- Historic Sites
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
A man like this wins the respect, however grudging, of his fellows. Who among them dared to say that Cooper’s most demented scheme might not turn out a winner? And indeed he did come up with some tolerably daft notions. There was, for instance, his plan for sluicing brine through the Erie Canal to Albany, where, by evaporation, the salt would be recovered for domestic use. He actually tried to patent this idea. Again, he financed an experimental ship to be powered by submerged vertical paddle wheels. At his behest, a boat was built with one vast paddle wheel even with the keel; Cooper himself rang the starting bell, the engines speeded up, and the boat at once sank like a stone, coming to rest with her decks awash. The paddle box had burst. Cooper studied the situation. “Well,” he commented, “I guess that experiment is a failure.”
But no matter his occasional imbecilities, he was by common consent recognized as one of New York’s leading citizens, perhaps, indeed, the foremost. He had become a character. Tall, robust, big-beaked, lantern-jawed, he dressed simply, affecting a black stock at this period, and always taking care to have with him a small pneumatic rubber cushion that he placed beneath him before he sat. Whiskers encircled his chin; and his spectacles, too, were remarkable, consisting of four octagonal lenses, one pair in front of his eyes in the usual way and the other pair flanking them, at the outside. His expression, for many years stiff and forbidding, clearly indicative of his shyness and reserve, was softening now as his years mounted through middle age; there was, one saw at once, a surpassing kindliness that had come hand in hand with assurance. He had always been painfully ashamed of his lack of education and social graces, painfully aware of the fact that he could scarcely write a sentence without misspelling a word or dropping a comma. Now he had come to sense that a flaw in spelling or punctuation held no more horror than a drop of rain, so long as his thought carried true to its mark; and while his respect for education had never flagged, his skepticism of the learning that came only from books was waxing. Wherever he went he was recognized and, more and more, beloved.
There was, to be sure, a solid foundation for the public esteem. Dimly at first but with increasing clarity, his fellow citizens, and especially the humbler among them, perceived that Cooper earnestly professed, in everything he did, to serve mankind. Hence his inventions; hence even his manufacture of glue. To Cooper the fact that he made money was, if not actually irrelevant, at least not the main goal. Money was a kind of temporary reward for moral behavior, for doing good; the main goal was, as he phrased it, “to give the world an equivalent in some form of useful labor for all that I consumed in it.” His inventions, his commercial enterprises, were not enough. He found time to work in other ways as well: for the Public School Society, which fought to make education compulsory; on New York City’s Common Council, where he had in his charge the project of insuring the city’s water supply; for the Juvenile Asylum, for New York faced then as now the problem of juvenile delinquency; for the New York Sanitary Association; for a free milk dispensary.
Whenever a committee was formed on behalf of some public need, all hands thought first of Peter Cooper when nominations for chairman were in order; and Cooper, incorrigibly naïve, accepted all nominations. He was chairman of Tammany committees formed for the purpose of whiting sepulchers, and he was also chairman of committees formed for the purpose of freeing New York forever from Tammany’s grip. He was chairman of a public meeting called to raise funds for the odoriferous Erie Railroad, and almost simultaneously one of a committee of twelve appointed to raise funds for the bitterly competitive New York & Albany Railroad.
In any well-regulated society, such chairmanships are traditionally assigned to elderly gentlemen of more than average pomposity and fatuity who have retired from the struggle for money. At first glance Cooper seemed to fit these specifications admirably. In 1860 he was 69 years old; his glue business was running smoothly, and he had all but formally relinquished control; he had turned over active management of the iron mines and mills to his son Edward and to Abram Hewitt, who five years earlier had become his son-in-law (“I don’t know,” he had said to Hewitt, “that you can get books far enough out of your head to let even a little business in, but if you’d like to try here’s a chance”), and these two were successfully expanding the business. But while Cooper was no longer actively in pursuit of money, he was far from retired. He was, indeed, just launched on what was to prove the most fruitful phase of his long life. A year earlier he had officially opened the doors of that unique institution, his pride and his joy, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.