In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper was worried about American democracy. He was apprehensive, not about American’s democratic institutions during the Jacksonian era so much as he was concerned that features of American civil society—especially newspapers, religion, and political economy—were becoming the greatest threats to the maintenance of American democratic legitimacy. Although Cooper, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that natural rights were a given, he feared that the young republic’s post-revolutionary culture might not be able to preserve those natural rights because of an increasingly conformist and fatuous public sphere.
The majority rules in prescribed cases, and in no others. It elects to office, it enacts ordinary laws, subject however to the restriction of the constitution, and it decides most of the questions that arise in the primitive meetings of the people; questions that do not usually effect any of the principal interests of life.
Nature has rendered man incapable of enjoying freedom without restraint, and in the other, incapable of submitting, entirely without resistance, to oppression. The harshest despots are compelled to acknowledge the immutable principles of eternal justice, affecting the necessity and the love of right…
It is quite possible to be an excellent Christian and a slave holder and the relations of master and slave, may be a means of exhibiting some of the mildest graces of the character… In one sense, slavery may actually benefit a man, there being little doubt that the African is, in nearly all respects, better off in servitude in this country, than when living in a state of barbarism at home.
Liberty is not a matter of words, but a positive and important condition of society. Its greatest safeguards, after placing its foundations on a popular base, is in the checks and balances imposed on the public servants, and all its real friends ought to know that the most insidious attacks are made on it by those who are the largest trustees of authority, in their efforts to increase their power.