The American Democrat

Overview

When The American Democrat was first published in 1838, Cooper's position as America's first major novelist obscured his serious contribution to the discussion of American principles and politics.

"Yet Cooper, " says H. L. Mencken, "was probably the first American to write about Americans in the really frank spirit...a simple, sound and sensible tract, moderate in tone and extraordinarily astute in its conclusions."

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Overview

When The American Democrat was first published in 1838, Cooper's position as America's first major novelist obscured his serious contribution to the discussion of American principles and politics.

"Yet Cooper, " says H. L. Mencken, "was probably the first American to write about Americans in the really frank spirit...a simple, sound and sensible tract, moderate in tone and extraordinarily astute in its conclusions."

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781103173785
  • Publisher: BiblioBazaar
  • Publication date: 1/28/2009
  • Pages: 196
  • Product dimensions: 8.00 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 0.42 (d)

Meet the Author

James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper was born in 1789 in New Jersey, the son of a wealthy land agent who founded Cooperstown in New York State. Cooper attended Yale, but was expelled in 1805 and spent five years at sea on merchant then naval ships. He married in 1811, and eventually settled in New York. Precaution, Cooper's first novel, was written in 1820 as a study of English manners; its successors, The Spy and The Pilot, written within the next three years, were more characteristic of the vein of military or seagoing romance that was to become typical of him. In 1823 he began the Leatherstocking Tales series of novels, centred on a shared Native American character at different periods of his life, for which he is chiefly remembered. Cooper's reputation as one of America's leading authors was quickly established, and spread to Europe by a long stay there from 1826, making him one of the first American writers popular beyond that country. After his return to America in 1832, however, conservative political essays and novels dramatising similar views, as well as critiques of American society and abuses of democracy, led to a decline in his popularity. James Fenimore Cooper died in 1851.

Biography

James Cooper (he added the Fenimore when he was in his 30s) was born September 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey, to William Cooper and Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper. In 1790 the family moved to the frontier country of upstate New York, where William established a village he called Cooperstown. Although cushioned by wealth and William's status as landlord and judge, the Coopers found pioneering to be rugged, and only 7 of the 13 Cooper children survived their early years. All the hardship notwithstanding, according to family reports, the young James loved the wilderness. Years later, he wrote The Pioneers (1823) about Cooperstown in the 1790s, but many of his other books draw deeply on his childhood experiences of the frontier as well.

Cooper was sent to Yale in 1801 but he was expelled in 1805 for setting off an explosion in another student's room. Afterward, as a midshipman in the fledgling U.S. Navy, he made Atlantic passages and served at an isolated post on Lake Ontario. Cooper resigned his commission in 1811 to marry Susan Augusta De Lancey, the daughter of a wealthy New York State family. During the next decade, however, a series of bad investments and legal entanglements reduced his inheritance to the verge of bankruptcy.

Cooper was already 30 years old when, on a dare from his wife, he became a writer. One evening he threw down, in disgust, a novel he was reading aloud to her, saying he could write a better book himself. Susan, who knew that he disliked writing even letters, expressed her doubts. To prove her wrong he wrote Precaution, which was published anonymously in 1820. Encouraged by favorable reviews, Cooper wrote other books in quick succession, and by the time The Last of the Mohicans, his sixth novel, was published in 1827, he was internationally famous as America's first professionally successful novelist. Eventually he published 32 novels, as well as travel books and histories. Cooper invented the genre of nautical fiction, and in the figure of Nathaniel or "Natty" Bumppo (Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans) -- the central character in the five Leatherstocking Tales Cooper published between 1823 and 1841 -- he gave American fiction its first great hero.

Shortly after publishing The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper moved his family to Europe, but in 1833 he returned to America, moving back into his father's restored Mansion House in Cooperstown. He died there on September 14, 1851.

Author biography courtesy of Barnes & Noble Books.

Good To Know

Cooper was expelled from Yale due to his passion for pranks, which included training a donkey to sit in a professor's chair and setting a fellow student's room on fire.

Between 1822 and 1826 Cooper lived in New York City, and was a major player on its intellectual scene. He founded the Bread and Cheese Club, which had many high-profile members, including notable painters of the Hudson River School and writers like William Cullen Bryant.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      September 15, 1789
    2. Place of Birth:
      Burlington, New Jersey
    1. Date of Death:
      September 14, 1851
    2. Place of Death:
      Cooperstown, New York
    1. Education:
      Yale University (expelled in 1805)

Introduction

The American Democrat by James Fenimore Cooper is a provocative exposé on American politics that will amuse, shock, and offend contemporary readers - just as it did when originally published in 1835. It depicts a country teetering on the edge of sacrificing the principles of the American Revolution on the altar of parochial interests. In a startling twist on this all-too-familiar theme, however, Cooper traces this problem to the growing power of the people and the tendency of elected officials to pander to public opinion. The American Democrat was intended to sound the tocsin in regard to this emerging threat to individual liberty and the nation's vitality. Written in the midst of the Jacksonian revolution in American politics, Cooper's fundamental purpose is to stress the importance of remaining faithful to the foundational principles of the republic as reflected in the U.S. Constitution - that carefully crafted checks and balances system which was explicitly designed to distance the people from the process of governance. Seen from this perspective, The American Democrat lays bare one of the most fundamental - if rarely spoken - issues underlying the design of the American political system.

James Fenimore Cooper was born in 1789 and rose to prominence as America's first literary giant - a prolific author who gained worldwide fame for his bold and inspiring stories of heroic individuals exploring the American frontier and the high seas. In certain respects, his life paralleled the adventures, challenges, and hardships portrayed so poignantly in his fiction. At fourteen, Cooper had been admitted to Yale where he subsequently was expelledduring his junior year for refusing to abide by the college's academic standards. He then joined the merchant marine, ultimately serving as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy until 1811. Cooper's future as an icon of American literature would begin innocently enough with the publication of his first novel in 1820 at the age of thirty-one, presumably in response to a dare from his wife Susan. Over the course of a literary career spanning the next thirty years, he would publish an astonishing thirty-three novels. Among his many publications, Cooper is best known for the Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels culminating with The Last of the Mohicans - a work that is widely regarded as his finest piece of fiction. The American Democrat represents another dimension of Cooper's boundless energy and intellectual curiosity - one of a series of books he wrote chronicling and celebrating the nation's achievements. Ironically, however, The American Democrat would serve as the prelude to the darkest chapter of Cooper's life - years filled with bitterness, recriminations, and reprisals that would persist until the very hour of his death in 1851.

During his lifetime, Cooper acquired a well-deserved reputation for being frank, outspoken, and unapologetically firm in his convictions. Ultimately, these traits would poison his relationship with the American public. Indeed, during the last twenty years of his life, Cooper was routinely vilified in popular newspapers for expressing opinions that were considered to be obnoxious, arrogant, and perhaps even un-American. The final act in this long simmering feud unfolded as Cooper lay upon his deathbed. In perhaps a final act of revenge for the scandalous attacks that had been mounted against his character over the years, Cooper ordered his family to never allow anyone to produce an authorized biography of his life. His descendants have continued to honor his wishes to this day. Symbolically, Cooper's dying request was his final act of defiance - signaling his unwillingness to allow a nation that had betrayed him to lay claim to "James Fenimore Cooper" as a symbol of that very nation's greatness. In a more fundamental sense, this decision also represented Cooper's codicil to The American Democrat - literally the last gasp of his doomed attempt to defend individual liberty and the principles underlying the revolution.

Cooper's stature in American society began to suffer in the early 1830s as he was drawn somewhat reluctantly into a trans-Atlantic controversy concerning the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. In 1826, Cooper had moved to Paris where he encountered French intellectuals embroiled in a spirited debate about the relative merits of limited monarchies and democratically oriented government. Cooper waded into this discussion in 1830 by posting a letter to a Parisian journal extolling the virtues of the American political system. Ironically, however, this initial foray into the relatively rarified realm of comparative political analysis would lead to the first glimmer of the American public's distaste for Cooper's presumed aristocratic predispositions.

Relations between Cooper and his public would become further strained upon his return to the United States in 1833. Politically, this was the era of Jacksonian democracy - a period characterized by a sharp increase in the level of public participation in state and national politics. For Cooper, this was a very troubling development, especially since this entailed a very dramatic expansion of voting rights in states throughout the country. Historically, the privilege of voting had been granted to citizens on the basis of their individual wealth. For decades, states had established property requirements that a man had to fulfill before he could become a registered voter. As a consequence, a rather sizeable segment of American society had been routinely excluded from the electoral process. This had been done quite deliberately, of course, in the name of good governance. To Cooper's dismay, however, America in the 1830s was now in the process of systematically dismantling these restrictions. This, in turn, raised the ominous prospect of government by the people.

Cooper was not a disinterested observer when it came to the question of who should govern in America. He was born into wealth, a proud member of a family descended from the upper class of English society that held extensive tracts of land in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and, later, central New York. Indeed, in 1788, Cooper's father would decide to establish a settlement on the shores of Otsego Lake that would bear the family's surname. Cooperstown - the future site of the baseball hall of fame - would serve as both the childhood home of James Cooper and as an enduring symbol of the curious combination of admiration and contempt that he would come to exhibit toward American society. That said, it would be a mistake to dismiss Cooper's concerns about Jacksonian democracy as nothing more than the self-serving protests of a man whose own power and influence would be jeopardized by the rise of a mass-based approach to governance. For Cooper, the dangers inherent in such a scheme ran far deeper than this - jeopardizing, ultimately, the civility of American society and the integrity of the nation's political system.

The American Democrat represents Cooper's penetrating analysis of the inevitable and incalculable harm that will result from the nation's well-intentioned, but inherently misguided embrace of egalitarianism as the fundamental ordering principle of American politics. In essence, he anticipates a problem that contemporary Americans have come to know all-too-well: the corrosive and corrupting influence of interest group politics. The future Cooper foresees would be dominated by two key political dynamics. First, in the absence of property requirements, there would be a dramatic increase in the proportion of votes cast by citizens drawn from the lower socio-economic classes. Second, given their sheer numbers and the winner-take-all format of the electoral process, public officials would have no choice but to pander to these voters in the name of gaining office. As a consequence, public opinion was poised to become an increasingly powerful force in American politics and ultimately this would jeopardize both individual liberty and the vitality of the nation. This provocative conclusion follows from Cooper's implicit assumption that the electorate destined to dominate a mass-based political system ultimately would reject meritocracy as the basis for governance in America. Instead, Cooper was convinced that government by people inevitably would place political power in the hands of those officials most adept at delivering the goods to an insatiable, fickle, and feckless public.

Understandably, The American Democrat fueled public outrage against Cooper, and certainly by contemporary standards, his analysis remains unseemly for a variety of reasons. In fairness to him, however, we should acknowledge that Cooper's analysis was entirely consistent with the political convictions underlying the original design of the American political system. Hence, to read The American Democrat is to glimpse quite unsentimentally into the minds of the men who drafted the U.S. Constitution. This may not make Cooper's argument any more palatable, but it does transform The American Democrat into a work that has a great deal of contemporary relevance since there currently are any number of groups and individuals in the United States who would have us return to the original intent of the Founding Fathers as a guide to governing America in the twenty-first century. To fully appreciate Cooper's concerns about the drift of the American political system in the 1830s, it is therefore useful to place his beliefs within the context the intellectual framework articulated by James Madison, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution.

For Madison, "the people" were a redoubtable phenomenon serving simultaneously as the chief inspiration for the creation of a democracy and as the most serious threat to its survival. In essence, Madison's concerns can be traced to his beliefs about human nature. As he notes in Federalist No. 51, human nature is characterized by a self-regarding instinct that predisposes citizens "to vex and oppress each other [rather] than to cooperate for their common good." Hence, Madison concluded in Federalist No. 10 that "the latent causes of factions are sown into the nature of man." More importantly, however, Madison also was convinced that "the most common and durable sources of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property." Seen from this perspective, "those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society," and it was Madison's felt responsibility to craft a political system that would prevent the property-less members of American society from exploiting their superior numbers to dominate the legislative process and thereby impose a tyranny of the majority. As Madison notes in Federalist No. 10 - his most powerful and eloquent justification for the constitution - this was "the great object to which our enquiries are directed."

For purposes of this discussion, the important point is that Madison believed there was little that could be done to change the "factious spirit" of the people. Since human nature was immutable and class divisions within society were unavoidable, the threat posed by factionalism could not be dealt with "by removing its causes" (i.e. promoting civic virtue on the part of citizens). Instead, Madison concluded that the only practical remedy was to control the effects of factionalism by constructing a system of institutional safeguards that would serve to distance the people from the process of governance. This was to be done primarily by creating an electoral system that would prevent the people from directly electing public officials. The goal also would be accomplished by designing an elaborate system of checks and balances that would seriously complicate the people's ability to dominate the legislative process. The intellectual convictions underlying this approach have been aptly summarized by Peter deLeon:
The reason behind Madison's constitutional manipulation - of separation of powers and republican representative government - was that, at heart, he did not trust the individual citizen to understand the requirements of government and to govern in a dispassionate manner. . .Rather than turn the government over to an unstructured, passion-prone democracy, Madison - and, by extension the Constitutional Convention - chose to disenfranchise the citizen by a series of carefully designed checks and balances, as well as by a representative government that effectively tempered the individual and his "misled" enthusiasms.
For James Fenimore Cooper, the source of America's greatness could be traced to the ingenuity of Madison and the Founding Fathers - the best and the brightest of American society -- who had crafted a constitutional framework that would make it difficult - but not impossible - for the American political system to lapse into a government by the people. This also helps to explain Cooper's concerns about the rise of Jacksonian democracy - a political movement dedicated to weakening the very institutional safeguards upon which the continued peace and prosperity of the nation depended. This counter-intuitive perspective on American politics is likely to offend the sensibilities of contemporary citizens, just as it enflamed public opinion during Cooper's lifetime. Before we reject the premise, however, we would do well to understand it. And in that regard, there is no better treatment of this extraordinarily sensitive subject than the analysis found in The American Democrat.

K. Edward Spiezio is an Associate Professor of Politics at Cedar Crest College.
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