James Fenimore Cooper, America’s first great national novelist, widely influenced our literature and Americans’ sense of history in the 19th century. However, Cooper also wrote about political issues, particularly in The American Democrat (1838), whose themes reflect America’s founders, in sharp contrast to modern American practice.
Cooper focused on defending the Constitution and the very limited federal government it authorized, because of the tendency to abuse political power not tightly controlled, and the necessity of vigilance to keep our republic consistent with liberty. Those issues are just as important today. And there is no better time to revisit them than on Constitution Day, honoring the September 17 signing of the Constitution, 220 years ago.
“[A] republican form of government is not necessarily a free government … “
“It is the duty of the citizen to judge all political acts on the great principles of the government…the representative who exceeds his trusts trespasses on the rights of the people … congress … is merely a special trustee for limited and defined objects.”
“[T]he most insidious attacks are made on [liberty] by those who are the largest trustees of authority, in their efforts to increase their power.”
“[L]iberty…permits the members of the community to lay no more restraints on themselves than are required by their real necessities and obvious interests.”
“Were the majority of a country to rule without restraint, it is probable as much injustice and oppression would follow, as are found under the dominion of one … Were it wise to trust power, unreservedly, to majorities, all fundamental and controlling laws would be unnecessary … Constitutions would be useless … The majority does not rule in settling fundamental laws, under the constitution … “
“[T]he liberties of the mass, are of the negative character … not power of themselves, but merely an exemption from the abuses of power.”
“[T]he tyranny of majorities … To guard against this, we have framed constitutions, which point out the cases in which the majority shall decide, limiting their power…within the circle of certain general and just principles … it is a great mistake for the American citizen to take sides with the public in doubtful cases affecting the rights of individuals, as this is the precise form in which oppression is the most likely to exhibit itself in a popular government.”
“[G]enuine liberty…can not exist…without many restraints on the power of the mass. These restraints are necessary and numerous.”
“Liberty…[requires] certain general principles that shall do as little violence to natural justice as is compatible with the peace and security of society.”
“All attempts in the public, therefore, to do that which the public has no right to do should be frowned upon as the precise form in which tyranny is the most apt to be displayed in a democracy.”
“In Democracies there is a besetting disposition to make public opinion stronger than the law…for wherever there is power, there will be found a disposition to abuse it.”
“The power of the people is limited by the fundamental laws, or the constitution, the rights and opinions of the minority, in all but those cases in which a decision becomes indispensable, being just as sacred as the rights and opinions of the majority; else would democracy be… the worst species of tyranny.”
“The considerate, and modest, and just-minded man … In asserting his own rights, he respects the rights of others … in pursuing his own course, in his own manner, he knows his neighbor has an equal right to do the same…”
“In the cases that plainly invade the constitution, the constituents, having no power themselves, can dictate none to their representative. Both parties are bound equally to respect that instrument, and neither can evade the obligation, by any direct or indirect means. This rule covers much of the disputed ground, for they who read the constitution with an honest desire to understand it, can have little difficulty in comprehending most of its important provisions, and no one can claim a right to impose sophistry and selfishness on another as reason and justice.”
“The constitution contains the paramount laws of society. These laws are unchangeable, except as they are altered agreeably to prescribed forms, and until thus altered, no evasion of them is admissible … the constituents of a particular representative can have no right even to request, much less to instruct him to support their local constituents at the expense of others, and least of all can they have a right to violate the constitution in order to do so.”
“[T]he member of congress…although he has no right to further [a state's] interests at the expense of the interests of other states, he is not called on to sacrifice them for the benefit of the sisters of the Union.”
“The pretense that the public has a right to extend its jurisdiction…without regard to the principles and restraints of the fundamental compact that binds society together, is, indeed, to verify the common accusation of the enemies of democracy, who affirm that by substituting this form of government for that of a despotism, people are only replacing one tyrant by many.”
“Individuality is the aim of political liberty. By leaving to the citizen as much freedom of action and of being as comports with order and the rights of others, the institutions render him truly a free man. He is left to pursue his means of happiness in his own manner. It is a curious circumstance that, in endeavoring to secure the popular rights, an effect has been produced in this country totally opposed to this main object.”
“The habit of seeing the public rule is gradually accustoming the American mind to an interference with private rights that is slowly undermining the individuality of the national character. There is getting to be so much public right, that private right is overshadowed and lost. A danger exists that the ends of liberty will be forgotten altogether in the means.”
“[Government], when perverted from its proper aim, is most productive of evil…that which was established in the interests of the right may so easily become the agent of the wrong.”
“The disposition of all power is to abuses, nor does it at all mend the matter that its possessors are a majority. Unrestrained political authority, though it be confided to masses, cannot be trusted without positive limitations, men in bodies being but an aggregation of the passions, weaknesses and interests of men as individuals.”
The American Democrat reiterated our founders view that liberty was the ultimate purpose of America and the source of our Constitution’s genius, half a century after it was adopted. It defended the Constitution and the tightly constrained role for government it authorized against majoritarian abuses, in order to maintain our irreplaceable liberty.
James Fenimore Cooper saw that, long ago, Americans’ liberties, as codified in our Constitution, were already being undermined over a century and a half ago, and argued for a renewed dedication to our founding principles as the only way to stem that tide. But rather than heeding his alarm, which defended the vision that was the essence of America, the erosion of those liberties has continued. Today, when only a few tatters of the Constitution’s restraints on the federal government ever constrain it from whatever it can command a majority vote to do, recapturing our ever more distant liberty still depends on responding to that alarm.