- 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
Cooper’s plans had been afoot for nearly twenty years. In 1830 a fellow member of the Common Council, one Dr. David Rodgers, had told him about a polytechnical school in Paris. “What made the deepest impression on my mind,” Cooper said later, “was … that he found hundreds of young men from all parts of France living on a bare crust of bread in order to get the benefit of those lectures. I then thought how glad I should have been to have found such an institution in the city of New York when I was myself an apprentice … I determined to do what I could to secure to the youth of my native city and country the benefits of such an institution … and throw its doors open at night so that the boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I had to enjoy means of information, would be enabled to improve and better their condition, fitting them for all the various and useful purposes of life.” By 1852 he had assembled his parcels of land (on Astor Place, between Third and Fourth avenues) and the cornerstone was laid the next year. In May, 1858, the Cooper Union was finished; the first students were admitted in the fall of the following year. Then (as now) they paid no tuition; then (as now) the only entrance requirement was a superior intelligence.
At first New York viewed Cooper Union with considerable mistrust. “Cooper is very well meaning but very silly for a self-made millionaire,” his neighbor, George Templeton Strong, noted in his diary. “All his conceptions [for Cooper Union] are amorphous, preposterous, and impractical. … He will produce nothing but $500,000 worth of folly.” And Allan Nevins has told the story of how Cooper, riding up the Bowery in a horsecar, overheard the talk of two men sitting ahead of him. “There’s Peter Cooper’s building,” said one; “that man is a snake in the grass. See the stores on the ground floor? It’s a commercial building, and he’s trying to evade tax payments by calling it an educational institution.” Cooper broke in. “Alight, gentlemen,” he bid them, “and come in with me. You have maligned me. Let me show you the building and explain it.” He took them through, and made such believers out of them that one of them later contributed some money to the Union.
Very rapidly all of New York came to respect the Union. Why not? Here was a night school ready to instruct all comers in chemistry, elementary physics, mathematics, music, and drawing (freehand, mechanical, and architectural); here was a school of design for women; here, perhaps most important, was a large and well-stocked reading room open to the general public from eight in the morning till ten at night, the only library of its sort in the city. Before long as many as three thousand people a week were availing themselves of its resources. As for the classes proper, Hewitt later recalled that on registration day, “There was a mob assembled so large and eager that the efforts to register students almost resulted in a riot. It was incredible”—although, clearly, not to Cooper—“that there should be such a passion for learning among the toilers. Every class was filled in one night, and from that day there was never a vacancy in the Cooper Union classes.” Those first students ranged in age from sixteen to fifty-nine. And the graduates, it might be added, have since included such eminent men as the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the inventor Michael Pupin.
But it was chiefly as a forum for new and exciting ideas that Cooper Union was noted. Almost from the first it was the center of thought in the country’s largest city. In February of 1860 there was Lincoln, delivering the speech that he himself later credited with winning him the Presidency. And later there was Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley, Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Ingersoll, Victoria Woodhull, Henry Ward Beecher, and from England, John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley. Over and over again the Union’s great hall filled with the city’s most influential people, to hear the most influential ideas of the day. This year, as it marks its centennial, the Union’s vitality remains undiminished: over 1300 students attend its thriving art and engineering schools, while many hundreds more benefit from its extensive adult education program, its museum, and its library.
During his lifetime, its founder affably haunted its corridors. There was scarcely a day, from the time it opened in 1859 until he died in 1883, when Cooper absented himself. There were plenty of other things on his mind: he was intimately involved in Cyrus Field’s efforts to span the Atlantic with a telegraph cable, and was even for a time the president of one of the companies that essayed to establish a monopoly over American telegraph lines; later, when all right-thinking citizens of New York were straining shoulder to shoulder to shove Boss Tweed out of power, Cooper could always be depended upon, if he were not too busy chairing committees devoted to getting the Boss what he wanted, to chair a reform committee formed to oust the Boss. But none of this really touched Cooper at the core.