Title: William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
Author: Alan Taylor
Categories: Economic History, Political History, Biography, Backcountry, Land Speculation, Literary Studies
Place: Western New York - Ostego Patent
Time Period: 1774-1833
Alan Taylor uses a biography of the speculator and town-builder William Cooper to describe the transformation of American politics (particularly on the early frontier) in the wake of the American Revolution. Although Cooper came from humble origins and made his fortune through shrewd land speculation to found Cooperstown and Ostego County, New York, in 1785, he always aspired to an older colonial conception of gentility. Cooper took the Federalist side of a debate in the 1790s that pitted two conceptions of authority against each other: political leaders as genteel, aristocratic "Fathers of the People" or as a new, egalitarian "Friends of the People" (embodied by a growing Republican backlash). In the end, Cooper's (and the Federalists') strivings for an older colonial style of gentility resulted in their political downfall by the Republican Revolution of 1800 - which Taylor maintains was a product of local, popular movements rather than a top-down national movement led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In a frontier context of constant, fluid movement and resettlement Cooper struggled to establish himself in the mold of older aristocratic gentry. This is a particularly tragic irony, because Cooper's own humble background as a self-made man made him particularly well-suited to join the Republican movement.
Taylor's setting of the early frontier in western New York plays a prominent role in William Cooper's Town. The frontier was never empty or unsettled (Taylor takes pains to point out former inhabitants, from Indians to an early first-generation wave of speculators and settlers), but in the post-Revolution years experienced a massive demographic influx of new settlers. Before 1800, Taylor argues that this area was a region of interests led by wealthy influential men rather than cohesive political parties. Additionally, rather than being isolated communities, Taylor argues that places like Cooperstown were unabashedly entangled in a web of global market connections.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Competing versions of authority - Fathers of the People vs. Friends of the People
- Myth of an unsettled frontier
- Republican Revolution as a local/popular uprising (rather than top-down movement stemming from Jefferson and Madison)
- Frontier a region of interests led by influential men rather than a place of cohesive political parties
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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