A Less than Revolutionary Romance: Leadership, Liberty, and “the People” in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy

Kendall McClellan (Binghamton 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. 79-83).

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

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

The Jacksonian Era, which marked the inception of the modern democratic party and saw the first election of a president who could somewhat convincingly claim to be one of “the people” — a claim that was central to Andrew Jackson’s campaign — was a time of considerable political and social flux. Jackson’s election elicited both passionate optimism and its opposite, anxiety-ridden predictions of America’s certain fall. What members of the population should be considered part of “we the people,” and how significant a role should the general populace play in governmental decision making? In the longer version of this paper I use James Fenimore Cooper’s nonfiction text The American Democrat to anchor a discussion of the political discourse at work in nineteenth-century historical romance novels set during the American Revolution. For the purposes of length here, I will focus on Cooper’s early novel, The Spy (1821) and briefly discuss Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s text The Linwoods, or Sixty Years Since in America (1835), in order to better illuminate Cooper’s position. Underwriting both Cooper and Sedgwick’s novels are varying degrees of anxiety regarding the threat of populism to individual liberties, the ideal relationship between leaders and those being led, and the possibility of maintaining social order within a republic.

Although Cooper expressly supported Jackson’s election — he was strongly in favor of Jackson’s plan to dismantle the national bank — The American Democrat reveals a socially conservative position and considerable fear that “the people” either misunderstood or were purposefully overreaching the rights granted to them by the Constitution. Early manifestations of these anxieties are latent in The Spy, published just three years prior to Jackson’s failed 1824 bid for the presidency. The first widely read American novel set during the Revolutionary War, many of the tropes established within The Spy are evident in the work of succeeding American authors, including Sedgwick. Families experience divided loyalties, and the romance between a rebel daughter and continental soldier ties together the domestic and nationalist elements of each plot. Sedgwick’s The Linwoods echoes Cooper’s work while significantly rewriting the gender and social politics evident within The Spy. Both authors share an interest in the power of the individual in a liberal republic and the struggle to maintain independence of thought and action, but while Sedgwick portrays materialistic interests of “worldly” loyalists as the greatest threat to self-will, Cooper embodies this threat most ferociously in the lower classes of American society, the skinners. This opposing view lies at the crux of Cooper’s and Sedgwick’s conceptions of republicanism as well as their visions of America’s future.

Cooper’s investment in the role of literary nationalist has been well-documented — though he may have tugged at these self-imposed leading strings over the years, at times feeling underappreciated or misrepresented, it was this sense of patriotic responsibility — a desire to assure the United States’ “mental independence” from Europe generally, and England more specifically, that propelled him to explore the mythological possibilities of the American Revolution so early in his career. In 1821 the United States lay at the beginning of a generational shift. Few members of what we might consider the first “greatest generation,” revolutionary war veterans and founding fathers whose names were already culturally hallowed, were still alive when Cooper’s novel was published. It was just four years later, in 1825, that two of the most prominent of these figures passed away in a manner that was destined to fuel collective national myth-making: “The death of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, to contemporaries a sign of divine providence, was solemnly observed in Boston on August 2: businesses closed, church bells tolled, and ships lowered their flags to half-mast. Their deaths confirmed the popular sense that the country was losing its last links with the revolutionary generation” (Young 140). One of the most comprehensive and convincing studies of the influence the Revolutionary War has had on Americans’ desire to understand their national identity is Michael Kammen’s A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (1978). Kammen convincingly argues that “a country’s quest for its heritage intensifies in direct proportion to its apprehension about the present” (12). And Kammen identifies the 1820s as the first clear “wave of nostalgia” — Revolutionary war veterans and historians alike began publishing reminiscences and studies of the war, attempting to understand and capture “the Truth” about America’s national identity, destiny and international purpose (politically and socio-historically) while those who had lived through the revolutionary period still had the chance to participate in the conversation (Kammen 26). To be recognized as more than a temporary experiment or ill-destined upstart, American authors worked — whether consciously or not — to create an originary myth that would propel the nation into a successful political future.

Cooper landed in the center of this predominantly nonfiction movement to mythologize the American Revolution in print with publication of The Spy, which, as the first and best-selling of early Revolutionary war romances, exercised an influence over successive authors that is impossible to quantify. Kammen, in fact, argues that “For better or for worse, Cooper’s imaginative perception of that pivotal period in our history has become the reference point for hundreds of authors ever since” (24). The Spy’s interest is two-fold for my purposes: a reading of this novel is not only important in the study of nineteenth-century revolutionary romances, it is also revelatory in an attempt to unravel Cooper’s complex political and cultural influences. An attempt to string together a cogent teleological model of Cooper’s position on American politics might logically begin with consideration of Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor, written while Cooper was living in Europe and published in 1828. This first primarily nonfiction political text is a panegyric on America, written from the perspective of an Englishman whose previously held prejudices-formed largely due to the unjust commentaries of British authors — are shattered by his personal experiences in the United States. The shift in both argumentative content and tone from Notions to 1838’s The American Democrat is dramatic, and reading these particularly politicized texts suggests a turn, on Cooper’s part, toward a more strict Constitutionalism through the course of the Jacksonian period. In an analysis of these two texts, John P. McWilliams, Jr. discusses the divergent purposes each served — the first as a defense against the view that the United States was headed toward disintegration, which Cooper witnessed while living abroad, the other a defense against abuses Cooper saw rising within the country:

The dangers of American democracy that Cooper had foreseen in 1828 had all been extrinsic limitations upon democracy: increased severity of civil law, limitations of the franchise, loss of the individual’s natural and Constitutional rights. By 1838, however, the chief dangers are intrinsic: popular disregard for civil statue, demagoguery and loose construction of the Constitution. Cooper’s heady national faith had always been founded on confidence in the corrective power of the public will. Phrases such as ‘common sense as the sovereign guide of the public will’ constantly recur in Notions of the Americans. Yet in The American Democrat Cooper begins to single out an uncontrollable and false public opinion as the flaw most deeply ingrained within the nation. (“Cooper and the Conservative Democrat” 669-70)

McWilliams’s comparison is apt, but the teleological element of this assessment collapses when The Spy is folded into the mix. In his book-length study of Cooper’s brand of republicanism, published two years after the article I quoted above, McWilliams’s own analysis of The Spy draws out aspects of the social conservatism of Cooper’s earliest work. There is a distrust of the general populace apparent in this novel that often overshadows the expressly patriotic rhetoric both of Cooper’s introduction and the narrator’s commentary. While defending and defining the United States against external threats to national sovereignty, as Cooper did in Notions, may have the capacity to unite citizens, locating the national threat within U.S. borders lays the foundation for intra-national relations — particularly across class boundaries — marked by suspicion and fear. The Jacksonian era likely heightened Cooper’s anxieties, while capturing the contradiction of his political and cultural views: Andrew Jackson would have fit nicely in Cooper’s pantheon of fictional heroes, extraordinary men who cultivated all the necessary qualities of “the gentleman” while demonstrating a capacity to be fierce leaders, but what about the constituents who elected Jackson, storming the White House the day Jackson took office, represented by journalists as “King Mob”? In The Spy Cooper creates two contrasting versions of men ranged in groups acting on their passions: the villainous Skinners and the generally virtuous cavalry soldiers. Despite the ostensible opposition between these two groups — one driven by a love of money alone and the other by love of country, when considered in conjunction, their representation suggests a general population that cannot be trusted to practice self-control: instead, their passion must constantly be guided by a select group of leaders and restrained by civil law.

Cooper’s introduction of the Skinners draws attention to the dangers inherent in a slackening of civil constraints. How do men respond when “civil authority” falls apart:

Oppression and injustice were the natural consequences of the possession of a military power that was uncurbed by the restraints of civil authority. In time, a distinct order of the community was formed, whose sole occupation appears to have been that of relieving their fellow-citizens from any little excess of temporal prosperity they might be thought to enjoy, under the pretence of Patriotism, and the love of liberty. (20)

As Cooper’s picture of these pseudo-patriots expands, it grows increasingly sinister. The Skinners are described variously as animals and savages. Their selfish desire for personal gain, and more specifically, for wealth, has driven away all respect for human relationships: they hurry along the death of Harvey Birch’s father and use Harvey’s filial love to extort money while he is dying, and later set fire to the Wharton’s home just after the family has suffered a terrible shock — the exposure of Wellemere’s bigamous intentions. The interactions between the Skinners ranges from almost comically buffoon-like to extremely menacing, and they show no loyalty even to each other. On the threat of death at the hands of the Cowboys, one Skinner first claims to be a British loyalist, and then offers to give up his own brother’s gang. What can be expected from men “whose countenances expressed nothing more than the indifference of brutal insensibility,” and who are described by Captain Lawton as “’More than savages; men who, under the guise of patriotism, prowl through the community, with a thirst for plunder that is unsatiable, and a love of cruelty that mocks the ingenuity of the Indian’” (129, 289). The overall effect of these various images and descriptions is significant: the presence of The Skinners darkens the tone of the novel, which is not the shining encomium of revolutionary war heroics one might expect a literary nationalist to create. What this representation renders clear is a sincere fear of what can occur to a community when men’s passions are untrammeled by law and directed toward the ignoble pursuit of personal gain. Men whose rational capacities are underdeveloped — and in this novel the general populace falls into this camp — must be properly directed. In this representation we see the seeds of Cooper’s desire to fortify the constitution, a primary theme of The American Democrat — to do so would protect America’s central system against the people’s capacity to invert Cooper’s notion of the proper hierarchy, gaining enough power to influence congress and possibly the president, rather than following their leaders. Although the people’s patriotism is important, and love of country is an ennobling sentiment, they should not confuse this essentially emotional relationship between themselves and their country with the right to wield material political power.

Beyond strict constructionism, what cultural practices must be established or maintained to ensure the stability and longevity of the United States? In the actions of Major Peyton Dunwoodie and Captain Lawton we witness the capacity of extraordinary leaders — who happen not coincidentally to be gentlemen and of aristocratic lineage — to impact the behavior of the masses. Twice in the novel the American troops Dunwoodie and Lawton command succumb to fear and fall into chaos or retreat. The first time this occurs, Major Dunwoodie regains control swiftly: “Riding between this squadron and the enemy, in a voice that reached the hearts of his dragoons, he recalled them to their duty. His presence and words acted like magic. The clamour of voices ceased; the line was formed promptly and with exactitude; the charge sounded; and, led on by their commander, the Virginians swept across the plain with an impetuosity that nothing could withstand” (94). Dunwoodie harnesses the emotional energy of an impetuous mass through the sheer force of his presence and voice, a task Lawton will repeat in the final battle scene. Before charging into a fight that ends his life, Lawton uses “all the strength of his powerful voice” to remind the troops of their duty, until “they demanded to be led against their foe once more” (39). Cooper’s language in this scene is telling: the troops did not imbibe their leaders strength and take to battle as self-controlled individuals — instead, after recalling their patriotic spirit, they were roused again to follow a compelling leader. Over the course of the novel, this general populace of cavalrymen have seemingly gained no steadier or more trustworthy in the discharge of their duties: though their patriotism lends purity to their passions, they remain fundamentally irrational and impetuous.

The behavior of the troops in battle scenes and at rest serves as a microcosmic picture of Cooper’s cultural solution to the threat of political instability. Recognizing and following powerful leaders is one piece of the puzzle; another piece is revealed in the soldiers’ mode of sitting down to eat: “In taking their places at the board, the strictest attention was paid to precedency; for, notwithstanding the freedom of manners which prevailed in the corps, points of military etiquette were at all times observed, with something approaching to religious veneration” (192). Cooper hardly understates the case. This description echoes a scene enacted by the aristocratic characters. Despite the chaos and depredations of war, Dunwoodie, Lawton, and the Whartons enjoy a well-served and socially proper meal at camp — the narrator copiously describes the women’s’ and men’s attire, the order and manner in which they enter the dining room, and the dishes themselves. The Wharton’s black servant Caesar, who is lauded throughout the novel for understanding his proper position and respecting convention, jealously guards the table he has set and stands tensely until they are all “comfortably arranged around the table, with proper attention to all points of etiquette and precedence. The black well knew the viands were not improving; and though abundantly able to comprehend the disadvantage of eating a cold dinner, it greatly exceeded his powers of philosophy to weigh all the latent consequences to society which depend on social order” (163). The narrator’s commentary infantilizes Caesar, representing him as the proper model of servitude: though he does not have the rational capacity to understand why specific behaviors are significant, he can follow the conventions practiced by the men nature has carved out to be leaders.

As this quality makes Caesar the ideal servant, so too does it constitute the ideal mate for Peyton Dunwoodie. Frances Wharton shows heroic qualities when she scales a mountain to rescue her brother, but images of her laughing, crying, and acknowledging her own weaknesses as a woman predominate. Frances is childlike both in her actions and appearance: she does not adorn her hair or follow the most current fashions, preferring instead proper and simple dress. She spends the first half of the novel giggling frequently and the second half shedding copious tears. Cooper accentuates the propriety of Frances’s deportment by creating a female counter-model, Isabella Singleton. Isabella is not a villainous character; in fact, she is described as beautiful and heroic, but like Harvey Birch her heroism is an isolated case created by passionate devotion to the Revolutionary cause, and also like Harvey, she does not survive to become a part of the new nation. As Isabella is dying she offers Frances her own benediction, acknowledging the impropriety of intense and uncontrolled passions in a woman, and assuring Frances that ‘Woman must be sought to be prized; her life is one of concealed emotions’ (285). Isabella’s words are the final seal needed to assuage Frances’s self-doubt. When Isabella first arrived at the house, Frances decided she would sacrifice her love of Major Dunwoodie to the more powerful woman: “’I am not worthy of you. It is not a feeble, timid girl like me, that could make you happy. No, Peyton, you are formed for great and glorious actions, deeds of daring and renown, and should be united to a soul like your own; one that can rise above the weakness of her sex’” (225-6) After Frances confesses this newfound understanding of her “own inferiority,” Peyton assures her that she misreads both the desirability of her feminine identity and of his desires: “’Lovely enthusiast!’ cried Dunwoodie, ‘you know not yourself, nor me. It is a woman, mild, gentle, and dependent as yourself, that my very nature loves’” (226). It is not a woman of uncontrolled passions who will help mother the new nation, but instead one who directs her love toward deserving men (first her brother and later Dunwoodie), and who exhibits a natural inclination to follow, rather than lead.

It is in this representation of the ideal woman that Cooper’s The Spy and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s 1836 novel The Linwoods, or Sixty Years Since in America, most obviously collide. Sedgwick’s heroine is Isabella Linwood, dark-haired and fiery, much like Isabella Singleton, but unlike Miss Singleton, able to channel her energy and learn through the exercise of reason, as the novel progresses, to become a self-willed individual. Sedgwick describes Isabella as already willful and acute in her youth, when she wagered the freedom of her family’s slave Rose on her ability to outperform classmates in the acquisition of French, a task she had been shirking. “The spirit in truth and independence in her own mind responded to the cravings of Rose’s ... . The race was a hard one. Her competitors were older than herself, and father advanced in the language, but a mind like hers, with motive strong enough to call forth all its energy, was unconquerable.” She “persevered like a Newton; and like all great spirits, she shaped destiny” (137). The inclusion of a strong-willed heroine represents a significant ideological divergence in Sedgwick’s cultural model for national stability; it is part and parcel of the general message this novel imparts regarding relationships. Isabella’s parents serve as a warning against the damage that occurs when men and women relate on the unequal terms Cooper wished to buttress: her mother “firmly believed that the husband ruled by divine right ... . Such characters, if not interesting, are safe, provided they fall into good hands.” (143). Although Mrs. Linwood is safe (what might have become of her had she fallen under a less moral influence?), her husband has developed tyrannical habits at least in part because — as he admits at the end of the novel — he married unequally. Growing accustomed to wielding power unquestioned, Mr. Linwood becomes nearly incapable of dealing with divergent opinions, alienating his only son and flying into fits of rage that demonstrate a significant lack of self-control.

And it is self-control that Sedgwick’s novel touts as most essential to the success of individuals and of the nation as a whole. While in The Spy it is members of subordinate classes who demonstrate a frequent inability to rise above group thinking and act rationally, in The Linwoods, these qualities attach to a decidedly aristocratic character, Jasper Meredith. Meredith nearly matches our hero, Eliot Lee, in intelligence, but “he had not the hardihood and self-discipline that it requires to forego an attractive pursuit,” and “while Eliot could not exist without self-respect. The applause of society was essential to Meredith” (26). This focus on the approval of others debases Meredith. He values only material wealth and social approval; while he develops a sophisticated taste for fine food and clothes, his ability to feel for other people ossifies. He plays upon the affections of Bessie Lee and she becomes so ashamed by and obsessed with her unrequited feelings that she goes mad. In a particularly colorful passage, the narrator compares Meredith to “those insects who, instead of the social sense of hearing and seeing which connect one sentient existence with another, are furnished with feelers that make their own bodies the focus of all sensation” (152). It is the aristocrat in Sedgwick’s novel who most frequently exhibits the animal-like elements within man, driven by personal appetites, rather than the masses whose uncontrolled passions threaten community in The Spy. Because of this, Sedgwick implicitly places the onus for social improvement on each individual’s quest to develop their rational capacities and achieve self-will, rather than on the ability of powerful leaders to exercise external control on the population.

In his introduction to The Spy, Cooper warns his fellow citizens: “There is now no enemy to fear, but the one that resides within. By accustoming ourselves to regard even the people as erring beings, and by using the restraints that wisdom has adduced from experience, there is much reason to hope that the same Providence which has so well aided us in our infancy, may continue to smile on our manhood” (7). Sedgwick might also argue that the enemy lies within, except The Linwoods suggests that the enemy lies within each one of us. The enemy is an inability or unwillingness to temper our passions with reason and to practice emotional and intellectual self-discipline. Both Cooper’s novel and his political tract paint a picture of human nature that denies the ability of most men — and all women — to achieve this. The result of such a perspective on human nature is the need for external restraints, political and civil. Both The American Democrat and The Spy suggest that the enemy within the nation is the citizens themselves and the intellectual weaknesses they carry with them.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The American Democrat. NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2004.
  • ------. Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Traveling Bachelor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
  • ------. The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground. NY: Penguin, 1997.
  • Kammen, Michael. A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. NY: Knopf, 1978.
  • McWilliams, John P., Jr. “Cooper And The Conservative Democrat.” American Quarterly 22 (1970): 665-677. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Dec 2009.
  • ------. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. The Linwoods, or “Sixty years since” in America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002.
  • Young, Alfred E. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and American Revolution. Boston: Beachon Press, 1999.