Rhetoric and Reform: James Fenimore Cooper and Sailors in Antebellum America, A Romance

Lisa Vandenbossche (University of Rochester)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013

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

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 52-55)

Historian Jesse Lemisch argues that in the eighteenth century the sailor was often depicted as “childlike [and] irresponsible ... because he was treated so much like a child, a servant, and a slave ... necessities of an authoritarian profession [that] were written into law and culture: the society that wanted Jack dependent made him that way and then concluded that was the way it really was” (Lemisch 380). After the American Revolution questions of liberty and citizenship were of vital importance in shaping the new Republic. Borrowing from British notions of land and class, sailors had previously been thought of as childlike wards of upper class, propertied men who controlled the ship or, in the case of the Navy, sailors fell under the paternalistic umbrella of the government. Conceptualizing the seaman as a child was convenient for those who sought to exploit his labor (like captains, merchants and naval officers) as it provided justification for paternalistic laws of obedience, a legal justification for impressment, and assured a “ready supply of cheap, docile labor“(Lemisch 379). 1 The sailor’s position in the developing America of the early nineteenth century was a less stable one, as views of personal liberty and individual responsibilities were central to changing conceptions of citizenship. Given the often poor and transitory nature of the sailor, it was hard for these men to find a place in a society that understood land ownership as an important factor for virtuous citizenship.

Evangelical ideology, coupled with notions of liberty, reinforced the position of male heads of home who were accountable for the welfare of their families. As Paul Gilje observes in his study of liberty ideology within the maritime culture of the Early Republic, “evangelical religion took the ideals of revolution and incorporated them into a middle-class mentality that offered its own definition of liberty — a liberty to open one’s heart to God, pursue one’s own economic interest through hard work, and exert personal discipline” (198). While the concept of individual liberty freed men from historical limitations by encouraging hard work as a means to better one’s condition, it also made men often solely responsible for the physical and economic well being of their family. Poverty was assumed to stem from a weak patriarch, making it convenient to blame an absentee sailor for the economic struggles of those he left behind on shore. Thus, female aid societies, those who advocated most vigorously on behalf of the sailor and his family in the first half of the nineteenth century, first had to recast the figure of the sailor rhetorically in order to combat the eighteenth-century stereotypes, before they could promote programs on behalf of him and his family.

I would like to suggest that as a physical being the nineteenth-century sailor occupied a particular (albeit liminal) social status, but as a figure being constructed by writers and reformers he acts as a test case, allowing culture to work out larger questions of citizenship and labor. By linking the adventure of a sea story with elements of romance and reform, James Fenimore Cooper’s 1843 biography of his friend and shipmate Ned Myers, and works similar to it, offered female reform groups a basis for the rhetorical strategy they employed to recast these men in early American culture. Even though Cooper’s letters suggest (at best) an ambivalence about aid societies, by reading Ned Myers along side Boston Seamen’s Aid Society meeting minutes — arguably, the most influential female aid group for sailors in the early nineteenth century — one is able to see a reciprocal rhetorical relationship emerge. This allows us to better understand the ways in which fiction writers and reformers appropriated and extended rhetorical strategies to further their aims. Aid groups borrow the language of fiction writers like Cooper in order to romanticize the figure of the sailor to paint him as a man worth saving, and sailors like Myers begin to frame their personal and professional narratives with the language of these aid societies (and reform more generally) in order to better understand and articulate their place in the developing nation.

While today we often think of Cooper as primarily a writer of frontier romances, in nineteenth-century America Cooper’s tales of sea adventures were so well known that they were held up as a model for the emerging sea fiction genre. In the 1840 preface to his immensely popular biography Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana Jr. positions his own work against Cooper’s when he explains, “since Mr. Cooper’s Pilot and Red Rover, there have been so many stories of sea life written, that I should really think it unjustifiable in me to add to one of the number without being able to give reasons in some measure warranting me in so doing” (Dana 3) — thus asserting the centrality of Cooper’s work for those who sought to advocate on behalf of the sailor.

{53} As a writer, Cooper was actively interested in the plight of the average sailor: evidenced by the twelve seafaring works published over the course of his career, his participation in advocating for sailors who he felt had been wrongly accused in admiralty courts, and repeated references to their plight in his letters. In 1841, after a chance encounter with his old shipmate — lifelong sailor and lower class laborer — Ned Myers, Cooper embarked in a joint project to record and publish Ned’s life story in order to give the public “some just notions of the career of an common sailor” (Cooper i). Ned’s narrative, published in 1843 and titled Ned Myers; or a Life before the Mast, evokes the earlier work of Dana in its subtitle, but also extends Dana’s project by following an average Jack Tar, through out his entire career rather than just a three-year voyage. Cooper shifts his sea work from fiction to biography in order to write the story of a common sailor and in doing so champions the lower class worker, as opposed to his earlier fictional stories of upper-class naval officers and gentlemen.

Myers tells readers that he begins his life at sea in Halifax where he escapes from his guardians, stowed away on a “North Carolina vessel bound for her own country” (Myers 4). The narrative then depicts Ned’s working life as he recounts his movement on a diverse array of vessels in a variety of positions. He witnesses first hand the War of 1812, both in the American navy and from a British prison on an island off the coast of Canada. He then returns to America for the boom of merchant shipping and smuggling in Europe and Asia, fends off piracy multiple times and is even at one point saved from accidentally taking a berth on a (then illegal) slave transport ship. Through the support of his military pension, sailor refuge homes, and religious tracts tailored to the sailor and published by onshore aid societies, Myers is eventually able to turn away from drinking and find God, ending the narrative with his onshore retirement. As a sailor Myers progresses from common Jack Tar and enlisted seaman all the way to second mate, lending support for Hester Blum’s argument that Myers’ “career exemplified the vicissitude of early-nineteenth-century maritime life” (93). This makes him an ideal representative for seamen as a general class. At one point, he even turns down the offer to captain a merchant ship. It is significant that Myers is never willing to command his own vessel. According to him, this is the result of an insecurity stemming from his lack of navigational knowledge and general education, a detail which he regularly laments as he advocates for more free schools for sailors and their dependents, a project central to the mission of the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society.

This lack of education is emphasized by Ned’s inability to write his own life story, epitomizing his lower class position and reinforcing his dependency on educated, upper-class men like Dana and Cooper. Instead, he recounts orally his tale to Cooper, who then writes, or in Cooper’s word “edits” the narrative for a reading public. In the move from oral to written, Cooper is sure to retain some of the tangential asides and disjointed plot lines that serve as reminders to readers of the oral nature of the narrative. In this Cooper asks readers to navigate for themselves the space between writer and subject. The dual voice of the work enables Myers as oral narrator to pepper his tale with rhetorical conventions of the religious and reform tracts he repeatedly champions in the narrative, and allows Cooper as writer to employ literary conventions reminiscent of his earlier romances, and the romance genre more generally. This helps the work appeal to a wider audience while at the same time connects the text more effectively to larger reform projects of aid societies like the Boston Seamen Aid Society than works that had come before it.

As Blum notes, Myers’ diversity of experience enables him to function as a representative sailor “type” rather than distinct individual. While Myers may be recounting a life story for Cooper, in writing that story Cooper transforms him into a literary figure who embodies many of same conventions of romantic heroes like Natty Bumppo. He is a man alienated from civilized onshore society, an individual who is prone to introspection, wanderlust and regret for his past. Myers is quoted by Cooper as being a man who “loved to be his own master” with a “roving and changeful mind” (Cooper 3), who is more home in the turmoil of the sea than on shore.

Part of the success of romance as a genre in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was its ability to paint people and events distinct from readers’ every day experience. In playing up the difference between the experience of Myers and readers, Cooper frames the narrative within this convention. Myers’ close relationship with the Romantic sublime of untamed nature and survival afloat on the often-violent ocean reinforce this framing of sailor as romantic hero, a man who lives up to Northrup Frye’s definition of a man “placed outside the structure of civilization [who] therefore represents the force of physical nature, amoral or ruthless, yet with a sense of power, and often leadership, that society has impoverished itself by rejecting” (Frye 41). Cooper depicts Myers as a man who does not fit into the order of the society to which his readers belong because Myers has not been educated for a place there. Instead he must regularly meet the “necessity of going to sea” (Myers 126) to make his fortune and the fortune of the Republic. By invoking these romantic literary conventions Cooper characterizes Myers not as a childlike dependent but rather an individual worthy of aid and Myers frames himself as a man who can be rehabilitated as a virtuous citizen {54} only with the help of reformers. He is a hero whose labor takes him out of the view of those who should be helping and celebrating him.

Founded in 1833 by Josepha Hale, the all female Boston Seamen’s Aid Society pursued charity projects that members felt fell within the female sphere, like providing for the wives, widows and children of seamen. 2 While the Boston Port Society had a predominantly male membership, 3 as an offshoot the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society’s membership from 1833 through 1861 remained exclusively female. The Boston Seaman’s Aid Society would occasionally help financially with Boston Port Society projects; however, members had distinctly different goals for their organization. Specifically, they advocated for the establishment of a store, 4 the creation of a free school, 5 and the writing of religious tracts for sailors while away from home. 6 All of these issues Myers addresses in his narrative. He searches for an honest place to outfit himself on shore leave, while regularly encountering those who try to cheat him; he laments the gaps in his education that keep him from moving up the maritime hierarchy and he tells readers that religious tracts for sailors are vital to his final religious awakening and conversion. In order to accomplish their goals reformists echo the language of Cooper, choosing to understand sailors as misunderstood romantic heroes, rather than children or emasculated patriarchs unable to provide support for their families. This enables them to designate sailors as people worth their attention with onshore families deserving of aid.

The clearly defined division of responsibility between the Boston Port Society and the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society meant that female reformers rarely interacted with sailors, usually just with their families. The divide between women who made up the society and those they were trying to help, like that between Myers and his audience, made it far easier for these women to romanticize these men. Their annual reports and publications repeatedly evoke the image of poor, destitute sailors who “brave dangers, and often meet death in the prosecution of voyages that enrich our merchants and give prosperity and glory to our country.” 7 The women of the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society employ the same tactics as Cooper and Myers when they frame the sailor figure as a generally well-meaning individual whose misdeeds are a by-product of ignorance and misfortune, rather than bad character.

Only by romanticizing the figure of the sailor can the Boston Seamen Aid Society make an environmental critique of capitalist, mercantile American society within nineteenth-century ideologies of Christian charity and individual liberty. The Boston Seamen’s Aid Society relied upon this critique for their work, thus making the rhetoric of the romantic, misunderstood sailor vital to the underlying mission of the Society and antebellum maritime reform in general. Society members implored Americans to remember, “humble as seems the vocation of the sailor we should not forget that it is productive of the most important benefits to the community.” 8 As such, the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society was more critical of the labor system that kept the sailor and his family in poverty than it was of the sailor himself. There are occasional lamentations about the questionable character of seamen and the “drunken husband” with whom industrious wives had to “share the hard-earned pittance”; however, more often seamen were romanticized in order to demonize the society that forced them to work aboard ships under terrible conditions for low wages with an abundance of temptation, 9 all of which are echoed by Myers in his narrative.

The beginning of the Fifth Annual Report illustrates this critique, as Society members explored how far a typical seamen’s wage of $18 per month (which they acknowledged was on the high end of average for that period) went to support a family of three (wife and two children) who were left on shore. After outfitting, and with months between pay days, a sailor had only nine dollars to provide his family with during his absence. The Society does not berate the seamen for leaving his family in such destitution, but rather deplores the economic state of American society in order to shame the men and women who would allow this impoverishment of families to happen. They tell readers “the thirst for riches is the biggest sin of Americans” that drove a labor system that devalued work of both the sailor and his family. The sailor is portrayed as a man forced from his natural role of family patriarch/virtuous citizen and “engaged in extending the commerce, and promoting the prosperity of their country.” 10 While the sailor toils away on the ocean in order to further the commercial interests of his country, the economic system of that same country works against him and his family. Thus, despite the narrow focus of the society’s mission, their rhetorical project of rehabilitation and romance also functions as a larger social critique.

Myers borrows the language of the reform societies when crafting his own narrative, closely echoing the sentiments of their annual reports and publications in order to advocate on behalf of his profession, types of works with which he must have been familiar given references to these sources in his narrative. In doing so, he compels readers to bear witness to his moral reformation and religious conversation as a way of critiquing a society that insists on viewing the sailor as a man incapable of “command[ing] self-respect that property is apt to create” (Cooper 166). The nature of Myers’ occupation means that his wealth and capacity for rational, moral thinking is not always visible to {55} those on shore. Through the narration of his on and off shore experiences, Myers illustrates the danger of assuming that a sailor on land is the same as a sailor at sea. At sea Myers and his fellow shipmates rarely drink in excess and regularly illustrate superior reasoning and responsibility. On shore, temptations like excessive drinking, which brings about “the horrors” and dishonest landlords, who encourage excessive spending and drinking lead these same men astray. His narrative suggests that there are dangers that might be avoided if there were other onshore options and expectations. By seeking out resources provided by sailors’ aid societies like “The Sailor’s Retreat, Staten Island,” (Cooper 147) “The Sailor’s Snug Harbor,” (Cooper 163) Sailor’s churches.” (Cooper 150) and “an English prayer book” with “prayers for seamen bound up with it” (Cooper 161), Myers is able to achieve “temperance, abstinence, and a happy frame of mind” (Cooper 160). It is when sailors are held to high expectations by these societies and offered the proper support that they are able to reach their full potential. Myers experience suggests that if society treat sailors like children, they will act like children, which is perhaps one reason why he, Cooper and the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society are so eager to recast the profession.

Romanticized in both fiction and Boston Seamen Aid Society reports the sailor was used as a rhetorical stock character to attract funding for charity projects on behalf of him, his wife and his children. The effectiveness of this rhetorical strategy is evidenced by the initial sales success of Ned Myers in smaller port towns on the east coast and by growing membership numbers and an increase in monetary donations to the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society. By characterizing the sailor as an important member of the community, in spite of his frequent absences, Society members successfully asserted moral justification for their project and critiqued the environmental conditions that made it necessary. Whether this was an intentional rhetorical strategy on the part of female reformers, in the way it was employed by Cooper and Myers, or a naïve understanding of the sailor articulated by sheltered, middle class women, remains unclear from a study of the annual reports. What is clear, however, is that members of the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society were able to use the Romantic figure of the sailor to enact real changes in physical living conditions for him, his wife and his family as well as change public opinion about these men. This suggests an important role that literary figures like James Fenimore Cooper and sailors like Ned Myers played in shaping culture of the early Republic.

Works Cited

  • Blum, Hester. The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. Chapel Hill, NC: The U of North Carolina P, 2008. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Ned Myers; or, a Life Before the Mast. Lexington, KY: Aeterna Publishing, 2010. Print.
  • Frye, Northrop. A Study of English Romanticism. New York: Random House, 1968. Print.
  • Gilje, Paul A. Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture on the Age of Revolution. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Print.
  • Lemisch, Jesse. ” Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America.” William and Mary Quarterly (1968): 371-407. Print.


1 Marcus Rediker also provides an extensive in-depth analysis of the seaman as an exploited wage laborer struggling under oppressive, paternalistic structures in The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

2 “First Annual Report,” 4.

3 Membership of the Boston Port Society is alluded to the in “First Annual Report” of the Boston Seamen’s Aid Society and was confirmed by the meeting minutes of the 1832 meeting of the Boston Port Society published in the “Third Annual Report of the Port Society of the City of Boston and its Vicinity.”

4 “First Annual Report,” 12.

5 “Third Annual Report,” 18.

6 “Eighth Annual Report,” 13.

7 “Third Annual Report,” 19.

8 “Second Annual Report,” 13.

9 “Second Annual Report,” 8.

10 “Second Annual Report,” 13.