Skip to comments.The Conservative Mind: Cooper (An Excerpt from the chapter "Macaulay, Cooper, and Tocqueville")
Posted on 10/28/2002 8:57:23 AM PST by William McKinley
In Democracies there is a besitting disposition to make publick opinion stronger than the law. This is the particular form in which tyranny exhibits itself in a popular government; for wherever there is power, there will be found a disposition to abuse it. Whoever opposes the interests, or wishes of the publick, however right in principle, or justifiable in circumstances, finds little sympathy; for, in a democracy, resisting the wishes of the many, is resisting the sovereign, in his caprices. Every good citizen is bound to separate this influence of his private feelings from his publick duties, and to take heed that, while pretending to be struggling for liberty, because contending for the advantage of the greatest number, he is not helping despotism. The most insinuating and dangerous form in which oppression can overshadow a community is that of popular sway. -- Cooper, The American Democrat
Anyone who endeavors to trace the parallel development of ideas in Europe and in America must feel sometimes that he is treating of superficial resemblances; that the American mind was hardly more than the mirror of unique social circumstances; and that the pale ghost of European civilization was as powerless to alter the course of thought in America as the chorus was impotent to arrest the action in a Sophoclean drama. But Ortega y Gasset, that urbane and acute defender of European culture, would remark (in The Revolt of the Masses) that even today civilization could not endure in America, were civilization dead in Europe. In the fist half of the ninteenth century, when America was rawer, the importance of European ideas was correspondingly greater. They filtered into the United States, often against the protest of an arrogant American publicl and the Americans who tempered democratic overconfidence with old-world prudence ought to receive in our generation the thanks denied in their own time. The boldest thinker of this description was Fenimore Cooper, belligerently American, unsparingly critical of Americanism.
Cooper was a democrat; but he was the son of a great landed proprietor of conservative opinions, and himself the champion of the Hudson River patroons. This indefatigable controversialist and novelist did his utmost to steer a course between capitalistic consolidation and Southern separatism. He tried quite as hard to reconcile the spirit of a gentleman with political equality. Stubborn as Cato of Utica, and honest, he never yielded an inch to public delusion nor endured the least infringement of his private rights; and so presently he made himself bitterly detested by popular opinion, in the very democratic society he both defended and chastised with imprudent forthrightness. Unbending rectitude of this sort, however vexatious in its hour, becomes lovable in retrospect. Cooper believed in progress, freedom, property, and gentility. He provides a link between the liberalism of Macaulay and the liberalism of Tocqueville.
Cooper knew American democracy must be purged of its ignorance and roughness if it was to endure. The lawlessness of American agrarian avarice he depicts in old Thousandacres and his brood, in The Chainbearer; the brutal individualism of the pioneering spirit, in Ishmael Bush of The Prairie; the vulgarity of the American self-made man, in Aristabulus Bragg of Home as Found; the ubiquitoous professional democrat, in Steadfast Dodge of Homeward Bound. And though many of his books runs a pervading distrust of America's anarchic temper, her appetite which respects no prescription, her intolerance that scowls from behind a bombastic affirmation of absolute liberty. Cooper was conservative in every fibre, quite as concerned for tradition, constitutions, and property as were his great legal contemporaries Chancellor Kent and Justice Story. But he saw that no kind of conservatism is possible in America unless political democracy first is made secure and just. America had no political alternative; she could choose only between democracy defecated of popular delusion and democracy corrupted by passion. The regular aim of his literary endeavors was to demonstrate how any society, if it would be civilized, must submit to moral discipline, permanent institutions, and the beneficient claims of property. This general subjection of appetite to reason is possible only if a society consents to be led by gentlemen. Very English, this idea; but of greater importance in the United States, perhaps, than our age tends to think.
When abroad, Cooper was as aggressively proud of his country as he was critical of America when at home. He was abroad a good many years, and during that time he wrote three historical novels of a political turn, intended as warnings to Americans of how venerable establishments may be corrupted: The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and the Headsman. He feared privilege, consolidation, and constitutional tinkering quite as much as did Randolph and the Old Republicans. In The Heidenmauer, so wearisomely didactic as a romance, so interesting as a political exercise, is this vigorous passage:
However pure may be a social system, or a religion, in the commencement of its power, the possession of an undisputed ascendancy lures all alike into excesses fatal to consistency, to justice, and to truth. This is a consequence of the independent exercise of human volition, that seems neearly inseparable from human frailty. We gradually come to substitute inclination and interest for right, until the moral foundations of the mind are sapped by indulgence, and what was once regarded with the aversion that wrong excites in the innocent, gets to be not only familiar, but justifiable by expediency and use. There is no more certain symptom of the decay of the principles requisite to maintain even our imperfect standard of virtue, than when the plea of necessity is urged in vindication of any departure from its mandate, since it is calling in the aid of ingenuity to assist the passions, a coalition that rarely fails to lay protrate the feeble defenses of a tottering morality.
America was not exempt from this general truth. Her size, indeed, was some protection against corruption; for, Montesquieu and Aristotle notwithstanding, republics are better on a large than small scale, "since the danger of all popular governments is from popular mistakes; and a people of diversified interests and extended territorial possessions are much less likely to be the subjects of sinister passion than the inhabitants of a single town or country." Because centralization would reduce the United States to the condition of a unitary republic, exposed to the appetites of mobs and the manipulations of privilege, Cooper remained a consistent state-powers advocate.
Late in 1833, Cooper and his family returned to Americca from an extended Grand Tour; and less than four years later, he found himself deeply involved in the first of two distressing controversies which blasted his popularity and injured his prosperity. Both were the result of popular egalitarian assumptions that Cooper could not accept. The first affair, trifling in its inception, was an altercation with the people of his community, Cooperstown, who without permission had used as a public park -- and badly scarred-- a bit of land Cooper owned. He expelled the public; for this he was fantastically reviled by local newspaper editors of the sort Mark Twain later damned to immortal fame; he sued these persons for libel, and eventually won, but at the cost of a soured temper and much litigation. While these suits were in progress, Cooper published The American Democrat, a book full of perspicuity and courage, cogent and dignified. Perhaps it well this little treatise was written before the prolongation of his struggle against the editors, and later the Anti-Rent War, had exacerbated Cooper.
The American Democrat is an endeavor to strengthen democracy by marking out its natural bounds. In much, the book anticipates Tocqueville's analysis of American society. Democracies tend to press against their proper limits, to convert political equality into economic levelling, to insist that equal opportunity become mediocrity, to invade every personal right and privacy; they set themselves above the law; they substitute mass opinion for justice. But there are compensations for these vices-- or tendencies toward vice. Democracy elevates the character of the people; it reduces military establishments; it advances the national prosperity; it tends to serve the whole community; it is the cheapest form of government; it is little subject to popular tumults, the vote replacing the musket; unless excited, it pays more respect to abstract justice than do aristocracy and monarchy. We cherish democracy, therefore; but we do not cherish democracy unlimited and lawless.
"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, when it takes the character of acts, and not unfrequently when it is confined to opinion.'" How can the public be persuaded of the necessity for these limitations? By exposure of the popular delusions concerning equality and government, and by the influence of gentlemen upon democratic society. "In America, it is indispensable that every well wisher of true liberty should understand that acts of tyranny can only proceed from the publick. The publick, then, is to be watched... Although the political liberty of this country is greater than that of nearly every other civilized nation, its personal liberty is said to be less."
Cooper undertakes to analyze those popular misconceptions which endanger private liberty. Equality is not absolute; the Declaration of Independence is not to be understood literally, not even in a moral sense; the very existence of government infers inequality. And "liberty, like equality, is a word more used than understood. Perfect and absolute liberty is as incompatible with the existence of society, as equality of condition." We adopt the popular polity not because it is perfect, but because it is less liable to disturb society than is any other. Liberty properly is subordinate to natural justice, and must be restrained within limits. False theories of representation, reducing representatives to mere delegates, are a peril to American liberty; so is consolidation, in a system intended, as ours is, for diffusion. A venal and virulent press threatens decent life: "If newspapers are useful in overthrowing tyrants, it is only to establish a tyranny of their own." The inclination of democratic peoples to invade the securities of private life is a shocking perversion of liberal democracy, for "individuality is the aim of political liberty": happiness and depth of character are dependent upon it. With these and similar arguments, often employed by conservatives but expressed here with a force and precision rarely attained, Cooper attempted to awaken the American public to consciousness of its own vices. He trod on many toes, and made himself detested, and never got his book read as it deserves to be.
Together with the need for awakening the people to the necessity for restraint in exercising their powers, Cooper believed the hope for democracy lay in the survival of gentlemen, leaders of their communities, superior to vulgar impulses, able to withstand most forms of legislative or extra-legal intimidation. "Social station is that which one possesses in the ordinary associations, and is dependent on birth, education, personal qualities, property, tastes, habits, and in some instances, on caprice, or fashion." Social station is a consequence of property, and so cannot be eliminated in a civilized society; so long as civilization exists, property is its support. Our endeavor should be so to arrange matters that the possessors of superior social station are endowed with a sense of duty. One man is not as good as another, even in the grand moral system of Providence. "This social inequality of America is an unavoidable result of the institutions, though nowhere proclaimed in them, the different constitutions maintaining a profound silence on the subject, they who framed them probably knowing that it is as much a consequence of civilized socity, as breathing is a vital function of animal life." Station has its duties, private and public. We ought to see that those duties are fulfilled by gentlemen.
"All that democracy means, is as equal a participation in rights as is practicable; and to pretend that social equality is a condition of popular institutions, is to assume that the latter are destructive of civilization, for, as nothing is more self-evident than the impossibility of raising all men to the highest standard of tastes and refinement, the alternative would be to reduce the entire community to the lowest." The existence of gentlemen is not inconsistent with democracy, for "aristocracy" does not mean the same thing as "gentlemen". "The word 'gentleman' has a positive and limited signification. It means one elevated above the mass of society by his birth, manners, attainments, character, and social condition. As no civilized society can exist without these social differences, nothing is gained by denying the use of the term." Liberal attainments distinguish the gentleman from other people; simple gentlemanlike instincts are not enough. Money, however, is no criterion of gentility. If the gentleman and the lady vanish from a society, they take with them polite learning, the civilizing force of manners, the example of elevated conduct, and that high sense of station which lifts private and public duty above mere salary-earning. If they go, eventually civilization will follow them.
In the book which someone ought to write on the idea of a gentleman, Cooper's remarks deserve an honorable place. Yet they exerted no wide influence. Gentlemen are not altogether extirpated in America, but the social and economic conditions requisite for their survival have always been unfavorable, and are becoming precarious. Only two years after The American Democrat was published, the Anti-Rent War in New York, which excited Cooper nearly to frenzy, disclosed how difficult was the position of gentlemen in the United States. For the existence of the gentleman has been founded upon the inherited possession of land; and the radicals of the anti-rent movement were determined that the landed proprietors of central New York should give way to farmers and squatters; no prescription, no title in law, should operate against the demand of the majority for ownership of their fields. In the long run, the farmers and squatters won, through intimidation of the landowners and timidity of the courts before popular enthusiasm. The great proprietors of the Hudson vanished from history. This violation of the rights of property, and the means by which it was accomplished, dismayed Cooper immeasurably. If democratic society were bent upon eradicating the class of gentlemen, how would it provide for its own leadership, how would it retain a high tone? That question never has been answered satisfactorily in the United States; and a marked hostility toward large property in land seems embedded in American character. "Land reform" was one of the first American enactments in conquered Japan, dispossessing a conservative and moderate element in Japanese society; and the United States urged Italy and El Salvador "agrarian reform," and for a long while smiled upon those "agrarian reformers" the Chinese Communists. With the same sort of hostility the Machesterians felt towards the English landed proprietors, American industrial society has resented the survival of landed estates.
"The instability and impermanence of American life," writes Cooper's best critic, "which Cooper in the last half of his career sees as endangering the gentleman's right to his property, and finally, in his last novel, the literal right to life itself, had been one of his themes in the years of his untroubled beginnings... He never found a wholly adequate symbol in which to concentrate his tragic vision, perhaps because in the depths of his nature his heart was cheerful, and the bitterness was on the surface, for all the world to see, in his mind." A staunch optimism never altogether deserted Fenimore Cooper, from whom so many of the best American qualities bristled defiantly. But he lost his fight for a democracy studded with men of good birth and high principle. Most reflective Americans must fall now and then into sober considerations upon the extent of this deficiency. Perhaps the lack of the gentleman in America is most conspicuous in rural regions and small towns and the great empty states of the West, but even in the older cities, society often seems declining into an ennui formerly characteristic only of senescent peoples, for lack of leadership and tone. Perhaps without gentlemen, society bores itself to death. In such a people is no leaven of diversity. "The effect of boredom on a large scale in history is underestimated," writes Dean Inge. Today it seems a force that must be reckoned with. And by this transition, we come to Alexis de Tocqueville.
It is interesting to consider how Cooper's visualized gentleman is attacked full-bore by Marxist precepts, and how in particular the death tax works to prevent this potential protector of liberty from flourishing in America.
In fact, for some years this book was out of print in hard cover with a paperback only available decades ago. A dear childhood friend found me a copy of that while she suffered from a terminal illness.
Recently, a new hard back addition of this work and related writings is available and I recommend it.
Here is an interesting read about Cooper's views on "polity" and "aristocrats".
It is the besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law. This is the usual form in which the masses of men exhibit their tyranny."
-- James Fenimore Cooper - "The American Democrat" (1838)
Cooper also wrote at length on naval questions. A decent and interesting man!
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
And therein lies the germ of the charges of "elitism" leveled against conservatives. A charge to which I would most emphatically plead "Guilty."
Can it be mere snobbery to propose that one's community be run by the best and the most sterling of character? Can one not with good right demand that those accorded great power be made of purer stuff than those they rule? Are the rabble to be our overlords, the ignorant our teachers, and the dim our guidelights? Do we really want blind men on our watchtowers?
While I am not a great fan of Cooper, another author Kirk cites is Sir Walter Scott, whose noble prose inspired me in childhood, and still does to this day.
Yes, the madness of juggernaut egalitarianism, the same runaway madness that inflamed the Jacobins to heights of depravity unknown under the aristocracy they displaced. It was that fear of Procrustean "leveling" that prompted Burke et. al. to reject the egalite of the French Revolution in favor of a moderated, restrained meritocracy. And therein lie the roots of the movement we cherish today.