"Snug Stored Below": The Politics of Race in James Fenimore Cooper's the Pioneers

Article excerpt

Due to the poor reception of Arthur Mervyn, Edgar Huntley, and Wieland, Charles Brockden Brown gave up the novel in the early 1800s, and began a short but infamous career as a Federalist pamphleteer. His 1803 political tract, An Address to the Government on Cession of Louisiana to the French, is an allegory of a nation exposed to duplicitous outsiders. The tract is a consummate example of Federalist propaganda, a fictional letter written by an imaginary French official, who claims that the United States, torn by factionalism and discontent, is ripe for the pickings. Brown draws from his experience as a novelist to invent a wild tale of an impending slave insurrection that awaits the final order from France. Published after the discovery of ex-slave Gabriel Prosser's plot to attack Charleston, the pamphlet further convinced Americans of the truth of their longstanding fear--the French were going to use a proxy army of disaffected slaves to attack the United States. (1)

Brown's pamphlet was part of a larger nationalist discourse in the early nineteenth-century that increasingly came to view the racial divide in the United States as impassable. (2) Brown reiterates an ideology over which Thomas Jefferson brooded about in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1784. The differences between the two races were "fixed in nature," Jefferson wrote, and to free the slaves without a plan for "expatriation," to let ex-slaves live alongside their former masters, would fill those of African descent with "ten thousand recollections ... of the injuries they sustained." (3) A plan for deporting free African-Americans to Africa became even more urgent after the abolishment of the slave trade in 1807. Far from initiating the gradual death of chattel slavery by cutting off its lifeblood, the moratorium on the slave trade simply gave rise to a domestic slave market. In addition, new technology further strengthened the institution of slavery. Southern planters and northern investors purchased land and slave labor to take advantage of the cotton gin and a hardy upland cotton hybrid, and in the process, they created an internal slave trade far more productive and lucrative than the triangulation between Africa, the West Indies, and the United States.

When James Fenimore Cooper began writing novels in 1819 the resurgence of slavery had already begun to define the limits, logic, and rhetoric of a democratic politics. Nationwide African-American resistance to an entrenched slave system led political leaders on a search for a mechanism that would both stabilize the planter's property in the South and neutralize the political agency of free African-Americans in the North. A group of prominent white citizens provided an answer in 1817, with the inauguration of the American Colonization Society. Taking Jefferson's theory of a fatefully segregated society to its logical end, they devised a plan to relocate free African-Americans to a new African colony. The American Colonization Society immediately became the key instrument of racial reform in the United States. By voicing a homogeneous American identity, it gave the nation an opportunity to resolve its central racial, and thus political, contradiction through the expatriation of African-Americans to Africa rather than amending the Constitution. (4)

As a catalyst for a nationwide conversation about the relationship of race to constitutional liberty and citizenship, the colonization movement rehearsed a looming political debate about the future of slavery and democratic liberty in the United States. In 1819 Congress began to redefine the slave system, and after two years of strife between northern and southern representatives, they ended what had become known as the Missouri controversy with an ominous compromise. Admitting Maine into the union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, legislators completed the agreement by drawing a geographical line along 36[degrees]/30[degrees], a barrier that forced slavery south of the line and forecasted the coming of Civil War. …