In 1833 James Fenimore Cooper returned from a European tour to Coopers town—founded by his father, one of the first pioneers into the dangerous frontier of New York beyond the Hudson Valley. Cooper property included a pretty peninsula on Lake Otsego that the family had allowed the community to use for fishing, picnics, and boating. On arrival Cooper saw that the locals had appropriated the property to do with as they pleased. When he objected he found himself denounced by Whig newspapers throughout the region as a cruel, grasping aristocrat, an enemy of the people.
Along with his fellow Yorker Washington Irving, Cooper had already made a name for American letters. His novels created the archetypal Western hero, the Deerslayer, and celebrated the patriotism and heroism of the War of Independence. For a decade after 1833 he abandoned adventure tales and became a novelist of manners. His theme was the overwhelming of the old New York culture by Yankees, the overflow of population from crowded and infertile New England. Not only was Cooper’s region developed from wilderness to settled land during his lifetime, but it underwent a demographic change that altered his state’s society and culture. The old Anglo-Dutch society of the New York colony was unique but resembled the South more than New England. In the same period Cooper produced The American Democrat as a complaint against the political and social trends that were replacing the republicanism of the fathers. It was a direct product of his encounters with the Yankees on his home turf.
One must understand that before the War Between the States, Yankee was a particular ethnic designation. The very term may have arisen among Hudson Valley Dutchmen to designate their disagreeable neighbors to the east. It was not the South but New England that was considered by most Americans to be the odd and “different” region, especially after its venomous Federalism and its treachery during the War of 1812. Yankee identified New Englanders as a distinct type at home or in the areas further west where they clustered. It was not a complimentary designation, suggesting pushiness, hypocrisy, and sharp trading. Readers today miss the import of Irving’s tale of the Headless Horseman. It was about removing from New York the presumptuous Connecticut Yankee Ichabod Crane. Young Abe Lincoln had a fund of “Yankee” tales to amuse the boys around the cracker barrel in Illinois, although they were not as popular as his dirty stories.
Cooper spent his later years in the midst of the first big minority takeover in national history. There had previously been the displacement of the Indians, Massachusetts’ purging of Baptists, Quakers, and witches, and the flight of the Tories, but nothing on the scale that overtook New York state in the early 19th century. By 1840 the majority of the population of New York was New England born. In New York City the leading editors, like William Cullen Bryant and Horace Greeley, and the financiers were Yankees. Most rising state political leaders were of Yankee background.
Critics have tended to ignore or dismiss Cooper’s books of this period as inferior or demonstrations of personal pique, but he was actually reflecting in literature an important phase of American history. Homeward Bound and Home as Found concern the Effingham family. The Littlepage Manuscripts (Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins) portray the family of that name and their friends and associates. The Effinghams and the Little pages are traditional people. They live on the land. They deal generously with their neighbors and dependents. They enjoy the innocent pleasures of visiting, hunting, fishing, boating, ice skating, horse racing, and chaste courtship. They are sincere but tolerant Christians. They served in war against the Tories and Indians when called upon. They have no agenda to impose and seek no power in government. They were the American form of the best of British civilization and an example of what the founders meant by communities of liberty.
Returning to New York from Europe, the Effinghams must deal with the Yankee incomers Aristabulus Bragg and Steadfast Dodge, the latter name a beautiful invocation of the slippery character of the Yankee in operation. The theme is developed further and more subtly when the Little pages face on home ground the also appropriately named Jason Newcome from Connecticut. The Yankees are contemptuous of good manners, boastful, ever ready to cast away traditions for the newest idea, and see making money as the chief object of life. Equality and majority rule for them should determine everything. Whatever “the people” want is theirs, and whoever opposes is an evil enemy of the people, defending unfair privilege and oppressive traditions. They exemplify what Cooper was observing and deploring in The American Democrat. A major argument of that work is that “the people” did not mean majority rule but an amorphous, irresponsible, and manipulable “public opinion” created by rogues—government rent-seekers, political-party managers, and shameless newspaper editors.
Democracy was no longer a matter of liberty under law but one of power and appetite. “Democracy” was coming to mean that people had a right to whatever they happened to want, the law and private rights be damned. Because power came from “the people,” politicians were pretending that it had no limits and that their own self-serving interests were the will of the people. “He who would be a courtier under a king, is almost certain to be a demagogue in a democracy,” Cooper wrote. In both cases, the ruler was being cleverly flattered for the benefit of the courtier.
Jason Newcome from Connecticut is portrayed in the Littlepage trilogy as the personification of the “democratic” revolution in New York society and politics. “Jason had a liberal supply of Puritanical notions, which, were bred in-and-in in his moral and, I had almost said, in his physical system . . . ” Cooper elaborates that Jason
had strong points about him, and a native shrewdness that would have told much more in his favor had it not been accompanied by a certain evasiveness of manner, that caused one constantly to suspect his sincerity, and which often induced those who were accustomed to him to imagine he had a sneaking propensity that rendered him habitually hypocritical. Jason held New York in great contempt, a feeling he was not always disposed to conceal and of necessity his comparisons were usually made with the state of things in Connecticut, and much to the advantage of the latter.
However, Jason did admire the rising class of newly rich men in New York City, “for he never failed to defer to money, come in what shape it would. It was the only source of human distinction he could clearly comprehend.” Jason was certainly hardworking and enterprising. He managed to get control (often clandestinely) of many of the essential businesses of the community—the tavern, store, and lumber and grist mills—and to get whatever local office he wanted. Cooper vividly describes how the rising and astute politician Newcome pre-managed and packed a supposedly open citizens’ meeting to give the imprimatur of “publick opinion” to his agenda. Jason, a Cooper character observes, “was a leading politician, a patriot by trade, and a remarkable and steady advocate of the rights of the people, even to minutiae. Those who know mankind will not be surprised . . . to hear it added that he was a remarkable rogue in the bargain.”
A little thought and nonpious examination of American history will teach that Cooper was describing an aspect of our public life that prevails to the present day. H.L. Menc ken, who was notoriously disdainful of Cooper’s fiction, said that in The American Democrat Cooper was “the first American to write about Americans in a really fresh spirit,” and that “his prophecies were as sound as his observations were accurate.”
The Yankees’ depredations upon society and manners were as bothersome to Cooper as their depredations upon politics and economy. They were pushy social climbers, insisting that their betters treat them as equals, but refusing to grant the same to those who were less successful and prosperous. Jason presumed an intimate friendship with mere acquaintances and “insisted to the last that he knew every gentleman in the county, whom he had been accustomed to hear alluded to in discourse.” He was so officiously overattentive to a lady that she had to tell him, in refusing his ministrations, “When I go to Connecticut, I shall feel infinitely indebted to you for another such offer.”
The Yankees valued education and pioneered in public schools. But for Cooper and many others it was a superficial education that promoted presumptuousness while falling far short of the kind of learning needed for good leadership. It created a population able to read the newspapers but not wise enough to see through them. Cooper had fun telling how the Yankees changed the pioneer town name of Satans toe, which was based on an unusual geographic feature, to the more “respectable” Dibbleton.
One of Cooper’s characters, who has painfully observed the dubious methodology of Jason’s rise to wealth and power, comments,
I never could explain the process by means of which Jason wound his way into everybody’s secrets. . . . The people of New England have a reputation this way . . . everything and everybody were brought under rigid church government among the Puritans; and when a whole community gets the notion that it is to sit in judgment on every act of one of its members, it is quite natural that it should extend that right into an enquiry into all his affairs.
“A Yankee is never satisfied unless he is making changes,” says one of Cooper’s characters. “One half of his time, he is altering the pronunciation of his own names, and the other half he is altering ours.”
“I doubt if all this craving for change has not more of selfishness in it than either of expediency or philosophy,” wrote Cooper, an insight that strikes a chord with conservatives of all times. The Connecticut newcomers, it seems, regarded themselves as more righteous and enlightened than the sinful New Yorkers among whom they settled, and therefore felt that they were entitled to change their ways and appropriate their property. It was a normal means of proceeding in their Puritan heritage for the Yankees to justify themselves by portraying those who opposed them as bad people with evil motives. “These men inevitably quarrel with all above them, and, with them, to quarrel is to calumniate.” The “Chainbearer,” a venerable surveyor as honest and benevolent as the day is long, finds that he has become known as “an old rogue” among people who have never even met him; slander spread because of his opposition to Jason’s schemes. Over his self-serving agenda, the Yankee “throws a beautiful halo of morality and religion, never even prevaricating in the hottest discussion, unless with the unction of a saint.”
Thus Cooper identified the historical origins of the perpetual crusades for the reform and reconstruction of society that diminish Americans’ freedoms.
The Yankee immigrants to New York created the “Burnt-Over District,” a phenomenon well known to antebellum Americans. Western New York was given this label because it had been swept over by so many furious fires of evangelism, reform, and fanaticism. Anti-Masonry, Mormonism, prohibition, vegetarianism, Seventh-day Adventism, and socialist experiments all had their origins in the Burnt-Over District. Then there was the first “women’s rights” convention at Seneca Falls and the “free love” colony at Oneida. But progressively the great reformist cause became abolitionism, which had less to do with the welfare of African-Americans than it did with hatred of the South as an obstacle to Yankee economic projects and to Yankee dominion over the idea and the reality of America. The region became the base for John Brown’s terrorism and generated vigilante mobs that discouraged independent thinkers.
Like most moderate Northerners, Cooper regarded agitation against slavery in the South as unconstitutional, unwise, and counterproductive. He agreed with John Adams that American slavery was mild and that slaves were no worse off than the lower class of Northern workers. He comments of slavery, “It is an evil, certainly, but in a comparative sense, not as great an evil as is usually imagined. There is scarcely a nation of Europe that does not possess institutions that inflict as gross personal privations and wrongs, as slavery.” It is quite possible for a slaveholder to be a good Christian, Cooper wrote.
When Cooper wrote in The American Democrat that “the union of these States is founded on an express compromise, and it is not its intention to reach a benefit, however considerable, by extorting undue sacrifices from particular members of the confederacy,” he doubtless had in mind the Whig “protective” tariff that exploited the South. And Cooper (as did Tocque ville and countless other non-Southerners) assumed it to be uncontested that the Union was “a compact between separate communities,” something that was later claimed to be an artificial and evil-minded Southern invention.
While the Yankee overflow was imposing its values on Old York State, the home country was at work on its own cultural cleansing. In the first American geography book, the author, Jedediah Morse of Connecticut, depicted New Englanders as an ideal people and most of the rest of Americans as shiftless barbarians. In his “American” dictionary, Noah Webster, also from Connecticut, announced that New Englanders spoke the best and purist English in the world. In his speller Webster introduced the peculiar spellings that supposedly differentiate us from Old England and which annoy the spellcheckers of those of us who try to write correct English.
At the same time New Englanders embarked on a deliberate campaign (and you can prove this chapter and verse) to seize control of American history. While the South was making history in the first half of the 19th century the Yankees were writing it and setting in stone the tale of the Revolution as a New England enterprise, ignoring or slighting the contributions of everybody else. They were so successful that even today most people are unaware of the important and decisive events of the Revolution carried on by Southerners in the South; George Washington can be portrayed with a Northern accent, and nobody notices.
A similar campaign was waged to establish New England literature as American literature. A host of self-promoting and mutually admiring scribblers pretty well managed to submerge the better antebellum American writers not of their ilk. As a result generations of American schoolboys have been turned off literature forever by being force-fed the arrogant Emerson and Thoreau and the jingles of Longfellow and Whittier as the best of American writing. Edgar Allan Poe hilariously punched holes in the Yankee pretensions in literature, and William Gilmore Simms and others pointed out the lies in their history books. But once the South was crushed and impoverished, there was no real opposition to New England dominion over letters and history.
For Cooper, the greedy rent-seekers through government and the moralistic reformers were but two sides of the same coin in the subverting of American liberty:
The American doctrinaire is the converse of the American demagogue, and, in his way, is scarcely less injurious to the publick. . . . These opposing classes produce the effect of all counter-acting forces, resistance, and they provoke each others’ excesses.
Was he describing the sham battles between “liberals” and “conservatives” that make up most of American politics almost two centuries later? “Democracy” of this new sort had brought the politicization of social and moral life into campaigns for the alleged improvements that were necessary for “democracy” to be fulfilled. This was contrary to the individual liberty that Cooper believed the American founding had intended. It made “democracy” into a crusade rather than a legal framework of freedom; it was all about power rather than freedom.
Always the agenda to change Americans to fit the latest abstract pattern is proposed as progress but is actually a self-referential exercise of dominion by the elect. Education turned from creating good men and women to creating obedient tools—beginning with Horace Mann in 19th-century Massachusetts and culminating in John Dewey (Vermont born). Imperial wars against the South and the Filipinos and entrance into the carnage of the Great War were glorified as righteous crusades. Fill in your own disfavored imposition, and you will find that it traces back one way or another to old New England, the Burnt-Over District, or the Upper Midwest and West Coast settled by Yankees.
A Vermont-born president declared that the business of America is business. A Connecticut-born president declared that the business of America is leading a New World Order. Another Connecticut-born president announced that the business of America is “global democracy,” and urged us to meet a crisis by going shopping. For Cooper, the business of America was liberty. Or such it had been intended to be.
“The end of liberty is the happiness of man,” wrote James Fenimore Cooper, “and its means, that of leaving the greatest possible personal freedom of action, that comports with the general good.” Americans have “democracy,” he added, but they are more under the rule of extralegal authority than almost any people in the world. The all-important question was
whether principles are to rule this republic, or men; and these last, too, viewed in their most vulgar and repulsive qualities. . . . It is time that the American began to see things as they are, not as they are said to be, in the speeches of governors, fourth of July orations, and electioneering addresses.