Discover more from The Bulwark
‘The Pioneers’ at 200: Nature vs. Civilization
James Fenimore Cooper’s paradoxes of progress and the unsettled American heart.
IN HIS SECOND TREATISE OF GOVERNMENT, John Locke pondered the problem of how individuals could come to possess private property if God had originally given the world to all people in common. That this must somehow be possible, Locke felt certain. He highlighted its necessity with a memorable image: “The Fruit, or Venison, which nourishes the wild Indian . . . must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his Life.” Once I’ve eaten the venison, I need to be absolutely certain that no one else can come along and still lay claim to it.
Two hundred years ago, in 1823, James Fenimore Cooper spun that little image of Locke’s into one of the great American novels, The Pioneers. The first of what would become his five Leatherstocking Tales, it introduced two of American literature’s iconic characters: the frontiersman Natty Bumppo and the Indian Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans. These inhabitants of the American wilderness represent one pole of the novel; the other is embodied by Judge Temple, the founder of the town of Templeton and bringer of law and civilization (and a character closely modeled on the author’s father, William Cooper, who in the early years of the republic founded what is now Cooperstown, New York).
The Pioneers begins with the killing of one buck and reaches its climax with the killing of another. As it opens, the Judge is riding home with his daughter Elizabeth when a stag dashes across their carriage’s path. The Judge takes a shot at it, and a second shot rings out immediately thereafter, as Natty and a young companion emerge from the trees. As the three men argue about who has brought down the buck, Natty complains that “game is becoming hard to find, indeed, Judge, with your clearings and betterments.” He asserts a natural right to claim property in order to meet his needs, a right more fundamental than Judge Temple’s legal authority: “There’s them living who say, that Nathaniel Bumppo’s right to shoot in these hills, is of older date than Marmaduke Temple’s right to forbid him.”
This tension between the freedom of a Lockean state of nature and the human laws that enable civilization is the novel’s central theme. Cooper takes up a dilemma at the heart of America’s founding: how to sustain a cultural and political order that is grounded in—but for that very reason always liable to challenge in the name of—inalienable rights inherent in the laws of Nature and Nature’s God. The same natural liberty that gives rise to a constitutional order also provides a standard against which its laws can be judged.
This tension must have been especially dramatic on the frontier, where the rights of nature remained close to the surface. As settlers poured westward, they claimed rights to land and other property on good Lockean terms, by working the land and hunting the deer. But their voraciousness needed to be restrained. In the novel, Judge Temple sees that unless law regulates the felling of trees, shooting of deer, and catching of fish, the settlers will soon deplete their own resources. Cooper vividly portrays this in a pair of memorable scenes. In one, the villagers gather to shoot randomly into a vast flock of pigeons flying thickly overhead, engaging in reckless slaughter until the ground is covered with dead birds. Later they engage in a similar nighttime fishing expedition, casting their nets repeatedly into the lake and dragging ashore massive numbers of dying fish.
Both scenes enact but also violate Locke’s theory of property. The settlers believe they can take as much as they like from nature’s bounty. But Locke had famously denied that our right to claim property is unlimited. Rather, he wrote that we may take only as much as we “can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils. . . . Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy.” Natty, coming upon the masses of dead pigeons, criticizes the townspeople by practically citing Locke’s dictum. “I don’t relish to see these wasty ways that you are all practysing,” he chides them, “as if the least thing wasn’t made for use, and not to destroy.” In the scene with the fish, he asserts the same idea: “As God made them for man’s food, and for no other disarnable reason, I call it sinful and wasty to catch more than can be eat.”
Keep up with all our articles, newsletters, podcasts, and livestreams—sign up for Bulwark+ (with a 20% discount today).
This dialectic of nature and civilization comes to a head when Natty, helped by Indian John (as Chingachgook is usually called in this novel), kills a second buck, this time out of season and in violation of the Judge’s laws. He is exposed by a disagreeable villager who obtains a warrant to search Natty’s hut for the deer’s carcass. When Natty drives him off, he is charged with resisting an officer of the law. Judge Temple has no great desire to prosecute the honest Natty but finds himself in a bind. On the very same day that Natty killed the buck, he had later saved Elizabeth from a ferocious panther in the woods. If the judge shows favoritism toward his daughter’s rescuer, he knows that other settlers will ignore his laws.
Natty’s appearance before the judge is thus a highly dramatic moment, in which the demands of natural justice collide with those of human law. The judge insists he must uphold the law. Natty reminds him of Elizabeth’s encounter with the panther: “Did the beast of the forest mind your laws, when it was thirsty and hungering for the blood of your own child!” The judge insists he must remain impartial. Again Natty points toward a higher law, reminding Temple that he himself had enjoyed Natty’s hospitality when he first arrived in that wilderness many years ago. “Have you forgot the time that you come on to the lake-shore,” Natty asks him, “when there wasn’t even a gaol to lodge in; and didn’t I give you my own bear-skin to sleep on, and the fat of a noble buck to satisfy the cravings of your hunger? Yes, yes—you thought it no sin then to kill a deer!” But the judge holds firm. Unless nature gives way to law, he will never succeed in bringing civilization to this frontier settlement.
The clash between Natty and Judge Temple is set against a far momentous collision between nature and civilization: the displacement of Indians by the encroaching American settlers. Indian John, the last descendant of his vanished people, symbolizes their fate. The shadow of his race hovers over the entire novel. Oliver Edwards—the young man who appeared with Natty in the book’s opening scene and who marries Elizabeth by its end—pleads their cause eloquently. At one point he asks the judge, “Walk to that door, sir, and look out upon the valley, that placid lake, and those dusky mountains, and say to your own heart, if heart you have, whence came these riches, this vale, those hills, and why am I their owner?”
But the tide of American civilization is not to be turned back. The judge’s title to his lands is legally valid. Nevertheless, when Indian John departs for the “happy hunting-grounds,” Natty takes his dead friend’s hand and appeals to a still higher law, under which the claims of the American Indians and the new Americans alike might be reconciled: “Red skin, or white, it’s all over now! He’s to be judged by a righteous Judge, and by no laws that’s made to suit times, and new ways.” Soon after, Natty himself heads farther west, in search of the unsettled wilderness that his heart craves. His takes leave of his friends, wishing them God’s blessing, “till the great day when the whites shall meet the red-skins in judgment, and justice shall be the law, and not power.” The book’s closing sentence refers to him as “the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of our nation across the continent.”
It is a bittersweet ending for a novel that encapsulates so much of the American drama, not only in the republic’s infancy but also during the two hundred years that would follow. America declared its independence by appealing to natural rights in language that their descendants would recite time and again, whenever the nation was not living up to its founding promise. Waves of settlers rolled west, sweeping across a continent that was already peopled and displacing its inhabitants. They tamed the same fierce wilderness that future generations of conservationists would seek to preserve and restore. Americans have never stopped claiming their rights, and they have never stopped worrying about individualism’s corrosive effects.
It was Cooper’s achievement in The Pioneers to capture that enduring dynamic of American history, the ongoing rivalry between nature and civilization. Even after two centuries, Americans remain, for better and for worse, his pioneers.