James Fenimore Cooper’s Polish Cause

By Bradley A. Lenz (Independent Scholar)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference:  Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in  The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.1 (Whole No. 83, Spring 2019): 35-40.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Certain facts concerning Poland were well known to Cooper in 1830. Betrayal, usually by sovereigns, was a political circumstance animating the Polish community residing in exile. Prussia, Austria, and Russia partitioned Poland for the first time in 1772. The second partition was in 1792 and the third in 1794. Facts surrounding Poland’s oppression were well established by the time Cooper gained an international reputation. Partitions started an economic war that was meant to cripple the practical functioning of basic trade within Poland. The partition represented a political act meant to strip monetary power from Poland’s soil. In 1793, the six largest Warsaw banks became insolvent. Though the Congress of Vienna had restored many national boundaries, Poland’s identity was maintained only by Polish resistance to foreign rule.

In a letter to Charles King, editor of the New-York American, marked July 29, 1830, Cooper noted, “This letter was written in Saxony, but the revolution which was consummated in Paris, on the day of its date, induced me to come post haste, to the capital of Europe” (Beard 1:433). Cooper did not want to miss out on witnessing the revolution in Paris. In the first part of August, Mrs. Cooper and the family went on a short sojourn to Switzerland while Cooper headed toward Paris. By August 15, 1830, Cooper had news to relay to his wife, “All is quiet in France, and promises to remain so. La Fayette has yielded to necessity, and the Bourbonites have done the same thing. Charles X is nearly forgotten” (Beard 1:435). A three-day revolutionary event in Paris had consequences for other geographical regions. The revolution in Paris would inspire political revolt in Poland.

Cooper recognized Italy was a geographical region with no galvanizing national character. He understood Germany represented a region and people with severely limited civil rights. Poland represented a geographical region with a national identity and no civil rights. Cooper understood the political arrangement in Europe could not survive as it was. Revolution was as likely as war. War would eventually erupt between Russia and Poland.

Paris was quiet while the east stirred. Events in Paris had direct ramifications on Poland’s resistance movement. R.F. Leslie notes, “suddenly the whole situation changed in the second half of 1830. Revolution broke out in Paris and a state of suppressed excitement was evident in Warsaw, for France was, for the younger generation, still the France of the Revolutionary epoch and of Napoleon, which might once [36] again take up a policy of expansion” (117-118). The notion of expansion, for many Poles, was a general reference to a people’s liberty based on the fairness of political and economic representation. Simple democratic representation was hoped for in its most basic form.

Piotr Wysocki was a key conspirator whose actions were necessary for the November insurrection in Poland. Cadets in the Polish Army, of 1829, were frustrated by the prospects of perpetual inaction. However, literary circles that influenced and often mingled with Army cadets successfully circulated ideas concerning the dignity of a free Poland. Through June of 1830, political inaction remained the hallmark of conspirators circulating around Wysocki. Eventually, news of July’s revolution in Paris swept Poland and inspired a renewed resolve for action in Warsaw.

A problem for the revolutionary conspirators arose as Pavlovich Constantine, grand duke of Russia, was informed of a possible plot. Relationships between students and the Army eventually would reveal Wysocki’s guilty instigations. Wysocki realized that time was not on his side and action was needed. Leslie states, “The original date for the rising had been 10 December, but the news that Constantine had received instructions from St. Petersburg to draw up a list of suspects and make arrests compelled him to arrange the revolt for 29 November” (121). The new date was significant because the 4 th Regiment, where conspiratorial membership was concentrated, held responsibility for defending Warsaw’s public buildings that day.

Warsaw’s military coup quickly took on the attributes of a comedy of errors. At first most of the civilian conspirators backed away. Preparations for the eventuality of fire, in Warsaw, foiled the beginning signal of the insurrection. Leslie relates, “The signal, the burning of a brewery, was bungled; the fire picket put it out. Only fourteen civilians appeared where fifty had been promised for the attack on the Belvedere Palace, which failed because the attackers did not stay long enough to seek out Constantine” (121). Military and civilian leaders all but ignored Wysocki’s plea for action.

In 1830, Poland’s grain production was in abject failure. The production of spirits and beer suffered under the new price of manufacturing and costs were passed on to consumers. No one in the military recognized the price of vodka and beer could act as a catalyst for revolutionary rebellion. On November 29, the prices of beer and vodka had been raised. It was a Monday, traditionally a day for drunken antics. The new price of beer and vodka was seen as a scandal that enraged the populace. Both conspirators and any number of Army officers [37] were taken aback. Anger generated by the new pricing of beer and vodka was not foreseen by the conspiratorial movement either.

General workers recognized the military was involved in the uprising and joined in the distribution of over 20,000 rifles from the arsenal to arm Warsaw’s population. Soldiers were further angered that regimental colonels had been allotted half their subordinates pay for food rationing. The mob broke into shops and helped themselves to vodka. Soldiers quickly joined in the drunken brawl. Officers lost control of their men. What had started as, at best, poorly executed military insurrection had become a fervent revolution characterized by a popular revolt. It is important to note, revolutionary conspirators quickly forgot social justice and took to emphasizing Poland’s independence.

Real war with Russia ensued and many thousands lost their lives. Almost a year later armed Polish resistance would be quelled by Russian force. Ultimately, Wysocki was widely recognized as a Polish national hero. On October 18, 1831, Nicholas I issued a manifesto to the Russian Empire announcing the end of hostilities and marking an end to the November Revolution. Through all, the potential independence of Poland had become the driving force that focused generations to follow. Two and a half months before the emperor of Russia Nicholas I released his manifesto, J. F. Cooper had issued a plea to help Poland.

Printed at Paris in 1831, Contributions for the Poles is a short piece that is easily ignored or misconstrued as less relevant in comparison to his fiction. However, Contributions for the Poles marks an important attempt at shaping public opinion without the use of fictional narratives.

On July 9, 1831, in Paris, Cooper chaired a meeting of the American Polish Committee. Lafayette was absent, though he regularly attended and certainly enhanced the credibility and profile of the Committee meetings. For Cooper an important resolution was adopted: “That an address in behalf of the Poles be made to the American People” (Beard 2:123). Cooper elected to write the address. Contributions for the Poles only ever appeared once as a Folio imprint in Paris. This edition was for the ex-pat community. Contributions for the Poles enjoyed wide circulation in America in the first week of September 1831, courtesy of the American press.

Describing the Committee proceedings to Lafayette on July 10, 1831, Cooper asked, “You will see that I had the honor to preside, and that it has become my duty, as the organ of the meeting, to request you will consent to receive, not only our own contributions, but any others [38] that may be the consequences of our efforts, and to remit them to the fine people for whom they are intended” (Beard 2:122). Lafayette willingly executed the duties allotted him by the American Polish Committee. Many individuals participated. However, the celebrity presence that Lafayette and Cooper provided, garnered credibility and publicity to the Polish cause.

America did respond. The circulation of Contributions for the Poles in American newspapers disseminated arguments that inspired political action. Lafayette wrote Cooper on October 22, 1831, about the result of his address, “on the subject of the Polish cause, committees, for the benefit and furtherance of that cause, have been formed in New York, Boston, and other places in the United States. I have already received a large sum of money from New York, a subscription from the young men of Boston, and another from the West Point Academy” (Beard 2:129). The service of Kosciuszko to America was not forgotten by West Point cadets. A network of individuals was drawn upon to help Lafayette distribute the collected resources. Cooper had produced a political tract that enjoyed wide readership. Contributions for the Poles successfully argued for the Polish cause in America.

Contributions for the Poles was primarily an argument designed for American consumption. The argument is a straight appeal to common sentimentalities. Cooper notes, within the address, “In the course of ages families swell into communities, and from intimate relations of origin, language and usages are derived the feelings and interests that bind a people together. Next to the tie of blood that which unites man to his country is the strongest. The sentiment of patriotism is among the purest that adorns human nature” (Beard 2:124). Americans could identify with the brand of patriotism that Cooper described, as the natural state of human relations, embodied within all notions of nationhood.

Christian values served as another generality that Cooper used to forge the commonalities uniting the Polish cause and the interests of an American populace. Cooper beseeched, “Such a fate, befalling the smallest community, would be entitled to, and we are certain it would awaken, your pity, but when Poland was overcome the fifth power of Christendom was trodden upon” (Beard 2:124). Religion, so often used to divide sentiments, was used to unite a general set of perceived values America and Poland shared. Cooper implored, “People of America! You, too, are accused of living in the midst of anarchy and lawless confusion — You are said to be tired of liberty — you are reviled as forgetting God” (Beard 2:125). The rhetoric Cooper employed was [39] polemic and meant to appeal to passions that inspire emotion.

Poland is described in Contributions for the Poles as one of the most progressive and free territories feudal Europe ever issued. His address provided Americans with more aphorism than logical argument. The partition of Poland is vaguely described as a primary grievance. Cooper argues, “When Poland was subdued, by far the larger portion of her territory became subject to a people less advanced in civilization than her own citizens. She was thus excluded from the only solace of defeat, and was doomed to witness the gradual decay of those arts and opinions which form the basis of all national prosperity” (Beard 2:125-6). Oppression, and subjugation, of cultural endeavors was perceived as a shared grievance. Curiously, Cooper denies his address is propaganda; though it clearly is.

Appealing to American vanity was Cooper’s primary proposition. Cooper reminds the American people, “You dread no enemies, you anticipate no famines, you hold at command every bounty which a beneficent Providence has lavished upon man. The self-denial and hardships of your ancestors are requited to their descendants in a tenfold return of peace, security and happiness. To you, then, do we apply to contribute from your abundance, to the urgent wants of this wronged nation” (Beard 2:126). America is presented, to its own people, in Contributions for the Poles as an anointed example of human freedoms to the nations of the earth. Cooper’s America provided a blueprint for the eradication of monarchal powers; an example set for all oppressed peoples to follow. Fighting for freedom was a morally sanctioned expression of human rights, a privilege of existence. Cooper appealed, “Let it not be said, that, while cold and heartless traffickers in the dearest of human rights are combining their means to overwhelm twenty millions of men struggling and worthy to be free, that thirteen millions animated by the same qualities looked coldly on because an ocean lay between them” (Beard 2:127). The American Revolution set an example for people resisting arbitrary hegemonic powers and the tyranny of hereditary monarchy. It rendered natural allies between American sentiments and Poland’s struggle for freedom.

Aware of the political implications implicit in his writing, Cooper’s Contributions for the Poles awkwardly sought to placate Russia. Cooper admits, “We do not deny, on the contrary we have pleasure in publishing, that Russia, by her wisdom, foresight, and liberality, has established lasting claims on the friendship and esteem of America. There are numerous interests to keep them friends; there are some [40] which might easily render them allies” (Beard 2:127). Yet, Nicholas I and the Princes of Russia are absolved because, according to Cooper, they are victims of the ideological errors perpetrated by their predecessors. In his appeal, Cooper evokes appeals to political ethics, providential morality, and principle. At the end of Contributions for the Poles, Cooper refrained the plea for all to maintain liberty. Certainly, Cooper regarded America as a powerful and politically influential nation.

Politically oriented non-fiction relates Cooper’s ideological dedication to principles first codified by radical Enlightenment figures like Thomas Paine. Principally, Cooper espoused an ideology looking to replace the hegemonic systems of aristocracy and hereditary monarchy in Europe, with American style democracy. Of all his non-fiction, Contributions for the Poles merits special attention because it signals Cooper’s polemic and activist participation in events before and after the November Revolution of 1830. Inspired by the Polish cause, Cooper explored political writing as a vehicle for deliberately disseminating his ideological critique of European culture and government.

Works Cited

  • Beard, James Franklin, ed. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Vols. 1 & 2. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960. Print.
  • Leslie, R.F. Polish Politics and the Revolution of November 1830. London: University of London, The Athlone Press, 1956. Print.