and 4 that appear at the end of the third volume of the Travels, Cooper convincingly demonstrates that Hall egregiously miscalculates the population of the United States as well as taxes and revenues paid to the government in order to implicitly suggest that America’s population is not a daunting challenge to Great Britain and that its democratic government is too expensive to maintain. While Cooper does not “mean to accuse” Hall of “willful misrepresentation,” he, nonetheless, maintains that “he has mutilated things in a way entirely to mislead his reader.” 12 In other words, he has engaged in “willful misrepresentation.” Cooper also challenges Hall on other factual contentions such as the comparative time that members of the American Congress and the British House of Parliament (306-308) serve (in order to suggest that a democracy offers no stability since American congressmen serve briefly compared to their British counterparts). The upshot of Cooper’s critique is his contention that the British judge America by British standards and that fourteen months in such a vast, variegated country is insufficient at best — a particular criticism that Hall, in the Travels, had complained that Americans make ubiquitously. 13

Cooper’s statistical battles, however, were not over. While in France, in 1832, Lafayette had asked him to respond to an article by Louis Sébastien Saulnier that appeared in a French journal. European republicans had contended that governments like the United States were cheaper than other forms of government, but Saulnier, with the encouragement of the monarchical French ministry, had argued the opposite, and he employed a table taken from Basil Hall’s Travels — the table that Cooper had analyzed critically in the October 1831 article in the New Monthly. Cooper responded primarily in French and was soon embroiled in a journalistic controversy with Saulnier. His fundamental point was that the Frenchman had relied on a statistical table in Hall’s book that was inaccurate and not based on an official American source. Arguing that no one could read Hall without recognizing his political tendencies and prejudices, he compares Saulnier’s table (dealing with, among other things, population, funds, federal and state taxes) with Hall’s and conclusively demonstrates that despite some small discrepancies between both charts, Saulnier based his erroneous thesis on Hall’s erroneous table. 14

Contending that Hall had used a spurious source to miscalculate the population of the United States while inflating the tax revenues, making it seem as if a democracy were more expensive than a monarchy, Cooper’s attack on Saulnier was actually another attempt to deal with what he felt was Hall’s pernicious Travels. Since he had dealt with the same subjects, mutatis mutandis, in his October 1831 attack on Hall in The New Monthly, Cooper had merely to reformulate the points made in order to continue his sustained critique of Hall’s “figures.”

Hall continued to be a presence in Cooper’s mind. In the second volume of Gleanings in Europe, published in 1837 and dealing with his travels in England, Cooper was still responding to Hall, (see 82, 117, 293, 295, 298-299, 342), noting at one point that the “greatest objection” he has to Hall’s Travels “is that it insinuates more than it proves, or even asserts. This is the worst species of detraction, for it admits neither refutation nor denial.” 15 Although his tone is generally more respectful of Hall, one way of contextualizing that particular volume of the Gleanings is to think of it as Basil Hall in reverse, with Cooper as the American traveler in England, providing an overview of its people and institutions from a critical American perspective. The Gleanings is Cooper’s democratic Travels.

In retrospect, it is striking what Cooper did not address in Hall’s Travels. For Hall had attacked American institutions and manners, declared that the nation was politically and culturally deficient and that Americans were money obsessed, tree killing, spittoon-spitting parvenues. He even went as far as declaring that everything was pictorially prosaic in America (this at a time when the “fresh, green breast of the new world” was an approximate reality) — that there was generally no picturesque or sublime or beautiful landscapes or scenery, even though he contradicted himself, in this regard, throughout the Travels. Cooper instead chose his criticism strategically, selecting subjects or topics that could not be explained away as differences in subjective taste or viewpoint. Specifically sticking to facts (usually mathematical figures) that could not be controverted or proven against themselves, he chose to contest Hall in what he considered a neutral territory where unbiased observers could discern the truth. If he could demonstrate that Hall could be so factually incorrect, then he could suggest that his personal assertions were at least equally incorrect and egregious. Cooper’s response to Hall was part and parcel of the Anglo-American cultural wars that raged through much of the nineteenth century. In the end, it was not only a display of defensive American nationalism, it was an aggressive response to what Cooper believed was an arrogant and pretentious cultural imperialism that he unrelentingly confronted at home and abroad.


1 See Benjamin T. Spencer, The Quest for Nationality: An American Literary Campaign (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1957) passim.

2 Alice Hiller, “The perverse tourism of Captain Basil Hall,” Studies in Travel Writing: Papers from the Essex Symposium on “Writing Travels” 3 (1999): 89.

3 Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Fenimore Cooper [his grandson], 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922) 1:146-47.

4 Ibid., 1:172. For a bird’s eye view of Mrs. Basil Hall’s opinions of American ladies and manners, see the private letters to her sister, Jane Hunter, unpublished until 1931: Una Pope-Hennessy, ed., The Aristocratic Journey: Being the Outspoken Letters of Mrs. Basil Hall Written During a Fourteen Months’ Sojourn in America 1827-1828 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons; London: The Knickerbocker Press, 1931).

5 The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed, James Franklin Beard, 6 vols. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960) 2:9.

6 Basil Hall, Travels in North America in Years 1827 and 1828, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Cadell and Co.; London: Simkin and Marshall, 1829) 2:17. All citations from Hall will be placed in parenthesis.

7 The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper 1:259.

8 Ibid. 2:137.

9 Ibid. 2:140.

10 Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine XXXII (October 1831): 297-311.

11 Ibid. 301.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid. 306, 308, 297, 308.

14 Letters and Journals 2:195-203, 217.

15 James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe, 2 vols., ed. Robert E. Spiller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970) 2:343.