Reflecting many thinkers before him, James Fenimore Cooper argued in his works that America had a biblical duty to be the “Light Upon the Hill.” Cooper also believed that both the frontier and republicanism made America unique, vigorous, and consequential, and he spent his adult life advocating a purely American form of art.

“Places for the worship of God abound with that frequency which characterizes a moral and reflecting people, and with that variety of exterior and canonical government which flows from unfettered liberty of conscience,” James Fenimore Cooper wrote in the first Leatherstocking Tale, The Pioneers. “The whole district,” he continued, “is hourly 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 the commonwealth of which he knows himself to form a part.”[1]

Whether writing fiction or social criticism, Cooper consistently stressed the importance of nationalism—political and cultural. He believed that both the frontier and republicanism made America unique, vigorous, and consequential. Though fiction, the above passage from The Pioneers reflects Cooper’s intense passions. The freedom of the wilderness, in the process of being subdued, and the republican form of government precipitated faith, liberty, and natural progress. Blessed from above, America spread quickly, prospering.

Reflecting many thinkers before him, Cooper argued in all of his works that America had a biblical duty to be the “Light Upon the Hill.” Anything less would prove reprehensible to God and to America’s ancestors, who had shed much blood for the creation of the new nation. Indeed, reliance on European art, manners, or political forms would only destroy the United States and deny our covenant with God. It would end the American promise to the world.

Cooper spent his adult life advocating a purely American form of art, chastising those who adopted or maintained European conventions. His three explicit works of social criticism—Notions of the Americans (1828); A Letter to His Countrymen (1834); and The American Democrat (1838)—advocated cultural and political nationalism. In Notions, he is naively optimistic, simplistic, and giddy about America’s prospects. In A Letter, he is overly strident and bitter, though very nuanced in his argumentation. In the final work of social criticism, The American Democrat, Cooper lays out clearly his ideas on a variety of subjects, ranging from equality to slavery to the press. More restrained, Cooper’s American Democrat tempers the euphoria of Notions and the seething resentment of A Letter.

As one might expect, Cooper’s project was met with mixed results. Numerous Americans of his day despised Cooper, believing him pretentious and possibly un-American to the point of traitorous. Still, they devoured his romance novels (a European convention), as did countless Europeans.

1789-1821: Learning Self-Discipline

Cooper obtained his convictions regarding republicanism, nationalism, and the frontier from his relatively idyllic childhood. Born in 1789 to a well-to-do Quaker family in New Jersey, young James soon moved to upstate New York where his father, William, had already founded the prosperous community of Cooper’s Town.[2] The twelfth of thirteen children, James ran wild through the town and the surrounding woods. As Hannah, his sister, wrote of James and his brothers, they “show plainly that they have been bred in the Woods.”[3]

Cooper’s “wild” streak, as his sister had put it, manifested itself in a number of detrimental ways during Cooper’s childhood. As a very young man, Cooper attended Yale College from 1803 to 1805, but the school dismissed him for disciplinary reasons. He had performed a series of harmless pranks, infuriating the wrong people. His family wanted him to go to Princeton, but that school had banned any Cooper after one of James’s brothers burned down a building on campus. Prior to his failed college career, however, Cooper had received a strong classic liberal arts education. His teachers remembered him as a good student, a voracious reader, and an excellent storyteller.

With few options and a drive for adventure, Cooper became a common sailor, hoping to prepare for a naval career. In 1806, Cooper joined a merchant vessel, the Stirling. Once aboard, he certainly experienced the adventure he had sought. He sailed in stormy weather, was pursued by pirates, and faced impressment into the British navy. The action suited Cooper, and on January 1, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson signed him into the navy as a midshipman. Cooper served the Navy well and hoped to make it his life-long career, with aspirations of rising to the rank of Admiral.

Two events derailed Cooper’s plans. First, James inherited a considerable amount of wealth and property in 1809 when an angry politician violently and mortally struck Judge William Cooper from behind in Albany after a disagreement. The wealth and land allowed Cooper to become a gentleman. Second, he met and fell in love with the wealthy Susan De Lancey of a prominent New York family. Not wanting her husband absent for long stretches of time, she convinced James to retire from the Navy. Though he complied, Cooper’s love for the ocean remained unabated. During his writing career, he wrote fondly of the sea and the United States Navy in his fiction and non-fiction alike. Many historians still consider The History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), The Cruise of the Somers (1844), and Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1846) masterful works of scholarship.[4] During Cooper’s life, for example, the famous philosopher and historian George Bancroft praised his historical works.[5]

Cooper settled into the life of a gentlemen during the 1810s. He farmed, landscaped, developed local voluntary associations based on agriculture and the Bible, actively participated in the local Episcopal Church, and served as a colonel in the New York state militia.

During the same decade, Cooper’s four brothers, all of whom shared their father’s estate with James, spent their money unwisely, driving the family’s collective finances into deep debt. All four died by 1819. Cooper’s mother, who had always hated the frontier and near-frontier conditions of Cooper’s Town, died in 1818.

This left a huge burden of debt for James. He sold the family estate and attempted a number of (mostly failed) speculative ventures to raise money to pay off the debt. One of the ventures, the one his wife considered the strangest, was fiction writing. Upon throwing down a trashy English novel, Cooper complained of its poor quality. His wife challenged him to write something better, and, much to her surprise, James accepted her offer and did write something better. Though his first novel, Precaution (1820) received only moderate success, Cooper’s second novel, The Spy (1821) achieved instant fame in Europe.

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Notes:

[1] James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (1823; New York: Signet, 1980), 13-14.

[2] For an excellent exploration of early Cooperstown and its founder, see Alan Taylor’s Pulitzer-prizing winning William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1995).

[3] Quoted in Robert Emmet Long, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Continuum, 1990), 14. This introduction benefits significantly from Long’s excellent opening chapter on Cooper.

[4] George H. Callcott, History in the United States, 1800-1860: Its Practice and Purpose (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 70.

[5] Long, James Fenimore Cooper, 26.

The featured image is a portrait of James Fenimore Cooper (1830) by John Wesley Jarvis (1781–1839) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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