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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
Whate’er is best administer’d is best.
For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;
His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.
In Faith and Hope the world will disagree,
But all mankind’s concern is Charity.
So said Cooper’s favorite poet, Pope, in Cooper’s favorite poem, “An Essay on Man,” and Cooper heartily agreed. Called upon to put it in his own words he said, “God is love, love in action—love universal.”
A man, so one might have thought, hopelessly mired in platitude and pietistic cant. And then, all at once, Cooper once again showed the sturdy and original fiber of his mind. The difficulty was that he would not slope into senility, like any other rich old man; he had to keep on educating himself, and what was worse, thinking for himself. As Allan Nevins has said, “For a rich man, he was singularly successful in avoiding the preconceptions of his own moneyed group.” And so, at the age of 85, Cooper undertook to run for President of the United States on a radical, third-party ticket. The year was 1876, when, despite a popular majority for Samuel Tilden, the Presidency was “won” by Rutherford B. Hayes.
Cooper ran as the standard-bearer of the National Independent party, popularly called the Greenback party. This was a party of protest. During the Civil War the government had issued greenbacks that were not redeemable at their face value in gold; with the war’s end the bankers and financiers commenced to clamor for an end to all this cheap money. By 1868 the Congress had managed to reduce the outstanding greenbacks to the amount of $356,000,000, but then the howl from southern planters and western farmers forced a halt. Their farms were mortgaged: if the greenbacks were still further reduced—that is, if the nation’s available total of cash were reduced—how would they pay their debts? In the East, moreover, men were out of work; if there were less money available, how would they feed their children? Farmers and laborers, then, began to insist that the greenback issue of the Civil War be made permanent. Such was the pressure, indeed, that in the Panic of 1873 the secretary of the treasury reissued $26,000,000 worth of greenbacks previously withdrawn from circulation. But in 1874, when the Congress passed a bill increasing the volume of greenbacks to $400,000,000, Grant vetoed it. The bankers and the creditors generally applauded vigorously; the mortgaged farmers, the laborers, and the debtor classes generally as vigorously wailed. Quite naturally, since this was the Gilded Age, there followed the Resumption Act of 1875, according to which more greenbacks were to be retired and the balance of the fiat money backed by a sale of bonds. The Greenbackers saw here only a plot to enrich the eastern bankers; they girded their loins for battle and prevailed on Cooper to be their champion.
His extraordinary venture was, of course, greeted with a chorus of catcalls and horselaughs from every influential newspaper editor in the country, and the jeers persisted throughout the campaign. He could not rely even on his own family, for his son-in-law, Abram Hewitt, was Tilden’s campaign manager.
All fear, none aid you, and few understand.
Once again Cooper could reflect on how wise was his favorite poet. He was shrewd enough to realize—indeed, even to hope—that he hadn’t a chance whatever of election. Why, then, did he accept the nomination?
As the old man looked about him in 1876 he saw workers grossly underpaid, farmers fettered by mortgages, rising unemployment, a Congress committed to legislate in favor of the rich, and a federal government committed to a financial policy that still further lined the pockets of the rich at the expense of the poor. Would neither the Republicans nor the Democrats undertake campaign pledges to give aid to the unemployed? To regulate the privately owned railroads? To halt the huge land grabs in the West? To control the nation’s currency? Cooper appealed to the candidates of both major parties; when they did not take action, he decided it was his duty to run, if only as a gesture.
He received only one per cent of the vote. Yet time has treated his ideas most kindly. For in retrospect the impression will not down that, so far from being ludicrous, those ideas were sane, intelligent, liberal, and practical. Eighty-three years later a majority supports the notion of a government-controlled currency backed by long-term, low-interest bonds rather than by gold or silver; we are long accustomed to federal works programs for the unemployed, to federal regulation of the railroads, to civil service—in sum, to a strong Executive in Washington, using federal powers to help all segments of the population.