The Honest Man

Around 1875, at the feverish height of the Gilded Age, when conventional citizens were in greedy pursuit of the dollar, when the executive branch was vying with the legislative and the judicial as to which would prove the most venal, when monstrous fortunes lay ripe for the hook or the crook, an elderly gentleman of benign aspect commenced to make some distressing remarks, right out loud and in public.

“The dealers in money,” said he, “have always, since the days of Moses, been the dangerous class.” And again:

“There is fast forming in this country an aristocracy of wealth, the worst form of aristocracy that can curse the prosperity of any country.” And again:

“There may at some future day be a whirlwind precipitated upon the moneyed men of this country.”

What manner of man was this, who launched such jeremiads against the rich and respectable? Was he socialist? Senile? Simple?

As it happens, he was a shrewd and exceedingly rich Republican; a leading citizen of New York and, indeed, of the whole country; inventor, industrialist, and ironmaster; troubled social thinker whose ideas came at least a half-century too soon. Above all, he was the conscience of his times.

This was Peter Cooper. During the last decade of his life, when the seven deadly sins—and especially Pride, Envy, Covetousness, Gluttony, and Lust—were in riotous command of the social scene, Peter Cooper, almost alone among the wealthy, insisted that worldly goods created a grave responsibility. “The production of wealth,” he declared, “is not the work of any one man, and the acquisition of great fortunes is not possible without the co-operation of multitudes of men; and … therefore the individuals to whose lot these fortunes fall … should never lose sight of the fact that as they hold them by the will of society expressed in statute law, so they should administer them as trustees for the benefit of society as inculcated by moral law.”

A singular sentiment, and one that surely appalled his contemporaries. Consider some of those contemporaries: William Marcy Tweed, whose political gang plundered New York City of at least $100,000,000; Cornelius Vanderbilt, who growled, “Law? What do I care about the law? Hain’t I got the power?”; Collis P. Huntington, the railroad titan, who bought entire Congresses for up to $500,000 a session; Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, who almost succeeded in beggaring the country by cornering all the gold in circulation; and sanctimonious old Uncle Dan Drew, who clawed his way to the top of the heap in Wall Street, swindling and gutting as he climbed, and who murmured, “It’s the still hog that eats the most.” All these were men who were out for number one. Money was what they wanted: money to get power to get more money, no matter how ruthless or cynical or swinish the means. And yet here was Peter Cooper saying, in his stubborn, disconcerting way, “Money is so unlike every other article that I believe a man has neither a legal or a moral right to take all that he can get.”

Such talk was sufficiently embarrassing, but Cooper went further. He deliberately gave his money away in great gobs. Not for business reasons, for he couldn’t expect his gifts to profit him. There was no income tax at the time, and death duties were very modest: he could have left his entire fortune to his family. No, Cooper simply chose to march out of step. Where custom decreed he should become a robber baron, instead he became this country’s first large-hearted philanthropist; it was his precept and example that later nudged Andrew Carnegie, George Peabody, Matthew Vassar, Ezra Cornell, and a dozen others to the same unlikely course.

Cooper’s perverse behavior warrants a closer look. To be decent and disinterested is, in any age, to invite derision; in the Gilded Age it was positively ludicrous. Rascality, unfortunately, is ever so much more colorful, and so Cooper’s solid virtues have been elbowed into obscurity by the sins of his gaudy contemporaries. He deserves better.

Peter Cooper lived a long life. He was born in 1791, during George Washington’s first presidential term; when he died, in 1883, Chester Arthur was President. In his last years, Cooper liked to say that his life had fallen into three periods—thirty years to get started, thirty years to amass a fortune, thirty years to dispose of that fortune wisely—and the implication was that he had planned his life to fit those three tidy compartments.

The actual events of his career, moreover, lend the notion a certain plausibility. To be sure, his first thirty years were aimless; during the next thirty his fortunes did indeed rise steadily, until he was rolling in a most gratifying bed of clover; his philanthropies preoccupied him for the rest of his life. But this view was considerably assisted, and distorted, by hindsight. It failed to take any account of the customary leading role played by chance, and it failed to give due credit to Cooper’s sturdy and inventive mind. It was a humorless mind, clogged by naïveté, but nonetheless tough and original.