James Fenimore Cooper, the son of Quakers, was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on 15th September, 1789. Later the family moved to Cooperstown. He attended Yale but was expelled in his third year for bad behaviour. He spent the next five years at sea, first on a merchant ship and then as a midshipman in the US Navy. By 1811 he had reached the rank of lieutenant.
Cooper left the service on the death of his father. He was now a wealthy man and was able to live the life of a county gentleman. However, some of his investments failed and he decided to turn to writing as a source of income. His first novel, Precaution (1820) was unsuccessful. His next novel, The Spy (1821) did much better and brought him international fame and recognition.
This was followed by The Pilot (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Red Rover (1827), The Wept of Wishton-Wish (1829), The Water Witch (1830), The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), The Headsman (1833), Homeward Bound (1838), Home as Found (1838), The Pathfinder (1840), The Deerslayer (1941), The Two Admirals (1842), Wing and Wing (1842), Miles Wallingford (1844), Satanstone (1845), The Chainbearer (1845) and The Redskins (1846).
Cooper spent much of his life in Europe living in France, England, Switzerland and Italy.
James Fenimore Cooper died on 14th September, 1851.
James Fenimore Cooper
“Rigid adherence to truth, an indispensable requisite in history and travels, destroys the charm of fiction for all that is necessary to be conveyed to the mind by the latter had better be done by delineations of principles, and of characters in their classes, than by too fastidious attention to originals.”
-J.F.C. During the era in which he wrote, James Fenimore Cooper preached that the mission of American literature was to “find its own identity in the expression of its national ideals.” Many would agree that Cooper’s greatest gift was in conveying the image of prototypical American landscapes of forests, lakes, and prairies, and the free men who moved between them. The early years Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789, the 11th of 12 children. He was a son of Judge William Cooper and Susan Fenimore. When James was one year old, Cooper the elder moved his family into the wilderness surrounding Lake Otsego, New York, to eventually establish the hamlet of Cooperstown. While growing up, James was fascinated by his rural, occasionally otherworldly, surroundings, which would play a major part in his development as a writer. His path to authordom, however, took a circuitous route. First it was to the Abbey St. Peter's in Albany, New York, for a prep-school education. Then it was on to Yale University, where studies were not among James' highest priorities. He was asked to leave in his third year. No matter, really. James enjoyed not only his father's financial backing, but that of his father-in-law as well, each seeing to it that the silver spoon would remain untarnished. Thus, in the manner of a country squire, James produced his first work, Precaution, a story that relied upon traditional flight and pursuit themes set against the high seas of the Atlantic and unknown frontiers to the west. Although the book would not be classified as his best, James soon became one of the young nation's most popular romantic writers of fiction. Cooper's second try, The Spy (1821), a fascinating tale of the not-so-long-ago War of Independence, was based on the adventures of an agent during the British occupation of New York. Various scholars aver that in The Spy, American fiction is said to have come of age, with love of country as its theme, and its hero, a spy who had served John Jay against the British. The following year, Cooper moved to New York City to begin work on his riveting Leatherstocking Tales. Natty Bumppo*, Cooper’s protagonist, takes center stage as a principled and resourceful frontiersman who overcomes the rigors of nature and the villainous conduct of man. In 1823, Cooper published The Pioneers, whose hero was an old scout living in a frontier village with his loyal Indian companion, Chingachgook. That novel was quickly followed the same year by a hearty seafaring tale, flush with romance, The Pilot (1824), a novel reminiscent of the brooding Byronic style. The story drew upon Cooper's brief experiences as a midshipman in the ersatz navy of his time, and starred John Paul Jones as the leader of the pack. Bunker Hill in Boston was the setting for Lionel Lincoln (1825), not one of his better works. However, Cooper rebounded to create his immortal character, "Hawkeye," who springs to life the following year, in The Last of the Mohicans and his adventures during the French and Indian War in the Lake George area. Cooper abroad Beginning in 1826 and continuing until 1833, Cooper traveled throughout Europe, with his headquarters in Paris. While in Europe, Cooper extolled the virtues of American-style democracy, in Notions of the Americans (1828). Cooper also published a number of romances set in the U.S. or on the high seas, including The Red Rover (1828), The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), and The Water-Witch (1831). Cooper's adventures through the German countryside prompted the novels The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833), which satirized the feudalism of the day, spiced with romanticism typical of the Cooper style. Cooper’s return to America Upon Cooper’s return to the U.S., he immediately became embroiled in the politics of the time, which he felt had taken a giant step backward in his absence. He defended his stance on the rights of the genteel and the concept of "The Gentleman." His aristocratic notions met with derision and much criticism by the press. He responded with A Letter to His Countrymen (1834) and The American Democrat (1838), as well as other rebuttals. Cooper returned to his formula for success in 1840 with The Pathfinder, set in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River region. The Deerslayer, set in the frontier of 1740 New York, concluded the Leatherstocking series. Cooper the prolific The copious amount of literature Cooper produced, both classic and mundane, is a tribute to his commitment. The author Henry James described Cooper’s infatuation with America as his donnee, his “given.” Renowned French author Honore de Balzac reviewed The Pathfinder, saying in part, “Leatherstocking . . . will live as long as literatures last. I do not know that the extraordinary work of [Sir] Walter Scott furnishes a creation as grandiose as that of this hero of the savannas and forests.” Mark Twain was less charitable. In his The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper, Twain wrote:
Website updated and new material added March 2021
Over 300 texts, reference documents, articles and papers
Stephen Carl Arch
Corresponding Secretary & Webmaster
Executive Director for Membership
Executive Director of Publications
Robert Daly, Hugh Egan, Wayne Franklin, Barbara Mann, Anna Scannavini, Lance Schachterle, Rochelle Zuck
Hugh C. MacDougall (1932-2021)
Henry S. Fenimore Cooper, Jr. (1933-2016)
James Fenimore Cooper Society
c/o Department of English
322 Netzer Admin. Building
108 Ravine Parkway
Oneonta, NY 13820
James Fenimore Cooper, Biography, Age, Cause of Death, Wiki, Bio, Books, Married, Kids, Famous Works, Futurama, Quotes
James Fenimore Cooper, Biography, Age, Cause of Death, Wiki, Bio, Books, Married, Kids, Famous Works, Futurama, Quotes
James Fenimore Cooper Biography
James Fenimore Cooper was an American writer of the first half of the 19th century. Their historical romance captures the frontier and American Indian life in the early American days, creating a unique form of American literature. He lived most of his life in Cooperstown, New York, which was founded by his father William on the property he owned. Cooper was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and contributed generously to it. He attended Yale University for three years, where he was a member of the Linnean Society.
Cooper served in the US Navy as a midshipman, which influenced many of his novels and other writings. His career novel was The Spy, a story about counter-espionage during the American Revolutionary War and published in 1821. He also wrote several maritime stories, and his most famous compositions are five historical novels of the frontier period, The Leatherstocking Tales.
Cooper’s works in the US Navy were well received among naval historians, but were sometimes criticized by his contemporaries. Among his most famous compositions is the romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans, often considered his masterpiece.
10 years after their marriage, Cooper led an active but unproductive life of dabbling in agriculture, politics, the American Bible Society, and the Westchester Militia. It was in this amateurish spirit that he wrote and published his first novel on the challenge he met his wife. The Precaution (1820) was a fascinating copy of Jane Austen’s novels of English Gentry etiquette.
It is primarily interesting today as a document in the history of American cultural colonialism and as an example of a clumsy attempt to mimic Jane Austen’s investigation of the ironic discrepancy between illusion and reality. His second novel, The Spy (1821), was based on another British model, Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverly” novels, which are stories of adventure and romance set in 17- and 18th-century Scotland.
Spy soon brought him international fame and a certain wealth. The latter was very welcome, indeed necessary, as his father’s estate proved to be at least sufficient, and with the death of his elder brothers, he had found himself responsible for the debts and widows of the entire Cooper family.
At the time of his death on September 14, 1851, Cooper was more successful and respected overseas than at home. Working step by step with his countrymen, his work was very influential for European writers such as Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy. Nevertheless, Fenimore’s imagined weaknesses are quite well known and widely spread. Mark Twain contrasts Fenimore’s romanticism in the Phenompe Coopers Literary Offense (1895).
Frankly, Fenimore’s tone was criticized, being reactionary as well as romantic and academic in tone. However, Cooper contributed greatly to the genre of American fiction. In the grand enterprise, even today, everyone has read books and seen films that are directly and indirectly influenced by Cooper’s conception of Natty Bumppo and the making of the American novel.
What’s in a Name?
Although it was the twelfth intermediate school established by FCPS, School Board records indicate Cooper was actually one of the first to receive its name. On December 16, 1959, the School Board officially named Intermediate #2 the James Fenimore Cooper School. During design and construction, Cooper was also referred to as Balls Hill Intermediate School. What do our namesake, James Fenimore Cooper, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame have in common? Find out in this video produced for the FCPS cable television channel Red Apple 21.
James Fenimore Cooper
….Born at Burlington, New Jersey, 15 September, 1789, the son of Judge William Cooper and Susan Fenimore, James Cooper  was taken in November, 1790, to Cooperstown, the raw central village of a pioneer settlement recently established by his father on Otsego Lake, New York. Here the boy saw at first hand the varied life of the border, observed its shifts and contrivances, listened to tales of its adventures, and learned to feel the mystery of the dark forest which lay beyond the cleared circle of his own life. Judge Cooper, however, was less a typical backwoodsman than a kind of warden of the New York marches, like Judge Templeton in The Pioneers, and he did not keep his son in the woods but sent him, first to the rector of St. Peter’s in Albany, who grounded him in Latin and hatred of Puritans, and then to Yale, where he wore his college duties so lightly as to be dismissed in his third year. Thinking the navy might furnish better discipline than Yale, Judge Cooper shipped his son before the mast on a merchant vessel to learn the art of seamanship which there was then no naval academy to teach. His first ship, the Sterling, salied from New York in October, 1806, for Falmouth and London, thence to Cartagena, back to London, and once more to America in September of the following year. They were chased by pirates and stopped by searching parties, incidents Cooper never forgot. In January, 1808, he was commissioned midshipman. He served for a time on the Vesuvius, and later in the same year was sent with a party to Lake Ontario to build the brig Oneida for service against the British on inland waters. He visited Niagara, commanded for a time on Lake Champlain, and in November, 1809, was ordered to the Wasp In the natural course of events he would have fought in the War of 1812, but, having been married in January, 1811, to Miss Susan Augusta DeLancey, he resigned his commission the following May and gave up all hope of a naval career.
§ 13. Precaution.
Thus at twenty-two he exchanged a stirring youth for the quiet, if happy, life of a country proprietor. He spent the next eleven years, except for a stay at Cooperstown (1814–17), in his wife’s native county of Westchester, New York. There, in a manner quite casual, he began his real work. His wife challenged him to make good his boast that he could write a better story than an English novel he was reading to her. He attempted it and wrote Precaution (1820), which, as might have been expected from a man who, in spite of a juvenile romance and few doggerel verses, was little trained in authorship, is a highly conventional novel. Its scene is laid in England, and no quality is more notable than stiff elegance and painful piety. Cooper was dissatisfied with his book. “Ashamed to have fallen into the track of imitation, I endeavoured to repay the wrong done to my own views, by producing a work that should be purely American, and of which love of country should be the theme.”  He chose for his hero a spy who had served John Jay during the Revolution, according to Jay’s own account, with singular purity of motive. The work was carelessly done and published at the author’s risk, and yet with the appearance of The Spy (22 December, 1821), American fiction may be said to have come of age.
§ 14. The Spy.
This stirring tale has been, for many readers, an important factor in the tradition which national piety and the old swelling rhetoric have built up around the Revolution. The share of historical fact in it, indeed, is not large, but the action takes place so near to great events that the characters are all invested with something of the dusky light heroes, while the figure of Washington moves among them like an unsuspected god. Such a quality in the novel might have gone with impossible partiality for the Americans had not Cooper’s wife belonged to a family which had been loyal during the sturggle for independence. As it was, he made his loyalists not necessarily knaves and fools, and so secured a fairness of tone which, aside from all questions of justice, has a large effect upon the art of the narrative. It is clear the British are enemies worth fighting. Perhaps by chance, Cooper here hit upon a type of plot at which he excelled, a struggle between contending forces, not badly matched, arranged as a pursuit in which the pursued are, as a rule, favoured by author and reader. In the management of such a device Cooper’s invention, which was great, worked easily, and the flights of Birch from friend and foe alike exhibit a power to carry on plots with sustained sweep which belongs only to the masters of narration. To rapid movement Cooper added the virtues of a very real setting. He knew Westchester and its sparse legends as Scott knew the Border his topography was drawn with a firm hand. In his characters he was not uniformly successful. Accepting for women the romantic ideals of the day and writing of events in which, of necessity, ladies could play but a small part, Cooper tended to cast his heroines, as even that day remarked, into a conventional mould of helplessness and decorum. With the less sheltered classes of women he was much more truthful. Of his men, too, the gentlemen are likely to be mere heroes, though Lawton is an interesting dragoon, while those of a lower order have more marked characteristics. Essentially memorable and arresting is Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, outwardly no hero at all and yet surpassingly heroic of soul. The skill with which Birch is presented, gaunt, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious—a skill which Brown lacked—should not make one overlook the half-supernatural spirit of patriotism which, like the daemonic impuless in Brown’s characters, drives Birch to his destiny at once wrecking and honouring him. This romantic fate also condemns him to be sad and lonely, a dedicated soul who captures attention by his secretary and holds it throughout his career by his adventures. No charcter in American historical fiction has been able to obscure this first great character, whose fame has outlasted every fashion for almost a century.
§ 15. The Pioneers.
With The Spy Cooper proved his power to invent situations, conduct a plot, vivify history and landscape, and create a certain type of heroic character. His public success was instant. The novel reached a third edition the following March it was approved on the stage European readers accepted it with enthusasm. Pleased, though perhaps surprised, at this reception of his work, Cooper threw himself into the new career thus offered him with characteristic energy. He removed to New York and hurried forward the composition of The Pioneers, which appeared in February, 1823, with Cooper’s first bumptious preface. Technically this book made no advance upon The Spy. Cooper had but one method, improvisation, and the absence of any very definite pursuit deprives The Pioneers, though it has exciting moments, of general suspense. But it is important as his first trial at the realistic presentation of manners in America. Dealing as he did with the Otsego settlement where his boyhood had been spent, and with a time (1793) witing his memory, he could write largely from the fact. Whatever romance there is the in the story lies less in its plot, which is relatively simple, or in its characters, which are, for the most part, studied under a dry light with a good deal of caustic judgment, than in the essential wonder of a pioneer life. The novel is not as heroic as The Spy had been. Indian John, the last of his proud race, is old and broken, corrupted by the settlements only his death dignifies him. Natty Bumppo, a composite from many Cooperstown memories, is nobler because he has not yielded but carries his virtues, which even in Cooper’s boyhood were becoming archaic along the froniter, into the deeper forest. Natty stands as a protest, on behalf of simplicity and perfect freedom, against encroaching law and order. In The Pioneers, however, he is not yet of the proportions which he later assumed, and only at the end, when he withdraws from the field of his defeat by civilization, does he make his full appeal. Cooper may have felt that there were still possibilities in the character, but for the present he did not try to realize them.
§ 16. The Pilot.
Instead, he undertook to surpass Scott’s Pirate in seamanship and produced The Pilot, issued in January, 1824.  With this third success he practically ended his experimental stage. Like The Spy, his new tale made use of a Revolutionary setting like The Pioneers, it was full of realistic detail based on Cooper’s own experience. The result was that he not only outdid Scott in sheer narrative, but he created a new literary type, the tale of adventure on the sea, in which, though he was to have many followers in almost every modern language, he remains unsurpassed for vigour and variety. Smollett had already discovered the racy humours of seamen, but it remained for Cooper to capture for fiction the mystery and beauty, the shock and thrill of the sea. Experts say that his technical knowledge was sound what is more important, he wrote, in The Pilot, a story about sailing vessels which convinces landsmen even in days of steam. The conventional element in the novel is its hero, John Paul Jones, secret, Byronic, always brooding upon a dark past and a darker fate. Thoroughly original is that worthy successor of Birch and Natty Bumppo, Long Tom Coffin, who lives and dies by the sea which has made him, as love of country made the spy and the forest made the old hunter.
§ 17. The Last of the Mohicans.
Cooper had now become a national figure, although critical judgement in New England condescended to him. He founded the Bread and Cheese Club in New York, a literary society of which he was the moving spirit he took a prominent part in the reception of Lafayette in 1824 in the same year Columbia College gave him the honorary degree of Master of Arts. He planned a series of Legends of the Thirteen Republics, aimed to celebrate each of the original states, which he gave up after the first, Lionel Lincoln (1825), for all his careful research failed to please as his earlier novels had done. During the next two years Cooper reached probably the highest point of his career in The Last of the Mohicans (February, 1826) and The Prairie (May, 1827). His own interest and the persuasion of his friends led him to continue the adventures of Natty Bumppo, and very naturally he undertook to show both the days of Natty’s prime and his final fortunes. In each case Cooper projects the old hunter out of the world of remembered Otsego, into the dark forest which was giving up its secrets in 1793, or into the mighty prairies which Cooper had not seen but which stretched, in his mind’s eye, for endless miles beyond the forest, another mystery and another refuge. Natty, called Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, no longer has the hardness which marred his age in The Pioneers. With all his virtues of hand and head he combines a nobility of spirit which the woods have fostered in a mind never spoiled by men. He grows nobler as he grows more remote, more the poet and hero as the world in which he moves becomes more wholly his own. Chingachgook has undergone even a greater change, has got back all the cunning and pride which had been deadened in Indian John. But Hawkeye and Chingachgook are both limited by their former appearance one must still be the canny reasoner, the other a little saddened with passing years. The purest romance of the tale lies in Uncas, the forest’s youngest son, gallant, swift, courteous, a lover for whom there is no hope, the last of the Mohicans. That Uncas was idealized Cooper was ready to admit Homer, he suggested, had his heroes. And it is clear that upon Uncas were bestowed some of the virtues which the philosophers of the age had taught the world to find in a state of nature. Still, after a century, many smile upon the state of nature who are yet able to find in Uncas the perennial appeal of youth cut off in the flower. The action and setting of the novel are on the same high plane as the characters. The forest, in which all the events take place, surrounds them with a changeless majesty that sharpens, by contrast, the restless sense of danger. Pursuit makes almost the whole plot. The pursued party moving from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry has two girls to handicap its flight and to increase the tragedy of capture. Later the girls have been captured, and sympathy passes, a thing unusual in Cooper, to the pursuing rescuers. In these tasks Hawkeye and the Mohicans are opposed by the fierce capacity of Magua, who plays villain to Uncas’s hero, in moral qualities Uncas’s opposite. There is never any relaxation of suspense, and the scene in which Uncas reveals himself to the Delawares is one of the most thrilling moments in fiction.
§ 18. The Prairie.
The Prairie has less swiftness than The Last of the Mohicans but more poetry. In it Natty appears again, twenty years older than in The Pioneers, far away on the plains beyond the Mississippi. He owns his defeat and he still grieves over the murdered forest, but he has given up anger for the peace of old age. To him it seems that all his virtues are gone. Once valiant he must now be crafty his arms are feeble his eyes have so far failed him that, no longer the perfect marksman, he has sunk to the calling of a trapper. There is a pathos in his resignation which would be too painful were it not merely a phase of his grave and noble wisdom. He is more than ever what Cooper called him, “a philosopher of the wilderness.” The only change is that he has left the perils and delights of the forest and has been subdued to the eloquent monotony of the plains. Nowhere else has Cooper shown such sheer imaginative power as in his handling of this mighty landscape. He had never seen a prairie indeed, it is clear that he thought of a prairie as an ocean of land and described it partly by analogy. But he managed to endow the huge empty distances he had not seen with a presence as haunting as that of the populous forest he had known in his impressionable youth. And the old trapper, though he thinks of himself as an exile, has learned the secrets of the new nature and belongs to it. It is his knowledge that makes him essential to the action, which is again made up of flight and pursuit. Once more there are girls to be rescued, from white men as well as from Indians. There is another Magua in Mahtoree, another Uncas in the virtuous Hard-Heart. The Indians ride horses and are thus more difficult to escape than the Hurons had been. The flat prairies give fewer places of concealment. But the trapper is as ready as ever with new arts, and the flight ends as romance prescribes. The final scene, the death of the trapper in the arms of his young friends, is very touching and fine, yet reticently handled. For the most part, the minor characters, the lovers and the pedant, are not new to Cooper and are not notable. The family of Ishmael Bush, the squatter, however, make up a new element. They have been forced out of civilization by its virtues, as the trapper by its vices. They have strength without nobility and activity without wisdom. Except when roused, they are as sluggish as a prairie river, and like it they appear muddy and aimless. Ishmael Bush always conveys the impression of terrific forces lying vaguely in ambush. His wife is nearly the most memorable figure among Cooper’s women. She clings to her mate and cubs with a tigerish instinct that leaves her, when she has lost son and brother and retreats in a vast silent grief, still lingering in the mind, an inarticulate prairie Hecuba.
§ 19. Residence in Europe.
Possibly the novel owes some of its depth of atmosphere to the fact that it was finished in France and that Cooper was thus looking back upon his subject through a mist of regret. He had sailed for Europe with his family in June, 1826, to begin a foreign residence of more than seven years which had a large effect upon his later life and work. He found his books well known and society at large disposed to make much of him. In Paris he fraternized with Scott, who enjoyed and praised his American rival. Parts of his stay were in England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, which delighted and astonished him, and Italy, which he loved. Most of his time, however, he passed at Paris, charmed with a gayer and more brilliant society than he could have known before. He did not cease to write.
§ 20. Red Rover The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.
In January, 1828, he repeated the success of The Pilot with another sea tale, The Red Rover which has always held a place among the most favoured of his books. The excitement is less sustained than in The Pilot, but portions of the narrative, notably those dealing with storms, are tremendous. The ocean here plays as great a part as Cooper had lately assigned to the prairie. One voices the calm of nature, one its tumult both tend to the discipline of man. In I829 he fared better than with Lionel Lincoln in another historical tale of New England, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, an episode of King Philip’s War. It is a powerful novel, irregular and ungenial, not only because the Puritans represented were themselves unlovely, but because Cooper had an evident dislike for them which coloured all their qualities. This was followed in the next year by The Water-Witch, which Cooper thought his most imaginative book. It has a spirited naval battle, but it flatly failed to localize a supernatural legend in New York harbour.
§ 21. Notions of the Americans Novels written in Europe.
Novels were not Cooper’s whole concern during his years in Europe. Unabashedly, outspokenly American, he had secured from Henry Clay the post of consul at Lyons, that he might not seem, during his travels, a man without a country. As consul, though his position was purely nominal, he felt called upon to resent the ignorance everywhere shown by Europeans regarding his native land, and he set out upon the task of educating them to better views. Cooper was not Franklin. His Notions of the Americans (1828), while full of information and a rich mine of American opinion for that day, was too obviously partisan to convince those at whom it was aimed. Its proper audience was homesick Americans. He indulged, too, in some controversy at Paris over the relative cost of French and American government which pleased neither nation. Finally, he applied his art to the problem and wrote three novels “in which American opinion should be brought to bear on European facts.”  That is, in The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833) he meant to show by proper instances the superiority of democracy to aristocracy as regards general happiness and justice. He claimed to be writing for his countrymen alone, some of whom must have been thrilled to come across a passage like “a fairer morning never dawned upon the Alleghanies than that which illumined the Alps,” but he was not sufficiently master of his material, however stout and just his opinions, to make even The Bravo, the best of the three, as good as his pioneer romances.
§ 22. Return to America and Ensuing Controversies.
Before he returned to New York in November, 1833, he was warned by his friend S. F. B. Morse that he would be disappointed. Cooper found himself, in fact, fatally cosmopolitan in the republic he had been justifying for seven years. Always critical, he sought to qualify too sweeping praise of America precisely as he had qualified too sweeping censure in Europe. But he had not learned tact while becoming a citizen of the world, and he soon angered the public he had meant to set right. The result was the long and dreary wrangling which clouded the whole remainder of his life and has obscured his fame almost to the present day. If he had attended the dinner planned in his honour on his return, he might have found his welcome warmer than he thought it. If he had been an observer keen enough, he would have seen that the new phases of democracy which he disliked were in part a gift to the old seaboard of that very frontier of which he had been painter and annalist. But he did not see these things, and so he carried on a steady fight, almost always as right in his contentions as he was wrong-headed in his manner. From Cooperstown, generally his residence, except for a few winters in New York, to the end of his life, he lectured and scolded. His Letter to his Countrymen (1834), stating his position, and The Monikins (1835), an unbelievably dull satire, were the first fruits of his quarrel. He followed these with five books dealing with his European travels and constantly irritating to the people of both continents. He indulged in a heated altercation with his fellow townsmen over some land which they thought theirs, although it was certainly his. In 1838 he published a fictious record, Homeward Bound and its sequel Home as Found, of the disappointment of some Americans who return from Europe and find America what Cooper had recently found it. He proclaimed his political principles in The American Democrat (1838). Most important of all, he declared war upon the newspapers of New York and went up and down the state suing those that had libelled him. He won most of the suits, but though he silenced his opponents he had put his fame into the hands of persons who, unable to abuse, could at least neglect him.
§ 23. Writings on Naval Affairs Later Nautical Tales.
His solid History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839) turned his attention once more to naval affairs, with which he busied himself during much of his remaining career. He wrote Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1842–5), and Ned Myers (1843), the life of a common sailor who had been with him on the Sterling. The History led to a furious legal battle, but generally Cooper left his quarrels behind him when he went upon the sea. As a cosmopolitan, he seemed to feel freer out of sight of land, on the public highway of the nations. His novels of this period, however, are uneven in merit. The Two Admirals (1842) contains one of his best naval battles Wing-and-Wing (1842) ranks high among his sea tales, richly romantic and glowing with the splendours of the Mediterranean. Mercedes of Castile (1840) has little interest beside that essential to the first voyage of Columbus. The two parts of Afloat and Ashore (1844), dealing powerfully as they do with the evils of impressment, are notable chiefly for sea fights and chases. Jack Tier (1846–8) is a lurid piratical tale of the Mexican War The Crater (1847) does poorly what Robinson Crusoe does supremely The Sea Lions (1849) has the distinction of marking the highest point in that religious bigotry which pervades Cooper’s later novels as thoroughly as the carping spirit which kept him always alert for a chance to take some fling at his countrymen.
§ 24. Later Border Tales The Pathfinder.
The real triumph of his later years was that he wrote, in the very midst of his hottest litigation, The Pathfinder (March, 1840) and The Deerslayer (August, 1841). One realizes, in reading them, that the forest more than the ocean was for Cooper a romantic sanctuary, as it was for Pathfinder the true temple, full of the “holy calm of nature,” the teacher of beauty, virtue, laws. Returning to these solemn woods, Cooper was subdued once more to the spirit which had attended his first great days. The fighting years through which he had passed had left him both more mellow and more critical than at first. During the same time he had gone far enough from the original character of Leather-Stocking to become aware of traits which should be brought out or explained. It was too late to make his hero entirely consistent for the series, but Cooper apparently saw the chance to fill out the general outline, and he did it with such skill that those who read the five novels in the order of events will notice relatively few discrepancies, since The Deerslayer prepares for nearly all that follows. In The Pathfinder, undertaken to show Natty in love and to combine the forest and a ship in the same tale, Cooper was at some pains to point out how Pathfinder’s candour, self-reliance, justice, and fidelity had been developed by the life he had led in the forest. Leather-Stocking, indeed, does not seem more conscious of these special gifts, but Cooper does. Still there is abudant action, another flight through the woods, a storm on Lake Ontario, a siege at a blockhouse. Chingachgook, unchanged, is with Pathfinder, who varies from his earlier character in little but his love for a young girl whom he finally surrenders to a more suitable lover. His love affair threatens for a moment to domesticate Natty, but the sacrifice restores him to his old solitude.
§ 25. The Deerslayer.
In the final book of the series, The Deerslayer, Cooper performed with full success the hard task of representing the scout in the fresh morning of his youth. Love appears too in this story, but Deerslayer, unable to love a girl who has been corrupted by the settlements, turns to the forest with his best devotion. The book is the tale of his coming of age. Already a hunter, he kills his first man and thus enters the long career which lies before him. That career, however, had already been traced by Cooper, and the distress with which Deerslayer realizes that he has human blood on his hands becomes immeasurably eloquent. It gives the figure of the man almost a new dimension one remembers the many deaths Natty has yet to deal. In other matters he is near his later self, for he starts life with a steady philosophy which, through all the many experiences of The Deerslayer, keeps him to the end as simple and honourable as at the outset.
The novel is thus an epitome of the whole career of the most memorable character American fiction has given to the world. Leather-Stocking is very fully drawn Cooper’s failure to write a sixth novel, as he at one time planned, which should show Natty in the Revolution, may be taken as a sign that he felt, however unconsciously, that the picture was finished. It is hard, indeed, to see how he could have added to the scout without taking something from the spy. More important still, the virtue of patriotism, if carried to the pitch that must have been demanded for that hero in that day, would surely have been a little alien to the cool philosopher of the woods. Justice, not partisanship, is Leather-Stocking’s essential trait. In him Cooper exhibited, even better than he knew, his special idea that human character can be brought to a noble proportion and perfection in the school of pure nature. Now this idea, generally current in Cooper’s youth, had an effect upon the Leather-Stocking tales of the greatest moment. Because their hero, as the natural man, had too simple a soul to call for minute analysis, it was necessary for Cooper to show him moving through a long succession of events aimed to test the firmness of his virtues. There was thus produced the panorama of the American frontier which, because of Cooper’s incomparable fusion of strangeness and reality, at once became and has remained the classic record of an heroic age.
§ 26. The Littlepage Manuscripts.
He wrote more border tales before his death. Wyandotte (1843) deals largely with the siege of a blockhouse near the upper Susquehanna, and The Oak-Openings (1848), the fruit of a journey which he made to the West in 1847, is a tale of bee hunting and Indian fighting on the shores of Lake Michigan. Full of border material, too, is the trilogy of Littlepage Manuscripts, Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1846), and The Redskins (1846). Having tried the autobiographical method with Miles Wallingford in Afloat and Ashore, Cooper now repeated it through three generations of a New York family. In the last he involved himself unduly in the question of antirentism and produced a book both fantastic and dull the second is better by one of Cooper’s most powerful figures, the squatter Thousandacres, another Titan of the brood of Ishmael Bush the first, if a little beneath Cooper’s best work, is so only because he was somewhat rarely at his best. No other novel, by Cooper or any other, gives so firm and convincing a picture of colonial New York. Even Cooper has no more exciting struggle than that of Corny Littlepage with the icy Hudson. But the special virtue of Satanstoe is a quality Cooper nowhere else displays, a positive winsomeness in the way Littlepage unfolds his memories (now sweetened by many years) and his humorous crotchets in the same words. There are pages which read almost like those of some vigorous Galt or Goldsmith. Unfortunately, Cooper did not carry this vein further. His comedy Upside Down, produced at Burton’s Theatre, New York, 18 June, 1850, was a failure, and his last novel, The Ways of the Hour (1851), lacks every charm of manner. With his family and a few friends he lived his latter days in honour and affection, but he held the public at a sour distance and before his death, 14 September, 1851, set his face against a reconciliation even in the future by forbidding any biography to be authorized. The published facts of his life still leave his personality less known to the general world than that of any American writer of equal rank.
§ 27. Cooper’s Rank as a Romancer.
This might be somewhat strange, since Cooper was lavish of intrusions into his novels, were it not that he wrote himself down, when he spoke in his own person, not only a powerful and independent man, but a scolding, angry man, and thus made his most revealing novels his least read ones. One thinks of Scott, who, when he shows himself most, wins most love. The difference further characterizes the two men. In breadth of sympathies, humanity, geniality, humour, Cooper is less than Scott. He himself, in his review of Lockhart, said that Scott’s great ability lay in taking a legend or historical episode, which Scotland furnished in splendid profusion, and reproducing it with marvellous grace and tact. “This faculty of creating a vraisemblance, is next to that of a high invention, in a novelist.” It is clear that Cooper felt his own inferiority to Scott in “creating a vraisemblance” and that he was always conscious of the relative barrenness of American life it is also tolerably clear that he himself aimed at what he thought the higher quality of invention. Cooper’s invention, indeed, was not without a solid basis he is not to be neglected as an historian. No man better sums up in literature the spirit of that idealistic, irascible, pugnacious, somewhat crude, and half aristocratic older democracy which established the United States. No one fixed the current heroic traditions of his day more firmly to actual places. No one else supplied so many facts to the great legend of the frontier. Fact no less than fiction underlies the character which, for all time, Cooper gave to the defeated race of red men, who, no longer a menace as they had been to the first settlers, could now take their place in the world of the imagination, sometimes idealized, as in Uncas and Hard-Heart, but more often credibly imperfect and uncivilized. It was his technical knowledge of ships and sailors which led Cooper to write sea tales, a province of romance in which he still takes rank, among many followers, as teacher and master of them all. True, Cooper had not Scott’s resources of historical learning to fall back upon when his invention flagged, any more than he had Scott’s resources of good-nature when he became involved in argument but when, as in the Leather-Stocking tales, his invention could move most freely, it did unaided what Scott, with all his subsidiary qualities, could not outdo. This is to credit Cooper with an invention almost supreme among romancers. Certainly it is difficult to explain why, with all his faults of clumsiness, prolixity, conventional characterization, and ill temper, he has been the most widely read American author, unless he is to be called one of the most impressive and original.
8. The family name was changed to Fenimore-Cooper by act of legislature in April, 1826. Cooper soon dropped the hyphen.
9. A Letter to his Countrymen, 1834, p. 98.
10. But dated 1823.
11. A Letter to his Countrymen, P. 12.
When will you read James Fenimore Cooper’s writing in Excellence in Literature?
The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference: What Would Have Been Presented?
Founded in 1907, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) is the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history. The mission of the organization is to promote excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, and to encourage wide discussion of historical questions and the equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.
The OAH represents more than 7,000 historians working in the U.S. and abroad. Our members include college and university professors, precollegiate teachers, archivists, museum curators, public historians, students, and a variety of scholars employed in government and the private sector.
The OAH conference was scheduled for earlier this month in Washington, D.C. As you might expect it was cancelled. The abstracts for the conference are available online. I had worked out a schedule of sessions I would have liked to attend. Those sessions reflect my own interests and not necessarily those of anyone else. I am particularly drawn to topics related to what I understand as relevant to history organizations, teachers, and simply my own personal interests. This blog then is a continuation of a series of blogs on conferences attended and not attended. It addresses a reflection of the fact that even if you can attend a conference, you cannot attend all the sessions you might like to attend and secondly, even if there had been no Covid-19, not everyone can attend such conferences in the first place.
This blog will cover sessions on the American Indians. As it turns out, they are almost all about the Plains Indians with nothing on the Woodlands Indians.
Where is the Bonga Family in Immigration History? Recovering an African, Swedish, and Ojibwe Genealogy, 1820s–1860s
Jacob Fahlstrom is widely cited as the first Swede to live in Minnesota. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, he worked first for the Hudson’s Bay Company and then the American Fur Company and later became a Methodist preacher. In 1823 Fahlstrom married Margaret Bonga, an African Ojibwe woman from a prominent fur trade family. In countless narratives depicting Fahlstrom’s immigration first from Stockholm to Canada, and then from Canada into the region known today as Minnesota, the life of Fahlstrom’s wife has been astonishingly obscured in the shadows. Margaret Bonga Fahlstrom, who was married to Fahlstrom for over 35 years, has a fascinating story of her own that provides meaningful insight into regional and global history. In St. Paul–the capital of Minnesota–are public monuments memorializing Jacob Fahlstrom, signaling public remembrance of him. But how has his wife’s role and identity been remembered? What is the significance of publicly forgetting her? Margaret Bonga’s role in the narratives of local regional history is largely ignored while focus has been steadfastly maintained on Jacob. Without Margaret, however, it is unlikely that he would have secured the work or achieved the social positions that have drawn the attention of historians, scholars, and the general public. This paper looks at how settler colonial narratives shaped the historiography to marginalize Margaret Bonga’s story and to erase her as a woman of African ancestry. Using this couple as a focus point, I consider the intersections of the fields of early immigration history, Native American history, and public history and memory.
Presented ByMattie Harper DeCarlo, Minnesota Historical Society
My interest in this presentation derives from the efforts to classify people into set categories only to realize that human beings tend to cross the boundary lines and are difficult to pigeonhole. For example, here in New York where I live, my interest has been sparked by the recent 400-year anniversary of slavery in Virginia [although there was no legal classification of slavery there then]( see 1619: The New York Times versus USA Today [and Hamilton] and The Battle between 1619 and 1776: The New York Times versus the History Community). In 1613, Juan Rodriguez, a Portuguese-probably-Angolan free male arrived here and later married a local Lenape woman. He has not totally been obscured since part of Broadway in the Dominican section of Manhattan is named after him, but he is not that well known either. And suppose there is an demographic change in the neighborhood as there has been in nearby Harlem, will the newcomers even know why the street has the name it does. Generally, in local communities, it is people like this to make the local story unique to that locality.
Still Indian Country: The Indigenous Northern Plains in the Twentieth Century
The northern Great Plains have been home to diverse societies including Lakotas, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Mandan, as well as Euro-Americans. Many historical narratives about the northern plains recognize them as a crucial zone of interaction and conflict in the seventeenth through end of the nineteenth centuries. In the past decade however, historians have taken a renewed interest in this region and its importance to the history of the North American continent in more recent times. Historians have specifically emphasized the continued presence of Native peoples and their centrality to the culture, economics, and politics of the modern northern plains, combining their histories with scholarly subfields and methodologies such as urban history, public history, and the history of religion. This panel highlights the presence and importance of Native actors to the region’s history during the twentieth century. As Americans colonized the northern plains, they enforced a settler colonial social and political regime that dispossessed Native Americans of their land and sacred spaces, built cities and towns, and substantially altered the region’s ecology. The papers presented here emphasize both the history of settler colonialism and inequality in the region, as well as the ways in which Indigenous people resisted the homogenizing efforts of American society and adapted to changing circumstances in short, how they remade and retained Indian Country on the northern plains. Native people adopted new religions, maintained their older ceremonies and material cultures, and remained constantly in motion during the twentieth century. This panel showcases the newest scholarship on the northern plains region of North America and in doing so, makes the argument that the northern plains are a central part of the story of race, settler colonialism, religion, and Indigenous resistance in the modern American West.
This panel highlights the presence and importance of Native actors to the region’s history during the twentieth century. As Americans colonized the northern plains, they enforced a settler colonial social and political regime that dispossessed Native Americans of their land and sacred spaces, built cities and towns, and substantially altered the region’s ecology. The papers presented here emphasize both the history of settler colonialism and inequality in the region, as well as the ways in which Indigenous people resisted the homogenizing efforts of American society and adapted to changing circumstances in short, how they remade and retained Indian Country on the northern plains. Native people adopted new religions, maintained their older ceremonies and material cultures, and remained constantly in motion during the twentieth century. This panel showcases the newest scholarship on the northern plains region of North America and in doing so, makes the argument that the northern plains are a central part of the story of race, settler colonialism, religion, and Indigenous resistance in the modern American West.
In the early years of the United States, it was the New York Indians who tended to become the defining image of American Indians thanks in part to the writings of James Fenimore Cooper. Later the Plains Indians in the land of the buffalo became the more dominant national image. Hollywood in the 20 th century loved the Northern Plains Indians and their landscapes. I am not very familiar with the real people who lived there so this session would have been an opportunity to broaden my horizons. The relevance for historical museums in New York and New England is to be able to inform visitors that all American Indians are not alike, they are not just indigenous, they have their own names, customs, and histories that differentiate them from each other as well as Woodland Indians.
Reclaiming Noaha-vose (Bear Butte): Cheyenne Resistance to Settler Colonialism in a Sacred Place
Noaha-vose or Bear Butte is a vital landscape for Cheyenne religious belief and practice. Cheyenne people have visited this site to pray, fast, and conduct national ceremonies for centuries. After Lt. Col. Armstrong Custer’s expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, however, life changed dramatically for Cheyenne people. By 1877, federal officials had ended Cheyenne treaty rights to the Black Hills and began the process of removing the Cheyenne living in the northern plains to Oklahoma. While these actions affected every facet of Cheyenne lifeways, this paper focuses on the effects on Cheyenne people’s ability to maintain the primacy of their relationship to Bear Butte. The barriers Cheyenne people experienced when attempting to access this sacred space severely restricted full practice of Cheyenne religion. Yet over the past one hundred and fifty years, Cheyenne people continued to travel to Bear Butte for ceremonies despite removal and the restrictions of reservation life. Since the end of World War II, Cheyenne people have begun to use new tools in their efforts to reclaim the mountain as sacred space and to gain recognition of this connection by nonnatives. This paper delineates Cheyenne efforts to continue to travel to Bear Butte during the most restrictive moments of the reservation period. It then explores the relationships Cheyenne people built between land owners and later the park service to retain their connection to the land. It argues that Cheyenne have used methods as varied as building relationships with landowners and park rangers, protesting development, and purchasing land to retain, rejuvenate, and protect their relationship to their sacred mountain, Noaha-vose. It posits that by engaging on multiple levels with the settlers who now inhabit the area, Cheyenne people have continued to remake their relationship with the land, ensuring their presence in their sacred landscape by challenging the inequalities of settler colonialism that have tried to erase it.
Presented ByChristina Gish Hill, Iowa State University
Recently, Jews around the world celebrated Passover. The annual feast was different this year due to Covid-19. In some cases it was cancelled or done online. One of the lines recited in the ceremony is “Next year in Jerusalem.” In general terms, that thought has been part of the Jewish heritage since Babylonians destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE and forcibly removed people from Judah as the Assyrians earlier had done from Israel. The Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE created a second loss. After 1948, Jews lost access to the wall of the platform on which the temple was built [it is not a wall of the temple]. After 1967, Jews regained access. The site of the temple continues to be both holy and contentious. These ruminations are not a digression but are meant as a reminder that we are all human beings and as human beings we do something unique on this earth: we have sacred sites that become part of our culture from generation to generation…even when such sites are destroyed or access is denied. In this session, I would have had the opportunity to learn about the Cheyenne story.
There are more sessions to be covered and I think the coverage of the OAH conference will require more blogs than I originally expected.
For a list of 30 or more sources dealing with the Cooper family its history and genealogy see this web site:
James Fenimore Cooper From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia For other people named James Cooper, see James Cooper (disambiguation). James Fenimore Cooper James Fenimore Cooper by Brady.jpg Photograph by Mathew Brady, 1850 Born September 15, 1789 Burlington, New Jersey Died September 15, 1851 (aged 62) Cooperstown, New York Occupation Novelist, Historian, and US Navy sailor Genre Historical fiction Literary movement Romanticism Notable works The Last of the Mohicans James Fenimore Cooper (September 15, 1789 – September 15, 1851) was a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century.
His historical romances of frontier and Indian life in the early American days created a unique form of American literature. He lived most of his life in Cooperstown, New York, which was founded by his father William on property that he owned. Cooper was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and, in his later years, contributed generously to it. He attended Yale University for three years, where he was a member of the Linonian Society, but was expelled for misbehavior.
Before embarking on his career as a writer, he served in the U.S. Navy as a Midshipman, which greatly influenced many of his novels and other writings. The novel that launched his career was The Spy, a tale about counterespionage set during the Revolutionary War and published in 1821. He also wrote numerous sea stories, and his best-known works are five historical novels of the frontier period known as the Leatherstocking Tales. Among naval historians, Cooper's works on the early U.S. Navy have been well received, but they were sometimes criticized by his contemporaries. Among his most famous works is the Romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans, often regarded as his masterpiece.
Contents [hide] 1৪rly life and family 2 Service in the Navy 3 Writings 3.1irst Endeavors 3.2urope 3.3鮬k to America 3.4 Historical and Nautical Work 3.5ritical reaction 4 Later life 5 Religious activities 6 Legacy 7 Works 8 Notes 9 References 10ibliography 10.1 Primary sources 11urther reading 12xternal links Early life and family James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey in 1789 to William Cooper and Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper, the eleventh of 12 children, most of whom died during infancy or childhood. He was descended from James Cooper of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, who emigrated to the American colonies in 1679. James and his wife were Quakers who purchased plots of land in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Seventy-five years after his arrival in America, his great-grandson William was born on December 2, 1754. Shortly after James' first birthday, his family moved to Cooperstown, New York, a community founded by his father on a large piece of land which he had bought for development. Later, his father was elected as a United States Congressman from Otsego County. Their town was in a central area of New York that had previously been occupied by the Iroquois of the Six Nations. The Iroquois were forced to cede their territory after British defeat in the Revolutionary War, as they had been allies.
Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, the state opened up these former Iroquois lands for sale and development. Cooper's father purchased several thousand acres of land in upstate New York along the head-waters of the Susquehanna River. By 1788, William Cooper had selected and surveyed the site where Cooperstown would be established. He erected a home on the shore of Otsego lake and moved his family there in the autumn of 1790. He soon began construction of the mansion that would be known as Otsego Hall. It was completed in 1799 when James was ten.
Otsego Hall, Cooper's home At age 13, Cooper was enrolled at Yale, but he incited a dangerous prank that involved blowing up another student's door — after having already locked a donkey in a recitation room. Cooper was expelled in his third year without completing his degree. Disenchanted with college, he obtained work in 1806 as a sailor and, at age 17, joined the crew of a merchant vessel. By 1811, he obtained the rank of midshipman in the fledgling United States Navy, conferred upon him on an officer's warrant signed by Thomas Jefferson.
At 20, Cooper inherited a fortune from his father. He married Susan Augusta de Lancey at Mamaroneck, Westchester County, New York on January 1, 1811 at age 21. She was the daughter of a wealthy family who remained loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution. They had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Their daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper was a writer on nature, female suffrage, and other topics. She and her father often edited each other's work. Among his descendants was Paul Fenimore Cooper (1899), who also became a writer.
The young Cooper, in Midshipman's naval uniform In 1806 at the age of 17, Cooper joined the crew of the merchant ship Sterling as a common sailor. At the time, the Sterling was commanded by young John Johnston from Maine. Cooper served as a common seaman before the mast. His first voyage took some 40 stormy days at sea and brought him to an English market in Cowes with a cargo of flour. There Cooper saw his first glimpses of England. The Sterling passed through the Strait of Dover and arrived at Cowes, where she dropped anchor. Britain was in the midst of war with Napoleon's France at the time, so their ship was immediately approached by a British man-of-war and was boarded by some of its crew. They seized one of the Sterling's best crew members and impressed him into the British Royal Navy.[note 1]
Their next voyage took them to the Mediterranean along the coast of Spain, including Águilas and Cabo de Gata, where they picked up cargo to be taken back to America. Their stay in Spain lasted several weeks and impressed the young sailor, the accounts of which Cooper later referred to in his Mercedes of Castile, a novel about Columbus.
After serving aboard the Sterling for 11 months, Cooper joined the United States Navy on January 1, 1808, when he received his commission as a midshipman. Cooper had conducted himself well as a sailor, and his father, a former U.S. Congressman, easily secured a commission for him through his long-standing connections with politicians and naval officials. The warrant for Cooper's commission as midshipman was signed by President Jefferson and mailed by Naval Secretary Robert Smith, reaching Cooper on February 19. Along with the warrant was a copy of naval rules and regulations, a description of the required naval uniform, along with an oath that Cooper was to sign in front of a witness and to be returned with his letter of acceptance. Cooper signed the oath and had it notarized by New York attorney William Williams, Jr., who had previously certified the Sterling's crew. After Williams had confirmed Cooper's signature, Cooper mailed the document to Washington. On February 24, he received orders to report to the naval commander at New York City. [note 2] Joining the United States Navy fulfilled an aspiration Cooper had had since his youth.
Cooper's first naval assignment came in March 21, 1808 aboard the USS Vesuvius, an 82-foot bomb ketch that carried twelve guns and a thirteen-inch mortar. For his next assignment, Cooper served under Lieutenant Melancthon Taylor Woolsey near Oswego on Lake Ontario, building the brig USS Oneida for service on the lake. The vessel was intended for use in a war with Great Britain which had yet to begin. The vessel was completed, armed with sixteen guns, and launched in Lake Ontario in the spring of 1809. It was in this service that Cooper learned shipbuilding, shipyard duties, and frontier life. During his leisure time, Cooper would venture through the forests of New York state and explore the shores of Lake Ontario. He took frequent cruises among the Thousand Islands where he spent time fishing. His experiences in the Oswego area later inspired some of his work, including his novel The Pathfinder. [note 3]
After completion of the Oneida in 1809, Cooper accompanied Woolsey to Niagara Falls, and was then ordered to Lake Champlain to serve aboard a gunboat until the winter months when the lake froze over. On November 13 of the same year, he was assigned to the USS Wasp under the command of Captain James Lawrence, who was from Burlington and a personal friend of Cooper's. Aboard this ship, Cooper met his lifelong friend William Branford Shubrick, who was also a midshipman at the time. Cooper later dedicated The Pilot, The Red Rover, and other writings to Shubrick.
Writings First Endeavors
The Last of the Mohicans Illustration from 1896 edition, by J.T. Merrill In 1820, Cooper's wife Susan wagered that he could write a book better than the one that she was reading. In response to the wager, Cooper wrote the novel Precaution (1820). Its focus on morals and manners was influenced by Jane Austen's approach to fiction. He anonymously published Precaution and it received favorable notice from the United States and England. By contrast, his second novel The Spy (1821) was inspired by a tale related to him by neighbor and family friend John Jay. It was more successful and became a bestseller the setting of this Revolutionary War tale is widely believed to have been John Jay's family home "The Locusts" in Rye, New York. In 1823, Cooper published The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking series. The series features Natty Bumppo, a resourceful American woodsman at home with the Delaware Indians and their chief Chingachgook. Bumppo was also the main character of Cooper's most famous novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), written in New York City where Cooper and his family lived from 1822 to 1826. The book became one of the most widely read American novels of the 19th century.
In 1823, Cooper was living in New York on Beach Street in what is now downtown's Tribeca. While there, he became a member of the Philadelphia Philosophical Society. In August of that year, his first son died.
In 1824, General Lafayette arrived from France aboard the Cadmus at Castle Garden in New York City as the nation's guest. Cooper witnessed his arrival and was one of the active committee of welcome and entertainment.
Europe In 1826, Cooper moved his family to Europe, where he sought to gain more income from his books as well as to provide better education for his children. While overseas, he continued to write. His books published in Paris include The Red Rover and The Water Witch, two of his many sea stories. During his time in Paris, the Cooper family was seen[by whom?] as the center of the small American expatriate community. During this time, he developed friendships with painter Samuel Morse and with French general and American Revolutionary War hero Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1832, Cooper entered the lists as a political writer in a series of letters to Le National, a Parisian journal. He defended the United States against a string of charges brought by the Revue Britannique. For the rest of his life, he continued skirmishing in print, sometimes for the national interest, sometimes for that of the individual, and frequently for both at once.
This opportunity to make a political confession of faith reflected the political turn that he already had taken in his fiction, having attacked European anti-republicanism in The Bravo (1831). Cooper continued this political course in The Heidenmauer (1832) and The Headsman: or the Abbaye of Vigneron (1833). The Bravo depicted Venice as a place where a ruthless oligarchy lurks behind the mask of the "serene republic". All were widely read on both sides of the Atlantic, though The Bravo was a critical failure in the United States.
Back to America In 1833, Cooper returned to the United States and published A Letter to My Countrymen in which he gave his criticism of various social mores. Promotional material from his publisher indicated that:
A Letter To My Countrymen remains Cooper's most trenchant work of social criticism. In it, he defines the role of the "man of letters" in a republic, the true conservative, the slavery of party affiliations, and the nature of the legislative branch of government. He also offers her most persuasive argument on why America should develop its own art and literary culture, ignoring the aristocratically and monarchically tainted art of Europe.
Cooper sharply censured his compatriots for their share in it. He followed up with novels and several sets of notes on his travels and experiences in Europe. His Homeward Bound and Home as Found are notable for containing a highly idealized self-portrait.
In June 1834, Cooper decided to reopen his ancestral mansion Otsego Hall at Cooperstown. It had long been closed and falling into decay he had been absent from the mansion nearly 16 years. Repairs were begun, and the house was put in order. At first, he wintered in New York City and summered in Cooperstown, but eventually he made Otsego Hall his permanent home.
On May 10, 1839, Cooper published History of the Navy of the United States of America, a work that he had long planned on writing. He publicly announced his intentions to author such a historical work while abroad before departing for Europe in May, 1826, during a parting speech at a dinner given in his honor:
Encouraged by your kindness, I will take this opportunity of recording the deeds and sufferings of a class of men to which this nation owes a debt of gratitude – a class of men among whom, I am always ready to declare, not only the earliest, but many of the happiest days of my youth have been passed. Historical and Nautical Work His historical account of the U.S. Navy was first well received but later harshly criticized in America and abroad. It took Cooper 14 years to research and gather material for the book. His close association with the U.S. Navy and various officers, and his familiarity with naval life at sea provided him the background and connections to research and write this work. Cooper's work is said to have stood the test of time and is considered an authoritative account of the U.S. Navy during that time.
Portrait by John Wesley Jarvis of Cooper in naval uniform In 1844, Cooper's Proceedings of the naval court martial in the case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, a commander in the navy of the United States, &c:, was first published in Graham's Magazine of 1843. It was a review of the court martial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie who had hanged three crew members of the brig USS Sommers for mutiny while at sea. One of the hanged men, 19-year-old Philip Spencer, was the son of U.S. Secretary of War John C. Spencer. He was executed without court-martial along with two other sailors aboard the Somers for allegedly attempting mutiny. Prior to this affair, Cooper was in the process of giving harsh review to Mackenzie's version of the Battle of Lake Erie. Mackenzie had previously given harsh criticism to Cooper's interpretation of the Battle of Lake Erie contained in Cooper's History of the Navy of the United States, 1839. However, he still felt sympathetic to Mackenzie over his pending court martial.
In 1846, Cooper published Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers covering the biographies of Commodores William Bainbridge, Richard Somers, John Shaw, William Shubrick, and Edward Preble. Cooper died in 1851. In May 1853, Cooper's Old Ironsides appeared in Putnam's Monthly. It was the history of the Navy ship USS Constitution and became the first posthumous publication of his writings. In 1856, five years after Cooper's death, his History of the Navy of the United States of America was published. The work was an account of the U.S. Navy in the early 19th century. Among naval historians of today, the work has come to be recognized as a general and authoritative account. However, it was criticized for accuracy on some points by other students of that period. For example, Cooper's account of the Battle of Lake Erie was said to be less than accurate by some naval historians. For making such claims, Cooper once sued Park Benjamin, Sr. for libel, a poet and editor of the Evening Signal of New York.
Critical reaction Cooper's books related to current politics, coupled with his self-promotion, increased the ill feeling between the author and the public. The Whig press was virulent in its comments about him, and Cooper filed legal actions for libel, winning all his lawsuits.
After concluding his last case in court, Cooper returned to writing with more energy and success than he'd had for several years. On May 10, 1839, he published his History of the U.S. Navy, and returned to the Leatherstocking Tales series with The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841) and other novels. He wrote again on maritime themes, including Ned Myers, or A Life Before the Mast, which is of particular interest to naval historians.
In the late 1840s, Cooper returned to his public attacks on his critics and enemies in a series of novels called the Littlepage Trilogy where he defended landowners along the Hudson River, lending them social and political support against rebellious tenant farmers in the anti-rent wars that marked this period. One of his later novels was The Crater, an allegory of the rise and fall of the United States, authored in 1848. His growing sense of historical doom was exemplified in this work. At the end of his career, he wrote a scornful satire about American social life and legal practices called The Ways of the Hour, authored in 1850.
Later life He turned again from pure fiction to the combination of art and controversy in which he had achieved distinction with the Littlepage Manuscripts (1845). His next novel was The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak (1847), in which he attempted to introduce supernatural machinery. Jack Tier (1848) was a remaking of The Red Rover, and The Ways of the Hour was his last completed novel.
Cooper spent the last years of his life back in Cooperstown. He died of dropsy in the early hours of September 15, 1851, his 62nd birthday. His interment was in Christ Episcopal Churchyard, where his father, William Cooper, was buried. Cooper's wife Susan survived her husband only by a few months and was buried by his side at Cooperstown.
Several well-known writers, politicians, and other public figures honored Cooper's memory with a dinner in New York, six months after his death, in February 1852. Daniel Webster presided over the event and gave a speech to the gathering while Washington Irving served as a co-chairman, along with William Cullen Bryant, who also gave an address which did much to restore Cooper's damaged reputation among American writers of the time.
Religious activities Beginning in his youth Cooper was a devoted follower of the Episcopal Church where his religious convictions deepened throughout his life. He was an active member of Christ Episcopal Church, which at the time was a small parish in Cooperstown not far from his home. Much later in his life, in 1834, he became its warden and vestryman. As the vestryman, he donated generously to this church and later supervised and redesigned its interior with oak furnishings at his own expense. In July 1851 he was confirmed in this church by the Reverend Mr. Birdsall.
Statue in Cooperstown, New York Cooper was one of the most popular 19th-century American authors, and his work was admired greatly throughout the world. While on his death bed, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert wanted most to read more of Cooper's novels. Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist and playwright, admired him greatly. Henry David Thoreau, while attending Harvard, incorporated some of Cooper's style in his own work. Cooper's work, particularly The Pioneers and The Pilot, demonstrate an early 19th-century American preoccupation with alternating prudence and negligence in a country where property rights were often still in dispute.
Cooper was one of the first major American novelists to include African, African-American and Native American characters in his works. In particular, Native Americans play central roles in his Leatherstocking tales. However, his treatment of this group is complex and highlights the tenuous relationship between frontier settlers and American Indians as exemplified in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, depicting a captured white girl who is taken care of by an Indian chief and who after several years is eventually returned to her parents. Often, he gives contrasting views of Native characters to emphasize their potential for good, or conversely, their proclivity for mayhem. Last of the Mohicans includes both the character of Magua, who is devoid of almost any redeeming qualities, as well as Chingachgook, the last chief of the Mohicans, is portrayed as noble, courageous, and heroic. In 1831, Cooper was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Honorary Academician.
According to Tad Szulc, Cooper was a devotee of Poland's causes (uprisings to regain Polish sovereignty). He brought flags of the defeated Polish rebel regiment from Warsaw and presented them to the exiled leaders in Paris. And although Cooper and Marquis de La Fayette were friends, it remains unclear how Cooper found himself in Warsaw at that historical moment, although he was an active supporter of European democratic movements.
Though some scholars have hesitated to classify Cooper as a strict Romantic, Victor Hugo pronounced him greater than the great master[who?] of modern romance.[not in citation given] This verdict was echoed by a multitude of less famous readers, such as Balzac and Rudolf Drescher of Germany, who were satisfied with no title for their favorite less than that of the "American Scott." Mark Twain famously criticized The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder in his satirical but shrewdly observant essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895), which portrays Cooper's writing as cliched and overwrought. Cooper was honored on a U.S. commemorative stamp, the Famous American series, issued in 1940.
Cooper was honored on a U.S. commemorative stamp, the Famous American series, issued in 1940 Cooper was also criticized heavily for his depiction of women characters in his work. James Russell Lowell, Cooper's contemporary and a critic, referred to it poetically in A Fable for Critics, writing, ". . . the women he draws from one model don't vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie."
Cooper's lasting reputation today rests largely upon the five Leatherstocking tales. As for the remaining body of his work, literary scholar Leslie Fiedler notes that Cooper's "collected works are monumental in their cumulative dullness."
Three dining halls at the State University of New York at Oswego are named in Cooper's remembrance (Cooper Hall, The Pathfinder, and Littlepage) because of his temporary residence in Oswego and for setting some of his works there. The gilded and red tole chandelier hanging in the library of the White House in Washington DC is from the family of James Fenimore Cooper. It was brought there through the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in her great White House restoration. The James Fenimore Cooper Memorial Prize at New York University is awarded annually to an outstanding undergraduate student of journalism.
In 2013, Cooper was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.
James Fenimore Cooper's novels were very popular in the rest of the world, including, for instance, Russia. In particular, great interest of Russian public in Cooper's work was primarily incited by the novel The Pathfinder. A novel, which the renowned Russian literary critic Belinsky declared to be "a Shakespearean drama in the form of a novel". Their author was more recognizable by his exotic to many in Russia middle name Fenimore, and this name specifically became a symbol of exciting adventures. For example, in the 1977 Soviet movie The Secret of Fenimore (Russian: Тайна Фенимора), being the third part of a children's television mini-series Three cheerful shifts (Russian: Три весёлые смены, see Tri vesyolye smeny (1977) at the Internet Movie Database), tells of a mysterious stranger addressed to as Fenimore, visiting nightly a boys' ward in a summer camp and relating fascinating stories about Indians and extraterrestrials.
James Fenimore Cooper
Novelist and social critic James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was the first major American writer to deal imaginatively with American life, notably in his five "Leather-Stocking Tales." He was also a critic of the political, social, and religious problems of the day.
James Cooper (his mother's family name of Fenimore was legally added in 1826) was born in Burlington, N.J., on Sept. 15, 1789, the eleventh of 12 children of William Cooper, a pioneering landowner and developer in New Jersey and New York. When James was 14 months old, his father moved the family to a vast tract of wilderness at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River in New York State where, on a system of small land grants, he had established the village of Cooperstown at the foot of Otsego Lake.
Here, in the "Manor House," later known as Otsego Hall, Cooper grew up, the privileged son of the "squire" of a primitive community. He enjoyed the amenities of a transplanted civilization while reading, in the writings of the wilderness missionary John Gottlieb Heckewelder, about the Native Americans who had long since retreated westward, and about life in the Old World in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Meanwhile, he attended the local school and Episcopal church. The lore of the wilderness learned from excursions into the surrounding forests and from local trappers and hunters, the stories of life in the great estates of neighboring Dutch patroons and English patentees, and the gossip of revolution-torn Europe brought by refugees of all classes furnished him with materials for his later novels, histories, and commentaries.
For the present, however, Cooper was a vigorous and obstreperous young man who was sent away to be educated, first by a clergyman in Albany, and then at Yale, from which he was dismissed for a student prank. His father next arranged for him to go to sea, first in a merchant vessel to England and Spain, and then in the Navy these experiences stimulated at least a third of his later imaginative writing.
When Cooper returned to civilian life in 1811, he married Susan Augusta DeLancey of a formerly wealthy New York Tory family and established himself in Westchester County overlooking Long Island Sound, a gentleman farmer involved in the local militia, Agricultural Society, and Episcopal church. It was here, at the age of 30, that he published his first novel, written on a challenge from his wife.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789 - 1851)
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER, son or William and Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper, born Sept. 15, 1789 at Burlington, N.J., died Sept. 14, 1851 at Cooperstown, N.Y.
In Oct. 1790, when he was one year old, he moved with his family to Cooperstown, Otsego County, N.Y. In 1802 he entered Yale College, but was dismissed in 1805. He served with the U.S. Navy from 1808 to 1811.
At twenty, Cooper inherited a fortune from his father. On January 1, 1811, at age twenty one, he was married at Mamaroneck, Westchester County, N.Y. to Susan Augusta DeLancey (b. Jan. 28, 1792, d. Jan. 20, 1852), daughter of John Peter and Elizabeth (Floyd) DeLancey. Susan Augusta de Lancey was the daughter of a wealthy family that remained loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution.
They had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. His daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, was a writer on nature, female suffrage, and other topics. She and her father often edited each other's work] Paul Fenimore Cooper (1899–1970) a writer during the 20th century, was a great-grandson of James Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper gained fame as an author of American fiction. His historical romances of frontier and Indian life in the early American days created a unique form of American literature. His five Leatherstocking Tales about the American frontier hero Natty Bumppo were the most famous. Of these, The Deerslayer and The Pioneers were set in the area of Otsego Lake and Cooperstown, N.Y.
Cooper resided in Westchester County Cooperstown, N.Y. Scarsdale New York City and Europe. His final residence was Otsego Hall in Cooperstown.
He and his wife are buried in Christ Church Cemetery, Cooperstown, N.Y.
He was originally known as James Cooper, but after his father's death, he attempted to have his surname legally changed to Fenimore to inherit property from his mother's family. Since this was refused, he called himself James Fenimore-Cooper thereafter, finally dropping the hyphen and using Fenimore as a middle name. [There is no hard evidence that Cooper sought to change his last name to Fenimore the New York State Legislature in 1826 legally authorized his name to be changed from James Cooper to James Fenimore Cooper.]
Children of James Fenimore and Susan A. (DeLancey) Cooper:
Elizabeth Cooper (1533<11>1), b. Sept. 27, 1811, Mamaroneck, d. July 13, 1813, Cooperstown, buried Christ Church Cemetery.
Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper (1533<11>2), b. Apr. 17, 1813, Mamaroneck, d. Dec. 31, 1894
3.*Caroline Martha Cooper (1533<11>3), b. June 26, 1815,Cooperstown, d. Jan. 13, 1892, Cooperstown
4. Anne Charlotte Fenimore Cooper (1533<11>4), b. May 14, 1817, Cooperstown (Fenimore Farm), d. Mar. 17, 1885, buried Christ Church Cemetery, Cooperstown
5. *Maria Frances Fenimore Cooper(1533<11>5), b. June 15, 1819, d. Oct. 26, 1898, Cooperstown
6. Fenimore Cooper (1533<11>6), b. Oct. 23, 1821, d. Aug. 5, 1823, age 1 yr., 10 mos., at home (3 Beach St., New York City) from effects of teething
7. *Paul Fenimore Cooper (1533<11>7), b. Feb. 3, 1824, d. Apr. 2, 1895 (Page 256 of The Legends and Traditions.)
James Fenimore Cooper and the American Experiment
In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper was worried about American democracy. He was apprehensive, not about America’s democratic institutions during the Jacksonian era so much as he was concerned that features of American civil society, like newspapers, like religion, like political economy, were becoming the greatest threats to the maintenance of American democratic legitimacy. Although Cooper, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that natural rights were a given, he feared that the young republic’s post-revolutionary culture might not be able to preserve those natural rights because of an increasingly conformist and fatuous public sphere.
After a half dozen years living aboard, Cooper described how returning to America, he found himself a “foreigner in his own country.” He noted two alarming features, “the disposition of the majority to carry out the opinions of the system to the extremes and a disposition of the minority to abandon all to the current day.” His instructional book, The American Democrat: Or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America was his attempt to offer both a diagnosis and a remedy.
In The American Democrat, Cooper began to thread the needle between his commitment to the rule of the majority and its imperative for the maintenance of democracy and his increasing worry about how the majority might become a mob and thus threaten minorities:
The majority rules in prescribed cases, and in no others. It elects to office, it enacts ordinary laws, subject however to the restriction of the constitution, and it decides most of the questions that arise in the primitive meetings of the people questions that do not usually effect any of the principal interests of life.
Cooper was safeguarding liberty and majority rule but restricting it to “questions that do not usually effect any of the principal interests of life.” Rather than a paean to democracy, Cooper notes, “we do not adopt the popular polity because it is perfect, but because it is less imperfect than any other.” (Apparently, Winston Churchill had been reading James Fenimore Cooper, as well.) “As no man is without spot in his justice, as no man has infinite wisdom, or infinite mercy, we are driven to take refuge… in the government of many.” This is rather steep decline from Cooper’s optimism regarding humanity’s natural justice, which he had celebrated more robustly in his earlier work, Notions of the Americans.
According to Cooper, one of the primary threats to democracy is the power of public opinion. On the positive side, democratic institutions tend “to equalize advantages and to spread is blessings over the entire surface of society.” But, because of the well-known concurrent tendency of democracies to “lend value and estimation to mediocrity,” the people of large democracies can lack the insight and intelligence to accurately judge character and thus are “exposed to become the dupes of demagogues and political schemers, most of the crimes of democracies arise from the faults and designs of men of this character, rather than from the propensities of the people, who having little temptation to do wrong, are seldom guilty of crimes except through ignorance.” It is also why democracies are particularly prone to the influence of foreign nations, “secret means are resorted to, to influence sentiment in this way, and we have witnessed in this country open appeals to the people… in matters of foreign relations, made by foreign, not to say, hostile agents,” an insight that comes over a century before the revelations about Cambridge Analytica.
Freedom and Self-Government
One of the mistakes citizens make regarding their understanding of liberty is the assumption that those nations with either the mildest or fewest laws are therefore the freest, “This opinion is untenable, since the power that concedes this freedom of action, can recall it.” Cooper then recounts a long story of a slaveowner who grants one slave liberty to travel to town and denies to the other the same privilege. The rather Aesop-like moral of the story is that neither slave is free since each is still subject to the will of the slave owner. Consequently, Cooper leaps, “it follows, that no country can properly be deemed free, unless the body of the nation possess, in the last resort, the legal power to frame its laws according to its wants.” Rule by simple majorities does not work, because of their inability to consider what is beyond their own self-interest and minority rule, even by “the educated and affluent classes of a country” is also insufficient since they, too, are prone to the same self-aggrandizement.
Fortuitously, the resolution is that
nature has rendered man incapable of enjoying freedom without restraint, and in the other, incapable of submitting, entirely without resistance, to oppression. The harshest despots are compelled to acknowledge the immutable principles of eternal justice, affecting the necessity and the love of right…
For Cooper, much rests on the configuration of the constitution, a hallowed document from the founding era, which maintains the balance between the reckless mob of the majority and the partisan interests of the minority. Even as Cooper has thoughtfully detailed how civil society jeopardizes the mechanisms and constitutional instructions of democracy, he does not develop a robust conception of power, offering only a tidy summation: “Certain general principles that shall do as little violence to natural justice, as is compatible with the peace and security of society.”
Although Cooper was always clear than no one in his family had ever owned slaves, he has the views on American slavery one would expect from an aristocratic land owner in 1838:
It is quite possible to be an excellent Christian and a slave holder and the relations of master and slave, may be a means of exhibiting some of the mildest graces of the character… In one sense, slavery may actually benefit a man, there being little doubt that the African is, in nearly all respects, better off in servitude in this country, than when living in a state of barbarism at home.
Cooper has a rather complicated, if not convoluted, assessment of slavery. On the one hand, he maintains that the virtues of Christianity are compatible with slavery, in part, because the slave owner can cultivate his compassion, generosity and understanding of those without his (natural) advantages. Yet, on the other hand, Cooper maintains his confidence in black inferiority while noting that Africans, too, can benefit from being in democratic America. Similarly, Cooper gives Native Americans significantly more agency in his fiction, than his contemporaries do, but he also continues to limit their full human development to the colonial imagination of the 1830’s and 1840’s.
Cooper acknowledges that the institution damages the ethical sensibility of the slave holder, “it leads to sin in its consequences, in a way peculiarly its own, and may be set down as a impolitic and vicious institution. It encourages those faults of character that depend on an uncontrolled will, on the one side, and an abject submission, on the other.” Cooper acknowledges that the institution is damaging the foundations of American democracy—autonomy, restraint, and education. It is an early iteration of what will become pivotal to the case for racial equity from Frederick Douglass to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cooper discusses, too, how “nature has made a stamp on the American slave” that will make it difficult for him to integrate into American society once slavery is abolished. He proclaims, “American slavery shall cease, and when that day shall arrive (unless early and effectual means are devised to obviate it) two races will exist in the same region, whose feelings will be embittered by inextinguishable hatred, and who carry on their faces, the respective stamps of their factions.” This is as accurate of a forecast of the period of Reconstruction as historically exists. And, so Cooper recommends the legal process he is adamant that “slavery can be legally abolished by amending the constitution, and Congress has the power, by a vote of two-thirds of both houses, to propose amendments to that instrument. Now, whatever congress has power to do, it has power to discuss.” But, he says, “it would be equal madness for congress, in the present state of the country, to attempt to propose an amendment to the constitution, to abolish slavery altogether, as it would infallibly fail.”
It is tempting to read The American Democrat, as some have suggested, as biographical vengeance rather than political philosophy. Many of the criticisms that Cooper makes about the threats to democracy, especially regarding public opinion, had deeply affected his own personal life. For by 1837, as one of Cooper’s early biographers noted, “Cooper had pretty sedulously improved every opportunity of making himself unpopular. His criticisms had been distributed with admiral impartiality.” Cooper had disparaged nearly everyone and everything: from the Old Federalist party, which he accused of secretly longing for monarchy to the sons of Puritans who he had exasperated by styling them “the grand inquisitors of private life” as well as nearly all of the people of the Northern states, as he declared repeatedly that it was in the Middle States alone that the English language was spoken with purity. So, that he despised newspapers and public opinion and religion might be personal. For newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic disdained him. But, while this is a casually rewarding way to interpret this book, especially when one includes his expulsion from Yale at 16 after locking a donkey in a recitation room and exploding the door off another student’s room, the fact is that Cooper has insightfully assessed features of American democracy that remain salient to this day. He raises concerns and offers insights that are remarkably similar to those of the travelling aristocrat reporting on American democracy at the same time, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Reading Cooper today, one marvels at his prescient insights regarding the elements that could potentially threaten American democracy. Consider his assertion that in a democracy people became “impatient of all superiorities… and manifest a wish to prefer those who affect a deference to the public rather than those who are worthy.” Perhaps nothing makes that observation more salient than a hectic primary season bloated with sycophants adjusting their views to the whims of public polls.
In addition, Cooper recognized the risks of a populism led by demagogues. Etymologically, a demagogue is “a leader of the rabble,” but Cooper adds a more precise nuance as one “who seeks to advance his own interest by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people.” Cooper notes that “the true theatre of a demagogue is a democracy, for the body of the community possessing the power, the master he pretends to serve is best able to reward his efforts.”
Cooper then offers “rules” by which one can determine if a leader is acting in the interests of the people or on their own account: “The man who is constantly telling the people they are unerring in judgment, and that they have all power, is a demagogue.” A second rule is that a “demagogue always puts the people before the constitution and the laws, in face of the obvious truth that the people have placed the constitution and the laws before themselves.” And, finally, there is a revelatory test, Cooper details, by which “while proclaiming his devotion to the majority, he (the demagogue) in truth, opposes the will of the entire people, in order to effect his purposes with a part.”
It’s a powerful analysis of how the very features of democracy—the rule of the majority and the educated opinion of the people—is what renders them liable to the coercive power of the demagogue:
Liberty is not a matter of words, but a positive and important condition of society. Its greatest safeguards, after placing its foundations on a popular base, is in the checks and balances imposed on the public servants, and all its real friends ought to know that the most insidious attacks are made on it by those who are the largest trustees of authority, in their efforts to increase their power.
James Fenimore Cooper remains one of those treasures of the American literary canon, a writer able to capture the particularities of his historical age through his tales and novels, like The Last of the Mohicans and The Deer Slayer as well as one who offers enduring insights into not only the American national character but the perils that could potentially jeopardize the longevity of the great American experiment.
 For more on Notions of the Americans, see John P McWilliams, Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972).
 For a more extended treatment of Cooper’s characterization of the Negro in his novels, see Therman B. O’Daniel, “Cooper’s Treatment of the Negro” Phylon (1940-1956) vol. 8, no. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1947), pp.164-176.