And a CONSERVATIVE, naturally. Now, for the first time, you can get ALL THREE of his political works in a single, collector’s-quality volume
Few contemporary Americans know that James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), best known for his creation of Natty Bumppo and the Leatherstocking Tales, also wrote profound social criticism of the Jacksonian era. Yet, while his three political works — Notions of the Americans, A Letter to His Countrymen, and The American Democrat — come from a distinct era of American history, Cooper’s thoughts on the Constitution, limited government, the nature and abuses of political power, and the importance of morality and religion to a democracy, remain as relevant today as they were in the 1820s and 1830s. This edition, the latest installment in the Club’s Conservative Leadership Series, is the first to combine all three works — the entirety of Letter and The American Democrat, and numerous excerpts from Notions.
In Notions of the Americans, using a fictional European aristocrat and his American guide (Cooper himself), Cooper explores the American character and defends American republicanism from its detractors in Europe. Far from being artificial and contrived as were European institutions and titles, he argues, Americans based their government on laws of nature. In this sense, then, the American founders were not revolutionaries. They did not advocate a change in society through the “adoption of sudden and violent means.” Rather, they understood the British system to be based on a violation of the natural order, and the American republic to have reestablished the natural law and right reason.
A Letter to my Countrymen remains Cooper’s most trenchant work of social criticism. In it, he argues that republican society can exist only as long as its citizens remain vigilant and virtuous. What can America do to protect itself from corruption, and stay on the path to righteousness? First and foremost, it must adhere to the Constitution; once one person or group changes the Constitution for his or its benefit, it sets a dangerous precedent that others will follow. Second, America must recognize the corrupting nature of power. Because of this, Americans must keep government limited so as to not put too much power in the hands of any one individual. One also should avoid becoming involved with party politics: true republicans should remain dedicated to ideas, never to parties. Third, Americans must beware of allowing elites to gain and consolidate power over non-elites.
The American Democrat, Cooper’s final work of social and political criticism, offered a realist yet critical assessment of America and its political institutions. Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, called it “full of perspicuity and courage, cogent and dignified.” Similar in depth and subject matter to Toqueville’s Democracy in America, its overriding concern is what Toqueville called “the tyranny of the majority.” Also like Toqueville, Cooper saw that what made American democracy work was religion and morality and the characteristic local institutions they produced — families, churches, schools, local government, voluntary associations, etc. The American Democrat is, finally, a moral primer on what gives democracy a decent chance to work.
Cooper’s three works add not only to our understanding of him as a novelist and great American, but also to our understanding of a watershed in American political life — when America began the shift from republican to mass democratic forms of governance. In Cooper, the American political tradition has one of its greatest public defenders of republicanism — the original, authentic vision of our nation’s Founders.