Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Chainbearer by James Fenimore Cooper

This one had a bit of a story behind it. If people are familiar with Cooper at all, they’re familiar with his most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans. And if they are familiar with The Last of the Mohicans, then they may know that it is one of a series of five novels featuring the same character at various stages of his life, collectively known as The Leatherstocking Tales.

But it is a rare person indeed who has heard of Cooper’s other series of novels, collectively called The Littlepage Manuscripts, of which The Chainbearer is the middle volume. I first stumbled across the series in some ancient used bookstore when I happened across Satanstoe, the first volume in this then-unknown series. That began a kind of quest for me, searching seemingly in vain for years for both The Chainbearer and for the third and final volume The Redskins.

Obviously, I recently discovered The Chainbearer, not in a used book store, as I recall, but in an antique shop clustered among a few random tomes on display more from their appearance than their contents. In the intervening years I’ve read a few other Cooper novels, largely of the Leatherstocking variety, and have more or less developed my own theory of the author’s intent, based largely in what I saw most conspicuously displayed in The Pathfinder.

In short, a disbeliever in the ability of man to distinguish between good and evil without the aid of instruction, would have been staggered by the character of this extraordinary inhabitant of the frontier. His feelings appeared to possess the freshness and nature of the forest in which he passed so much of his time; and no casuist could have made clearer decisions in matters relating to right and wrong; and yet he was not without his prejudices, which, though few, and colored by the character and usages of the individual, were deep-rooted, and almost formed a part of his nature. But the most striking feature about the moral organization of Pathfinder was his beautiful and unerring sense of justice.

That’s a description of Natty Bumppo in The Pathfinder, and it typifies my imagined theme. In the service of his charges, the frontier scout finds the path, not just through the forest, but through the moral quandaries that beset and challenge them along the way. I really wanted The Chainbearer to conform to this same theme, but, despite my hearty enjoyment of the novel, I’d have to say that it didn’t quite measure up to this standard.

Moral Judge or Civilizing Force?

Although the introduction of the titular Chainbearer did give me some hope.

“Who is the queer old man of whom I have heard you speak, Mordaunt,” my sister demanded, “and with whom you have lately had some correspondence about these lands?”

“I suppose you mean my former comrade, the ‘Chainbearer.’ There was a captain in our regiment of the name of Coejemans, who bears this appellation, and who had contracted to get the necessary surveys made, though he fills the humble post of a ‘chainbearer’ himself, not being competent to make the calculations.”

“How can a mere chainbearer contract for a full survey?” asked Tom Bayard, who had joined the party, and had been listening to the discourse. “The chainbearers, in general, are but common laborers, and are perfectly irresponsible.”

“That is true, as a rule; but my old friend forms an exception. He set out for a surveyor, but having no head for sines, and co-sines, and tangents, he was obliged to lower his pretensions to the humbler duty he now discharges. Still he has long contracted for jobs of this nature, and gets as much as he can do, hiring surveyors himself, the owners of property having the utmost confidence in his measurements. Let me tell you, the man who carries chain is not the least important member of a surveying party in the woods. Old Andries is as honest as noon-day, and everybody has faith in him.”

Your first person narrator here is Mordaunt Littlepage, son of Cornelius Littlepage, whose adventures comprised the action of the previous volume, Satanstoe. The title of that volume refers to the Littlepage family estate in Revolutionary War-era New York, and much of the action of The Chainbearer will center on Mordaunt’s assignment to survey and sell parcels of upstate land owned by the Littlepages. To do this, as described above, he will employ an older veteran of the War, Andies Coejemans, known to all as the titular Chainbearer. Not a surveyor, mind you, one experienced with calculations, but a simple chainbearer, one responsible for laying out a line, straight and true, between one man’s land and another’s.

“I am sure her uncle is my superior in some respects; in carrying chain, particularly so.”

“Ay, but scarcely in station, Mordaunt.”

“He was the senior captain of the regiment.”

“True; but revolutions are revolutions. What I mean is, that your Chainbearer can hardly be a gentleman.”

“That is a point not to be decided in a breath. He is, and he is not. Old Andries is of a respectable family, though but indifferently educated. Men vastly his inferiors in birth, in habits, in the general notions of the caste, in the New England states, are greatly his superiors in knowledge. Nevertheless, while we must all admit how necessary a certain amount of education has become, at the present time, to make a gentleman, I think every gentleman will allow hundreds among us have degrees in their pockets with small claims to belong to the class. Three or four centuries ago, I should have answered that old Andries was a gentleman, though he had to bite the wax with his teeth and make a cross, for want of a better signature.”

“And he what you call a chainbearer, Mordaunt!” exclaimed my sister.

Like the Pathfinder, then, this Chainbearer is something between two worlds. A gentleman and not a gentleman. An educated man and not an educated man. If he cannot guide you through the moral landscape, then perhaps he can provide some other metaphoric service. He is someone, after all, who sees things honest and true, and who may be able to help others understand what side of the line they should be on.

And then, as my mind explored these possibilities, I was struck by what I took to be a remarkable decision by Cooper, a decision to take this, his central character of some clear moral force and objectivity in a new and uncharted direction.

“Of course, you merely gave your friends the pleasure of your company and looked a little to their comforts, on their return from a hard day’s work?”

Dus raised her eyes to mine; smiled; then she looked sad, her under-lip quivering slightly; after which a smile that was not altogether without humor succeeded. I watched these signs of varying feeling with an interest I cannot describe; for the play of virtuous and ingenuous emotion on a lovely female countenance is one of the rarest sights in nature.

Dus is a diminutive appellation for Ursula Malbone, Andries Coejemans’s niece and the novel’s primary love interest for Mordaunt Littlepage. And what she says after the “play of virtuous and ingenuous emotion” on her face, in this, their first meeting, will frankly shock our narrator.

“I can carry chain,” said the girl, at the close of this exhibition of feeling.

“You can carry chain, Ursula -- Dus, or whatever I am to call you--”

“Call me Dus -- I love that name best.”

“You can carry chain, I suppose is true enough -- but, you do not mean that you have?”

The face of Dus flushed; but she looked me full in the eye, as she nodded her head to express an affirmative; and she smiled as sweetly as ever woman smiled.

“For amusement -- to say you have done it -- in jest!”

“To help my uncle and brother, who had not the means to hire a second man.”

“Good God! Miss Malbone -- Ursula -- Dus--”

“The last is the most proper name for a Chainbearess,” rejoined the girl, smiling; and actually taking my hand by an involuntary movement of her sympathy in the shock I so evidently felt. “But why should you look upon that little toil as so shocking, when it is healthful and honest? You are thinking of a sister reduced to what strikes you as man’s proper work.”

And here I am thinking that I am really onto something. For remember, in my metaphoric context, carrying chain is not just an act of physical labor, it is an act of symbolic significance, in which the chainbearer separates one person’s property from another, and thereby provides a true reckoning around which civilization can define and progress itself. If the pathfinder helps us chart the moral course through uncertain territory, then perhaps the chainbearer helps us claim that territory as our own and keep it through peace and prosperity. In allowing Ursula Malbone to carry chain, is Cooper saying something about the role of women in that civilizing process?

Perhaps. Let’s read on.

Dus relinquished my hand almost as soon as she had touched it; and she did it with a slight start, as if shocked at her own temerity.

“What is man’s work, and man’s work, only?”

“Yet woman can perform it; and, as uncle Chainbearer will tell you, perform it well. I had no other concern, the month I was at work, than the fear that my strength would not enable me to do as much as my uncle and brother, and thus lessen the service they could render you each day. They kept me on the dry land, so there were no wet feet, and your woods are as clear of underbrush as an orchard. There is no use in attempting to conceal the fact, for it is known to many, and would have reached your ears sooner or later. Then concealment is always painful to me, and never more so than when I hear you, and see you treating your hired servant as an equal.”

“Miss Malbone! -- For God’s sake, let me hear no more of this -- old Andries judged rightly of me, in wishing to conceal this; for I should never have allowed it to go on for a moment.”

If Cooper is saying this, that woman are, or at least can be our guides and our lawgivers, it is clearly something Mordaunt Littlepage isn’t prepared to accept. And this despite Dus’s many reasoned arguments.

“And in what manner could you have prevented it, Major Littlepage? My uncle has taken the business of you at so much the day, finding surveyor and laborers. Poor dear Frank! He, at least, does not rank with the laborers, and as for my uncle, he has long had an honest pride in being the best chainbearer in the country -- why need his niece scruple about sharing in his well-earned reputation?”

“But you, Miss Malbone -- dearest Dus -- who have been so educated, who are born a lady, who are loved by Priscilla Bayard, the sister of Frank, are not in your proper sphere, while thus occupied.”

“It is not so easy to say what is the proper sphere of a woman. I admit it ought to be, in general, in the domestic circle, and under the domestic roof; but circumstances must control that. We hear of wives who follow their husbands to the camp, and we hear of nuns who come out of their convents to attend the sick and wounded in hospitals. It does not strike me, then, as so bad in a girl who offers to aid her parent as I have aided mine, when the alternative was to suffer by want.”

And indeed, we will meet more such women as Ursula Malbone in Cooper’s novel, women who, while in their domestic circle, follow and support their husbands in their traditionally masculine exploits. They, very clearly, make their achievements possible, and I think Cooper is very subtly making this point in Dus’s dalliance with the chain.

Rights of Property

But Cooper seems to be doing something else in this novel -- making a strong case for property rights being the fulcrum on which the whole advance of “white” civilization balances. Nowhere is this philosophy more clearly spelled out than in Mordaunt’s dialogue with an old Indian comrade of his father’s. He, like many characters in Cooper’s allegorical fiction, is known by several names, in this case Sureflint, Susquesus, or Trackless.

“These are what we call the rights of property, without which no man would aim at being anything more than clad and fed. Who would hunt, if anybody that came along had a right to pick up and skin his game?”

“See dat well ‘nough -- nebber do; no, nebber. Don’t see why land go like skin, when skin go wid warrior and hunter, and land stay where he be.”

Rendering the Indian’s speech into this phonetic dialect can be bothersome, but Sureflint does drive right to the heart of the disagreement. Why does the white man think he can own the land?

“That is because the riches of you red men are confined to movable property, and to your wigwams, so long as you choose to live in them. Thus far, you respect the rights of property as well as the pale-faces; but you must see a great difference between your people and mine! -- between the red man and the white man?”

“Be sure, differ; one strong, t’oder weak -- one rich, t’oder poor -- one great, t’oder little -- one drive ‘way, t’oder haf to go -- one get all, t’oder keep nuttin’ -- one march large army, t’oder go Indian file, fifty warrior, p’raps -- dat reason t’ing so.”

“And why can the pale-faces march in large armies, with cannon, and horses, and bayonets, and the red man not do the same?”

“Cause he no got ‘em -- no got warrior -- no got gun -- no got baggonet -- no got nuttin’.”

“You have given the effect for the cause, Sureflint, or the consequences of the reason for the reason itself. I hope I make you understand me. Listen, and I will explain. You have lived much with the white men, Susquesus, and can believe what I say. There are good, and there are bad, among all people. Color makes no difference in this respect. Still, all people are not alike. The white man is stronger than the red man, and has taken away his country, because he knows most.”

“He most, too. Count army, den count war-trail; you see.”

“It is true the pale-faces are the most numerous now; but once they were not. Do not your traditions tell you how few the Yengeese were, when they first came across the salt lake?”

“Come in big canoe -- two, t’ree full -- no more.”

“Why then did two or three shipfuls of white men become so strong as to drive back from the sea all the red warriors, and become masters of the land? Can you give a reason for that?”

“‘Cause he bring fire-water wid him, and red man big fool to drink.”

“Even that fire-water, which doubtless has proved a cruel gift to the Indians, is one of the fruits of the white man’s knowledge. No, Susquesus; the red-skin is as brave as the pale-face; as willing to defend his right, and as able-bodied; but he does not know as much. He had no gunpowder until the white man gave it to him -- no rifle -- no hoe, no knife, no tomahawk, but such as he made himself from stones. Now, all the knowledge, and all the arts of life that the white man enjoys and turns to his profit, come from the rights of property. No man would build a wigwam to make rifles in, if he thought he could not keep it as long as he wished, sell it when he pleased, and leave it to his son when he went to the land of the spirits. It is by encouraging man’s love of himself, in this manner, that he is got to do so much. Thus it is, too, that the father gives to the son what he has learned, as well as what he had built or bought; and so, in time, nations get to be powerful, as they get to be what we call civilized. Without these rights of property, no people could be civilized; for no people would do their utmost, unless each man were permitted to be master of what he can acquire, subject to the great and common laws that are necessary to regulate such matters. I hope you understand my meaning, Trackless.”

“Sartain -- no like Trackless’ moccasin -- my young friend’s tongue leave trail. But you ti’nk Great Spirit say who shall haf land; who no haf him?”

“The Great Spirit has created man as he is, and the earth as it is; and he has left the one to be master of the other. If it were not his pleasure that man should not do as he has done, it would not be done. Different laws and different feelings would the bring about different ends. When the law places all men on a level, as to rights, it does as much as can be expected of it. Now, this level does not consist in pulling everything to pieces periodically, but in respecting certain great principles that are just in themselves; but which, once started, must be left to follow their own course. When the rights of property are first established, they must be established fairly, on some admitted rule; after which they are to remain inviolable -- that is to say, sacred.”

“Understand -- no live in clearin’ for nuttin’. Mean, haf no head widout haf farm.”

“That is the meaning substantially, Sureflint; though I might have explained it a little differently. I wish to say pale-faces would be like the red man without civilization; and without civilization if they had no rights in their land. No one will work for another as he will work for himself. We see that every day, in the simplest manner, when we see that the desire to get good wages will not make the common laborer do as much by the day as he will do by the job.”

“Dat true,” answered the Indian, smiling; for he seldom laughed; and repeating a common saying of the country -- “By -- de -- day -- by -- de -- day -- By de job, job, job! Dat pale-face religion, young chief?”

“I don’t know that our religion has much to do with it; but I will own it is our practice. I fancy it is the same with all races and colors. A man must work for himself to do his most; and he cannot work for himself unless he enjoy the fruits of his labor. Thus it is, that he must have a right of property in land, either bought or hired, in order to make him cause that land to produce all that nature intended it should produce. On this necessity is founded the rights of property; the gain being civilization; the loss ignorance, and poverty, and weakness. It is for this reason, then, that we buy and sell land, as well as clothes and arms, and beads.”

“T’ink, understand. Great Spirit, den, say must have farm?”

“The Great Spirit has said we must have wants and wishes, that can be met, or gratified only by having farms. To have farms we must have owners; and owners cannot exist unless their rights in their lands is protected. As soon as these are gone, the whole building would tumble down about our ears, Susquesus.”

I quoted this at such length in part to show what a heavy emphasis Cooper places on it. Indeed, much of the remaining action of the novel will occur between characters that support this economic philosophy and those who oppose it.

Mordaunt has, after all, been sent to his family’s upstate estates, to begin the process, following Chainbearer’s careful survey, to divide one up into lots and sell them off to budding young landowners in the new American nation. Upon his arrival, however, he discovers that a squatter -- an old man named Aaron Timberman, but called Thousandacres -- has been cutting and selling Littlepage lumber without permission. And it is this character of Thousandacres who will dramatically and metaphorically oppose the economic philosophy espoused by Mordaunt and his companions.

“What trick does Chainbearer do, Trackless,” answered the squatter -- “a mortal sight of tricks, with them plaguy chains of his’n! If there warn’t no chains and chainbearers, there could be no surveyors; and, if there warn’t no surveyors, there could be no boundaries to farms but the rifle; which is the best law-maker, too, that man ever invented. The Indians want to surveyors, Trackless?”

It’s a shot across the bow, Thousandacres speaking to Susquesus in this manner, calling into question not just Chainbearer’s profession but the civilizing force he represents. But there is much more conflict to come. Upon the discovery of Thousandacres, the squatter and his sons are able to capture Mordaunt and his small party, keeping them imprisoned in one of their wooden buildings until they can finish cutting the lumber and send it downstream for their profit. But Andries Coejemans -- Chainbearer himself -- catches wind of this, and come rushing to the defense of his younger employer and comrade.

“So, T’ousantacres, I fint you here!” exclaimed Chainbearer. “It’s a goot many years since you and I met, and I’m sorry we meet now on sich pisiness as t’is!”

Yes, Cooper is unfortunately as committed to capturing the phonetic spirit of Chainbearer’s rich Dutch accent as he was to the way Susquesus’s tongue wrestled with the Lord’s English. Stay with it, if you can. It’s worth it.

“The meetin’s of your own seekin’, Chainbearer. I’ve neither invited nor wished for your company.”

“I p’lieve you wit’ all my heart. No, no; you wish for no chains and no chainpearers, no surfeyors and no compasses, no lots and no owners, too, put a squatter. You and I haf not to make an acquaintance for t’e first time, T’ousantacres, after knowin’ each other for fifty years.”

“Yes, we do know each other for fifty years; and seein’ that them years haven’t sarved to bring us of a mind on any one thing, we should have done better to keep apart, than to come together now.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but in Chainbearer and Thousandacres I see two economic and political philosophies in conflict with one another. And just as the two characters will never see eye to eye, I perceive that Cooper is saying that the two philosophies are also irresolvable.

“I haf come for my poy, squatter -- my nople poy, whom you haf illegally arrestet, and mate a prisoner, in the teet’ of all law and justice. Gif me pack Mortaunt Littlepage, and you’ll soon be rit of my company!”

“And how do you know that I’ve ever seen your ‘Mortaunt Littlepage’? What have I to do with your boy, that you seek him of me? Go your ways, go your ways, old Chainbearer, and let me and mine alone. The world’s wide enough for us both, I tell you; and why should you be set on your own ondoin’, by runnin’ ag’in a breed like that which comes of Aaron and Prudence Timberman?”

“I care not for you or your preet,” answered old Andries sternly. “You’ve daret to arrest my frient, against law and right, and I come to demant his liperty, or to warn you of t’e consequences.”

“Don’t press me too far, Chainbearer, don’t press me too far. There’s desp’rate crittur’s in this clearin’, and them that is’nt to be driven from their righteous ‘arnin’s by any that carry chains or p’int compasses. Go your way, I tell ye, and leave us to gather the harvest that comes of the seed of our own sowin’ and plantin’.”

“Ye’ll gat’er it, ye’ll gat’er it all, T’ousantacres -- you and yours. Ye’ve sown t’e wint, and ye’ll reap t’e whirlwints, as my niece Dus Malpone has reat to me often, of late. Ye’ll gat’er in all your harvest, atres ant all, ye will; and t’at sooner t’an ye t’ink for.”

“I wish I’d never seen the face of the man! Go away, I tell you, Chainbearer, and leave me to my hard ‘arnin’s.”

First Thousandacres claims that the world is wide of enough for both of them -- for both the philosophies they represent -- but then he threatens violence against Chainbearer, perpetrated by his many sons who have been helping him cut lumber. Evidently, the world is not wide enough for them both -- not, at least, when they come in conflict with each other. But here is where the two philosophies really come to the forefront.

“Earnin’s! Do you call it earnin’s to chop and pillage on anot’er’s lants, and to cut his trees into logs, and to saw his logs into poarts, and to sell his poarts to speculators, and gif no account of your profits to t’e rightful owner of it all? Call you such t’ievin’ righteous earnin’s?”

“Thief back ag’in, old measurer! Do not the sweat of the brow, long and hard days of toil, achin’ bones, and hungry bellies, give a man a claim to the fruit of his labors?”

What two philosophies am I talking about? Why, seemingly none other than those perennial bugbears of Capital and Labor, the opposing beliefs that value accrues either to ownership or to effort, and not ever to both.

“T’at always hast peen your failin’, T’ousantacres; t’at’s t’e very p’int on which you’ve proken town, man. You pegin wit’ your morals, at t’e startin’ place t’at’s most convenient to yourself and your plunterin’ crew, insteat of goin’ pack to t’e laws of your Lort and Master. Reat what t’e Almighty Got of Heaven ant ‘art’ sait unto Moses, ant you’ll fint t’at you’ve not turnet over leafs enough of your Piple. You may chop ant you may hew, you may haul ant you may saw, from t’is day to t’e ent of time, and you’ll nefer pe any nearer to t’e right ta’n you are at t’is moment. T’e man t’at starts on his journey wit’ his face in t’e wrong direction, olt T’ousantacres, wilt nefer reach its ent; t’ough he trafel ‘till t’e sweat rolls from his poty like water. You pegin wrong, olt man, and you must ent wrong.”

Irreconcilable. Adopting Chainbearer’s useful metaphor, the two philosophies are not even journeying in the same direction. As Cooper’s own narrative voice will say later:

The man who measured land, and he who took it to himself without measurement, were exactly antagonist forces, in morals and well as in physics; and might be supposed not to regard each other with the most friendly eyes.

And when we realize what these two characters -- Chainbearer and Thousandacres -- represent, then it is an easy matter to determine which philosophy the author wished to put in ascendency over the other. The closing paragraph of the novel, describing old Coejemans’s grave site, seems to say all the is needed on that subject.

I caused to be erected, in the extensive grounds that were laid out around the new dwelling at the Nest, a suitable monument over the grave of Chainbearer. It bore a simple inscription, and one that my children now often read and comment on with pleasure. We all speak of him as “Uncle Chainbearer” to this hour, and his grave is never mentioned on other terms than those of “Uncle Chainbearer’s grave.” Excellent old man! That he was not superior to the failings of human nature, need not be said; but so long as he lived, he lived a proof of how much more respectable and estimable is the man who takes simplicity, and honesty, and principle, and truth for his guide, than he who endeavors to struggle through the world by the aid of falsehood, chicanery, and trick.

A Slam on Democracy?

Cooper published The Chainbearer in 1845, and lived from 1789 to 1851. This means Cooper was alive and writing throughout much of the history I recently read about in that three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson. As such, I believe the following passage from late in The Chainbearer took on a greater significance for me than it otherwise would have.

After all, the strong native intellect of this barbarian [referring to Susquesus] had let him into one of the greatest secrets connected with our social ills. Good laws, badly administered, are no better than an absence of all law, since they only encourage evildoers by the protection they afford through the power conferred on improper agents. Those who have studied the defects of the American system, with a view to ascertain truth, say that the want of a great moving power to set justice in motion lies at the root of its feebleness. According to theory, the public virtue is to constitute this power, but public virtue is never one-half as active as private vice. Crime is only to be put down by the strong hand, and that hand must belong to the public in truth, not in name only; whereas, the individual wronged is fast getting to be the only moving power, and in very many cases local parties are formed, and the rogue goes to the bar sustained by an authority that has quite as much practical control as the law itself. Juries and grand juries are no longer to be relied on, and the bench is slowly, but steadily, losing its influence. When the day shall come -- as some it must, if present tendencies continue -- that verdicts are rendered directly in the teeth of law and evidence, and jurors fancy themselves legislators, then may the just man fancy himself approaching truly evil times, and the patriot begin to despair. It will be the commencement of the rogue’s paradise! Nothing is easier, I am willing to admit, than to over-govern men; but it ought not to be forgotten, that the political vice that comes next in the scale of facility, is to govern them too little.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but the line that practically leapt off the page at me was the one about public virtue constituting the great moving power that can set justice in motion in the American system of government. This is exactly what the Jackson biographer tried to school me in. To borrow a convenient paragraph:

Andrew Jackson was the product of the Revolutionary generation and he absorbed many of its prevailing ideas and beliefs. From colonial days through the Revolution and well into the nineteenth century, Americans believed that those who exercised power were naturally inclined to suppress liberty and that they regularly devised means to limit if not abrogate the rights of the people. They viewed corruption as power’s greatest weapon and virtue as freedom’s greatest defense. The struggle between liberty and power during the colonial era produced the Revolution and ultimately achieved independence from the British empire for the American people. But the dangers to freedom persisted. They persisted as long as power could be concentrated and the operation of government corrupted. The only defense rested upon the virtue of the American people.

The only defense rested upon the virtue of the American people, and that’s what evidently broke down in the administration preceding Andrew Jackson (and some would argue continued under Jackson) and that’s what Cooper seems to be talking about for the rest of his paragraph.

Cooper clearly seems like an advocate for a strong central government -- a Hamiltonian Federalist, in the language of my discussion of political parties and their progressive dance between liberty and power in my blog post. “Crime is only to be put down by the strong hand, and that hand must belong to the public in truth, not in name only.” But his subsequent discussion on the weakening power of the courts and their susceptibility to the wiles of the demagogue provides an interesting window on what he must have seen happening in the early decades of the American republic. It all makes me wonder what Cooper thought of President Andrew Jackson. If he’s worrying about jurors legislating from the jury box, how must he have felt about the President legislating from the White House? Did he want a popular democracy like Jackson evidently did, or was he more in favor of the representative republic the Founders originally designed?

A clue comes earlier in the novel, when Cooper clearly seems to lampoon the inevitable tyranny of the majority in any pure democracy. A vote is to be taken on the denomination of the church that it is raised on one of Littlepage’s upstate properties, a vote of all the tenants currently living there and who would clearly be patronizing the church. With no clear majority winning the vote, the squire and acting magistrate of the estate, begins to eliminate the factions with the fewest votes by having the population vote on which denominations should be included in the following ballot. In this way, essentially forcing the people in the smallest minorities to vote for a denomination not of their choosing, the squire creates an outcome unpopular to the majority.

Such were the facts attending the establishment of the Congregational church in the settlement of Ravensnest, on purely republican principles; the question having been carried unanimously in favor of that denomination, although fifty-two votes out of seventy-eight were pretty evidently opposed to it. But republican principles were properly maintained, and the matter was settled; the people having solemnly decided that they ardently wished for a church that in truth they did not desire at all.

Is Cooper being sarcastic there? Yes, he undoubtedly is, because in the midst of relating this episode, the narrator breaks in with the following paragraph, pretty clearly decrying the growing populism of his times.

I am sorry to say that very mistaken notions of the power of majorities are beginning to take root among us. It is common to hear it asserted, as a political axiom, that the majority must rule! This axiom may be innocent enough, when its application is properly made, which is simply to say that in the control of those interests of which the decision is referred to majorities, majorities must rule; but, God forbid that majorities should ever rule in all things, in this republic or anywhere else! Such a state of things would soon become intolerable, rendering the government that admitted of its existence the most odious tyranny that has been known in Christendom in modern times. The government of this country is the sway of certain great and incontestable principles, that are just in themselves, and which are set forth in the several constitutions, and under which certain minor questions are periodically referred to local majorities, as of necessity, out of the frequency of which appeals has arisen a mistake that is getting to be dangerously general. God forbid, I repeat, that a mere personal majority should assume the power which alone belongs to principles.

Those principles he refers to are clearly the things protected by the Bill of Rights, and Cooper correctly sees, in 1845, the jeopardy those rights would be in if ever subjected to the power of local majorities.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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