The Manumission and Suffrage Laws of the State of New York as Portrayed in The Pioneers

Ann L. von Mehren (Bowling Green State University)

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): 57-72.

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

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

The Pioneers, Or the Sources of the Susquehanna, opens with a perspective on the headwaters’ landscape at “the centre of the State of New York” (1). Author James Fenimore Cooper records the timeframe for his vantage point as beginning in 1783 because “only forty years have passed since this territory was a wilderness.” For the author and his immediate readers, the year is 1823, the year when the book was published, a date that Cooper’s footnote establishes is important to any reading of the work (2). During this forty-year period, Cooper writes that the countryside has become populated with “a moral and reflecting people” who are “under the dominion of mild laws” (3).

In this paper, I offer a new way to look at how the novel’s specified timeframe, from 1783 to 1823, existed relative to the factual history of New York’s not-so-mild manumission and suffrage laws enacted over this period. That is, I think that understanding what happened in the state legislature in Albany throughout these years, 1783 to 1823, dates deliberately specified by Cooper, illuminates the New York context for the novel. This leads to new conclusions on what Cooper intended for his two black characters, Aggy and Brom, as participants in the pioneering activities setting up new communities within New York state. To consider these characters, I use the terms “black” and “African-American” interchangeably, because I think the different source materials use such terms equivalently.

Law Themes in The Pioneers

Scholars have long noticed how The Pioneers offers a complex narrative about law. These critics have addressed many of the legal themes evident in the text. However, no scholarship has focused exclusively on the debate in New York over manumission and suffrage rights for African-Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as being an important source for Cooper’s delineation of his two black characters, as I hope to do here.

There are many scholars who have overlooked New York state legislative law and concentrate, focusing instead on a wider philosophical idea of law underlying Cooper’s many references to law. For these scholars, including John P. McWilliams, Jr., Geoffrey Rans, and Charles Hansford Adams, the law under discussion is “a deeply laid American principle” (Rans 93) or “intimately connected with the very idea of the nation” (Adams 3). Many of the mid-twentieth century [58] literary studies of Cooper’s use of law derive from studies of the American national character found in the work of Perry Miller, especially his The Life of the Mind in America (1965).

In the general legalistic interpretations of The Pioneers, scholars have pointed out how two famously competing legal theories are debated in The Pioneers. Natty Bumppo, also known as the Leatherstocking, represents the side of natural law and Judge Marmaduke Temple advocates for society’s governmental laws. A typical example of the adversarial dynamic between the two characters occurs when Marmaduke finds Natty guilty of hunting out of season by explaining, “I must be governed by the law,” and Natty interrupts, “Talk not to me of law, Marmaduke Temple. ... Did the beast of the forest mind your laws ... ?” (384).

Within each side, there is discussion of different applications of the law. For example, Natty’s concerns include whether game and conservation laws need to be observed as legislated or whether he has right by legal precedent to hunt and fish where and when he will. Natty also advocates for Native American Indians having precedent rights to continue to hunt and gather in the forests without respect to settlers’ law of any sort. Judge Temple and his European-settler cohort repeatedly debate how legislative codes and courtroom judgments should be upheld, and they also engage the classic question of whether society should be governed solely by common-law precedent, meaning the imported customs of the historic British law statutes developed by the New York state legislature. Cooper makes clear that the onerous burden of the British colonial past still imposes on early New York communal society: “The punishments of the common law were still known, at the time of our tale, to the people of New York” (385).

Donald Ringe summarizes the general critical awareness of the legal tropes in The Pioneers:

The judge’s recourse is to civil law, the law of society, which he hopes to bring into accord with the moral law that Leatherstocking is following his relations with nature. He is pleased to see the state legislature establishing seasons for the taking of game, and he hopes eventually to make it a crime to cut trees wantonly (p. 174). He enforces the law for the protection of deer with unswerving rigidity, and he demands that the forms of society be respected even though the law be administered for selfish aims by unworthy officers. (35)

Like Ringe, a number of critics immediately mention the legislature in Albany, New York for laws they see operating in Cooper’s text. Charles [59] Swann gives a detailed analysis of game laws contained in New York legislative acts of 1788 and 1798; Anna Scannavini elaborates on such game and conservation laws relevance to the early twenty-first century’s emphasis on environmental protection law. Wayne Franklin, among many others, explains how New York’s property and land laws shape Cooper’s concerns. Franklin in particular has gone in-depth into how the Cooper family’s involvement in real-estate transactions in central New York, and how James Fenimore Cooper’s involvement in several lawsuits related to that real-estate business or to his own publishing contracts shaped Cooper’s articulation of his many ideas on property law.

A more recent critic who has given extensive thought to Cooper’s treatment of slavery is Ezra Tawil, who asserts that Cooper wrote about slavery in the historical romance genre because “historical romances provided the culture with a new way of thinking about, explaining, and even defending the institution of slavery” (n.p.). The supposed defense of the institution comes, Tawil argues, through engaging “issues central to the crisis of slavery without discussing it as such.” Tawil quotes from the U.S. Constitution and accompanying debates about slavery at the federal level in the late eighteenth-century, but he does not bring in any New York State-specific debate or legal texts as examples of the issues that he contends are Cooper’s. Furthermore, Tawil insists on analyzing what he considers to be Cooper’s invisible content, which he has decided exists in the text:

The Pioneers thus reformulated the terms of political debate and provided a narrative logic capable of overcoming the contradictions of American slavery. What was most powerful about it, however, was it did so without talking about slavery as such. (n.p.)

This insistence on something being in the text about slavery, which exists only if a late-twentieth-century scholar is there to explain its existence, is, I submit, something Tawil reads into the text. I think there is no doubt that Cooper gives this historical romance an actual and explicit, not implicit or hidden, focus on slavery.

While all of the above scholars have contributed many valuable, original views, I believe that, since Cooper is so clear that The Pioneers is set in the center of New York, only laws made within the State of New York during the specified timeframe can lead to an accurate interpretation of the significance of the novel’s treatment of its black characters. Cooper conveys scenes whose plot tensions derive from [60] open knowledge of real contradictions and tensions in New York laws relative to manumission and slavery.

The Pioneers’ Forty-Year Timeframe

“Forty years before,” as the novel opens, in 1783, the Revolutionary War was coming to a successful close. The state constitutions and laws created subsequent to the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 were thus guaranteed. Since New York’s first constitution was forged at a conference held in 1777, the close of the Revolutionary War in 1783 guaranteed the legality of New York’s Constitution, which would not be revised until 1821.

Addressing the public demand to curtail slavery in the state, the New York legislature passed an act in 1785 that prohibited the sale of persons as slaves in New York. Therefore, when The Pioneers begins, in 1783, the legal sale of black persons as property still exists in the State of New York. Then, the immediate leap to 1793 means the hurdle of immorally selling individuals into slavery is past. Nonetheless, slavery still exists, because the time the novel opens is six years before the legislative act known as the Gradual Emancipation Law of 1799, which gave freedom to the children of slaves — eventual freedom, not immediate freedom.

The Gradual Emancipation Law of 1799 caused extensive, ongoing public debate about slavery in New York that was not quieted until 1817, when the New York legislature provided for the ultimate abolition of slavery inside the state by 1827. However, as related by historian Patrick Rael, the Gradual Emancipation Law of 1799 did not manumit any New York slaves. Rael explains:

The 1799 law, in short, did not end slavery but rather initiated a new struggle for freedom. Under abolitionist pressure, antislavery lawmakers chipped away at the slaveholders’ prerogatives and, in 1817, at the urging of Governor Daniel Tompkins, the legislature agreed that on July 4, 1827, all those promised freedom by the Gradual Emancipation Law would be free. Still, those black men and women not covered by the 1799 law remained in bondage, and slavery survived in New York for another two decades. (17-18)

Of course, with the novel set in the year 1793, Cooper’s characters do not know about the 1799 law, but Cooper’s first New York readers in 1823 definitely did.

It is relevant here to note that Rans argues that Cooper’s readers, then and now, must be presumed aware of such time-bound history when reading The Pioneers: [61]

This is immediately apparent in chapter 1, as a dialogue is established between an idealized agrarian “present” (1823) of peaceful achievement and an actual past that has produced the present — a dialogue that must make the reader wonder about the security of that idealization. The historical questions raised by the opening episode dominate the entire novel and, more immediately, produce an enormous delay of the plot as the historical problems assert their priority. History relentlessly deforms and problematizes the forms Cooper puts to use. Even if we accept the insistence of Wayne Franklin and others on the personal, biographical drive of Cooper’s art — the importance of his loss of property and patrimony — it is equally true that those personal experiences are the product of historical forces that Cooper objectifies from the outset. (50)

As Hugh C. McDougall says, though, it is important to remember that The Pioneers is a novel and a work of fiction because Cooper’s novels were not “intended as a sociological or historical study.” It is obvious, as both Rans and MacDougall would agree, that since Cooper pens historical fiction, he takes all the liberties in his fictional rendering that the genre allows, while simultaneously depending on factual history to tell his stories. Although fiction, Cooper’s novel is “an extraordinarily useful fiction” for understanding American history, as MacDougall quotes Wayne Franklin (1).

In the early 1820s, the historical problem and lingering question is the extent to which New York’s 1821 Constitutional Convention would lead to the denial of the suffrage to New York’s thousands of free blacks citizens (see Charles Z. Lincoln’s study for the census data used by the state assembly). There was visceral public debate, with the winning side ultimately agreeing with the viewpoint expressed by Mordecai Noah, editor of the popular New York City paper, the National Advocate, that, given the elective franchise, the increasing black vote would become “available for sale to every corrupt political boss in the city” (Rael 139). Opinions and reports about the 1821 convention were available in all the New York papers, which gave extensive coverage to the years-long debate over the proposal to add a property requirement for African-American suffrage.

Brook Thomas provides a unique look at how the idea of property under discussion for revision would have been important to Cooper. However, Thomas, who offers so many valuable insights on the legal content of The Pioneers, notes the suffrage debate surprisingly without [62] mention of the major result, which is that the introduction of a property-ownership requirement affected only black citizens.

Thomas does offers excellent insight on how on how a key legislator, Chancellor James Kent, a personal friend of both Cooper and his father William Cooper, served as the role model for Judge Temple in The Pioneers:

In imaging his famous character [Temple], Cooper could have drawn on a legal philosophy similar to that of New York’s most famous judge. Kent’s speeches at the 1821 convention were described even by his opponents as an ‘elegant epitaph’ for the old constitution. ... For him the threat of rule by the passions was associated with the threat of rule by a specific group of people — those without property. The threat could be controlled so long as government remained in the hands of those with property. [Kent argued] the tendency of universal suffrage is to jeopardize the rights of property, and the principles of liberty. (24)

Indeed, Thomas uncovers why the suffrage would matter to Cooper in a personal as well as historical way, beyond the Cooper family friendship with Kent. As a historical footnote, then, Thomas contributes to understanding that James Fenimore Cooper cared about suffrage laws because, as a member of a prominent New York family member in 1821, and not yet an author, he bore the burden of his family’s past transgressions. William Cooper had actually fixed votes in the 1792 election in Cooperstown, New York “in order to deliver up to seven hundred votes for the Federalists, Cooper had threatened tenants with reprisals” (29).

Cooper would also have been interested in this legislative topic because of his own friendship with Peter A. Jay, who was also his personal attorney (Franklin, The Early Years, 237). Peter Jay represented West Chester County at the 1821 Constitutional Convention. In letters to his father, John Jay, written while he attended the session in Albany and soon afterwards, Peter Jay claimed that the new constitution had gone too far in its exclusion of free blacks who did not own sufficient property from the general suffrage. Historian Charles Z. Lincoln relates how, at the Convention, Peter Jay moved to strike out the word “white” from the revision as to who should be given voting rights. His motion was initially carried by a vote of 63 to 59. Ultimately, however, Peter Jay’s initiative failed, and the majority of the Convention adhered to the property test for only African-American voters. When the exclusion of [63] freed blacks with less than $250 in taxable property was approved, the New York Constitution read:

An African-American voter must have been a resident of the state three years, and for one year seized or possessed of a freehold estate worth $250, over and above all debts charged thereon, and on which estate he had paid a tax. (Lincoln n.p.)

Of further note, the revised Constitution included a tax incentive for New York’s free blacks not to accumulate taxable property to achieve the suffrage threshold: African-Americans were made exempt from direct taxation on property valued at less than $250. As David N. Gellman and David Quigley point out, the 1821 constitution imposed the beginning of unequal treatment of free blacks in New York State:

Disenfranchisement narrowed the dimension of black freedom and encouraged other nonpolitical forms of exclusion. ... Pre-1821 New York ... was a slave society; as such, there was little legal provision for separation of the races. By the middle of the nineteenth century, segregation had become the preferred method of dealing with emancipation. African-American New Yorkers knew that this growing segregation had many causes, but few disputed the idea that the property qualification of 1821 was especially important. (202)

I argue that Cooper’s novel is arguably manifest with his ideas about the status of blacks in New York State because its publication so closely follows from the 1821 Convention. For an explanation why such an interpretation has been neglected by the legions of Cooper scholars, I reference one offered by James D. Wallace, who in 1992 suggested that “whenever Cooper wrote directly about slavery, he did it so awkwardly and with such obvious discomfort that most readers have politely averted their eyes and asked about something else” (1). Be that as it may, rather than blame Cooper for awkwardness or inadequacy in his depiction of enslaved blacks, I suggest it would be more accurate and productive now to place the allegation of awkwardness on mid-twentieth-century scholars, rather than on Cooper in his time. Much of the fault lies in their not knowing relevant history. Once we know the history, we may keep a level gaze on the novel and see its value to the study of slavery and Jim Crow in New York, as well as to African-American history and literature.

Research Improvements in New York State Historical Archives

The Internet has first of all made it much easier to access archives and therefore offers rich new resources for African-American historical [64] and literary investigations. Charles Z. Lincoln’s 1906 five-volume treatment of the history of the New York Constitution, which is available online through the Internet Archive, gives today’s scholars immediate access to an older-generation’s knowledge. Furthermore, archeological and historical discoveries in recent years have finally been funded, through public demand, to know more about African-Americans forgotten or intentionally left out of New York State’s historical and literary scholarship.

Upon the discovery of the African Burial Ground in Manhattan in October 1991, the New York public was dismayed that there was almost nothing in the historical record, almost nothing in any relevant New York City archives, such as official maps or governmental files, that remembered the Burial Ground, the main African cemetery from the 1660s until 1794. Controversy over what to do with this sacred place went on for years, with the enduring result being the creation of the African Burial Ground National Monument in 2007. As a result, government and non-profit organization funding sponsored original research into New York archives to locate and then publish more information. Significantly, historians Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris edited a thick compilation of scholarly articles titled Slavery in New York, published in 2005 by The New Press, which totally credits the discovery of the African Burial Ground for their research and publication.

In addition to this recently opened access to important archives and records, and the initiatives to see such research funded and published, it has become possible, through the New York State Historic Newspapers project online, to peruse all of the state’s newspapers of the era on its website, It is easy now to substantiate how legislators’ views and public attitudes about property law and slavery addressed at the 1821 Convention were in wide circulation at the time. Everywhere in the state, from Albany to the New York City area to the Susquehanna region, New York state citizens without a doubt could and did follow the extensive coverage that newspapers gave to the debate over whether a property requirement should be introduced into New York suffrage laws.

Such new access to key documents from New York state history can flesh out our understanding of what Cooper really drew on when writing scenes containing African-American characters. Once known, all this recent scholarship offers important background knowledge that makes The Pioneers eye opening for its inclusion of black characters as representations of New York’s manumission and suffrage laws from 1793 through 1823. [65]

Cooper’s Legalistic Characterizations of African-Americans

Chapter I begins with the character named Agamemnon, nicknamed Aggy, who is the first character introduced in the novel. Aggy enters the scene as a “driver” of a sleigh, who is “a negro, of apparently twenty years of age” (Pioneers 4). Aggy is owned by Judge Temple’s cousin, Richard Jones, but works for the Judge. Most scholars, when they have not averted their eyes as Wallace says, are like Rans, who describes Aggy as “surely inessential to any plot in the work” (71). Why Aggy may be inessential to his society is in fact made clear by Cooper: “There is Aggy, he can’t vote, being a slave” (Pioneers 11). Yet Aggy is surely essential to the conflict in the plot from the opening scene, where Aggy is the first character introduced. He is immediately defined as the capable handler of the four horses and sleigh. Judge Temple and his daughter Elizabeth are Aggy’s two passengers. At the sound of hounds, Judge Temple orders Aggy to “hold up,” which the driver does skillfully. In contrast, when Richard Jones appears, driving his own sleigh in Chapter III, he causes near panic among his passengers for how close he gets his team and sleigh go to the edge of the mountain when he turns his sleigh:

Richard had to meet the additional risk of turning his four-in hand. The black civilly volunteered his services to take off the leaders, and the Judge very earnestly seconded the measure with his advice. Richard treated both proposals with great disdain. (36)

There is considerable irony in this scene where Aggy must hold back and not take over the reins from the less capable Richard Jones. Aggy must defer to Jones because of his enslaved status. However, the white man, though his legal ownership allows him to dominate and disdain the black man, evidently knows from what the Judge advises that Aggy is the better driver.

The importance of Aggy shown to be better at driving the sleigh to the opening scene is underscored by Cooper’s lengthy footnote in Chapter I, in which Cooper goes into great detail to specify the various types of sleights or “traineau” that are the major form of road transportation in winter in this part of New York (3). Although we know Aggy is driving a four-horse sleigh, Cooper goes into minute description of one- and two-horse variations. Presumably, any reader in the timeframe of the novel’s publication, 1823, would also know that in summertime, all of these types of sleighs would be converted to or replaced by wheeled carriages or carts, with similar requirements for [66] excellent teamsters. Yet, the laws of New York in the early nineteenth century discriminated against black teamsters.

As Ira Berlin explains in his 1998 study Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, through the country, “slaves played an especially large role in the carrying trade, as boatmen and wagoners” (56). In the Mississippi River states, for example, slaves “found employment and a measure of independence in the cartage trades” (201). Yet, according to Graham R. Hodges, in an essay in Berlin and Harris’s Slavery in New York, black freemen were by law kept out of the carting trade in New York City. In actuality, there was legally codified discrimination within New York State against black workers that was unlike discrimination and racism in other states. Hodges gives in-depth treatment to the legal discrimination and segregation against black teamsters in his 1986 history, New York City Carmen, 1667-1850, and also in his 1998 collection of essays, Slavery, Freedom & Culture among Early American Workers. One public concern in Cooper’s time was the extent to which the mostly English carter tradesmen could discriminate against free blacks, Irish, and other ethnic groups’ entrance into the carting trade; whether slavery also caused society harm by restricting excellence and endangering safe passage on the roads seems to be an obvious part of Cooper’s overall focus in this opening scene.

Aggy is also shown in the opening scene as an individually distinctive character, who yet is representative of African-Americans collectively, through the extensive detail Cooper gives about how Aggy reacts to the cold weather. Cooper closely observes the effect of how “the keen frost of those regions always extracted from one of his African origin,” with close attention to the fact that “his face, which nature had colored with a glistening black, was now mottled with the cold, and his large shining eyes filled with tears” (Pioneers 4). Cooper also observes how, bringing the sleigh he is skillfully driving to a halt, “drew up, with a cheerful grin upon his chilled features, and began thrashing his arms together, in order to restore the circulation in his fingers” (7). Cooper’s sympathetic and probing insights on Aggy’s, and all blacks, susceptibility to the cold has been confirmed through scientific studies conducted by the U.S. Army from 1980 to 1999. In that scientific study, African-American subjects were found to begin shivering and sustain Cold Weather Injuries (CWI) three to six times more than Caucasians in similar positions, with the conclusion drawn that the cause was from differing physiological susceptibilities to hypothermia, frostbite and other cold induced injury (Giesbrecht and Wilkerson). [67]

Philip Kadish, in “Race-Science Rhetoric as Political Panacea: James Fenimore Cooper’s Influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe,” notes that Cooper’s recording of black hypothermia could also have been based on Cooper’s knowledge of the race-science theories of the Comte de Buffon. Kadish calls the above passage recording Aggy’s reaction to the cold a “Buffonian assertion” (27). Kadish argues that Cooper “exercised a great deal of creative latitude in the selective application and combination of various theories as suited his racial-political objectives” (26). However, I suggest that is Kadish’s imposition of his own ideas of authorial motivation. In contradistinction to Kadish, I would argue that Cooper would have relied most of all on his personal knowledge of and his personal relationships to black men in the immediate environment. My conclusion is that Cooper had no objectives other than to record his close observations of a black man’s reaction to weather conditions in central New York State. As a first-rate literary author, Cooper could well indeed have been up-to-date on scientific theory current in his day, but I think it is unreasonable to then consider than he would delineate characters by blindly applying a French scientist’s ideas. The passage that supposedly contains Buffonian ideas most of all shows a black character reacting to cold weather conditions. Thankfully, the late twentieth-century U.S. Army study proves the scientific truth for black reactions to CWI that Cooper so astutely observes and records.

Apart from that insightful observation, Cooper offers the nuanced Aggy character to show the black individual engaged in the racial struggle to be his own man, even though the laws of the State of New York forbid him from being his own master. With great, heartful depth given the character Aggy, Cooper probes deeply into the real meaning of the relationship of master-and-slave in the scenes surrounding the dog, Brave, who is at first introduced as belonging to a white master, Judge Temple. Brave is ostensibly the Temple family dog, who has “served your master well,” high praise given by Temple’s daughter Elizabeth (Pioneers 294). Be that as it may, nominally accurate, the real truth emerges about who the real “master” of the dog is, when Brave is killed. Neither the Judge nor his daughter, but Aggy the black slave, was Brave’s master. Aggy is equated to a dog at the opening of Chapter XXXII, but alone among the people attached to Brave, only he mourns the loss of Brave. Only he wants to do the decent, ritual burial. Only he cries. Cooper credits Aggy’s emotional depth of character as making him the dog’s true owner, the real master: “Here the feelings of the negro completely got the mastery.” Aggy sacrifices his own personal property [68] to ensure that Brave is “decently covered with the greatcoat of the negro” (360). When Richard Jones, Aggy’s owner, but not his master, enters the scene, crying, “What is the meaning of the dead dog?” the meaning has been established (361). Aggy’s emotion, the sacrifice of his clothing, his wish to do what is decent for Brave, all attest to how deeply Cooper explores the meaning of ownership versus mastery. Mastery from 1793 to 1823 is more than possession of chattel. Cooper knows how important ownership and mastery are concepts to any Americans, but especially to those blacks forced to remain in slavery, who will resist and overcome the efforts of white supremists to achieve mastery over them.

Cooper also provides similar opportunity to cast an extensive admiring and/or concerned gaze upon a black man’s self-possession in his characterization of the freed man Abraham Freeborn. In contradistinction to Aggy, Cooper compares a black freedman’s status vis-à-vis whites in the turkey shoot. Abraham Freeborn, nicknamed Brom, is likewise there shown as a distinct individual character, while part of the Templeton community. Watching the shooters, Brom evidences his apprehension that he could lose his property, the turkey. Cooper’s fine depiction of the man is especially worth noting for his vivid use of color imagery that arises in black cultural discourse even to the present day:

His skin became mottled with large brown spots, that fearfully sullied the lustre of his native ebony, while his enormous lips gradually compressed around two rows of ivory, that had hitherto been shining in his visage, like pearls set in jet. His nostrils, at all times the most conspicuous features of his face, dilated, until they covered the greater part of the diameter of his countenance; while his brown and bony hands unconsciously grasped the snow-crust near him, the excitement of the moment completely overcoming his native dread of cold. (181)

Another fascinating exposition by Cooper about the specifically African qualities of a black character is offered in the scene where Brom is so worried about being forced to give Natty Bumppo a free turn when Natty’s gun “snaps” or misfires. The turkey shoot is Brom’s business, his means of income, his means of acquiring property. While Brom does not handle guns, he does handle the turkey, his property. As a result, Brom should be equal to any property owner on the scene, whether their ownership of property means slaves, guns, land, or business. Yet, only by calling for a white man, appealing to the slave owner Richard Jones, to make the judgment, does the freeborn Brom earn and maintain his right to charge another shilling. [69]

Thus, over the course of the more than ten pages, Cooper heightens the scene’s tension by returning to the issue of whether Brom is going to earn his shillings from the various shooters. The conflict in the scene arises not from the ongoing dispute between Natty’s natural forest law and Temple’s institutional definitions of the rule of common law or legislative statutes, but from whether the white property owners are going to deny the freeborn black man his right to earn his income. Natty’s shocking threat to “hit a nigger ... if you don’t get out of the way, Brom,” does not appear to phase the black man. Brom sticks to the fact that he must again get paid:

“Gib a nigger fair play!” cried the black, who continued resolutely to maintain his post, and making that appeal to the justice of his auditors, which the degraded condition of his caste so naturally suggested. (183)

Cooper shows that the real threat to the black man is the interference in his business review potential. He might be degraded by the whites by being prevented from the opportunity to conduct his business. However, Brom is willing to take a stand that he is allowed to earn his living. In Cooper’s New York, business income, taxable earnings, was the only way a black free man could show the income necessary to obtain the suffrage. While Natty, who consistently tries to disregard statute law, would take another turn for free, the local establishment figures do give the black man fair play, if only because they are charged with upholding the statutes of the State of New York, decide in favor of Brom. Natty’s competitor as an aggressive white man with a gun, Bill Kirby, is willing to give Brom another shilling. When Kirby misses, Brom is once again himself, a black character given individuality and depth for being himself by Cooper:

The shouts of the negro rung through the bushes, and sounded among the trees of the neighboring forest, like the outcries of a tribe of Indians. He laughed, rolling his head, first on one side, then on the other, until nature seemed exhausted with mirth. He danced, until his legs were wearied with motion, in the snow; and, in short, he exhibited all that violence of joy that characterizes the mirth of a thoughtless negro. (184)

I suggest the meaning of “thoughtless” should be considered as “gay, dissipated,” the definition provided in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. I do not believe this fascinating character portrayal can be considered any kind of racially tinged negative depiction. I once again argue that Cooper is a close observer of black cultural traditions of public celebration [70] through dancing, singing, proclaiming, calling out, all traditions still observable among African-Americans today.

Contemporary literary criticism about the “trickster” and other African folk heroes is relevant to see that Cooper has given all of American literature very astute observations of early African-American personalities. For example, Louis Henry Gates, Jr., in The Signifying Monkey, offers sources from Nigerian and other African national folklore that may best explain Brom’s celebratory reaction, which means the accomplishment of success and even survival in the face of insults and threats in African tradition (see for example page 62). In addition, John W. Roberts, in From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom, provides insight into the “shout” and “dance” traditions of African-American culture that help explains Cooper’s literary-strength observations as valuing and probing who these characters are, rather than writing with awkwardness or discomfort.

By bringing in such recent scholarship, Cooper’s authorial investment in two complex black characters, Agamemnon and Abraham Freeborn, can be made clear. The two characters are more than simply enslaved or free African-American stick figures around which Cooper writes his ideas. Because of their defined status under the laws of their time, black men were undergoing terrible challenges in the State of New York, and Cooper shows their dilemma. Despite his knowledge of the contestation in Albany over the legal status of blacks, Cooper makes these men much more than representative object lessons about the law. He renders them as compelling, emotionally complex people, distinctive individuals as well as racial representatives.

On the one hand, Cooper is taking up the question of whether Aggy, the enslaved black man in New York, will be able to do the work he does better than his white owner Richard Jones. On the other hand, Cooper is asking his readers to consider whether Brom, the freeborn black man, will be allowed to earn his living through trade and business. These two black characters make Cooper’s The Pioneers a valuable early literature source for the profound effect caused by New York’s restrictive manumission and suffrage laws.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Charles Hansford. “The Guardian of the Law: Authority and Identity in James Fenimore Cooper. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
  • Berlin, Ira and Leslie M. Harris. Slavery in New York. New York: The New Press, published in conjunction with The New-York Historical Society, 2005. [71]
  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna. 1823. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.
  • Cramer, Clayton E. “The Racist Roots of Gun Control,” Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy 4.2 (Winter 1995): 17-25.
  • Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper, The Novelist. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
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  • ------. James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
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