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Society Needs Gentlemen - Dr. Jordan B. Cooper

Society Needs Gentlemen

"This video is a discussion of James Fenimore Cooper's ideas about gentlemen and their role in society." from video introduction

James Fenimore Cooper and the American Experiment

In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper was worried about American democracy. He was apprehensive, not about America’s democratic institutions during the Jacksonian era so much as he was concerned that features of American civil society, like newspapers, like religion, like political economy, were becoming the greatest threats to the maintenance of American democratic legitimacy. Although Cooper, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that natural rights were a given, he feared that the young republic’s post-revolutionary culture might not be able to preserve those natural rights because of an increasingly conformist and fatuous public sphere.

After a half dozen years living aboard, Cooper described how returning to America, he found himself a “foreigner in his own country.” He noted two alarming features, “the disposition of the majority to carry out the opinions of the system to the extremes and a disposition of the minority to abandon all to the current day.” His instructional book, The American Democrat: Or, Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America was his attempt to offer both a diagnosis and a remedy.

In The American Democrat, Cooper began to thread the needle between his commitment to the rule of the majority and its imperative for the maintenance of democracy and his increasing worry about how the majority might become a mob and thus threaten minorities:

The majority rules in prescribed cases, and in no others. It elects to office, it enacts ordinary laws, subject however to the restriction of the constitution, and it decides most of the questions that arise in the primitive meetings of the people; questions that do not usually effect any of the principal interests of life.

Cooper was safeguarding liberty and majority rule but restricting it to “questions that do not usually effect any of the principal interests of life.” Rather than a paean to democracy, Cooper notes, “we do not adopt the popular polity because it is perfect, but because it is less imperfect than any other.” (Apparently, Winston Churchill had been reading James Fenimore Cooper, as well.) “As no man is without spot in his justice, as no man has infinite wisdom, or infinite mercy, we are driven to take refuge… in the government of many.” This is rather steep decline from Cooper’s optimism regarding humanity’s natural justice, which he had celebrated more robustly in his earlier work, Notions of the Americans.[1].." from the article: James Fenimore Cooper and the American Experiment

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