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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
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.
The tonic note of Cooper’s eventful and empirical career was struck when he was still in short pants. His mother required him to help with the family wash: dull work, pounding dirty clothes in a barrel of soapy water; the same dreary chore performed once a week by thousands of groaning, arm-weary boys all over the country, and by them accepted as inevitable. But young Cooper, being an original, was bound to tinker with the inevitable, to take it apart and remake it, testing whether it might not be made to work better. He actually contrived a primitive washing machine, involving a geared wheel, double lever, and ratchet, thereby cutting his labor in half and washing the clothes cleaner and quicker.
When, at seventeen, he apprenticed himself for four years to a New York carriage maker, signing on for his board and twenty-five dollars a year, his virtues throbbed monotonously. There were at the time some 3,500 oases serving strong drink in New York, or about one for every four families, nor were the brothelkeepers behindhand. But, Cooper related later, while the other apprentices were “in the habit of going out nights to indulge in sports of all kinds,” he retired to a monastic chamber provided him by his grandmother, where he carved wood, pored over the Bible, and committed to memory long passages from Pope or Burns.
The truth was, he was ashamed of himself; ashamed of his lack of education, of his lack of polish and urbanity; ashamed, for he was a hayseed—born in New York, to be sure, but reared in the wilderness up the Hudson River Valley near Peekskill. He felt himself a bumpkin; with a certain low skill at mechanical contrivances, perhaps, but no fit company for his fellows at the taphouse or bagnio.
There were, however, compensations. “I was always fussing and contriving,” he said later, “and was never satisfied unless I was doing something difficult—something that had never been done before, if possible.” He devised a machine for mortising the hubs of carriages, a contrivance his employer was happy to buy from him. He attempted to convert the power from the tides of the East River into compressed air, and thus drive the ferries from New York to Brooklyn. After rejecting his employer’s offer to set him up in trade, he invented first a lawn mower (never, however, patented), then a mechanically-rocked cradle fitted with “a musical instrument that would sing the child to sleep” and a cloth to “keep the flies off the little one.” This anticipation of Rube Goldberg he called a “Pendulous & Musical Cradle,” and traded his Connecticut rights in it to a peddler who offered his horse and wagon and all it contained in exchange. Since there was a hurdy-gurdy in the wagon, Cooper concluded he got the better of the trade.
There were other inventions: an endless chain, powered by water elevated in the locks, to haul canalboats along the brand-new Erie Canal; and a rotary steam engine. Both these contraptions seem to have had merit but, for one reason or another, neither was in a way of making Cooper any money. He was drifting: in ten years he had gone from carriage maker to machinist to cabinetmaker to grocer; he was in danger of becoming that familiar figure, the handy man who is all dreams but no dollars. Any adept of the then infant science, phrenology, might by palpating his pate have diagnosed the difficulty: where he should have had a Bump of Acquisitiveness, instead there was a crater. Invent, yes; exploit, no. But all at once, in 1821, chance proffered him a gilt-edged proposition: a successful business enterprise, priced at only $2,200. Cooper snatched at it so quickly that, since he offered cash down, he was able to get it for $2,000.
He was now thirty years old, and for the next thirty-odd years this enterprise would make him a great deal of money and would, indeed, be the cornerstone of his substantial fortune. And what was this business? It was making glue.
Now there is patently nothing offensive, nor disgraceful, nor ridiculous about the manufacture of glue. Glue is a useful commodity, even necessary to a great many folk; glue, in its humble fashion, holds our society together. Having said all of this, it must be admitted that a Glue King sounds like a character out of P. G. Wodehouse. Arid not only today: in his own time New York’s Knickerbocker society fleered at Cooper and called him “the self-made millionaire glueboiler.”
Fortunately, being armored with a powerful humorlessness, Cooper could ignore the gibes and settle down to making money. In his fragrant business, he was presently associated with some important figures of New York’s financial future: Henry Astor, John Jacob’s brother, was the town’s biggest wholesale butcher, and from him Cooper purchased cattle hoofs and heads; the cattle yards and the cattle drovers’ favorite rendezvous, the Bull’s Head Tavern, up in the country at 24th Street and Third Avenue, were both owned by that unique amalgam of piety and rascality, Dan Drew.
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.
It was a moment ready-made for an empirical inventor like Cooper. “In the abandonment of [the B&O],” he wrote later, “I saw the defeat of my enterprise. It would have been a terrible defeat to me, for I saw that the growth of the city of Baltimore depended upon the success of that road, and I had purchased that tract with a view of taking advantage of the rapid growth of the city which was anticipated.” What to do? Obviously, there was only one solution. He went to the president of the railroad and promised that he “would put a small locomotive on” that, he declared, would pull a train around those short curves. And sure enough, as he said later, “I got up a little locomotive.”
This was the celebrated “Tom Thumb,” the first American locomotive to run on an American railroad. It was, as Cooper himself put it, “about as temporary [a makeshift] as any you ever saw,” but considered as a means of demonstrating that the railroad had a glossy future—and that in consequence, Cooper’s flier in Baltimore real estate would pay off—it was a rousing success. Cooper conducted his lesson in applied mechanics at the Mount Clare Railroad Shop. Here he found some old wheels, to which he rigged a platform. He sent to New York for the rotary steam engine that he had invented some years before; it had one cylinder and generated one horsepower. He had a boiler made; it was five or six feet high, with a diameter of twenty inches; “it was difficult to imagine,” said a man who examined it later, “that it had ever generated steam enough to drive a coffee mill.” When it came to attaching the engine to the boiler, Cooper was stumped, but only momentarily. “I couldn’t find any iron pipes,” he wrote later. “The fact is that there were none for sale in this country. So I took two muskets and broke off the wood part, and used the barrels for tubing to the boiler, using one on one side and the other on the other.” To keep a head of steam, he contrived a “blowing apparatus, driven by a drum attached to one of the car wheels, over which passed a cord that in its turn worked a pulley on the shaft of the blower.” To save space on his platform, he stood his boiler up straight. This improvised miracle was ready for the road in July, 1830, but there ensued a series of those tragicomic mishaps that seem always to attend on an initial experiment of any significance: a wheel broke, once, twice, thrice; some miscreant made off by night with some copper chopped from the engine, necessitating a week’s delay. At length, however, in August, with six men on the engine platform and another three dozen perched on a car behind, Cooper drove his locomotive the thirteen miles to Ellicott’s Mills in an hour and twelve minutes and back again in fifty-seven minutes. (When they were hurtling along at their top speed of eighteen m.p.h., some of the party whipped out pencil and paper and wrote “some connected sentences to prove that even at great velocity it was possible to do so.”)
Here was a sensation, but there was better to come, for Baltimore’s stagecoach owners were determined to squash this new competition before it got out of hand. And so a match was arranged: the Tom Thumb vs. a powerful gray horse hitched to a car on a parallel track. The race would be run from the Relay House eight miles into town.
“Away went horse and engine,” reported John H.B. Latrobe, a B&O lawyer who was an eyewitness, “the snort of the one and the puff of the other keeping time and time.” At first the horse drew ahead, for the engine needed time to get up a head of steam. “The blower whistled, the steam blew off in vapory clouds, the pace increased, the passengers shouted, the engine gained on the horse, soon it lapped him—the silk was plied—the race was neck and neck, nose and nose—then the engine passed the horse, and a great hurrah hailed the victory.” Alas! too soon; for Cooper’s blower all at once conked out: “the horse gained on the machine, and passed it; and although the band was presently replaced, and steam again did its best, the horse was too far ahead to be overtaken, and came in the winner of the race.”
The defeat provoked some merriment at Cooper’s expense, but he was satisfied. For one thing, as he noted, “the bonds of the [B&O] were sold at once, and there was no longer any doubt as to the success of the line.” For another, his real-estate venture panned out very well indeed: he sold the land in 1832 at a profit; some of his payment was in stock worth only $44 a share, but it obligingly rose to $235 a share before he sold the last of it. Out of what had at first seemed a most unhappy investment, Cooper got a handsome return and a full measure of fame.
Again, when a man to whom he had loaned $5,000 went bankrupt in the severe Panic of 1837, Cooper looked like a loser. All he got in compensation was his debtor’s small and floundering wire factory, and what did he know about making wire? Precisely nothing. But almost at once he was fighting customers off like flies from honey. For—thanks to the new railroads, structural iron bridges, and telegraph—the national economy in the 1840s was starving for iron. It began to seem as though iron would prove even more profitable than glue. Cooper was obliged to build a rolling mill; soon he was experimenting with anthracite for puddling; naturally he invented an improved blast furnace; and by 1847 he had organized the Trenton Iron Company, which was to become one of the biggest in the country.
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.
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.
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.
But in the Gilded Age Cooper was a freak. His mind looked backward with approval to the days of Jackson; if he could have looked forward to the days of Franklin Roosevelt, he would have found as much to approve.
The old man went back to his Union. In truth, he had never been away, for his campaign had scarcely been an active one. His son was elected mayor of New York; before long, although old Cooper wouldn’t live to see it, his son-in-law would be elected to the same office. And there was another generation coming along; Cooper had a fine workshop built in his house just off Gramercy Park so that his grandchildren might learn to work with their hands. And two of these—Peter Cooper Hewitt and Edward Ringwood Hewitt—grew up to become distinguished inventors themselves. Cooper used to take them down to the Union with him, one or the other importantly carrying along the old man’s air cushion.
He drove to his Union for the last time on March 31, 1883. He caught a cold; it grew worse, and pneumonia developed. Early on April 4 he died.
All over the city flags were lowered to half-mast. The family wanted to bury him quietly and privately, but such was the love in which he was held by the city’s nameless thousands that this proved impossible. His coffin was brought to All Souls’ Church on April 7, and the mourners streamed past from nine in the morning till mid-afternoon. When the coffin was lifted into the hearse, a cortege formed spontaneously and followed for miles through streets in which the shops had been closed, while from one after another of scores of churches along the way the bells slowly tolled. Seldom before or since has a citizen of New York been mourned from such a full heart.
Over his coffin, the Reverend Dr. Robert Collyer spoke the funeral address. “Here lies a man,” said Collyer, “who never owned a dollar he could not take up to the Great White Throne.” It was a thought to give Cooper’s contemporaries pause.