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The Honest Man
In a day of rampant money-making, gentle Peter Cooper was not only a reformer but successful, widely loved, and rich.
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
And from the start the money rolled in. Cooper had bought at the bottom of the severe Panic of 1818–20, and the decade that followed brought the country’s first sizable manufacturing boom. As the national industrial plant expanded, so did Cooper’s enterprise: he made, as well as glue, neat’s-foot oil, isinglass, and gelatin. Never did his products earn him less than $10,000 a year, and indeed before long his earnings were closer to $100,000 a year. Ever the empiricist, he plunged into the complexities of gluemaking and emerged with techniques that an organic chemist could hardly have bettered. His commercial methods were simplicity itself: he kept no formal books, never borrowed a cent, abjured both banks and bankers as creatures of Satan, paid off all his obligations at each year’s end in gold, worked his employees hard but fairly, and trusted to the excellence of his wares to do his selling for him. Providence, in the years before the Civil War, smiled on such methods.
His profits he cannily invested in real estate, especially on Manhattan. Since the boom enriched New York more than any other city in the country, the value of his investments soared most delectably. Boom gave way to bust with painful frequency in the antebellum period, but no financial panic ever caught Cooper napping. Insulated as he was from the vagaries of contracting credit, he had only to wait for the moment when he considered a slump had scraped bottom and then rake in the best securities, drawing on his copious supply of ready gold. Indeed, so often did he repeat this maneuver that, his grandson reported later, “when his gig appeared in Wall Street during a panic, the word went all up and down the Street that the storm was now about over because Peter Cooper had bought his securities and all would now be well.” In 1833 Cooper could write, in a little brown notebook of accounts, that he was worth $123,459; by 1846, this figure was up to $383,500; by 1856, to $1,106,000. What, he might have retorted to those who cracked jokes behind his back, what is so funny about glue?
More than glue was, of course, involved. There was also Cooper’s thrift, pluck, industry, sobriety, enterprise, ingenuity, self-reliance, and all the others in the catalogue of his virtuous traits—to each of which, as he grew older, Cooper loved to allude in his speeches and in the growing stream of homiletic pamphlets that flowed from his pen. There was also the fact that the times could scarcely have been more propitious for a manufacturer, combining, as they did, the first fruits of the Industrial Revolution with a market apparently destined for unchecked expansion. But most important of all, there was Cooper’s happy faculty of transforming adversity into prosperity—what might, in the case of anyone less virtuous, have been termed his sheer dumb luck. One or two examples of this golden touch will suffice.
In 1828 two New Yorkers approached Cooper with a gleaming proposition: the purchase of 3,000 acres of land at Lazeretto Point, within the city limits of Baltimore. How could they lose? The citizens of Baltimore, alarmed by the Erie Canal’s threat to their midwestern commerce, had rammed through the state legislature a charter for a railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio. All these citizens were running high temperatures over the speculative prospects; one excited Baltimorean was so entranced by the promise of future profits as to predict that the rails could be built of silver. Cooper hesitated, but when friends urged him on, he plunked down $20,000 as his first payment for one third of the land, which was going for $105,000. He had been bilked. His soi-disant partners milked him of a few more hundreds, alleging there were taxes that had to be paid, but, as he later discovered, they were using his funds to pay their board.
Now clearly what can be detected here is, so far from the surly snarl of a commercial man-eater, merely the meek snuffle of an all-time chump. But Peter Cooper was no man to let his simple-mindedness stand in the way of making a quick recovery. Promptly he set to work. In no time he had found that there was iron ore in his land; he had it dug up, had kilns built, and began smelting his ore into iron. Here again his native wit almost fatally deserted him: the coal in his kiln caught fire and would not be doused; Cooper then went to the door of the kiln and peered in, at which instant the gas itself caught fire and lifted him up, out, back, and down in a fine parabola, dumping him base over apex, ten feet away, with his eyebrows and whiskers all singed away.
Even, however, before his whiskers had grown back, Cooper found his investments harassed from another direction. The directors of the B&O faced blank despair: despite labor troubles and frequent cave-ins they had managed, at hideous expense, to lay thirteen miles of track; their plans, in order to avoid the cost of deep cuts through rocky hillsides, included track that would curve around a radius of 150 feet. But it had become clear by 1829 that the most economical locomotion for railroads would be steam, and George Stephenson, the English engineer who had successfully built the first steam locomotives, flatly insisted that they could never negotiate a curve that sharp.