Review of ‘William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic’

William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
Alan Taylor

It is sometimes hard to remember today, in an era when conservation has been elevated to the level of secular religion, that there was a time when Americans thrilled at the destruction of nature. "Leave to Caesar the boast of having destroyed two million of men; let yours be that of having cut down two million of trees. He made men disappear from the fruitful soils where they were born; your labours made a new and happier race appear where none before had been," an investor wrote glowingly, in 1807, to William Cooper, the most celebrated land speculator of his time. Cooper's remarkable life transcended his humble origins as a nearly illiterate wheelwright and his flamboyantly flawed ethics. His meteoric political career as a frontier power broker — recounted in fascinating detail by Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize in history for his book — vividly encapsulated the first halting steps in the development of American democracy in the decades after the American Revolution. No less significantly, Cooper's saga also became fodder for the first great popular American literature, the novels of his son, James Fenimore Cooper.

Upstate New York was then the new nation's frontier. Its hectic transformation from wilderness to farmland was guided by rough-and-ready types like Cooper, a lapsed Quaker, self-made man and founder of Cooperstown, New York (today best known as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame). Cooper was the kind of man who made pioneering possible. He purchased vast tracts of woodland and then sold or leased them to individual settlers. A stranger to modesty, he saw himself as a visionary blessed with courage and foresight.

Beneath the heroic pose, Cooper was representative of the new men who saw financial opportunity in the chaotic aftermath of the Revolution. His methods were crude but effective. Having avoided taking sides during the Revolution, Cooper manipulated the property of exiled Tory friends (among them, the son of Benjamin Franklin) to make himself master of thousands of acres around Otsego Lake. To finance his speculations, he borrowed huge sums, which he rarely repaid, leaving a legacy of claims and counterclaims against his estate that took years to unravel. Nevertheless, he succeeded in populating the entire district in record time, creating a pattern for many later settlements.

Sensitive about his own coarse manners, Cooper was determined to make Cooperstown a seat of gentility that would be a model for the young nation. In that, too, he had considerable success, arranging for the establishment of a newspaper and academies of learning, and sponsoring architecture that is still admired for its neoclassical grace.

Politically, the last years of the 18th century were a critical time for the largely untried democracy, a watershed in the lurching transition from government dominated by wealthy patricians to the more freewheeling politics played out by competing parties, and William Cooper was right in the middle of it. Condescendingly styling himself as "Father of the People," the arch-conservative Cooper parlayed his wealth into political influence, winning election as a judge, then to the State Senate, and finally to the U.S. Congress. For a time, the huge Federalist majorities that Cooper produced made Otsego County the pivot of New York state politics, and a factor even in national elections.

In contrast to the relatively disciplined young Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison, however, Cooper's Federalists were a loose, often fractious, collection of men who depended on the obedient votes of docile tenants and debtors in order to win elections. Dominant during the first years of the republic, Federalist fortunes eventually foundered against the popularity of the increasingly self-assertive democrats. These ascendant populists were no longer cowed by wealth and were not prepared to see the political fruits of the Revolution hijacked by a new generation of native squires like Cooper.

His reputation dimmed by lawsuits, Cooper reluctantly retreated from politics and attempted, without much luck, to repeat his Cooperstown success in the less fertile regions of the St. Lawrence valley. After his death, in 1809, the pyramid of debt and questionable transactions that he had erected finally collapsed around his heirs.

It was, in part, in an effort to recoup the family's fortune that James Fenimore Cooper turned to writing. In doing so, he created a new, distinctively American genre of adventure fiction peopled with Indians and colorful frontiersmen, whose descendants continue to inhabit Hollywood Westerns even today. In an unraveling of the meanings buried within the serpentine prose of James Fenimore's 1823 novel The Pioneers, Taylor shows how the novelist converted his father's often unsavory story into a symbolic triumph over the popular democracy that he hated, and that had, James Fenimore believed, snatched away the patrimony that he had expected to claim. In The Pioneers, Taylor observes, Cooper reclaimed his lost legacy by crafting an improved past, where property and power flow from a flawed patriarch to his genteel heirs, in a vision of America that, fortunately, was defeated in real life by the democratic tidal wave of the late 1790s.

That may have been only a novelist's wishful dreaming, but the democrats' apparent victory ultimately proved less complete than it seemed. Although the polemics of radical democracy had, by James Fenimore's time, become the common coinage of political discourse, government was fast becoming the province of a new breed of political specialists — mainly lawyers and newspaper editors — as real power passed in great measure to the new corporations of private wealth, and banks. Writes Taylor: "Paradoxically, as common white men became the essential audience for aspiring officeholders, the power of these offices diminished. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the substantive meaning of democratic participation became diluted by the divorce of economic from political power."

American political life was already forming a pattern that, in many ways, is the one we know today. While William Cooper might have been perplexed by modern Americans' affection for untrammeled wilderness, he probably would not have felt out of place in the world of money politics and bare-knuckle negative campaigns.

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.