WILLIAM COOPER'S TOWN: A Story of Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic by Alan Taylor

WILLIAM COOPER'S TOWN: A Story of Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic

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The story of a man's spectacular career in post--Revolutionary War New York and his famous son's novelistic effort to rewrite it. The ambitious middle son of a poor Pennsylvania Quaker family, William Cooper (1754--1809) married in 1774 and used his in-laws' wealth and status to set himself up as a farmer, land speculator, and shopkeeper. But Cooper's real opportunity came in the 1780s, when he bought up the mortgage to a large tract of land near Otsego Lake on the New York frontier. Using tactics of questionable legality--including buying out Benjamin Franklin's exiled loyalist son, William, without his knowledge--Cooper managed to gain control of the Otsego land and sell it off quickly, simultaneously developing the area and securing his ill-gotten gains. He offered favorable terms to settlers and so earned their trust and loyalty. At the same time, Cooper ingratiated himself with wealthy landowners by managing their land with fantastic success. Cooper became a Federalist political force, and his wealth increased, but his hasty actions often led to disastrous consequences, and in his effort to become a gentleman, he lost touch with the frontiersmen who had made him a success. At his death in 1809--which Taylor (History/Univ. of Calif., Davis) persuasively argues was not the result of a blow to the head by a political opponent, as Cooper's biographers have long claimed--he left a shaky domain, the management of which fell largely on the incapable shoulders of his youngest son, James Fenimore. Unable to save his father's empire in actuality, the novelist sought to reclaim it in The Pioneers (1823), a fictional rendering of his father's fantastic life. Good social history, weak literary criticism, but the standout here is William Cooper himself, a true American original.

Pub Date: Sept. 26th, 1995
Page count: 688pp
Publisher: Knopf