The Yankee peddler has worked the roads of America since before it was a nation. Images of these itinerant salesmen with their packs of goods on their backs or loaded in a wagon are one view of the American Dream in action. Many fortunes have indeed been launched by men who started as peddlers. Among them: Thomas Edison, Bronson Alcott, Abraham Lincoln’s father and John D. Rockefeller’s father.
Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard started his business career as a peddler, as did railroad magnate Jim Fisk. Some notorious characters in history also started in the profession, including Benedict Arnold and stock manipulator Daniel Drew.
These shady characters probably more accurately reflect the image of the peddler in much of the south in the 1800s leading up to the Civil War.
Thomas Cooper was "a learned, ingenious, scientific and talented madcap," according to President John Adams, and his humorous portrayal of the Connecticut Yankee peddler was one for the ages.
In the early 1800s, U.S. economic and trade policies that favored New England sparked some of the earliest debates over state’s rights and secession, debate that would last right up through the Civil War and continue even today.
Cooper, a newspaper publisher, physician and politician, was an early adopter of the view that the south, at least South Carolina, should secede from the Union. He also was an early advocate of the theory of nullification - that states have the right to declare null and void any federal law that they deem unconstitutional.
Cooper, born in England in 1754, spent the first 35 years of his life there, coming to America in 1794. He became a publisher, land commissioner and judge in Pennsylvania and successfully helped sort out competing land claims in Luzerne County between residents of Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
It was in his Pennsylvania period that he became an outspoken critic of the government of John Adams, and supporter of Thomas Jefferson. His passions were so strong that Adams’ government in 1800 charged, tried and convicted him of criticizing Adams in the newspaper under the Sedition Laws (later repealed). He earned a sentence of six months in jail and a fine of $400.
By 1811, however, Cooper had largely worn out his welcome and moved south, first to Virginia for a teaching position at University of Virginia, then back to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and finally on to Columbia, South Carolina where he eventually served as president of South Carolina College (forerunner of the University of South Carolina).
Cooper’s chief criticism of the federal government was its trade policies that encouraged U.S. manufacturing by establishing tariffs on imported goods. Cooper was an ardent ‘free trader. ‘
On the issue of slavery, Cooper was an unprincipled pragmatist. He published harsh criticisms of the slave trade, arguing that African Americans were the equal of white men and slavery an abomination. He advocated abolition of the slave trade. However, when it came to policy he did not oppose slavery in the United States. He doubted that the economy of the South could survive without it.
As he did in many of his positions, he staked out a stance that would seem designed to please no one.
Some of his strongest vitriol he saved for the Yankees, however. He was prescient in predicting that without change the U.S. economy so favored New Englanders that southerners would soon have to choose between maintaining the union or their way of life.
The villains, in Cooper’s eyes, were not plantation owners building an unsustainable economy, but rather the Yankees who set trade policy – and in a clever propaganda pamphlet published in 1832 by Cooper and Columbia newspaper editor Algernon Sidney Johnston, he created an allegorical tale of a southerner’s life alongside the Yankees.
Memoirs of a Nullifier, Written by Himself tells the fictional story of a Southern gentleman swindled of his inheritance by dishonorable Yankee sharpies. Borrowing from Virgil’s The Aenid, the hero takes a journey to the gates of hell; He is accompanied by a Connecticut peddler who will face Rhadamanthus (the judge and punisher of the dead):
Proceeding into the interior, we presently reached the judgement seat of Rhadamanthus, where sentence is passed upon all who arrive in the infernal dominions. The court was sitting, and business seemed to be carried on with wonderful despatch--the cases of a multitude of ghosts having been already disposed of that morning. Soon we heard one of the constable’s call out, "Virgil Hoskins! Virgil Hoskins!"
"Here," answered our companion the Yankee peddler, quaking up to the bar. Rhadamanthus was seated with a great number of huge account books before him. "Virgil Hoskins is your name, is it?" said he. "Here it is, among the "H's" on page 49,358. Ah, Virgil! There’s a terribly long account against you. Let's see a few of the charges,
(reads) Virgil Hoskins, Dr.
June 27, 18 — ,To selling, in the course of one peddling expedition, 497,368 wooden nutmegs, 281,532 Spanish cigars made of oak leaves, and 647 wooden clocks.
What do you say to that charge, Hoskins?
Hoskins. Why, that was counted in our place about the greatest peddlin trip that ever was made over the Potomac.
Rhadamanthus reads: June 29, 18 — ,To stealing an old grindstone, smearing it over with butter, and then selling it as a cheese.
Hoskins, in great surprise. Jimminny ! surely you wouldn't punish a man for that, would you?
Rhadamanthus reads: December IS, 1780, To making a counterfeit dollar of pewter, when you were six years old, and cheating your own father with it.
Hoskins. Daddy was mighty glad when he found it out. He said it showed I had a genius.
Rhadamanthus reads: July 2, 18 — ,To taking a worn out pair of shoes, which you found in the road, and selling them to a pious old lady, as being actually the shoes of Saint Paul.
Hoskins, with exultation. I made four dollars and twelve and a half cents by that.
Rhadamanthus reads: — July 2, 18 — ,To taking an empty old watch case, putting a live cricket into it, and then selling it as a patent lever in full motion.
Hoskins. He, he, he,— that was one of the cutest tricks I ever played in all my life.
Rhadamanthus. It would occupy me a week, Hoskins, to go through all the charges against you. These few are sufficient. I really am getting entirely out of patience with New England, for it gives me more trouble than all the rest of the world put together. You are sentenced to be thrown into a lake of boiling molasses, where nearly all your countrymen already are, with that same old grindstone tied to your neck, and to remain there forever.
Cooper was one of the first to put forth the theory of nullification as a basis for South Carolina to declare its independence from the United States. He was not the only writer to reach for humor in making his case, however, the Yankees would soon craft a response of their own to his ‘Memoir.’