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The Would-Be Gentleman

William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic

by Alan Taylor
Knopf, 549 pp., $35.00

Who reads James Fenimore Cooper anymore? The archaic diction, convoluted sentences, stilted dialogue, awkward characterization, and implausible incidents in his novels do not seem to appeal to young people today any more than they did to Mark Twain a century ago. Indeed, it is probably true, as a colleague recently said to me, that more people today read Mark Twain’s spoof of Cooper than read Cooper himself. Twain said there were nineteen rules governing literary art in romantic fiction, and Cooper broke eighteen of them. His humor was pathetic, his pathos was funny, and his use of English was “a crime against the language.”

Literary scholars these days seem no less critical of Cooper’s romantic excesses and historical absurdities. Besides, his works are too much drawn to patriarchalism and elitism, not to mention racism, to find favor among contemporary teachers of literature. Scholars still write about him, of course, but less now as a novelist and more as a historical figure who can tell us something about the society in which he lived. Literary critics, as Alan Taylor points out in his Pulitzer and Bancroft-Prize-winning history of the world of Cooper’s father, today read Fenimore Cooper’s works “as ambivalent dialogues with histor,” and emphasize his distortions of history in order to understand both his personal anxieties and the ideological imperatives of his society in the early nineteenth century.*

That certainly is how Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, has read Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers (1823), which, as Taylor says, secured Fenimore Cooper’s “reputation as the first great and popular novelist in the United States and the premier literary spokesman for his generation.” In the novel Cooper vividly recreated the New York frontier town of the 1790s that his father William Cooper had founded. He drew many of its characters from his recollections of growing up in Cooperstown, turning his father into the central figure of Judge Marmaduke Temple, the founder, developer, and ruler of the fictional community of Templeton. Cooper pictured Judge Temple, says Taylor, as “a man of good intentions but loose scruples, of expansive vision but flawed manners, of benevolent paternalism but blundering execution.” Cooper’s portrayal of Judge Temple turns out to be an accurate account of the historical William Cooper that Taylor himself has created.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Taylor’s remarkable book is the way he discusses the relation of The Pioneers to the actual history of the world of Cooper’s father. Although the novelist in many important respects re-created the historical reality of his father’s world, he also left out significant parts of that world and imagined a past that never existed. Indeed, in the end he turned his novel into what Taylor calls “the very antithesis” of what actually took place in Cooperstown and in the America of the early Republic. Ultimately Fenimore Cooper imagined a stable and reassuring past that denied the radical meaning of the American Revolution.

Since our understanding of both Cooper and his novel is greatly enriched by Taylor’s analysis of the relation of Cooper’s work to historical reality, Taylor’s history is in part a work of literary criticism. But only in part. Most of the book is an account of a man, his family, and a community. It is a biography of William Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown in upstate New York in the 1790s. But it is also a meticulously detailed social history of Cooper’s town and state during a period of astonishing change. In 1790 New York was only the fifth largest state in the nation, with three quarters of its population living in the Hudson valley or along the Atlantic coast. By 1820 it had become the most populous state in the country with three quarters of its population now living in the newer counties to the north and west of Albany. Probably more than any other single figure, William Cooper was responsible for this rapid settlement of the New York frontier.

No one in 1754 when Cooper was born could have predicted his spectacular rise. His Quaker parents were poor farmers living in a village on the outskirts of Philadelphia. He had little education, and though he loved to tell stories and play with words, he never learned to write grammatically or spell consistently. With three brothers and four sisters, none of whom ever prospered, and with no possibility of inheriting a decent share in the tiny family farm, Cooper apprenticed himself as a wheelwright and began his career making and repairing carriages. What he had going for him was a commanding presence, a hearty and winning personality, and his eventual marriage in 1774 to Elizabeth Fenimore, the daughter of a well-to-do Quaker family. By the early 1780s, with help from his father-in-law, Cooper set up as a storekeeper in Burlington, New Jersey, the largest urban center in the state. Here he cultivated both Quaker patrons and himself, reading all the books he could get his hands on that would show him the path to gentility.

Taylor rightly makes a great deal of the eighteenth century’s distinction between gentlemen and commoners and of Cooper’s lifelong struggle to become genteel and be accepted as a proper gentleman. The first prerequisite was, of course, sufficient wealth to make one independent of having to work with one’s hands, but it was by no means enough to establish one’s gentility. Manners, bearing, learning, taste, refinement, disinterestedness, restraint, self-control—all were important aspects of a reputation for gentility. It was William Cooper’s fate, rich as he became and try as he might, never to be fully accepted as a proper gentleman. His son James Fenimore always knew this, and this knowledge became the source of the writer’s lifelong long quarrel with an America that was filled with shrewd and aggressive bourgeois strivers like his father.

In the mid-1780s William Cooper and a partner bought up shares in a defunct land company that claimed tens of thousands of acres in the Otsego area in upstate New York. The legal arrangements were immensely complicated, and Cooper hired the best lawyer in New York, Alexander Hamilton, to untangle them. Before other claimants could act, Cooper began selling off the land to settlers and speculators and promoting development of the town he called Cooperstown. Every step of the way he gambled, risked all, and won. By the early 1790s he had become not only the richest man in Otsego County but also the premier land developer in the nation and an international celebrity whose advice on the sale and settlement of frontier land was sought by aspiring speculators from as far away as Holland and France.

His timing was perfect. In the aftermath of the Revolution people were ready to move to better themselves, particularly the Yankees of New England, where a fast-growing population made land more and more scarce and expensive. At the same time the defeat of the British and their Iroquois allies forced the Indians westward and opened up the Otsego country to settlement. And so the Otsego area grew and prospered.

Taylor devotes many pages to describing Cooper’s methods of development and in doing so he gives us a remarkably insightful picture of entrepreneurship in the early Republic. Despite Cooper’s spectacular success, land speculation in the post-Revolutionary era was risky, and many rich and established figures, including Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, overextended themselves in speculative schemes and ended their lives in debtors’ prison or bankruptcy. The secret of Cooper’s success as a developer was to build up a critical mass of settlers as quickly as possible and to promote their enterprise. Unlike other landlords Cooper made available all of his best land at once and sold it at modest prices with long-term credit and as freeholds, not as tenancies, in order to get the settlers to work as hard as they could on land they owned outright. At the same time he realized that he needed to live among his settlers, to patronize and encourage them, and to work to develop saleable products and their access to markets. Cooper’s idea of development was to tap into each settler’s own interest in improving himself and make that self-interest redound to the community’s interest and his own. By “the simple measure of letting things take their own course,” he said, “I find my interest and that of the whole community promoted.”

If Taylor’s complex story has any single theme, it is to emphasize that, in the words of one New York politician in the 1790s, “money is the deity to whom all pay adoration.” People in Taylor’s history seem always willing to sacrifice their scruples for financial gain, whether they hire a minister of a strange denomination because he was cheaper or vote for someone because their palms were greased. Despite all his desires to become a proper gentleman, Cooper himself could not avoid this interest-mongering and moneymaking. He suffered the fate of nearly all would-be aristocrats in America of these years: he could not simply receive his income, as Adam Smith said the English landed aristocracy did, without exertion; he necessarily had to engage openly in commercial and entrepreneurial activities. And insofar as he was successful in scrambling to make money, he was unsuccessful in being thought genteel.

Cooper certainly tried to be a gentleman and sought to display his wealth as aristocratically as he could. He bought a carriage and erected his substantial Manor House in the middle of Cooperstown, stocked it with books, and supplied it with indentured servants and slaves. Yet at every turn he betrayed his lowly origins, his crude manners, and his bourgeois temperament. He had no taste and no refinement. The wooden, unornamented Manor House, as his son James recalled with embarrassment, was “low and straggling.” He had to hire men to walk alongside his pretentious carriage to keep it from jolting on the uneven rocky roads of the county. He never learned to keep a proper gentlemanly distance from the common settlers of his village; he not only jostled and joked with them but engaged in wrestling matches with them. He could not even remain superior to his servants: one of them could write better than he could.

More than anything else Cooper wanted to be a father to his people, which meant that he required political authority commensurate with his social position and wealth. When Otsego became a county in 1791, Coopers-town became the county seat and Cooper became the county’s first judge, a powerful and influential position. In 1794 he was elected to the US Congress; he was narrowly defeated in 1796 but re-elected in 1798. From a distance Cooper appears to have had the county pretty much in his pocket (Jefferson called him “the Bashaw of Otsego”) and to have become in fact the dominant patriarchal figure he yearned to be. Historians have commonly seen him much as Jefferson did, picturing him as an overbearing landlord and political tyrant ruling his county with an iron hand. It is one of the achievements of Taylor’s book to dispel this and other mistaken images of Cooper as a man firmly in control of things. In Taylor’s account Cooper becomes a flawed gentleman desperately hanging on, more confused, more vulnerable, and less powerful than we have usually thought him to be. He was a Federalist in a dynamic democratic world that was rapidly undermining everything the Federalists stood for.

  1. *

    For examples of some recent criticism of Cooper see Robert Clark, editor, James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays (Barnes and Noble, 1985), W.M. Verhoeven, editor, James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993); and Geoffrey Rans, Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading (University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

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