Jacquelyn A. Sparks
Final Exam: Question #5
Paternalism—posing oneself as a benevolent "fatherly figure" offering support, security, and guidance to a group or community of people, without allowing them many rights or responsibilities with regard to their own situation—was evident in both the cases of William Cooper and the slave owners in All Saints Parish, in William Cooper’s Town and Down by the Riverside. Both Cooper and plantation masters used paternalistic methods to maintain a sense of control over their "inferiors", while keeping them content with their social status (or in the slaves case, lack of social status) as dependents of a better, superior class and/or race. Because of the differing nature of the two communities—a settler community on the New York frontier and a South Carolina rice plantation—the arguments used to justify this patriarchal behavior are in many was different.
William Cooper’s paternalistic rhetoric was nothing new in the early republic, as a general acceptance of genteel rule was predominate prior to the Revolution. This was displayed in Otsego even before Cooper’s arrival—under the rule of a powerful aristocrat, Sir William Johnson and his heirs, in a time where common people were resolved to allow the system of patronage and elitism to prevail in local politics. They were content with a "secure place in a social order, supervised by their betters", thus the nature of a paternalistic society. (Taylor 58)
This attitude towards politics—despite opposition by Post-Revolutionaries wanting to champion the working class—is essentially the foundation used by Cooper to build his paternalistic dream of Cooperstown. He would be a "Father of the People", having political authority over the settlers of the town. At the same time, he provided for the needs of the people, leaving them with positive and even endearing impressions of him as a kind and thoughtful patriarch. Cooper aided the hungry, sick, poor, as advanced local business and agriculture. As a result, many members of his community did view him as a "Father" of their town.
Along with providing relief and support to his community, Cooper also ventured to maintain control by laying out strict guidelines for how his community should be organized—from the creations of small, compact city blocks, to building his home in a central location in the town. This was a symbol of being at the heart of the community, as well as an attempt to keep a watchful eye on all of its goings-on. Even its name was suggestive that in a sense Cooper owned the town.
Cooper, in his paternalistic passion, felt it necessary not only to police the economic and political aspects of his town, but also watching over the moral status of all who lived there. He put restrictions on drinking and gambling. When he would become embroiled in the controversial election for the governor of New York, he was disappointed and disheartened that all of his community did not share the same political views as he did.
Eventually, this growing element of political dissention—Democratic-Republican influence politics, from the paternalistic "Fathers" to equal "Friends" of the people—would lead to Cooper’s eventual abandonment of political office, as well as his dream of maintaining a fatherly control on the workings of his town. This, Cooper felt, was the ultimate act of a fatherly love—abandoning his own political motivations to lessen the political strife that was dividing his beloved town.
In William Cooper’s Town, a justification of this paternalistic attitude stemmed from differences in class between Cooper’s gentility and the common, working class of the villagers. In Down by the Riverside, although the element of class difference is argued in much the same sense by certain historians, the much different variable of race relations/discrimination comes in to play in the slave master’s paternalistic attitude.
Since slaves, by nature, were physically and "intellectually inferior", this in itself made it easy for slave owners to justify their superior status in relation to slaves. The resulting paternalistic attitude of the masters not only provided a defense of their actions of keeping slaves, but also began praising it as an institution. Their benevolent rhetoric claimed that slaves wants and needs were well-provided for, that they were given fair amounts of work that were less than many free persons might undertake in a Northern job setting, protected from the fate of poverty, and overall a happy and content people in their "docile, gentle", simple state of being.
As slave owners ticked off a list of their paternalistic provisions for the slaves, it is easy to see that their claims and plans for the institution would eventually fail, as had Cooper’s. Slave owners were successful, for a time, (as Cooper had also been) at engraining in the minds of slaves these positive images and favorable views of their treatment. This is reflected often in the dialogue of slaves when referring to their masters—many slaves claimed that their "Massas" were good men, taking good care of them, while somehow paying them a favor for keeping them out of the real world of poverty, disease, and financial hardship. A slave would never have to worry about any of these issues facing freemen, which provided further justification for the paternalistic attitude of plantation owners.
Paternalism, in both communities, seemed a last ditch effort to preserve old societal framework and cherished institutions that were coming under scrutiny during this time period.
Both Cooper and All Saints Parish slaveholders used paternalistic rhetoric in defense of their beliefs that were slowly becoming outdated. Cooper’s attempt at controlling an entire community of settlers, at making himself central to all of its inner workings while keeping himself in the public eye, seemed from the beginning futile, as one man could not control all aspects of a community that was growing in all directions as Cooperstown had been. Slave owners’ paternalistic arguments and actions were also destined to run into opposition. The realization that the slave was a human being able to provide for his own needs serves to undermine a system based on "providing" for the needs of an inferior, incapable race. It appears then, especially in the case of slave owners, that paternalism was not appropriate in a modern sense. Paternalism did, however, serve both Cooper and All Saints Parish owners for a time as they endeavored to exercise control over a "lower" class of people, gaining the respect and admiration of some in the meantime.