James Fenimore Cooper.

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This letter has been hastily written, with the hope of procuring"
its insertion in one of the daily prints. Its length having exceeded
the writer's expectations, he has presented it to a son of his old
and much esteemed publisher, the late Charles Wiley, who has
given it its present form, for purposes connected with his own

• ,

..}': 1876


Entered according to the Act of Congress, in the year 1834, by J. Wiley, in the
Clerk's Office of the District Court of the Southern District of New-York.


No 29 Ann-street


The private citizen who comes before the world with
matter relating to himself, is bound to show a better reason
for the measure than the voluntary impulses of self-
love. In my own case, it might, perhaps, appear a sufficient
excuse for the step now taken, that I am acting chiefly on
the defensive ; that the editors of several of-the public jour-
nals have greatly ex^eded tbreir .legitimate, functions, by
animadverting on my motives, aaid private affairs ; and that
assertions, opinions, and arc- s, nave vbean openly attributed
to me, that I have nevey : uttered, entertained, or done.
When an individual is thus dragged mco notice, the right
of self-vindication would seem to depend on a principle of
natural justice ; and yet, if I know the springs of my own
conduct, I am less influenced by any personal considera-
tions in what I am now doing, than by a wish to check a
practice that has already existed too long among us ; which
appears to me to be on the increase ; and which, while it is
degrading to the character, if persisted in, may become
dangerous to the institutions of this country.

The practice of quoting the opinions of foreign nations,
by way of helping to make up its own estimate of the degree
of merit that belongs to its public men, is, I believe, a cus-
tom peculiar to America. That our colonial origin, and
provincial habits, should have given rise to such a usage, is

sufficiently natural : that journals which have a poverty of
original matter, should have recourse to that which can be
obtained not only gratuitously, but by an extraordinary
convention, without loss of reputation, and without even the
necessity of a translation, need be no mystery ; but the
readiness with which the practice can be accounted for,
will not, I think, prove its justification, if it can be shown
that it is destructive of those sentiments of self-respect, and
of that manliness and independence of thought, that are
necessary to render a people great, or a nation respectable.
Questions have now arisen between a portion of the press
and myself, which give me more authority to speak in the
matter than might belong to one whose name had not been
so freely used, and it is my intention, while I endeavor to do
myself justice, to make an effort to arrest the custom to
which there is allusion ; and which, should it continue to
prevail, must raider .every American more or less subject
to the views'' of those who/are ■hesille to the prosperity,
the character, and 't'he pc»y*ar of .his native land.

I am fully aware 'tfhar Vjv.ry %ian must prepare himself
to meet the narrbw ; e^t .epitSf ructions on his motives, when
he assumes an office iikeikis lib.ave here undertaken ; but
I shall not complain, provided the opinion of the public
receive a healthful impulse; while, at the same time, I
shall not neglect the proper means to support my argu-
ment, by showing, as far as circumstances will permit,
that I come to the discussion with clean hands. These con-
structions might have been obviated by having recourse to
an anonymous publication, or by engaging some friendly
pen to speak for me ; but I have preferred the simpler, and,
as I think, more manly course, of appearing in my own
behalf. The nature of the proof I propose to offer, will
compel me to mention myself oftener than I could wish, were
not evidence of this nature less liable to be questioned, than
that which comes from sources more indirect, I shall not

shrink from my intention, therefore, on this account, while
there is a hope that good may come of it. In vindicating my-
self, it will be necessary to reply to many attacks, without
always quoting the papers in which they have appeared,
which would swell this letter to an unreasonable size, and
that, too, on a part of the subject that I could wish to treat
as briefly as possible ; but the reader is assured, that nothing
of a direct personal nature will be said, that has not its war-
ranty in some obvious allusion, insinuation, or open charge,
in some one of the many journals of this country. In three
instances, (those of the New- York American, the New- York
Courier & Enquirer, and the New- York Commercial Adver-
tiser,) it is my intention to answer the statements separate-
ly; distinctly marking the points at issue between each
journal and myself, as is due to all the parties concerned.

I shall now proceed to execute the purpose of this letter,
as briefly as the circumstances will allow, again begging the
reader to remember that every statement which relates espe-
cially to myself, is either in reply to some unequivocal alle-
gation to the contrary that is to be found in the public
prints, or has a direct reference to the practice which it is
so desirable to destroy.

First, then, I will show, that I come to this discussion
with clean hands. At no period of my life have I had any
connection with any review, notice or critique of any sort,
that has appeared for or against me as a writer. With a
single, and a very immaterial exception, I do not know
to this hour, who are the authors of any favorable notice,
biography, or other commentary, that has appeared on
myself, or on any thing I have published ; and in the case
of the exception, I was made acquainted with the name
of the writer, after the notice was written. As respects
Europe, so far from having used any undue means to
procure reviews, criticisms, or puffs, I am ignorant of
the names of the writers of every thing of this sort that


has appeared which has been in my favor; have proba-
bly not even read a dozen of these notices, with the excep-
tion of such as were to be found in the daily prints, since I
have been absent ; have refused numerous applications from
the editors of periodicals, to send them critiques and copies
of the books I had written : and, whenever it could be done,
Without obvious impropriety, have uniformly declined mak-
ing the acquaintance of those who were known to be con-
nected with what are called critical publications. In seve-
ral instances, the very reviews which have made direct ap-
plications to me for favorable notices, have turned against
me when it was understood that the request would not be
complied with.* In short, I affirm, that every report or as-
severation that any review has been written in Europe, or
any where else, by my connivance, or even with my know-
ledge, to produce an impression on the public mind at
home, or with aiiy other view, is founded in error or in
malice. For a short time, I was a voluntary contributor
of a periodical, that was edited by an old messmate, (Col.
Gardner, the present Deputy Postmaster-General,) and I
think he will remember the fact, that, when he declared
his intention to obtain a favorable notice of "The Pio-
neers," I objected to it, on the ground of its being painful
to me to see critiques of this kind in a publication with
which I was connected, and that my objection prevailed.

I have been repeatedly and coarsely accused of writing
for money, and exaggerated accounts of my receipts have
been paraded before the public with views that it is not
easy to mistake. That I have taken the just compensation
of my labors, like other men, is true ; nor do I see that he

* I am just informed by a friend, that he was lately applied to, by the
editor of a literary journal in this city, to write a favorable notice of " The
Headsman;" that he declined; and that an unfavorable one soon after
appeared in the same publication !

who passes a year in the preparation of a work, is not just
as much entitled to the fruits of his industry, as he who
throws off his crude opinions to-day, with the strong pro-
bability that on the morrow circumstances will compel him
to admit that he was mistaken. Of this accusation, it is not
my intention to say much, for I feel it is conceding a
sacred private right to say any thing ; but as it has been
frequently pressed into notice by my enemies, I will add,
that I never asked nor received a dollar for any thing I have
written, except for the tales and the letters on America ;
that I have always refused to sacrifice a principle to gain,
though often urgently entreated to respect the prejudices
of foreign nations, with this very view ; and that all the
reports of the sums I have been soliciting and obtaining in
France, Germany, and other countries, are either wholly
untrue, or extravagant and absurd exaggerations.

I have been accused of undue meddling with the affairs
of other nations. On this head it will be necessary to an-
swer more at length, as the accusation takes two forms ;
one which charges me with entering impertinently into a
controversy with the French government, and the other
resting on the political tendency of some of the tales.

As respects the first, I shall say but little here, for I hope
to be able to give the history of that controversy in a form
less perishable than this letter.

In 1828, after a residence of two years in Europe, and
when there had been sufficient opportunity to observe the
disfavor with which the American character is viewed
by nearly all classes of Europeans, I published a work on
this country, whose object was to repel some of the hostile
opinions of the other hemisphere, and to turn the tables on
those who, at that time, most derided and calumniated us.
This work was necessarily statistical in some of its features.
In 1831, or about a year after the late revolution in
France, there appeared at Paris, in a publication called


La Revue Britanniqve, (the British Review, and this in
France, be it remembered !) an article on the United States,
which affected to prove that the cost of government in this
country was greater than it was in France, or indeed in
nearly every other country; and that a republic, in the
nature of things, must be a more expensive form of govern-
ment than a monarchy. This article, as has been stated,
appeared in a review with a foreign title, at a moment
when the French government professed great liberality,
and just after the King of the French (taking the papers for
authority) had spoken of the government of the United
States as " the model government." There was no visible
reason for believing that the French ministry had any
connection with the review, and, although the fact might
be and was suspected, the public had a perfect right, under
all the laws of courtesy and usage, to assume exactly the
contrary. In short, this dissertation of the Revue Britan-
nique appeared, like any other similar dissertation, to be
purely editorial, and it was clearly within the usual privi-
leges of an author, whose positions it denied, as it denied
those advanced in the work of mine just mentioned, to jus-
tify what he had already said. In addition to this peculiar
privilege, I had that, in common with every citizen of the
country whose facts were audaciously mutilated and per-
verted, of setting the world right in the affair, if I saw pro-
per. Such a course was not forbidden by either the laws of
France, any apparent connection between the review and
the government, or the " reserve usually imposed on
foreigners." I could cite fifty cases in which the natives of
countries attacked have practised this right, from Baretti
down to a countryman of our own, who has just exercised
it in England. I did not exercise it. The article was
pointed out to me ; I was told that it was injuring the cause
of free institutions ; that it was depriving America of nearly
the only merit Europe had hitherto conceded to her ; and

that I might do well to answer it. After a time, Gen.
Lafayette called my attention to the same subject, and,
without at all adverting to any personal interest he had
in its investigation, pressed me to reply. I respectfully
but firmly declined. I had seen so much of the ignorance
of Europe in relation to ourselves ; understood so thoroughly
the design and bad faith on which it was bottomed, and so
well knew the hopelessness of correcting the evil, (for it is a
great evil, so far as the feelings, character and interests of
every American are concerned,) that I felt no disposition to
undertake the task. In addition to these general motives,
J had the particular one of private interest. The vindica-
tion of the country already published, had occasioned a
heavy pecuniary loss ; it had even lost me the favor of a
large party at home. I had many demands on my limited
means, and was unable to make further sacrifices of this
nature, to any abstract notions of patriotism or of truth-
It was some months after the appearance of the review, that
I was told the principal object of the article in question. It
was to injure Gen. Lafayette. He had been stating, for forty
years, that the American government was the cheapest
known, and should the misstatements and sophistry of the
Revue Britannique go uncontradicted, he would stand con-
victed before the French people of gross ignorance or
of wilful fraud — or, to quote the language that was subse-
quently used by the Moniteur, of an " illusion or a lie."
This fact presented the affair in an entirely new aspect. I
determined to furnish the answer that was requested. What-
ever may be the opinion of my countrymen on this point,
it appeared to me that a man who stood in the relation
which Gen. Lafayette occupied in respect to every Ameri-
can, ought not to be left to say that, when pressed upon
hardest by his enemies, he had applied to a citizen of the
country he had so faithfully served, and that, under
the circumstances I have named, he had been denied what



is due to even a criminal — the benefit of the truth. The
" American" has lately insinuated that I am a " professed
patriot." As I have never solicited nor received the usual
rewards of professions of this nature, to me it seems that
my conduct might have been referred to a simple and
creditable sentiment of gratitude. Had I not been placed
on the defensive, (so placed, I make no doubt, by designing
men, who have felt my course to be a reproach to their
own.) the world would never have been troubled with these
details. The letter which I wrote on the matter in dispute,
was given to Gen. Lafayette to secure my own self-appro-
bation, and not to be made a merit of before the American
people, of whom I never have, and do not now, ask more
than a very negative justice. It was translated through
the instrumentality of Gen. Lafayette, and, in this manner,
it came before the French nation. I say it with regret, but
I say it with a deep conviction of its truth, that I believe
this to be the only country in the world in which a citizen
would be placed on trial, for having refuted gross and
unquestionable misstatements of the fair action of its own
system, without any reference to the peculiar character that
was given to this controversy, by the appeal and situation
of Gen. Lafayette.

My letter, and one of Gen. Bernard which accompanied
it, produced replies, containing fresh misstatements, mingled
with great scurrility on the character, habits, and pursuits
of the people of the United States. It was now a duty that I
owed to myself, to the truth, and to all concerned, to answer.
I did so in a short series of letters that was published in the
" National." Throughout the whole discussion, care was
had, on my part, to abstain from touching on the cost of
government in France, though the comparison would have
been perfectly justifiable, when the manner in which it was
provoked is brought into the account. A few of my adver-
saries' contradictions were ridiculed, but with a slight excep-
tion of this sort, all I said had a strict reference to ourselves.


The dates of this controversy have some connection with
that which is to follow. My first letter bears date Nov. 25th,
1831, and the last May 3d, 1832. The controversy on my
part, however, would have ended in the commencement of
March, but for a circumstance it may be well to name.
After the appearance of my original letter, M. Francois
Delassert, the vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies,
published a letter from Mr. Leavitt Harris, of New- Jersey,
who took grounds the very reverse of my own, who denied
most of my facts, and who wrote virtually on the side of
the Revue Britannique. To this letter I replied on the 3d
of May as stated ; that I did not prolong the discussion
unnecessarily will, I think, be admitted, when the reader
remembers, that Mr. Harris is the gentleman who has
since been appointed to fill the office of charge d' affaires at
the court of France.

Having briefly stated an outline of the facts, in reference
to the controversy on the cost of government, I proceed to
the political tendency of the book that appeared about the
same time, and to the circumstances accompanying its pub-
lication, so far as they have any connection with France.

The work in question is called the Bravo. Its outline
was imagined during a short residence at Venice, several
months previously to the occurrence of the late French
revolution. I had had abundant occasion to observe that
the great political contest of the age was not, as is usually
pretended, between the two antagonist principles of mo-
narchy and democracy, but in reality between those who,
under the shallow pretence of limiting power to the elite
of society, were contending for exclusive advantages at the
expense of the mass of their fellow-creatures. The monar-
chical principle, except as it is fraudulently maintained as a
cover to the designs of the aristocrats, its greatest enemies,
is virtually extinct in Christendom ; having been supplanted


by the combinations of those who affect to uphold it with
a view to their own protection. Nicholas may still send a
prince to the mines, but even Nicholas keeps not only his
crown but his head, at the pleasure of the body of his aristo-
cracy. This result is inevitable in an age when the nobles,
no longer shut up in their holds and occupied in warring
against each other, meet amicably together, and bring the
weight of their united intelligence and common interests to
bear upon the authority of the despot. The exceptions to
such consequences arise only from brilliant and long con-
tinued military successes, great ignorance in the nobles
themselves, or when the democratical principle has attained
the ascendancy. With these views of what was enacting
around me in Europe, and with the painful conviction that
many of my own countrymen were influenced by the fallacy
that nations could be governed by an irresponsible minority,
without involving a train of nearly intolerable abuses, I
determined to attempt a series of tales, in which American
opinion should be brought to bear on European facts.
With this design the Bravo was written, Venice being its
scene, and her polity its subject.

I had it in view to exhibit the action of a narrow and
exclusive system, by a simple and natural exposure of its
influence on the familiar interests of life. The object was
not to be attained by an essay, or a commentary, but by
one of those popular pictures which find their way into
every library ; and which, whilst they have attractions for
the feeblest intellects, are not often rejected by the strongest.
The nature of the work limited the writer as to time and
place, both of which, with their proper accessories, were to
be so far respected as to preserve a verisimilitude to received
facts, in order that the illusion of the tale should not be
destroyed. The moral was to be inferred from the
events, and it was to be enforced by the common sympa-
thies of our nature. With these means, and under these


limitations, then, the object was to lay bare the wrongs that
are endured by the weak, when power is the exclusive pro-
perty of the strong ; the tendency of all exclusion to heart-
lessness ; the irresponsible and ruthless movement of an
aristocracy ; the manner in which the selfish and wicked
profit by its facilities, and in which even the good become
the passive instruments of its soulless power. In short, I
had undertaken to give the reader some idea of the action
of a government, which, to use the language of the book
itself, had neither " the high personal responsibility that
sometimes tempers despotism by the qualities of the chief,
nor the human impulses of a popular rule."

In effecting such an object, and with the materials named,
the government of Venice, strictly speaking, became the
hero of the tale. Still it was necessary to have human
agents. The required number Avere imagined, care being
had to respect the customs and peculiarities of the age, and
of the particular locality of the subject. Little need be
said of the mere machinery of such a plan, as the offence,
if offence there be, must exist in the main design. One of
those ruthless state maxims which have been exposed by
Comte Daru, in his history of Venice, furnished the leading
idea of the minor plot, or the narrative. According to this
maxim, the state was directed to use any fit subject, by
playing on his natural affections, and by causing him to act
as a spy, assassin, or other desperate agent of the govern-
ment, under a promise of extending favors to some near
relative who might happen to be within the grasp of the
law. As the main object of the work was to show the
manner in which institutions that are professedly created
to prevent violence and wrongs, become themselves, when
perverted from their legitimate destination, the fearful in-
struments of injustice, a better illustration could not have
been wished, than was furnished by the application of this
rule. A pious son assumes the character of a Bravo, in


the hope of obtaining the liberation of a father who had
been falsely accused ; and whilst the former is blasting his
own character and hopes, under the delusion, and the latter
is permitted to waste away his life in prison, forgotten, or
only remembered as a means of working on the sensibilities
of his child, the state itself, through agents whose feelings
have become blunted by practice, is seen, forgetful of its
solemn duties, intent alone on perpetuating its schemes of self-
protection. This idea was enlarged upon in different ways.
An honest fisherman is represented as struggling for the
release of a grandson, who had been impressed for the
galleys, while the dissolute descendant of one of the inqui-
sitors, works his evil under favor of his rank. A noble, who
claims an inheritance ; an heiress ; watermen ; females of
low condition, and servants, are shown as contributing in
various ways to the policy of the soulless state. On every
side there exist corruption and a ruthless action. That
some of the faces of this picture were peculiar to the Veni-
tian polity, and to an age different from our own, is true ;
this much was necessary to the illusion of the tale ; but it
was believed that there remained enough of that which
is eternal, to supply the moral.

Such was the Bravo, in intention at least. I confess I
see nothing in its design of which an American need be
ashamed. I had not been cooped up in a ward of New-
York, regarding things only on one side, and working my-
self into a fever on the subject of the imminent danger
that impended over this great republic, by the machinations
of a few "working-men," dreaming of Agrarian laws, and
meditating on the neglected excellencies of my own cha-
racter and acquirements on the one hand, and on the un-
merited promotion of some neighbor, who spelt constitution
with a k on the other : but it had been my employment for
years to visit nations, and to endeavor to glean some gene-
ral inferences from the comparisons that naturally suggested

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperA letter to his countrymen → online text (page 1 of 10)