History’s Inconsistent Characters

My students expect authors who make it onto the syllabus to be “good” people.  If these writers don’t have sound morals, why would we care about what they have to say?

Some of my students want the same thing from authors and historical figures as they want from fictional characters: consistency. Because of this, I see students lump both fictional characters and actual people into the overly general groups of “good” or “bad.”

Of course, this overgeneralizing is a problem that I try to tackle from the get-go each semester.

In nearly all of my literature courses, I introduce students to a chapter titled “Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom It May Prove Worth Considering” from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1856).  In this chapter, the narrator directly addresses readers and their mounting concerns about the novel’s “inconsistent” characters.  The narrator first acknowledges that in fiction “there is nothing a sensible reader will more carefully look for, than that, in the depiction of any character, its consistency should be preserved” (75).  Next, despite this seemingly reasonable criterion for judging a character’s effectiveness, the narrator refutes:

while to all fiction is allowed some play of invention, yet, fiction based on fact should never be contradictory to it; and is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity to understanding them. (75)

I find the narrator’s rationale here persuasive and so do my students.  People are, by nature, inconsistent and complex.  I frequently change my mind about things without any reasonable explanation, I listen sometimes to opera and sometimes to death metal, I donate to animal rights organizations even though I eat meat, but all of this is ok.  According to Melville’s narrator, my behavior is natural—it’s simply human—and I’m reminded of several lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (224)

While my students readily and enthusiastically agree that humans are inconsistent, they still struggle to apply it at times, especially with figures they’ve long-term internalized or romanticized as “good” or “bad”. They can’t conceive how I would allow a morally “bad” author to have a voice in the classroom. Such is the case when I teach James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Last of the MohicansAlthough The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian War, Cooper writes, and subsequent editions appear, throughout the peak era of Indian Removal. I like to use the Broadview edition that includes relevant historical documents that provide context for the narrative, such as excerpts from the “Indian Removal Act” (1830) and excerpts from Andrew Jackson’s “Second State of the Union Address” (1830).

I initially ask my students, “So what do you think Cooper tries to accomplish in The Last of the Mohicans?”

Students generally respond that the text is explicitly sympathetic to indigenous plight not only because of how Uncas and his father Chingachgook, the heroic Mohicans, are depicted as wise and brave but also because even the villainous Magua only seems to be villainous because of white influence. The English manipulate Magua to act against his own nation and turn him into a drunk, resulting in his exile and fueling his desire for revenge.

However, based on everything scholarship knows about Cooper’s life and political ideologies, The Last of the Mohicans actually functions as a justification for Indian Removal, and Cooper himself was, in fact, pro-removal and pro-Jackson. By setting the novel in the context of the past and focusing on the extinction of a particular tribe, Cooper essentially argues, “It’s a shame about those Indians and their suffering, but it’s too late to do anything about it now. It’s ok though because as long as we remember them fondly, we don’t have to feel guilty about anything. Progress must continue.”

This typically comes as a surprise to students and forces them to reevaluate the connection between the novel and the section of the supplemental document, Jackson’s second “State of the Union Address,” in which he explains:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth.  To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections.  But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. (451-2)

Students realize that just as Jackson discusses indigenous groups in terms of “extinction” and suggests that philanthropy can “reconcile the mind” of white Americans struggling with guilt and “melancholy reflections”, Cooper like-mindedly believes that literature can further help to “reconcile the mind,” so Americans can move forward with progress. Rightly so, my students see this as a “bad” and brain-washy thing.

This is the point in discussion where my students outwardly mourn. I hear students say: “What Americans did to Native Americans was horrible,” “Native Americans were here first, and the land was rightfully theirs,” “Native Americans were treated so unjustly, so unfairly,” “Jackson and Cooper—they were both terrible people who made everything worse.” My students ask me why I would assign a novel that is basically, in their opinions, propaganda for the historically “bad” team.

I don’t see the novel’s value in the classroom as determined or affected by whether or not Cooper was a “good” or “bad” person.  I’m okay with understanding Cooper, as I understand many other early American authors, as inconsistent.  I teach Cooper’s novel because it reveals so much about American culture in the Jacksonian era. I also teach the novel because it reveals so much about my students in the contemporary era.  I say to my legitimately concerned group: “Well, this campus stands on what was once Iroquois territory. Why don’t you take action, right the wrongs of the past, and give it back? The Iroquois nation still exists—give it all back.”

As expected, I hear no enthusiastic “yes!” from the group. Instead, the following type of dialogue ensues:

Students: “Well, we can’t do that. That doesn’t make sense”

Me: “Why not? You clearly feel indigenous people have been wronged. You feel sorry for them.”

Students: “But we can’t just give land back. We’ve done so much and accomplished so much with this space over all these years.”

Me: “Ah, you’ve ‘cultivated’ the land—it’s now too late to make a change?”

Students: “If we just give everything back, where would the university go? Where would our cities go?”

Me: “That kind of large-scale displacement would cause a lot of chaos…”

Students: “And what would Native American groups with populations way smaller than ours even do with all of the space?”

Me: “So, the land would be ‘wasted’?”

In a nutshell, the student rationale for why we can’t give the land back today sounds a lot like the rationales provided by those “terrible people” Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper.  In his address, Jackson, like my students, explains how Americans have “accomplished so much” with the land:

What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion? (452)

The most common arguments for removal in the 18th and 19th centuries centered on the idea that indigenous peoples failed to cultivate land and use it to its full potential. As a result, what mattered was not who was there first but who was using the land most productively and efficiently.

I ask my students, “Does that mean you’re all ‘bad’ people?”, but this question only yielded silence.

To get students talking again, I ask, “Was Thomas Jefferson a ‘good’ person?” They respond with a definite “yes.” I ask them to explain why, and they, as expected, cite the “Declaration of Independence” and his role in the American Revolution. I then tell them that as president, Jefferson devised manipulative plans to trick Native Americans into debts that they would only be able to pay off by giving up lands. Jefferson was unquestionably pro-removal. I can point to specific letters Jefferson wrote which prove so.

Is Jefferson still a “good” person? Is the “Declaration of Independence” enough of a reason to forgive his problematic ideologies about other races? Even if my students aren’t familiar with Jefferson’s plans for indigenous peoples, they are aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder.

But why do people feel compelled to categorize Jefferson, anyone else for that matter, as “good” or “bad”? Why this drive to figure out in which group to place history’s characters? Why do we need to see Jefferson as a hero and Jackson as a villain instead of as what they are: flawed, contradictory humans?

I tell my students an overly simplistic story: Once upon a time, there was a boy who was orphaned because his family died helping others during a war.  Despite being an orphan, the boy worked hard and became a lawyer.  Now a man, he eventually fell in love, got married, and tried to have children, but his wife couldn’t conceive, so they adopted. One of the adoptees was a Creek Indian, orphaned when his parents were killed during a battle. The man claimed that he saw himself in that orphaned little boy and felt compassion for him.  About 40 years later, the man got a really important job, but before he could start, his beloved wife died on Christmas Eve. In her memory, and because he loved children and was once an orphan himself, every Christmas he would go to the city orphanage and bring all the children presents.

Can my students guess who this story is about? No. How could they possibly believe that Andrew Jackson, a “bad” man who readily exterminated indigenous populations could ever do something as inconsistent and “good” as identify with, adopt, and raise an indigenous child? Jon Meacham’s 2008 biography describes Jackson in the following way:

He was the most contradictory of men….A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands….Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins. (xix)

Does a story about bringing orphans Christmas presents justify or forgive Jackson of his policies or actions regarding Indian Removal? Absolutely not—those are things that can never be forgiven or forgotten, especially by those whose ancestral lines were directly impacted.

But the anecdote about Jackson does at least reveal that he, like Cooper, like all other humans, is inherently contradictory. My own students, certain of their own “goodness” shared sentiments quite reminiscent of Jackson’s and Cooper’s during our discussion of The Last of the Mohicans. Does that mean they’re secretly “bad”? I don’t know. Regardless, I think they will consider their own inherently contradictory natures before hastily applying labels like “good” or “bad” in the future.

Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans. Edited by Paul C. Gutjahr, Broadview,

Jackson, Andrew. “Second State of the Union Address.” Gutjahr, pp. 451-3.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Random House, 2008.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. Edited by Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, Norton, 2006.

Spengemann, William C., and Jessica F. Roberts, editors. Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.  Penguin, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Spengemann and Roberts, pp. 165-225.

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