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James Fenimore Cooper, who disliked being called the American Scott, would, one imagines, take no more kindly to being called the American Burke. Yet without the writings of Edmund Burke, Cooper's Leatherstocking Saga, and its by-product The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, would be of a very different character, if indeed they had been undertaken at all. Nor is this surprising. Two of Burke's essays on American rights—'On American taxation', 'On Conciliation with the Colonies'—were schoolroom texts, and he was associated with the Federalist component of Cooper's early milieu. His works were published instantaneously in American editions, and a major six volume edition was published in Boston in 1806. Cooper's first success, The Pioneers, reflects the paradoxes expressed by Burke both in the early essay A Vindication of Natural Society (which opens the collected works) and in his Reflections upon the Revolution in France. The subsequent Leatherstocking saga is quite as Burkean: the formative aesthetic treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful resonates throughout The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Cooper's most thoughtful historical novel, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, is conspicuously permeated by both Reflections and the Philosophical Enquiry, and his own political treatise The American Democrat shares surprisingly many of his assumptions. Yet because Cooper refers to Burke just twice in his voluminous writings, Cooper scholars do so hardly at all. [1]

The Pioneers, George Dekker has said, 'is one of a handful of great novels which deal so profoundly with American experience in the context of American social history that no American literature or history course can be sound without them.' [2] Its context, however, is less parochial than that. Written in 1823, the novel opens with a reflection on the condition of upstate New York at that time, as a place rejoicing in 'unfettered liberty of conscience' and 'exhibiting how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws, and where every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth, of which he knows himself to form a part'. [3] This complacent note is reminiscent not only of Rousseau's 'volonté générale' but of the numerous celebrations of republican prosperity written throughout the period from the 1780s to the 1830s by Crèvecoeur, Adam Smith, Tom Paine, Chateaubriand and Tocqueville. Lafayette, too, attributed American prosperity to 'institutions founded on the rights of man and the republican principle of self-government'. [4] The point is reinforced—and related to the Federalist interpretation of the Revolution—by an immediately subsequent reference to the permanent improvements being made by a hereditary 'yeomanry', though as Cooper well knew, no such yeoman republic existed in New York, which was still at the time of writing, governed by an aristocratic elite whose power sprang, as Paine had complained, from its enormous landholdings.

The confident opening note is perhaps a little shadowed by Cooper's reference, in the following paragraph, to the swelling population of 'a million and a half inhabitants' (that is, in 1823) 'who are maintained in abundance, and can look forward to ages before the evil day must arrive, when their possessions shall become unequal to their wants'. As it happens, for much of the novel, the leading citizen, Judge Temple, founder of Templeton, will be in ineffectual dispute with his Sheriff and his Law Officers and Deputies, who cannot be brought to see what Temple and Natty can see very clearly, that what Natty calls their 'wasty ways' already threaten the destruction of the paradise whose bounty they exploit with all possible speed and the least possible restraint. The irony is deepened when one remembers that the action of the novel is set in 1793, when Europe 'was in the commencement of that commotion which afterwards shook her political institutions to the centre ... and a nation, once esteemed the most refined among the civilized peoples of the world, was changing its character, and substituting cruelty for mercy' (chapter 8, 96). In 1794, inspired by this commotion, Condorcet would ask: 'Must there not arrive a period ... When the increase in the number of men surpassing their means of subsistence, the necessary result must be either a continual diminution of happiness and population, a movement truly retrograde, or, at least, a kind of oscillation between good and evil?' Citing this passage in 1798 while discussing the inequality between population and production Malthus would find that 'the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind'. [5]

It is perhaps stretching a point to note that in 1793 one Tom Paine, author of Common Sense and of The Rights of Man, was imprisoned for ten months in Paris for displeasing the Directory. Natty Bumppo spends merely an afternoon in the stocks for colliding with the new edicts of Judge Temple. M. Le Quoi, who is in Templeton as a refugee from the Terror, finds it safe to make his way back to French possessions in the milder climate of late 1794, when, as it happens, Paine was released. But it is surely pertinent to note that 1793 is the year of the first edition of William Godwin's Political Justice, the most reflective of all the replies to Burke's alarming Reflections, and that in the historical epoch in which the novel is set, the terms of political debate had already been set by Edmund Burke and Tom Paine as the two English figures whose names were most popularly linked with American liberty. [6] Until the publication of Reflections, Burke's liberal reputation was such that Paine expected his friend to lead pro-French opinion in England, and Mirabeau cited him regularly in the Constituent Assembly. In England, after its publication, and that of Paine's reply in The Rights of Man you were either a Burkean or a Paineite. In America it remained possible, or so the career of James Fenimore Cooper suggests, to be both. Certainly, when writing in 1823, a novel set in his childhood home in the period of his own boyhood, and contemplating the justice of his father's polity, Cooper combines the mind of Burke, the heart of Paine, and the language of both, in surprisingly evocative ways.

It is usual to see Cooper developing an American historical novel out of the Scott model. In Waverley, for instance, the hero has to choose between a romantic identification with the Highland clans and a future within the new British constitutional settlement. Similarly, Cooper's young hero Oliver Effingham has to choose between marrying into the prosaic future of the new settlements, and their painful progress towards order, and remaining loyal to the past. In disguise for much of the novel as Oliver Edwards, he appears to be mysteriously related to two figures who represent that past, Natty Bumppo, the Leatherstocking, and Chingachgook, or Indian John Mohegan. Actually, he is the grandson of the loyalist Major Effingham whose estates—originally conferred on him by the gift of Chingachgook, and passed on to his son—were confiscated after the American Revolution and acquired by Marmaduke Temple. Temple, though Oliver is not aware of this, has always regarded himself as merely holding them in trust for his lost friend or his issue. The plot may be somewhat obscured by these Shakespearean disguises and surprises, as it leads towards the union of Oliver Effingham and Temple's daughter, but is designed to suggest simultaneously the ultimate legitimacy of this young American couple's possession of land which was once Indian, and the healing of the wounds of 1776 when loyalist (or 'Tory') estates were—in part at the suggestion of the aforementioned Tom Paine—confiscated by the victors for the benefit of patriots.

This, however, is neither the sole, nor emotionally and imaginatively, the primary plot. Templeton, the scene of the action, is a settlement run by its somewhat feudal but nonetheless modernising and constitutional proprietor, Judge Temple (a compound of Cooper's prosaic father, William Cooper of Cooperstown and the equally enterprising and considerably more Romantic, Governor De Witt Clinton) whose laudable ambitions are to temper the rape of the land by its pioneers and to establish a system of lawful governance. The legitimacy of this ambition is challenged not only by the claims of the expropriated Effinghams, but by the presence of two relics of the past. Natty Bumppo, whose presence on the lake long predates that of Temple, now appears an out-of-place squatter with no foot in this world of property and law; yet his blood-brother, Chingachgook, is the last representative of the Mohicans, the original owners of the territory. The question for the reader is not whether the Temples or the Effinghams are the legitimate owners, but whether a world of title deeds can justly supplant a world of natural rights.

The novel opens with a parable of legality of which the tenor is that of Blake's Paineite poem, 'London'—namely, what is a 'chartered' liberty? Blake's denunciatory voice in 'London' focuses on the monopolistic implications of charters which reserve for the benefit of a 'titled' few what was once the liberty of all:

I wander through each chartered street

Near where the chartered Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Cooper became aware of such 'mind-forged manacles' in London in 1806, as a merchant sailor. Encouraged to exercise his 'right' to enter a Royal park, he understood for the first time, he says, the difference between genuine liberty and mere 'franchise'. [7] Judge Temple, on his way home with his daughter, stops his sleigh to fire twice at a fine buck in flight from the hounds of the Leatherstocking. His shots miss, but the buck is mysteriously brought down by two further shots, fired it transpires by Natty and by Oliver. The Judge persists in claiming it as his own, on the grounds that it is in his woods, whether he has shot it or not, until he realises that he has wounded Oliver. Despite Oliver's wound, which will later be healed by the ancient arts of Chingachgook, the dispute takes several pages to resolve, because a variety of claims have to be asserted and the Judge is determined to establish 'title' by purchase if not by deed or by shot. Natty is unwilling 'to give up my lawful dues in a free country.—Though for the matter of that, might often makes right here, as well as in the old country for what I can see' (1: 22). Oliver believes that his own shot killed it, and proves that the Judge's did not, since he miraculously detects four of the Judge's five shot in a nearby pine tree, and the fifth in his own body. At this the Judge cedes 'title' in the venison, but also declaims in feudal grandeur:

'I here give a right to shoot deer, or bears, or any thing thou pleasest in my woods, for ever. Leather-stocking is the only other man that I have granted the same privilege to; and the time is coming when it will be of value'.


Natty, who has never heard of any law that a man shouldn't kill deer where he pleases, stands on the rights of man in a state of nature.

'There's them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo's right to shoot on these hills is of older date than Marmaduke Temple's right to forbid him'.

The Judge's rule, of course, is not quite absolute, nor is he the big bad baron. He functions as an odd blend of old baron and new whig, with a considerable admixture of the archetypal liberal. At a later point, when the potential for rapport seems to exist between Natty and Temple on the matter of wasteful felling and wasteful fishing, Temple tells Natty that laws have been passed controlling use of seines and the cutting of timber and adds, '"I hope to live to see the day, when a man's rights in his game shall be as much respected as his title to his farm."' Natty is unimpressed: '"Your titles and your farms are all new together," cried Natty; "but laws should be equal, and not more for one than another."' (14: 134). Refusing Temple's equation of broad ecological management with hunting rights (he knows nothing of his interest in developing mining rights), Natty sees Temple's notion of establishing proprietorial rights in game as restoring old-world inequalities between gamekeeper and poacher. Precisely such inequality is a principle indictment against the ruling class in Obadiah Hulme's Historical Essay on the English Constitution, a exposition of the 'Norman yoke' theory of English history which exercised considerable influence in 1776, on such writers as 'Demophilus' and such persons as Thomas Jefferson. As Hulme complained:

They have engrossed, within a line of their own drawing, all hares, wild fowl, and fish, that are natives of this kingdom; which, in their own nature, being wild and wandering, and not subject to restraint, are, therefore, the natural right of the first man that can catch them. [8]

Temple's arguably self-interested law-making will bring about the major parable of the novel. At a later point, when it is established that the Judge has created a close season, Natty again shoots a deer, as a result of a ruse set up by one Hiram Doolittle, a corrupt legal officer who, for reasons of his own, wants an excuse to search Natty's hut. Doolittle has released Natty's hounds, which start a deer. Natty and Chingachgook, unable to resist the call of the wild, intercept the deer on the lakeshore, and Natty kills it. Doolittle acquires a search-warrant, on the pretext of looking for the carcass or the hide. Natty resists the execution of the search warrant, is tried for both crimes, and sentenced to the stocks and to a fine and/or imprisonment (the stocks, Cooper points out, were a legacy of the common law, which Paine—unlike Cooper—was particularly anxious to extirpate in favour of a new republican code). His dignity is outraged, he has no money, and of all men in the novel, cannot abide the loss of liberty. He is also, of course, the one figure in the novel whose relation to the natural world does not need to be controlled by the laws Judge Temple has found necessary for the rest of the settlers. In terms of abuse of the resources of Lake Otsego, every law officer in Templeton is far guiltier than he.

Much of the novel—including all of its greatest and most poetic scenes—is devoted to establishing Natty as innately ecological and responsible. In a court room he may appear clumsy and out-of-touch, though his misunderstanding of court procedure have the possibly unintended effect of bringing legal process, not himself, into ridicule (at least, Cooper's ambivalence shows itself here in particularly confusing strength: his sympathy for Leatherstocking undercuts quite fatally the theme of needful legitimacy). With a rifle or a fishing spear in his hand, or steering a slender canoe across the waters, he is not merely in nature but of Nature, and the heart of the novel consists of successive narrative and descriptive passages whereby Cooper (as Donald Davie has shown most effectively) [9] shows his incipient Wordsworthianism in the unobtrusive shift from literalism to symbol.

Natty's touchstones are Billy Kirby, a robust and good-natured woodcutter whose business and pleasure is the destruction as efficiently as possible of virgin forest; and the Sheriff, who uses cannon to shoot pigeons and a seine to dredge the lake of its fish, in scenes which constitute a sort of mass 'Nutting', but without the saving recognition. As all of Cooper's readers recognise, Natty, in his own environment, has no need of law. He embodies justice, and is the fearless guide and protector of anyone weaker than himself, which—in his own habitat—means more or less everybody. Yet he becomes the helpless victim of an unjust law, triggered by villainy. In an abstract sense the law is necessary, Temple strives to administer it fairly, and Templeton will be the better for it: concretely, its only casualty is the most Adamic person on the scene, persecuted by the law's corrupt or compromised agents.

Almost any work on political theory from Aristotle to Locke would furnish passages pertinent to Natty's situation, but Edmund Burke express its irony particularly well:

One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is, that no man should be judge in his own cause. By this each person has at once divested himself of the first fundamental right of uncovenanted man, that is, to judge for himself, and to assert his own cause. He abdicates all right to be his own governor. He inclusively, in a great measure, abandons the right to self-defence, the first law of nature. Man cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it. [10]

This, at least, is how Judge Temple, scourge of Jacobin excess—'these Jacobins are as blood-thirsty as bull-dogs' (14: 133)—might put the case, in explaining the matter to his more Romantic daughter, whose heart inclines her towards Natty's position, and not merely because he has just saved her life. It is a persuasive case, partly because it was penned by the man who provided in his first published work, A Vindication of Natural Society, the most eloquent statement of its contrary. Natty himself, were he gifted in philosophical disputation, might well reply as follows (he habitually appeals to God as the author of a right state of things):

We will not place the State of Nature, which is the Reign of God, in competition with Political Society, which is the absurd Usurpation of Man. In a State of Nature, it is true, that a Man of superior Force may beat or rob me; but then it is true, that I am at full liberty to defend myself, or make Reprisal by Surprize or by Cunning, or by any other way in which I may be superior to him. But in a Political Society, a rich Man may rob me in another way... and if I attempt to avenge myself, the whole force of that Society is ready to complete my ruin. [11]

A Vindication of Natural Society, p. 87

Or, if not familiar with what Gilbert Imlay called 'Burke's paradoxical book', he might cite Paine, whose 1791 translation of Lafayette's 'Declaration des droits de l'homme', in defining 'the natural and imprescriptible rights of man' observed that 'Political liberty consists in the power of doing whatever does not injure another. The exercise of the natural rights of every man has no other limits than those which are necessary to secure to every other man the free exercise of those rights...'. There is, however, a further clause, or Catch-22, which Natty has not hitherto noticed: '...and these limits are determinable only by the law'. [12]

It is reasonable to assume, incidentally, as the Vindication is the first work in Burke's Complete Works (Boston 1806) and as Gilbert Imlay refers to it as early as 1792, that Cooper knew it. [13] That being so, it may also be relevant to note that Natty's claims on the Judge's interest include the fact that he welcomed the Judge to these parts, despite seeing Temple's interests as inimical to his own. He gave him his own bear-skin to sleep on, fed him on '"the fat of a noble buck"' ('"Yes, yes—you thought it no sin then to kill a deer!"'), and has just saved his daughter from a panther—a point not lost on Elizabeth or Oliver. Natty might well feel, in the words of the youthful Burke, that 'it is an incontestable truth, that there is more havoc made in one year by Men, of men than has been made by all the Lions, Tygers, Panthers...since the beginning of the world... But with respect to you, ye Legislators, ye Civilizers of Mankind!... your Regulations have done more Mischief in cold blood, than all the Rage of he fiercest Animals in their greatest Terrors, or Furies, has ever done or ever could do!' (Vindication 35). What he does say, more temperately, is 'there's them that says hard things to you, Marmaduke Temple, but you an't so bad as to wish to see an old man die in a prison because he stood up for the right. Come friend, let me pass; it's long sin' I've been used to such crowds, and I crave for the woods ag'in' (ch 33).

In Templeton, Natty has come to believe, Might is Right. At the close of the book Natty will say to Elizabeth and Oliver, symbolically descended from Quaker and Indian sires respectively, 'bless you and all that belong to you, from this time till the great day when the whites shall meet the red-skins in judgement, and justice shall be the law, and not power.' Like every comment Natty makes, it undermines Temple's law as having anything to do with natural justice, just as Cooper's emotional commitment to Natty makes nonsense of his intention to celebrate the progress of civil society.

When Burke wrote his Vindication of Natural Society, with its impassioned critique of all forms of human government ('In vain you tell me that Artificial government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!', 68), he intended its irony to be recognised. His purpose was to represent the anti-civil case as it might be put by a Bolingbroke, in order that its speciousness might be recognised. Yet, as Adam Phillips says of the Vindication, 'He had so successfully identified with the writer he opposed—and the theory, derived from Rousseau, of a natural as opposed to a civil society—that he had become stylistically indistinguishable from the object of his contempt. Nine years later, in the Preface to a second edition, Burke had to explain his ironic intentions.' [14] Cooper, when he created Natty Bumppo, and gave him the toothless grin and silent laugh and nose-wiping uncouthness of the comic outsider, did not intend that he should be a wholly persuasive spokesman for Paine's sansculotte views. The Leatherstocking is meant to be a touching irrelevance, an archaic hangover. Instead he not only walks away with the novel, but commands his creator to write four further novels, each of which takes us further from any sense of the moral superiority of white civilization or civil law and provides further vindications of a state of nature.

Natty's age fully disguises the fact that in terms of civil society his is an adolescent resistance to lawful authority that must be overcome. At the same time, his force of character undermines any sense one is meant to derive from the novel that the ways of the settlers represent moral progress. Thus, the Paineite or ironically Burkean sansculottism of the Leather-stocking is lent an authority which is quite at odds with the author's fixed views and intentions. [15] Nor is the theme of historical progression and legitimacy—the Henry V theme—much helped by the patently false fictional manoeuvres to which Cooper resorts. The sublime death of Chingachgook (he decides to allow himself to die during a forest fire brought about by the greed and carelessness of the settlers, and expires to the accompaniment of a thunder clap bringing rain), combined with the miraculous rescue of Elizabeth, and the brief reappearance of Major Effingham (named the Fire-Eater by the Mohicans who gave him the lands Temple now occupies) is meant to legitimise the act of dispossession that has now been completed by this rapacious white society. Mohegan recognises in Elizabeth Temple the Quaker heritage which he admired, and blesses the forthcoming union of the Royalist and Republican strains. He has remained quietly confident that Temple, in whom he sees the heritage of William Penn, or The Miquon, will willingly divide with Oliver the lands which he, Chingachgook, once gave to Major Effingham. In any case he himself articulates to Elizabeth the fatalistic view that 'the Great Spirit gave your fathers to know how to make guns and powder that they might sweep the Indians from the land'. Judge Temple's polity is meant to represent the future, but since neither Temple, nor ultimately his daughter and son-in-law, can command the reader's confidence, the myth of progress whereby in Chateaubriand's words 'this liberty of the United States replaces the liberty of the Indian' [16] is felt as a myth of regress.

Not for the last time, Cooper uses a gravestone motif with an effect which may or may not be ironical. Chingachgook (the Great Sarpent) whose splendid prime will be celebrated throughout three of the subsequent novels, is known for much of the novel as Mohegan, or John Mohegan or merely as Indian John. This progressive renaming, Fiona Stafford points out, mimes not only his loss of identity and status but the extinction of the Mohican people, and symbolically the Indian race. [17] At the end of the novel Natty contemplates the gravestones which Oliver Effingham, the Young Eagle, has erected for his Tory Grandfather and his Indian Godfather. A paragraph records the name and rank and the numerous martial and Christian virtues of Major Oliver Effingham. On Chingachgook's, erected by Oliver, to whom Chingachgook has bequeathed the lands of his nation, his name is mis-spelled and posterity is told merely that 'his faults were those of an Indian and his virtues those of a man.'

Natty no more notices the irony, and the slight, than he does the beautifully prepared irony in his own disappearance from the novel in flight from the face of man: 'He had gone far towards the setting sun,—the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent.' The reader must have wondered from time to time, when Cooper will introduce the 'pioneers' referred to in the title, rather than the motley assortment of settlers, exploiters, shopkeepers and landowners who make up the cast of the novel. The Pioneers, without Natty, would be a remarkably English social novel concerned with the foibles of a squire and his country neighbours. The close of the novel, with its affirmation that Natty is the Pioneer, leaves one with a bitter irony. Templeton, exemplary frontier settlement, cannot be home to the one figure who has bodied forth the values of natural justice America itself exists to realise. [18] 'Yes—yes', Natty will recognise as soon as he arrives in the opening pages of The Prairie, 'the law is needed, when such as have not the gifts of strength and wisdom are to be taken care of' [19] but for those who have such gifts, it represents too unpalatable a departure from the first principles of liberty. Of course, the reader recognises, waking from the anarchic dream into which Cooper's imagination has wandered, since all men are not Natty Bumppo, the civil law is needed. But this first Leatherstocking novel is the last in which that case will get so fair a hearing. The truly representative American is not Natty Bumppo but the proto-Jacksonian Billy Kirby, his natural antagonist, whose very occupation spells death to Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook, and their ways of life. 'I earnestly beg you will remember' says Judge Cooper of the trees in which Kirby makes 'such dreadful wounds':

'that they are the growth of centuries, and that when once gone, none living will see their loss remedied.'

'Why, I don't know, Judge,' returned the man he addressed: 'It seems to me, if there's a plenty of any thing in this mountaynious country, it's the trees.... I've chopped over the best half of a thousand acres, with my own hands, counting both Varmount and York states; and I hope to live to finish the whull, before I lay up my axe.'

In The Prairie, Davie points out, Cooper has to conjure up a grove of trees on the treeless prairie so that Ishmael Bush and his sons may symbolically fell them: 'here, too ... the sound of the axe is for Cooper the sound of doom'. [20]

The Pioneers has had three major thematic concerns: America's embodiment of political justice; landscape and its resources; and Indian dispossession. The first of these proved more tangled than Cooper may have supposed when he began the novel, and he returns to it equally indecisively in The Prairie and if anything more despairingly in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish. Each of these novels, together with The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer, also develops Cooper's landscape art. Natty is, as George Sand noted, an unparalleled observer of landscape, the unobtrusive eye through which Cooper's reader experiences the virgin lands. Even on his debut in The Pioneers (chapter 26) he devotes three pages to a depiction of remembered vistas and waterfalls in the Catskills which will become the stuff of the Hudson River School of Painting. Cooper thus joins with the consciously Wordsworthian Bryant and the unconsciously Martinesque Thomas Cole in associating American liberty with the wildness of American landscape. He is well aware, as he will point out in the opening sentence of Wyandotté (1843) that while the world attaches to American scenery 'an idea of grandeur', in reality 'that portion of the American continent which has [by this date] fallen to the share of the Anglo-Saxon race very seldom rises to a scale that merits this term.' [21] The lush rolling forests of the Susquehannah are, if anything, reminiscent rather of Surrey than the Alps, which Cooper came to associate with genuine sublimity. But sublimity is thematically essential to the novel's Burke/Paine argument. It was of course Thomas Paine who most famously established the conjunction between the Romantic sublime and American Liberty. Introducing Part 2 of The Rights of Man he deftly turned the young libertarian Burke against the older counter-revolutionary one:

As America was the only spot in the political world where the principles of universal reformation could begin, so also was it the best in the natural world.... The scene which that country presents to the eye of a spectator has something in it which generates and encourages great ideas. Nature appears to him in magnitude. The mighty objects he beholds act upon his mind by enlarging it, and he partakes of the greatness he contemplates. ... In such a situation man becomes what he ought. He sees his species, not with the inhuman idea of a natural enemy, but as kindred; and the example shows to the artificial world that man must go back to nature for information'.

Rights of Man, p. 160

The Pioneers, by making all but three of Cooper's characters entirely impervious to such effects, adds to the scepticism about human perfectibility that his book conveys. It also sees American society as incipiently a second edition of the artificial society of Europe, and creates in Natty a child of nature whose very existence is a critique of that artificial society.

Unlike Burke, Cooper never explained his ironic intentions—never, perhaps, fully recognised that his intentions and performance were so discrepant. Despite the author's lack of sympathy for the Paineite dimension of Jeffersonian Republicanism, the sansculotte leatherstocking is the one figure in the book who fully engages Cooper's Romantic imagination and the one character with whom every reader's fullest sympathies engage. Unlettered, ignorant of law, with limited vocabulary and syntax ('anan?' is his invariable way of requesting a simpler paraphrase), unimaginable within a polite drawing room - and tactfully never placed in one throughout the saga—Leatherstocking is the antithesis of almost everything that Cooper values, except natural justice. Yet without the Leatherstocking there would have been no saga, and while his sansculotte status may represent an impossible dream, that dream becomes the more commanding through every successive treatment, and attracts to it other impossible dreams - among them that of miscegenistic union of white and red (The Last of the Mohicans and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish), or absolute patriarchal authority (The Prairie, and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish), or the reconciliation of frontier values and unspoiled virgin land (The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer). As Cooper's politics become more Burkean, his discontent with democracy the more extreme, Natty Bumppo, that personified vindication of natural society, moves deeper into wilderness and/or backwards in time.

Regressing, as Cooper's greatest readers—from D H Lawrence to Yvor Winters and Donald Davie—have said he does, Natty if he pursues the journey far enough will rendezvous with Sigmund Freud, analyst of Civilisation and its Discontents, and finally recognise that:

What makes itself felt in a human community as a desire for freedom may be their revolt against some existing injustice, and so may prove favourable to a further development of civilization.... But it may also spring from the remains of the original personality, which is still untamed by civilization and may thus become the basis in them of hostility to civilization. The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or civilization altogether... [22]

Leslie Fiedler and D H Lawrence both intuited in Cooper such a hostility. Lawrence's tabulation of Cooper's divisions is worth quoting:

Wish Fulfilment








'Men live by lies', Lawrence observes:

In actuality, Fenimore loved the genteel continent of Europe, and waited gasping for the newspapers to praise his WORK.
In another actuality he loved the tomahawking continent of America, and imagined himself Natty Bumppo.
His actual desire was to be: Monsieur Fenimore Cooper, le grand écrivain américain.
His innermost wish was to be: Natty Bumppo. [23]

And so, seduced more permanently than Burke was by the 'original self' or anarchic principle which ran away with the Vindication of Natural Society, Cooper writes the Leatherstocking Saga, which is exactly as Lawrence says, 'a decrescendo of reality, and a crescendo of beauty' (317). The idealisation, which after the attempt at a social novel in The Pioneers, sets in throughout the Leatherstocking Saga, does indeed represent a flight from American reality. In subsequent novels, curiously, the American characters often refer to themselves not as frontiersmen but as 'borderers', as if they have walked out of a Scott novel, or Wordsworth's tragedy, and have not registered the new territory, or as if to remind us of the border between reality and the dreamscape of the books. In its positive dimension, Cooper is a great mythmaker. His Leather-stocking, as Yvor Winters says, becomes 'a great national myth, with a life over and above the life of the books in which he appears, a reality surpassing that even of a historical figure such as Daniel Boone'. [24] Boone, of course, was celebrated by Byron as the child of nature and critic of artificial society, whose strength was drawn from the very wilderness and seclusion his followers—the William Coopers and other pioneers of the Susquehannah—destroyed.

Paradox marks Cooper's fictional career and his political allegiances. The creator of Natty Bumppo, that most powerful mythological personification of natural justice, cross-cultural friendship and love of the wild, was also a passionate supporter of Andrew Jackson - internationally notorious for rough justice and indifference to Indian culture or the survival of wilderness. What I referred to as the third great theme of The Pioneers, Indian dispossession, is only tentatively sketched in the degeneracy of 'Indian John', and briefly contextualised in a Heckewelderian account of the history of Chingachgooks's race. This theme will develop, in the Leatherstocking saga, into a great national threnody for the fate of what Natty unfailing refers to as 'the rightful owners of the land'. In writing The Pioneers, to celebrate his roots, Cooper was it seems surprised not only by doubts but by guilt. Three successive novels, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) about the French and Indian Wars of 1757, The Prairie (1827) about American expansion after the Louisiana purchase, and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829) about early puritan settlements, attempt to expiate that unexpectedly focused guilt. What none of them achieves, however, is a satisfactory answer to Burke's complaint in a Vindication of Natural Society, 'In vain you tell me that Artificial government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!' Rather, his novels, as the Leatherstocking saga proceeds, tend to endorse Burke's Nattyesque utterance: 'we will not place the State of Nature, which is the Reign of God, in competition with Political Society, which is the absurd Usurpation of Man' (A Vindication, 68, 87). Taken as a whole they never quite escape the anxiety he seems to have uncovered in The Pioneers, the anxiety—as expressed by Coleridge in 'France: an Ode'—that liberty cannot breathe its soul 'in forms of human power'.

Cooper's Political Progress

We must recognise Cooper, says Tony Tanner, 'for the great cultural ventriloquist and schizophrenic that he is'. [25] As the son of a pioneer and Federalist—William Cooper of Cooperstown, disciple of the great Governor De Witt Clinton—and as the friend of Lafayette, early admirer of Washington, and belated admirer of the 'sansculotte' Jefferson, [26] Cooper was never altogether sure where to situate himself vis-a-vis the revolution debate of the 1790s. Socially, and to some extent politically, he belonged to the party which feared and was prone to vilify the side of Tom Paine and William Godwin, as, for instance, did John Quincy Adams, second President of the United States:

I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine. [27]

Paine, who dedicated Part 1 of The Rights of Man to Washington and Part 2 to Lafayette, two of the three fixed stars in Cooper's firmament, must—despite his social origins—be counted among the founders of the American republic. Yet Cooper never identifies with Paine, either socially or ideologically. After all, he grew up in a culture in which Burke was the culture hero.

'There are many "manors" in New York', Cooper explains in The Pioneers, 'though all political and judicial rights have ceased'. He grew up on one such manor or 'patent', comprising some 100,000 acres originally ceded under an Indian deed to Colonel George Croghan, in 1770, and energetically developed by William Cooper who took possession of what became known as 'Cooper's Patent' in 1786. The novelist, in his childhood in Cooperstown, where William Cooper's home was the local meeting place of the Federalist squirearchy, had ample opportunity to observe how in reality, political power belonged to the great landowners and was exercised through influence over tenants which was little diminished from pre-Revolutionary days. [28]

Of the three authors of The Federalist, which Cooper described as 'the text-book for the principles of the American government' [29] one, Alexander Hamilton, was his father's lawyer, and another John Jay, was a family friend. These, with James Madison, were the architects of the American Constitution, the supreme legacy of the American Revolution. While their work embodied a century or more of liberal political theory from James Harrington and John Locke to Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, their Revolution was a conservative one, in a sense, Cooper admitted, 'a civil war,' [30] based initially upon defending the self-governing liberties they had inherited, from the new-fangled and ill-considered impositions of the British Parliament, begun by George Grenville in 1763-65 and exacerbated by Charles Townshend in 1766-67.

The determination of the landed élites— who had for several generations run, governed with the aid of constituent assemblies, and provided for the security of the colonies—to restore their de facto rather than de jure independence in 1776, had little to do with the selectively egalitarian impulses of the equally patrician Jefferson, and nothing at all (except the common roots in Harrington and Locke) with the Enlightenment radicalism of Paine and Godwin. John Dickinson's famous Letters from a Farmer, which roused Pennsylvania in 1768, while citing such authorities as Lord Camden on how the association of taxation with representation is 'An Eternal Law of Nature', seems angered mostly by the adverse impact of colonies in Canada on the price of land in Pennsylvania: it is the classic statement of the bourgeois concept of liberty which animated the War of Independence and makes the term 'Revolution' so problematic. [31]

In 1820-21 Cooper still opposed the liberalisation of voting rights, and, like his father, held aloof from the Jeffersonian Republicans, supporting instead the more moderate faction of Governor De Witt Clinton. As he moved away from his roots, and mixed with the more liberal intelligentsia of New York City, to which he moved in 1823, Cooper came to reject, as a good Republican, and still more when he became a good Democrat, the social stake theory into which Jay and others had perverted the association between property and republicanism in Harrington's Oceana. In Europe in 1830, while working with the American Polish Committee, he finally read Jefferson, and his European contacts undoubtedly gave him a more liberal view of what American democracy might mean, especially when contrasted with hereditary Aristocratic power. (At this time he came to deride Alexander Hamilton as a closet monarchist, taking Jefferson's view of this Federalist at least, as more aristocratic than the Europeans.) [32] But Jay is still eulogised in Notions, along with Washington and Lafayette, as symbolising the compound of patrician breeding and republican manners which Cooper most admired, and in some respects, particularly in their espousal of abolitionism, the Jay family moved in directions more radical than Cooper himself could follow.

Internationally, Cooper was of course an active partisan of liberation, like his immediate English Romantic precursors, Shelley and Byron, and the continental revolutionaries whose causes they and he espoused. He had been radicalised in mid-career, in part by his New York friendships with the Wordsworthian Bryant and the Byronist Halleck, in part by his European experiences with Lafayette, Mickiewicz and the English Reform Movement, and in part by his chosen role as the American patriot-at-large. But domestically he espoused successively the causes of Federalism, independent Republicanism, Clintonian Republicanism, Jacksonian Democracy, evolving his own peculiar brand of American Conservatism. From Home as Found (1838) to The Crater (1847) his essential role as the American Burke predominates.

In a manuscript left at his death, 'The Towns of Manhattan', later published as New York, he reflects on the unattainability of a perfect polity. In any comparison of differing systems, he says,

We are far saying that our own, with all its flagrant and obvious defects, will be the worst ... though we cannot deny, not do we wish to conceal, the bitterness of the wrongs that are so frequently inflicted by the many on the few. This is, perhaps, the worst species of tyranny. He who suffers under the arbitrary power of a single despot, or by the selfish exactions of a privileged few, is certain to be sustained by the sympathies of the masses. But he who is crushed by the masses themselves must look beyond the limits of his earthly being for consolation and support. The wrongs committed by democracies are of the most cruel character; and ... carry with them in their course all the feelings that render injustice and oppression intolerable. [33]

The Burkean quality of this late Cooper utterance becomes evident when we place it beside what is surely its original:

Of this I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. In such a popular persecution, individual sufferers are in a much more deplorable condition than in any other. Under a cruel prince they have the balmy compassion of mankind to assuage the smart of their wounds ... but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes, are deprived of all external consolation. They seem deserted by mankind; overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species.

Reflections, p. 229

Strikingly, Burke's final sentence epitomises the condition of Natty Bumppo, exhibited in the stocks, made exemplary victim of the people's court, and punished for taking a single deer—as a result of the actions of an agent provocateur—within the borders of a polity in which for chapter after chapter the most wasteful carnage and destruction of every kind of natural resource has been perpetrated remorselessly the Sheriff, and remorsefully by the Judge, over the protests of that same Natty Bumppo, who is, as Dekker has put it, 'the only just man in sight'. [34]

Burke, famous up to the moment he published his Reflections as a liberal, and thereafter as a conservative counter-revolutionary makes an interesting touchstone. Today, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France is read almost always through the eyes of Paine, as somewhat tendentiously represented in The Rights of Man. Its argument is thought to be that the living are and always must be subjected to the will of the dead, from whom we receive our liberties as an entailed inheritance. Jefferson and Madison debated the same point, in the same year, and it might be fairer to say, with James Madison, that 'The improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them... All that is indispensible in adjusting the account between the dead and the living is to see that the debits against the latter do not exceed the advances made by the former'. [35] One of the great merits of the American Constitution, though created by a constitutional convention at a particular moment, was, in Cooper's eyes, that it respected and institutionalised the received wisdom of the participant states at that moment in time, and accepted the theoretically absurd notion that a majority of states containing a minority of the national population could impose its will on the majority. The only power the federal government possessed, or ever would possess, Cooper argued, was that explicitly delegated to it by 'the states then in existence'—which alone could ratify it—and not by that vague entity enshrined in its preamble 'we the people'. [36] Cooper, in 1838, already looked back upon 1788 as America's Golden Age, and his treatise on American democracy is an attempt to restate the principles of The Federalist for his own brazen one. He takes considerable comfort in the extent to which current American practice must be circumscribed by the 'entailed liberties' inherited from John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

It is true that he recognises 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. This power must also abide in the nation, or it becomes merely an historical fact' (American Democrat 112). But this apparently Paineite principle appears so only because we have forgotten that Burke, too, accepts that a nation must have the right, and clearly does have the power, to abandon one system, when it has grown oppressive, and choose another. In Reflections his specific complaint is not that the French abandoned an absolute monarchy for democracy. In 1789, he says explcitly, 'the absolute monarchy was at an end. It breathed its last, without a groan, without a struggle, without convulsion. All the struggle, all the dissension arose afterwards upon the preference of a despotic democracy to a government of reciprocal controul. The triumph of the victorious party was over the principles of a British constitution.' (Reflections, 241). The difference between Burke and Cooper is in their view of the reality of British polity. To Burke, the British Constitution is the very prototype of the principle of checks and balances, whereas to Cooper it is an Aristocracy, tempered by franchises and masquerading as a Monarchy.

Cooper's view of government is aligned with Burke's simplification of the traditional view of government from Aristotle to Montesquieu. There are three kinds of government, according to both The American Democrat (1838) and A Vindication of Natural Society (1756): namely, despotisms, aristocracies and democracies. Despotisms, or monarchies, may, if just and benevolent, which they tend not to be, provide the most harmonious of societies, but they suffer from flattery and vice and rely on the unrealistic expectation that the despot will represent the perfection of human nature. Aristocracies are as expensive as monarchies, and tend to be more soulless and ruthless, lacking the personal feelings of responsibility that temper despotism. [37] Nor is pure democracy an acceptable device, because they the most prone to the abuse of the demagogue. The Greek democracy of Solon was soon overset because 'an artful man became popular, the People had power in their hands, and they devolved a considerable Share of their Power upon their Favourite, and the only use he made of this Power, was to plunge those who gave it into Slavery' (Vindication 55). In large democracies, 'the people are peculiarly exposed to become the dupes of demagogues and political schemers' and 'in a country where opinion has sway, to seize upon it, is to seize power' (American Democrat, 128, 208.

These are commonplace agreements, deriving ultimately, as Burke points out from the ancients. 'I cannot help concurring with [the ancients], that an absolute democracy, no more than absolute monarchy, is to be reckoned among the legitimate forms of government. They think it rather the corruption and degeneracy, than the sound constitution of a republic. If I recollect rightly, Aristotle observes, that a democracy has many striking points of resemblance with a tyranny' (Reflections 228). What Cooper describes in The American Democrat is the proper functioning of a stable republic designed to guard against thi{ corruption and degeneration, for 'no tyranny of the one, nor any tyranny of the few' is worse than that of 'the publick' when it assumes 'the powers that properly belong to the whole body of the people, and to them only under constitutional limitations' (130). Genuine liberty cannot exist, Cooper says, 'without many restraints on the power of the mass' (117) and 'it ought to be impressed on every man's mind, in letters of brass, "That in a democracy, the publick has no power that is not expressly conceded by the institutions, and that this power, moreover, is only to be used under the forms prescribed by the constitution. All beyond this, is oppression."' (197 Cooper's italics).

'The very existence of government', says Cooper, 'infers inequality' for 'equality of condition is incompatible with civilization, and is found only to exist in those communities that are but slightly removed from the savage state' (104). In fact, 'equality of rights' will necessarily produce 'inequality of condition' (137). Nor can such a thing as absolute equality of political rights exist though it is clear that the purpose of society is to guarantee 'civil rights' (104). Burke tallies such rights as follows: 'Men ... have a right to justice; as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.' (Reflections, 149).

A major distinction between Burke and Cooper is that, writing in America, Cooper sounds a good deal hotter on the necessity and beneficence of material and social inequality. Inheritance of parental acquisitions is essential to a dynamic society as 'an inducement to great and glorious deeds' (138). He does not quite say in The American Democrat, that without inheritance America would no longer have the great landed estates which alone could produce the disinterested political leadership she needed, but he does say that 'social inequality as much a consequence of civilized society, as breathing is a vital function of animal life' (140). Unlike Burke, however, Cooper insists (at this date) that because wealth confers its own privileges and status, the nation must deny any 'hereditary claims to trusts and power.' Burke saw himself as 'no friend to aristocracy' which undiluted led to 'austere and insolent domination', [38] but remained persuaded that the Constitutional settlement of 1688 had created a balance between crown, aristocracy and bourgeoisie which reflected real interests and worked in favour of liberty. Cooper, though believing in a democracy based, as he put it, on numbers, not property—the faith proclaimed in The Federalist—was already doubtful in 1838 whether a country as unstable as the United States could really allow people without 'permanent and fixed interests' in their constituency an influence on government (194). He had advocated a moderate property qualification for France as early as 1831, [39] and within a few years he would be advocating a restricted suffrage and fewer elections. [40] In 1847 in The Crater he produced a dystopia in which social collapse is brought about by the propertiless divesting the propertied of political power—thus endorsing, implicitly, the notion that property has a constitutional rights—and in 1850 he would argue that American democracy is not obligated 'to admit any but a minority of her whites to the enjoyment of political power'. [41]

Read through the mesmerising eyes of Tom Paine, Burke's Reflections is based on an impossible thesis, which makes us all slaves of the dead. Read in itself, Reflections has a rather different thesis which may be summarised as follows. France in 1789 had the opportunity to replace a thoroughly discredited absolutism by a carefully counterweighted constitution on the British model. That such a model guaranteed the optimum balance of stability and liberty was axiomatic, not only to Burke, but to such of his disciples as Alexis de Tocqueville and John C Calhoun. [42] Such a balance may grow, but is not easily achieved by fiat. Like the Federalists, Burke believed that government was a complicated contrivance for maximising 'genuine liberty' without licensing government by fickle passions. The Revolutionary sympathisers in England, he thought 'are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgot his nature' (156). Whatever system is adopted must be based upon the recognition that those who rule exercise a trust: 'All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awefully impressed with an idea that they act in trust; and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great master, author and founder of society.'

Both are aware that 'all political power is strictly a trust, granted by the constituent to the representative' (American Democrat, 91) and to Cooper this is the 'leading distinctive principle' of America. Burke's criticism of the structure being created in France in 1790 (even though he was writing long before this structure gave rise to any remarkable excesses) is that it was centred on a National Assembly 'with every possible power and no possible external controul' (Reflections, 315). It was not American enough. 'Your all sufficient legislators, in their hurry to do everything at once, have forgot one thing that seems essential, and which, I believe, never has been before, in the theory or the practice, omitted by any projector of a republic. They have forgot to constitute a Senate, or something of that nature and character. ...Such a body ...seems to be in the very essence of a republican government. It holds a sort of middle place between the supreme power exercised by the people, or immediately delegated from them, and the mere executive' (316).

The case is made the worse, Burke felt, because of an indirect electoral system, based upon a scale of property qualifications, which annulled any direct personal connection between elector and elected. 'To elect someone you must know 'the fitness of your man ' and then 'retain some hold upon him' (305): the French system made it impossible for the elector to discharge what Cooper also felt to be 'a sacred publick trust', namely that of voting only for one whom he knows, and knows to be honest (American Democrat 142). Having done so, Cooper recognises, in a principle indelibly associated with the name of Burke, 'no constituency has a right to violate the honest convictions of a representative' (161).

While Mackintosh could temporarily persuade himself in 1791 that what France was about was a proper division of powers, a constitutional balance of the representatives of the people, a hereditary first magistrate and a judiciary unconnected with either, [43] Burke professed to be puzzled what kind of polity France was in process of becoming. 'I do not know under what description to class the present ruling authority in France. It affects to be a pure democracy, though I think in a direct train of becoming shortly a mischievous and ignoble oligarchy' (228). He was confirmed in this opinion by the system of escalating electoral qualifications. In a passage of great vehemence, which I do not recollect seeing quoted, Burke comes remarkably close to expressing the complex of suspicions which drove Cooper, when he returned to America in 1833, into the arms of the Jacksonian Democrats.

One thing only is certain in this scheme [the escalating set of electoral qualifications], which is an effect seemingly collateral but direct, I have no doubt in the minds of those who conduct this business, that is, its effect in producing an Oligarchy in every one of the republics. A paper circulation ... must put the whole of what power, authority, and influence is left ... into the hands of the managers and conductors of this circulation.


Cooper would concur with Jackson's populist war against the banks on the grounds that they undermined real value (which was agricultural) and therefore undermined the producers of real value, or as Burke puts it a page or so later,

few can understand the game; and fewer still are in a condition to avail themselves of the knowledge. The many must be the dupes of the few who conduct the machine of these speculations. ... Those whose operations can take from, or add ten percent to, the possessions of every man in France, must be the masters of every man in France. ...The landed gentleman, the yeoman, and the peasant [the first two of these three terms define Cooper's constituency] have none of them, habits or inclinations, or experience, which can lead them to any share in this the sole source of power and influence now left in France.


It would be absurd to suggest that this passage helped to stimulate Jacksonian abhorrence of the Whigs, since detestation of oligarchy is at least as old as the English Revolution, but it is very likely, since Cooper seems to have re-immersed himself in Burke in the year Jackson came to power (The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, 1829, is replete with complex echoes of both the Philosophical Enquiry and Reflections), to have stimulated Cooper to share in that abhorrence. [44]

Cooper was nothing if not paradoxical. A firm believer that Aristocratic power should be overthrown, and politics divorced from heredity, he also believed in the necessity for a landed elite, a leavening twentieth, drawing sufficient wealth from their estates to enjoy and life of intellectual cultivation and public service, and whose business it was to govern at the behest of a deferential electorate. [45] Critical of Sir Walter Scott for an ingrained deference to aristocracy, Cooper, having been born to quasi-feudal power, married into a particularly grand strain of the New York aristocracy and mixed as of right in almost exclusively titled circles during his years in Europe. Believing theoretically in the Jeffersonian and Paineite principle that sovereignty resides in the people, who must be constitutionally free to change their constitution, he also believed that the Constitution as the guarantor if liberty was in all practical respects above criticism, and that change should be gradual: 'One of the chief merits of all our political innovations is that they have been gradual', he wrote, in phrasing highly suggestive of George Eliot, 'and have rather followed than preceded opinion' (Letters and Journals, 2: 33). During the agitations of the 1840s, which threatened the extinction of a privileged landed gentry, Cooper could take this principle to extremes, arguing that if righting the wrongs of tenants damages the power of the gentry, the wrongs must remain unrighted. Mid-nineteenth-century tenants, however impoverished, must remain bound by contracts entered into by their ancestors a century before. As James Grossman summarises the point, in an appropriately but unintentionally Burkean phrase, 'the tenants' choice is decisive not only for the profitable rent-free years but for all time.' [46] Haunted by Burke from the outset of his career, Cooper became more Burkean than Burke himself.