Book Review: The American Democrat by James Fenimore Cooper with an introduction by H. L. Mencken
OCTOBER 01, 1981 by HOLMES ALEXANDER
(LibertyClassics, 7440 North Shadeland, Indianapolis, Indiana 46250)
252 pages • $9.00 cloth; $4.00 paperback
Cooper’s treatise, happily made available with an introduction by H. L. Mencken, amounts to being the 86th Federalist Paper. Thus we now have expert analyses of the American Constitution with 85 essays in the 18th century by Hamilton, Madison and Jay; Cooper’s 46 brisk chapters in the early 19th century (1838) and Mencken’s 11-page commentary in the 20th century (1931). Our cup runneth over.
Cooper (1789-1851) looks at the American experiment with the advantage of hindsight and consular service in Europe (neither Hamilton nor Madison was ever abroad) and he sees that a number of the Founders were justified in their apprehension that the democratic republic would soon become a republican-type democracy.
Mencken finds this metamorphosis a near-disaster, with demagoguery riding higher than monarchy ever did, and boobosity as the national culture; but Cooper is more measured in his polemics against the mythology of equality. This bogus doctrine, of course, was nothing but a war-whoop of the Revolution. Cooper notes that the constitutional convention treated it as an absurd unmentionable. Nonetheless, politicians climb by flattering the people, just as courtiers butter up the kingly establishment; the common man, the epitome of mediocrity, soon dominated national affairs and has done so ever since.
While Cooper, a Yale graduate, naval historian and top man of American letters deplored the leveling effect of democracy’s downgrading of intellectual excellence, he thought that democracy is the best of the worst, since all forms of government yet devised are tyrannical to some extent and hostile to individual liberty.
But Cooper goes far past any repetition of this established truism in exploring the short-of- perfection governance of man. He says that the United States is best styled as the Union. It comprises constituencies rather than people or population, and forms a confederation of com munities which ideally merge into the American commonwealth or commonweal, the “general welfare” clause in its present application an example of how democracy debauches the constitutional intent.
Liberty is no more of an absolute than equality, but Cooper finds that the country is well- protected against majority rule and mob law, since minority opinion can always get a hearing through the right of petition, jury trial and habeas corpus. He dwells, as does no other commentator known to me, on religion as a factor of self-rule, seeing the American family (“honor thy father and mother”) as our basic unit and the Tenth Commandment (“thou shalt not covet”) as a wholesome inhibition against mankind’s greedy nature which government has a duty to control.
Altogether, Cooper comes forth as the voice of common sense. There is, he writes, “no good without alloy. It is idle therefore to expect a system that shall exhibit faultlessness or perfection.” All that government can achieve “is to remove useless obstacles and permit merit to be the arti san of its own fortune . . .”
None of the Founders said it better than that.