The literary scholar Paul Fussell wrote a book called Class about the American class system, which was a daring thing to do because we are so deeply committed to the idea of not having a class system. Fussell had some interesting things to say, though his upper-class leanings sometimes would peek out, as when he waxed wroth with Jimmy Carter for not dressing more like a patrician. But what I found most telling is that even Fussell couldn’t bring himself to admit that he he belonged to a class; instead, he created a special exemption, an “X Class” of really cool people who defy convention, whose tastes and mores are not signs of mockable pretension like yours and mine but rather an expression of their individuality and coolness. His presumption in claiming that his coterie of aging hipsters and fauxhemians deserves a pass from the withering analysis to which others are subjected is almost charming.
Hypocrisy aside, I am enough of an American to cherish our national myth of classlessness, and it pains me whenever I read in the Economist that we now have less social and economic mobility than many other countries. Of course, this scandal must be papered over in our public discourse with consoling tales of opportunity and self-reliance.
I am fascinated by the reverse phenomenon in other cultures, where the ingrained myth is of stability and hereditary rank, where it is not acceptable for a Shakespeare simply to have risen from obscurity through spectacular talent and hard-headed business sense, but instead he has to get a coat of arms with a fake pedigree attaching him to some old family. William Cooper’s Town, by Alan Taylor, tells a story of the balancing point of these two warring world-views in the early American republic.
William Cooper started out as a humble wheelwright in colonial Pennsylvania. He married into a bit of land, which he sold in order to set up as a shopkeeper in the town of Burlington, New Jersey (then one of the capitals of that colony). He had no intention of stopping there, though; he kept his eye open for possible real-estate grabs (land being the ideal possession of a proper gentleman) and tirelessly worked to improve his genteel chops, in particular by borrowing more books than anyone else from the Burlington library. He pored over old issues of the London Magazine, which must have given him suitably high-class, if somewhat dated, models for conversation, and books of manners with titles like The Precepter.
Cooper was an engaging, outgoing guy, and managed to win friends among the more established gentlemen who patronized the library (the membership fee was substantial), but his open eagerness for self-improvement also struck them as a bit embarrassing and mock-worthy, as can be seen in the nicknames they gave him. We know about the nicknames because the librarian picked them up and started using them when documenting Cooper’s withdrawals and returns. Here are a few:
Sir William Cooper, Knight and Baronet
Cooper the Learned
William Cooper, Esquire
I think that the last epithet, at the time, referred not to a lawyer but to a country gentleman, but in any case, you can see that the boys were troubled by the airs Cooper was putting on—if they thought he was trying to turn himself into an aristocrat, they were not wrong. In Burlington, Cooper became acquainted with an interesting example of this process in William Franklin, royal governor of the colony.
Franklin was the (illegitimate) son of Benjamin Franklin, who, given his beginnings as a runaway printer’s apprentice, was about as close to a self-made man as you could be in the 18th Century. The elder Franklin, having achieved international success, made sure that his son was raised in English upper-class style and used his connections to get young William appointed to plum colonial posts. The gentrification project worked only too well: when the Revolution came, William Franklin sided with the British authorities, angering Dad and causing trouble for himself when the rebels won the war.
And this is where our two Williams really cross paths. Franklin and his insider buddies had obtained a ‘patent’ for about 30 square miles of virgin wilderness in upstate New York (it had to be turned into virgin wilderness by kicking out the Iroquois who had been farming there for several hundred years, of course). After the war, though, Franklin had to retreat to London and Cooper was able to muscle out some of the smaller partners. Both sides then lawyered up—bizarrely, the opposing lawyers were Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr—and Cooper carried the day when Hamilton managed to convince the judge that he was Franklin’s lawyer (he was really Cooper’s). Round 1 to Alex, but I guess Burr got the last laugh.
At this point, a new nickname surfaces in the library records:
Sir William Cooper, Lord Proprietor
Cooper headed off to the shores of Lake Otsego to parcel out his land to settlers and establish a new village, which with becoming modesty he named Cooperstown. With his newfound status as Father of his County, Cooper was able to realize many of his dreams of gentility. Allying himself with the elitist and reactionary Federalists, he became first a judge, then a state legislator, and finally a US Representative, and rubbed elbows with stars like John Jay, though his rowdy manners and wacky grammar could never be comme il faut. In an ironic turn, Cooper, who could have claimed real working-class cred, was reviled as a high-and-mighty aristocrat and brought down in the populist Republican wave of 1799-1800.
Cooper could take comfort in the knowledge that, though he might be rough around the edges, his sons would be polished gentlemen, which of course meant that they looked down on their arriviste father. They learned to spend lavishly, got kicked out of the best schools, and ran through their inheritance, all the more rapidly because it turned out to consist of bundles of mortgages that were mostly worthless because the debtors could not pay them off (some things never change).
His son James (who had been expelled from Yale) eventually managed to support himself as a writer, after adding his mother’s maiden name, Fenimore, to his own. James Fenimore Cooper’s first American novel, The Pioneers, gave him a chance to rewrite his own background. His father becomes the amiable but bumbling Judge Temple, his mother is deleted and replaced by an adored sister (who in real life had died in an equestrian accident), and James’ own alter ego is not the Judge’s son but the scion of a real upper-class family, who is able to inherit the Judge’s estate through marriage to the revived-sister character. The wish-fulfillment starts to get a bit creepy here.
By the way, James Fenimore Cooper apparently disapproved of the habitual ball-playing of the boys of Cooperstown, which persisted despite a town ordinance banning it. This would be town ball, not the base-ball that developed in New York City in the 1840s, but it still reveals the level of censorious gentility that JFC thought he had reached.
I would recommend Taylor’s book to anyone interested in history, even if not particularly in the 18th Century or upstate New York or whatever.