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Title: Peter Cooper - The Riverside Biographical Series, Number 4
Author: Raymond, Rossiter W. (Rossiter Worthington), 1840-1918
Language: English
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*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Peter Cooper - The Riverside Biographical Series, Number 4" ***

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The Riverside Biographical Series





=The Riverside Biographical Series=

          1. ANDREW JACKSON, by W. G. BROWN.
          2. JAMES B. EADS, by LOUIS HOW.
          4. PETER COOPER, by R. W. RAYMOND.
          5. THOMAS JEFFERSON, by H. C. MERWIN.
          11. WASHINGTON IRVING, by H. W. BOYNTON.
          13. STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS, by W. G. BROWN.
          14. SAMUEL DE CHAMPLAIN, by H. D. SEDGWICK, Jr.

          Each about 140 pages, 16mo, with photogravure
          portrait, 65 cents, _net_; _School Edition_, each,
          50 cents, _net_.


[Illustration: (signed) Peter Cooper]





          =The Riverside Press Cambridge=



  CHAP.                                   PAGE
  PREFACE                                  vii
     I. ANCESTRY                             1
    II. BOYHOOD AND YOUTH                   10
   III. BUSINESS VENTURES                   16
    IV. INVENTIONS                          29
     V. THE TOM THUMB                       38
    VI. MUNICIPAL AFFAIRS                   52
  VIII. NATIONAL POLITICS                   96
    IX. THE END                            104


DURING the last decade of Peter Cooper's life, the writer of this
biographical sketch enjoyed some degree of intimacy with him, as
professional adviser and traveling companion, and also, incidentally, as
consulting engineer of the firm of Cooper and Hewitt, and manager of a
department in the Cooper Union. This circumstance, together with the
preference kindly expressed by Mr. Cooper's family, doubtless influenced
the selection of the writer for the honorable task of preparing this
book,--a task which was welcome as a labor of love, though the execution
of it has been hindered and impaired by the demands of other duties. The
real difficulty has been to compress within the prescribed limits a
story covering so many years and so many topics, yet not possessing
those features of dramatic action or adventure which could be treated
briefly, with picturesque effect.

Mr. Cooper's family has kindly furnished abundant material for this
work, including, besides his own published utterances, the notes of the
stenographer to whom Mr. Cooper, in the last years of his life, dictated
his "reminiscences." The use which has been made of these will be
evident to the reader. Beyond an occasional revelation of the character
of the speaker, or a side-light thrown upon the manners and conditions
of our early national life, they have not furnished valuable data; and
the study of them suggests an observation which may be heeded with
advantage in similar cases hereafter, though it comes too late to be
useful in this instance, namely, that the recollections of old people
with retentive memories, like Peter Cooper, may be invaluable, if they
are intelligently aroused and guided; but if the speakers (as in his
case) are left to their own initiative, they are too likely to furnish
superfluous accounts of events already described more accurately in
authentic contemporaneous records.

It has not been practicable to preserve, in the treatment of the
subject, a strictly chronological order. As the titles of the several
chapters indicate, the different lines of Mr. Cooper's activity have
been considered, to some extent, separately, so that their periods
overlap each other.

This sketch of Mr. Cooper's career furnishes the elements of an
analysis, which I introduce here, as a guide in the interpretation of
what is to follow.

1. The time of his birth and the prophetic anticipations of his parents
profoundly influenced his ambition to do something great for his
fellow-citizens of the republic whose life began so nearly with his own.

2. The atmosphere surrounding his youth was one of unlimited and
audacious adventure. New institutions, a virgin continent, the ardent
desire to be independent of the Old World, and a profound belief in the
destiny of America, all combined to stimulate endeavor. What Peter
Cooper said of himself as an apprentice was true of the typical young
American of his time: "I was always planning and contriving, and was
never satisfied unless I was doing something difficult--something that
had never been done before, if possible."

3. The new freedom and the vast opportunity presented in the young
republic encouraged, to a degree not paralleled before or since, that
change of occupation which, with all its drawbacks, had the one great
merit that it educated men to various activities. It was no disgrace to
an American to go into one business after another, seeking the one which
would prove most profitable and agreeable. Thus, Peter Cooper worked
successively as a hatter, a coach-builder, a machinist, a machine-maker,
a grocer, an iron-worker, and a glue-manufacturer, achieving success in
every occupation, but abandoning each for something more promising, and
learning in each something which promoted his success in the next.

4. At every stage of his progress, he followed the ideal of personal
independence, the honest acquisition of property, the establishment of a
home, and the rearing of a family. These were the first duties and the
dearest wishes--no matter what greater things might lie beyond. And he
profoundly realized that temperance, industry, frugality, and patience
were the necessary preliminaries to any longed-for achievement. As he
says, he had first to spend thirty years in getting a start; then to
spend another thirty years in accumulating the means for further advance
into the wider sphere of his aspirations. And during each stage of this
process, he was patient, as well as hopeful, neither wasting his
energies in visionary schemes nor allowing the eddies of daily toil to
divert the current of his deeper purposes.

5. At every stage, however, he found himself hindered by lack of
thorough knowledge. He invented perpetually and profusely; but some of
his most cherished inventions did not find practical recognition,
because he had attempted the premature or the impossible. His guiding
principle, of trying to do something that had never been done before, is
not an adequate substitute for a scientific knowledge of what can be,
and now needs to be, done. He found himself often too far in advance of
his generation. Moreover, he found that the lack of education crippled
him in the attempt to make other men understand and appreciate his
fruitful ideas. This is true of all really great "self-made men." They
may have achieved success and fame in spite of early disadvantages; they
may, perhaps, recognize the fact that such disadvantages, necessitating
a stern struggle, have sifted out, by natural selection, the possessors
of genius and sterling character; but not one of them fails to lament
the lack of that early training which would have made him still more
successful than he is; and not one of them fails to desire, for his
children and the coming generation of his fellows, the early advantages
which were denied to himself.

6. This experience it was which gave form to the aspirations and
purposes of Peter Cooper. As an apprentice, he resolved to do something
for the benefit of apprentices--to found some institution which should
supplement the deficiencies of early education, furnishing to virtuous,
industrious, and ambitious youths the means of progress, and attracting
the thoughtless or indolent into the same ascending road. How this
conception came to be both modified and realized will be seen in later
pages. At this point it is sufficient to note that the plan was
originally not only philanthropic, but patriotic and practical. It
contemplated the benefit, through means adapted to their special
condition, of Americans of that class to which Peter Cooper himself

Some further observations concerning the secret of the universal esteem
and affection enjoyed by Mr. Cooper will be reserved for the closing




OBADIAH COOPER, who, with his two brothers, came from England to the
colony of New York about 1662, belonged, as we may infer with
confidence, to that sturdy class of republican yeomanry which found the
restored reign of the Stuarts intolerable. He settled at
Fishkill-on-the-Hudson; and his son Obadiah--whom tradition declares to
have been the fourth white man child born in what is now Dutchess
County--was the great-grandfather of Peter Cooper. In 1720 an Obadiah of
the next generation followed, and of his son John, born in 1755, Peter
Cooper was the fifth child.

John Cooper came of age in the year of the Declaration of Independence.
In the issue between the British government and the American colonies
his choice could not be doubtful. He followed the traditions of his
family. Indeed, it is now well established and universally admitted that
the patriots of the American Revolution were not in fact arrayed against
England. They were engaged in a struggle which was but a part of the
great conflict waged against shortsighted and obstinate tyranny by
Englishmen on both sides of the ocean, and in which the victory for
liberty was won on this side sooner than on the other. What the Coopers
and their kind achieved here was applauded openly in the mother country
by the descendants of a common ancestry as a triumph for the common
cause. The use of foreign mercenaries under British commanders in this
country was the direct result of the impossibility of inducing
Englishmen to enlist for service against their American kinsmen. Hence
when John Cooper, of Fishkill, abandoned in 1776 the business he had
just established as a hatter, and became sergeant in a company of
"minute-men," he was but pursuing the course indicated both by his own
convictions and by the history of his fathers and the sympathies of the
party in England to which they had belonged. It was Freedom's battle
"handed down from sire to son."

He served subsequently for two years in the Continental line, and for
the last four years of the war as a lieutenant in the New York militia,
actively employed in the perilous service of protecting life, property,
and the public stores in the zone of debatable territory,--the "bloody
ground" which surrounded the British lines in New York. At the close of
the war, New York having been evacuated by the enemy, Lieutenant John
Cooper retired to civil life, and resumed business as a hatter in that
city,--a worthy example of that American citizen soldiery which has
always been equally ready to leave the ways of peace for its country's
defense, and to return to them when the exigency had passed.

It was in 1779, during his military service, that John Cooper married
Margaret, the daughter of John Campbell, a deputy quartermaster-general
in the Continental army, and a trusted agent of Washington. The outbreak
of hostilities in 1776 had found John Campbell a prosperous merchant and
owner of real estate in New York city. He at once lent to the
Revolutionary government eleven hundred guineas,--the whole of his ready
money,--entered the service, was made deputy quartermaster-general, and
was directed to superintend the hasty evacuation of the city by the Whig
inhabitants, and to protect them and their property as far as possible.
Lingering too long to assist some of the laggards, he was captured by
the forces landed from the British fleet, but was subsequently released;
and he made a temporary home at Fishkill while actively engaged in
establishing the lines by which the British army, though holding the
city and commanding its access to the sea, was practically besieged.
General Campbell served throughout the war, and after hostilities had
ceased commanded the troops at West Point until they were finally
disbanded in 1785.

It is easy to imagine how the young lieutenant and the daughter of the
commander who must have been frequently brought into personal relations
with him may have met and loved and wedded in the midst of those
troublous times, but the romance would have no special bearing on this
history. It is enough to say that by this marriage the best blood of
England and Scotland--of servants of God and lovers of freedom--was
blended in the nine children, seven sons and two daughters, of whom
Peter Cooper--born February 12, 1791, in Little Dock (now Water) Street,
New York--was the fifth.

John Cooper was not characteristically a seer of visions or a dreamer of
dreams. On the contrary, the accounts of him which have come down to us
describe him as a stalwart athlete, who "could lift a barrel of cider
from the ground and put it in a wagon," and who once, being cornered and
attacked by a bull, seized the animal's nose with one hand and so
battered its head with a stone that it was glad to turn and fly. Yet he
came of a race that believed in Divine guidance; and on one occasion at
least he acted upon that belief in a matter then deemed more important,
perhaps, than now. The incident can be given best in the words of Peter
Cooper himself, who wrote:--

"My father used to tell me how he came to call me Peter. When I was born
he became strongly impressed with the idea that I would some day have
more than ordinary fame, and what name he should give me was a matter of
serious and frequent thought. While walking on Broadway one dark night
it seemed as though a voice spoke to him in a clear and distinct manner:
'Call him Peter!' That seeming voice settled my name. My father said
that he felt that I was to be of great good in some way; and his
remarks, with my mother's, concerning their aspirations and hopes for me
acted as a stimulus and made me anxious to fulfill their wishes, and not
disappoint them."

If names were to be characteristic of individual careers, it might be
better to imitate some Indian tribes, and to give the permanent name
only after the career, or at least the character, of its recipient had
been indicated by his acts. In this instance the subsequent life of the
son did not in any peculiar way imitate that of the Apostle Peter.
Evidently not that particular name, but the simple fact that an eminent
name, thus suggested and not already familiar in his family, had been
given to him, produced upon his mind the effect to which he testifies.

But why should practical John Cooper be disposed to anticipate a special
distinction for the infant who was the fifth of his numerous progeny?
From the standpoint of the modes of thought of the godly patriots of
that generation, and of their ancestors, the English Puritans and the
Scotch Covenanters, it is scarcely hazardous to assume that current
public affairs largely affected such domestic choices. Peter Cooper's
birth was practically simultaneous with the launching of that Ship of
State, the "Union, strong and great," in which all patriots had embarked
"their hopes, triumphant o'er their fears." To his veteran-soldier
father he was the first child of the new era; and the dreams that were
dreamed over him were doubtless connected with that glorious future
which had just dawned upon the federated republic. The choice of an
unfamiliar, non-hereditary name, however suggested, symbolized the break
between the old time and the new.

Above all, this incident produced in the son thus christened the
profoundest effects, the deepest motives, that can inspire a boyish
soul,--the belief in a beneficent mission, the yearning to discover it,
the resolve to execute it, and the conviction that it was to be directly
connected with the prosperity and progress of the great nation, the life
of which began with his own.

The naming of Peter Cooper thus strikes the keynote, or, more
accurately, the triple chord, of his life. For he was first of all an
American, keenly aware of the opportunities offered by the free
institutions of his country to individual ambition, industry, and
genius, and of his own personal ability to make use of these
opportunities. Secondly, he was a lover of his fellow men, determined to
employ for their benefit the means and powers which he felt himself able
to accumulate by thought, toil, and frugal economy. Thirdly, he was even
in his philanthropy essentially still an American, intent most of all
upon the welfare of those classes of his countrymen with whose struggles
and needs his own early life had made him familiar. In other words,
while his philanthropy covered a world-wide range, his peculiar mission,
as he conceived it, was indissolubly blent with the success of the
republic of which he was one of the earliest-born sons.



AT a meeting of friends, gathered February 12, 1882, to celebrate his
ninety-first birthday anniversary, Mr. Cooper, after expressing his
thanks for their congratulatory good wishes, and observing that in his
case "length of days had not yet resulted in weariness of spirit," added
this review of his life:--

"Looking back, I can see that my career has been divided into three
eras. During the first thirty years I was engaged in getting a start in
life; during the second thirty years I was occupied in getting means for
carrying out the modest plan which I had long formed for the benefit of
my fellow men; and during the last thirty years I have devoted myself to
the execution of these plans. This work is now done."

Accepting this division of his career, as convenient, though not
strictly accurate (since the processes described really overlapped
instead of separately succeeding one another), we may consider first Mr.
Cooper's means and method of achieving personal success; and in this
survey the conditions of his boyhood and early youth are primarily

While he was still very young, the family removed from a temporary
residence of three years in New York city to Peekskill, where he
remained until, at the age of seventeen, he returned to New York as an
apprentice, to be, thenceforward, dependent upon his own exertions for a

The intervening period was spent in ways characteristic of the period
and of the individual. He attended school for three or four "quarters,"
of which period, according to his later recollection, "probably half was
occupied by 'half-day' school." Outside of this scanty formal
instruction, there is ample evidence that he developed body and mind in
varied work and play. He bore to the end of life the scars of youthful
escapades, witnessing the adventurous spirit of his boyhood. When only
four years old, he climbed about the framework of a new house, and fell,
head downward, upon an iron kettle, cutting his forehead to the bone.
Later on, he was accidentally cut with a knife in the hands of a
playmate. Later still, he cut himself dangerously with an axe. Again, he
fell from a high tree, holding an iron hook with which he had been
reaching for cherry-bearing branches, and managed to hook out one of his
teeth. At another time he went for the nest of a hanging-bird, and had
the fact that it was a hornet's nest indelibly impressed on his memory.
Of course, he was nearly drowned three times,--such youngsters always
have such escapes. In short, he was a thorough boy, adventuring all
things, daunted by nothing, and protected from the results of his
reckless endeavors by that Providence which watches over small boys.

But such a temperament finds play in useful work also. The boy learned
every department of the hat-making business, beginning, when he was very
young, with pulling the fur from the skins of rabbits. And, while
assisting his mother in doing the family washing, he made what was,
perhaps, his first invention,--a mechanical arrangement for pounding the
soiled linen. Again, after carefully dissecting an old shoe, to learn
how it was put together, he determined to make shoes and slippers for
the family, and succeeded in turning out products of manufacture which
were said to be as good as those to be found, at that day, in the
regular trade.

He constructed a toy wagon, sold it for six dollars, managed to gather
four dollars more, invested the ten dollars in lottery tickets, and drew
only blanks, of which experience he said many years later, "I consider
it one of the best investments of my life; for I then learned that it
was not my _forte_ to make money at games of chance."

When he was between thirteen and fourteen years old, his father built a
large malt-house at Newburg, and the son loaded with his own hands and
carted to the site selected all the stone for the building. Collecting
wild honey and shooting game in the forests around Peekskill were
additional employments which combined pleasure with profit. But this
life did not satisfy the ambition of the youth; and in 1808, at the age
of seventeen, he left the paternal roof and apprenticed himself for four
years to John Woodward, a leading coach-builder in New York, whose shop
was located on the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, then the
northerly edge of the city, opposite a vegetable garden, the remnants of
which, after the occupation of a large portion by city, county, and
national buildings, now constitute the City Hall Park. The terms of his
employment were his board and a salary of twenty-five dollars a
year,--out of which he managed not only to pay all obligations, but also
to lay by a little money. During this period he not only mastered the
details of the trade, but learned in his hours of leisure other
branches, such as ornamental wood-carving, and made several inventions,
one of which was a machine for mortising hubs,--an operation performed
by hand up to that time. Another invention over which the young
apprentice dreamed, and of which he laboriously constructed a model, was
an apparatus for utilizing, in the running of machinery, the swift
current of the tide in the East River.



AT the end of his apprenticeship, his employer offered to set him up in
business as a coach-builder, lending him the necessary capital. Many
years later, Mr. Cooper told the story thus:--

"I was about to accept his generous offer, when an incident occurred
which changed my decision. Mr. Woodward had just completed one of the
finest coaches ever built in New York, for a gentleman who was supposed
to be one of the richest men in the city. But a day or two before the
coach was to be delivered the gentleman died, and it was then found that
he was insolvent. This made me hesitate. If I should accept my
employer's kind offer and have such a misfortune happen to me in the
sale of an elegant and expensive coach, I should consider myself a slave
for life, since the law of imprisonment for debt had not then been
abolished. So I changed my plans, and went to Hempstead, Long Island, to
visit my brother."

The visit to Hempstead became a prolonged residence. He obtained work at
$1.50 a day (then regarded as high wages) in a factory making machines
for shearing cloth, and after nearly three years had saved enough money
to purchase the right for the State of New York to a patented machine
for that purpose. He used to tell, in his old age, of his elation when
he effected his first sale of a county-right, for which he received five
hundred dollars from Mr. Vassar, of Poughkeepsie, afterwards the founder
of Vassar College.

The manufacture and sale of the new shearing-machine, into which Mr.
Cooper introduced many additional improvements, was a prosperous
business, especially during the war of 1812, when domestic woolen goods
were in great demand. He married, December 18, 1813, Sarah Bedell, a
lady of Huguenot descent, who made for him a happy home during
fifty-seven years.[1] He bought a house in Hempstead, expecting to
remain there; and in the household, as in business, he gave rein to his
ardent and versatile inventive faculty. One of his domestic contrivances
rocked the cradle, fanned away the flies, and played a lullaby to the
baby. He sold the patent in Connecticut to a Yankee peddler for a horse
and wagon, and the peddler's stock, including a hurdy-gurdy. Another
invention was a machine for mowing grass, constructed on the principle
of his cloth-shearing machine.

But after the war, the domestic woolen mills were shut down, and there
was no sale for Mr. Cooper's machines. So he first turned his factory
into a furniture shop, and then, selling it for what he could get, he
moved to New York, and started in the grocery business, buying for this
purpose a long lease of the ground where the Bible House now stands,
opposite the Cooper Union on Ninth Street. Upon this ground he erected
several buildings, one of which he used as his office. The business was
profitable; but the real foundation of Mr. Cooper's wealth was laid
when, at the age of thirty-three, he purchased a glue factory, situated
where the Park Avenue Hotel now stands, and established himself as a
glue manufacturer. The business speedily acquired and held for half a
century practically the whole trade of the country in glue and
isinglass,--a monopoly fairly earned by the cheapness and excellence of
its product.

Mr. Cooper's inventions improved the quality and reduced the cost of his
product, while his energy, industry, and frugality steadily increased
his surplus cash, and enabled him, without borrowing capital, to extend
his sphere of operations. For many years, he carried on his glue
business without bookkeeper, agent, or salesman. Dawn found him at the
suburban factory (on what is now Thirty-Second Street) lighting the
fires and preparing for the day's work; at noon, he drove in his buggy
to the city, where he made his own sales and purchases; and all his
evenings he spent at home, making up his accounts, answering his
correspondents, studying out new inventions, or talking and reading to
his wife and children.

By these simple, old-fashioned methods he built up a business and
accumulated a fortune too large to be thus administered. It would have
been impossible for one head to carry the details of work and
management, for one pair of eyes to superintend each part of the work,
or for one pair of feet, however tireless, to travel all the ways which
lead to and from a great modern industrial establishment. Still less
could financial direction and protection be compassed by the simple
scheme which Mr. Cooper, in his old age, recalled with pride. "I used,"
he said once, "to pay all my debts every Saturday night; and I knew
that what I had left was my own!" This could not have been strictly
true; but it doubtless expressed an old man's memory of the way he
began, and the principles he had followed, with that horror of debt
which dated from the time when debtors could be put in jail. Fortunately
for Mr. Cooper, his son Edward, and his son-in-law, Abram S. Hewitt,
were at hand to undertake the management of his business enterprises at
the time when his own simple methods would have proved inadequate, so
that his inventive genius, adventurous courage, and, above all, intense
philanthropy, were backed with ample means.

In this account of his business ventures (though of much later date than
those already mentioned) the part played by Peter Cooper in the
development of the American iron industry and in the construction of the
first transatlantic submarine telegraph may be recorded.

The manufacture of iron was one of the early industries of the American
colonies, and after the Revolution it was prosecuted with increased
activity in small and primitive establishments. With its development
into scientific forms on a large scale Mr. Cooper was both directly and
indirectly connected. His Ringwood estate in New Jersey had been the
scene of the operations of the Ringwood Company in 1740, and of its
successors,--Hasenclever (1764) and Erskine (1771); and the Durham
furnace, on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania (on the site of the
Durham Iron Works of Cooper & Hewitt), made its first blast in 1727. Mr.
Cooper himself was engaged in 1830 in the manufacture of charcoal iron
near Baltimore, and in 1836, together with his brother Thomas, he
operated a rolling-mill in New York (on Thirty-Third Street, near Third
Avenue). At this mill anthracite was used for puddling in 1840. In 1845
the business was removed to Trenton, N. J.; and in the new
rolling-mill--then the largest in the United States--built at Trenton
for the manufacture of rails, the first iron beams for buildings were
rolled in 1854. By the erection of blast furnaces at Phillipsburg and
Ringwood, N. J., and Durham, Pa., and the addition of wire mills, bridge
shop, chain shop, etc., to the works at Trenton, the purchase of iron
and coal lands, and the development of numerous mines, the firm of
Cooper & Hewitt achieved high rank among the ironmasters of America; and
the Iron and Steel Institute of Great Britain conferred upon Peter
Cooper in 1879 the "Bessemer gold medal" for his services in the
development of the American iron trade. In 1890 the same honor was given
to Mr. Abram S. Hewitt in recognition of the experiments at Phillipsburg
as early as 1856 to test the new invention of Bessemer, of his
introduction of the open-hearth steel process into the United States,
and of other services rendered to the steel industry,--in all of which
he may be said to have followed, with the advantages of a wider culture
and ampler means, the example set by Mr. Cooper.

One of the boldest yet wisest and most profitable operations of Mr.
Cooper was his investment in the Atlantic cable enterprise of Cyrus
Field. He was already past middle age when this audacious scheme began
to be dreamed of. In 1842 Morse had laid down an experimental cable from
Castle Garden to Governor's Island in New York harbor, and claimed as a
practical inference that a telegraphic communication on his plan could
"with certainty be established across the Atlantic."[2] In 1851 the
first cable was laid between France and England, and others rapidly
followed on ocean lines over short distances. The principle was thus
established, and the doubts as to its practical application to a line of
at least twenty-five hundred miles were of such a character as to seem
more serious to scientific men than to American capitalists of Mr.
Cooper's type. In March, 1854, the New York, Newfoundland, & London
Telegraph Company was organized, and Mr. Cooper became (and remained for
twenty trying years) its president. There was little difficulty in
raising the money for the eighty-five miles of cable which were to be
laid under the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or in obtaining from the British
colonies favorable charters granting exclusive privileges, land grants,
and even subsidies. Yet the construction of the land line across
Newfoundland to the terminus at Heart's Content proved difficult and
costly, and the St. Lawrence cable was lost in laying. Yet additional
capital was subscribed; and a couple of years later the Newfoundland
line, the St. Lawrence cable, and another submarine link of thirteen
miles across the Straits of Northumberland had been successfully
finished. Nothing remained to be done _except_ the procuring of means
and the devising of successful methods for the installation of the
Atlantic cable itself, without which all this preliminary expenditure
would have been thrown away.

The capital estimated as necessary for making and laying the cable was
raised by Mr. Field in England, where the Atlantic Telegraph Company was
formed to construct and operate the line under concessions from the
parent Newfoundland company. All classes in England felt a sentimental
interest in the romantic enterprise; and the subscribers to the new
stock included such men as Thackeray and others of equal note, outside
of business circles altogether.

The company proceeded with vigor,--secured from the governments of Great
Britain and the United States guaranties of subsidies and the free use
of ships for laying the cable; contracts for the cable and its
insulating covering were executed; and by the end of July, 1857, the
British Agamemnon and the American Niagara had each twelve hundred and
fifty miles of it on board. In August they connected the two halves of
it in mid-Atlantic, and in September the shore end was landed at Heart's

The sequel is familiar history. A few messages had been sent and
received, when the current grew weaker and weaker, and at last failed
entirely. The result was a strong reaction in popular sentiment. It was
even questioned whether any messages had actually crossed the Atlantic.
Fortunately this doubt could be conclusively disproved,--especially in
England, where it was known that the British government had wired by the
cable before its failure news of great political importance. The British
company indeed courageously proceeded to make another cable; but when
this parted in mid-ocean during the process of laying it even British
tenacity of purpose was daunted, and for some two years the enterprise
seemed to be dead. Meanwhile public opinion on this side was far more
unfavorable, and the parent company found itself without means or
credit. To retain its privileges it must pay additional money, and to
make those privileges worth anything capital must be raised for a third
attempt to lay the transatlantic line.

Without describing in detail the difficulties and anxieties of this
period, it may be said that the intelligent courage of Peter Cooper
saved the enterprise, while it secured to him a large pecuniary reward;
for he perceived that the real problem had been solved by the first
apparent failure; that the failure of a cable in use or the loss of a
cable in laying it were mere incidental misfortunes which more thorough
precautions and better luck would preclude; and he backed with his own
faith and money the undaunted enthusiasm and persuasive eloquence of Mr.
Field, whose expenses he paid for another journey to England, and who
succeeded at last in raising there the funds for the third and
successful attempt. Moreover Mr. Cooper upheld the credit of the
Newfoundland company, personally paying the drafts drawn upon it, and
taking its bonds as his security. It is too much to say that the
Atlantic cable would never have been laid, but there can be no doubt
that the enterprise would have been long suspended, without this timely
aid. The third cable was a success; the lost second was recovered and
made useful; and now the thing is easy which thus seemed so
problematical. If Peter Cooper received in the end a handsome sum from
this investment, who could grudge him the wealth so acquired?


[1] Many years after his wife's death, and shortly before his own, Mr.
Cooper dictated the following passage, which is almost the last in his

"Not only do I think of my wife during my waking moments; she often
comes to me in my dreams, sometimes once a week, sometimes once in two
weeks, and sometimes at longer intervals. It is one of the greatest
pleasures of my life that I can believe that she has been, and is now,
my guardian angel, and it is one of my happiest hopes that I shall see
that this our world is but the bud of a being that is to ripen and bear
its choicest fruits in another and a better."

[2] Letter of Morse to the Secretary of the Treasury in the autumn of



THE inventions projected, though in many instances not perfected or
successfully introduced, by Mr. Cooper constitute a long list and cover
a wide field. A few of them may be mentioned here, in addition to those
to which allusion has been made already. It will be seen that even those
which failed of commercial success generally contained the germs of
future mechanical progress, and bore witness to the extraordinary vigor
and versatility of his genius.

When the Erie Canal was approaching completion it occurred to Mr. Cooper
that canal boats might be propelled by the power of water drawn from a
higher level and moving a series of endless chains along the canal.
After some preliminary experiments he built a flat-bottomed scow,
arranged a water wheel to utilize the tidal current in the East River,
and actually achieved a trial trip of two miles and return, in which
Governor Clinton and other invited guests took part. The governor was so
well pleased that he paid Mr. Cooper eight hundred dollars for the first
chance to purchase the right of applying the method on the new canal.
But the scheme failed for the reason (as Mr. Cooper explained half a
century later) that the right of way for the Erie Canal had been secured
from the farmers of the State by representing to them the profit which
they would realize from selling forage, etc., for the use of canal
boats, which were to be drawn by horses or mules. The introduction of
mechanical power would destroy these inducements, and the plan was
abandoned,--though Mr. Cooper had demonstrated its feasibility by
running his endless chain on the East River for ten days and carrying
hundreds of passengers over the trial route. It is not likely that such
a use of water power on the Erie Canal would have proved practicable on
a large scale; but the endless chain, which Mr. Cooper apparently
considered as a minor feature only, has been adopted since, and lies at
the basis of the famous Belgian system of river and canal

In 1824 the wave of enthusiastic sympathy for the Greeks which swept
over the country upon receipt of the tidings of their revolt against
Turkish tyranny stimulated Mr. Cooper to invent a torpedo boat, to be
steered from the shore by "two steel wires, like the reins of a horse."
But on the trial trip of the boat a ship crossed and broke the wires
when about six of their total length of ten miles had been let out. The
delay made the invention too late for use by the Greeks, and it was not
further pursued.

About 1835 the subject of aerial navigation had in the United States one
of its periodical revivals. Mr. Cooper, believing that a motive power
developed from materials of small weight was essential to the solution
of the problem, resolved to employ the explosive force of chloride of
nitrogen,--one of the most dangerous compounds known to chemists. The
result of his experiments in this direction was an explosion which blew
his apparatus to pieces, and nearly cost the audacious inventor an eye.
In fact, though the organ was saved from total destruction, it was
permanently injured.

The conveyance of freight by aerial cables--a method now widely
used--was practiced by Mr. Cooper at an early day. The use of elevators
in buildings was foreseen and provided for by him in the erection of the
Cooper Union building, and in that building also he introduced for the
first time iron beams as part of a fire-proof construction. In these and
other inventions his prophetic intuitions were illustrated.

But such intuitions do not fully take the place of scientific training;
and one of the inventions of Peter Cooper--which he considered for many
years, and possibly to the very last, as his crowning achievement--was a
curious example of misdirected ingenuity. It is worthy of notice here,
however, for another reason, namely, because of its accidental
association with one of its inventor's most remarkable triumphs.

As a young apprentice he had studied the steam engine, and had resolved
that he would improve it by doing away with the crank. To his mind this
was a source of great loss of power, and he believed that, if he could
transform the rectilinear motion of the piston rod directly into rotary
motion without the intervention of the crank, he would effect a notable

Now, there is no such loss of power through the crank as he imagined,
nor is it likely that any other device for obtaining rotary from
rectilinear motion will be found superior to that which Watt devised.
But Peter Cooper assailed this fancied evil with undoubting confidence,
both as to its existence and as to his ability to do away with it. The
result was an invention for which he received, April 28, 1828, letters
patent of the United States. At that early day patents were
comparatively few,--so few that this one bears no number; and the duties
of general administration did not prevent the highest officials from
attending to details. This patent, issued to Peter Cooper, of New York,
was personally signed by John Quincy Adams, President; countersigned by
Henry Clay, Secretary of State; transmitted to William Wirt,
Attorney-General; examined, approved, and signed by him, and returned to
the Department of State for final delivery to the patentee. It grants
for fourteen years to the said Peter Cooper, his heirs, administrators,
and assignees the exclusive right to make, use, or license others to
use, the described improvement in the method of effecting rotary motion
directly from the alternate rectilinear motion of a steam piston.
Evidently these distinguished statesmen--Adams, Clay, and Wirt--were not
experts in mechanics, or at least did not undertake to hinder by
technical criticism the experiments of American ambition; and there was
no trained corps of patent-examiners to decide upon the novelty,
practicability, and usefulness of any proposed improvement in the arts.
Probably the government shared at that time the dominant American
feeling of unconquerable youth, ready to attack all problems, especially
those which previous experience had pronounced insoluble, and to
determine the impossible by attempting it. This spirit has in fact more
or less dominated the United States Patent Office down to the present
time. With all its present equipment of examiners, trained in theory and
versed in technical literature, it still concerns itself chiefly in the
consideration of a proposed invention with the question of novelty,
rather than that of feasibility or value; and the effect has been that,
while thousands of patents are granted for absurd, unnecessary, or
inoperative devices, the net result of the encouragement thus given to
individual ingenuity and audacity is a catalogue of great inventions
unmatched in the history of any other nation.

The patent of Peter Cooper, which now lies before me,--a time-stained
parchment bearing the great seal of the United States and the autographs
of the famous men named above,--is accompanied by no drawings; but it
contains a detailed specification which shows that the invention
consisted in an arrangement by which, at each forward movement, a
prolongation of the piston rod clawed into an endless chain, which was
pulled back by the return stroke. This chain passed around a wheel, to
which it consequently imparted a rotary motion.

Engineers do not need to be told that this cumbrous arrangement could
not successfully replace the crank, even if such a replacement were
desirable. Yet the inventor constructed a working-machine, and satisfied
himself, by a "duty trial" of some sort, that it "saved two fifths of
the steam." His discovery, however, was not hailed with immediate
recognition by the mechanical public; and its author, undisturbed in his
faith, bided his time.

This, by the way, points to a characteristic of Peter Cooper,
differentiating him from the numerous enthusiasts whom prudent men are
accustomed to avoid. He was not a man "of one idea." His fertile and
ingenious mind threw out its suggestions in every direction, into fields
untrodden by experience; but when any such plan failed of acceptance, he
turned, with undiminished courage and hope, to something else,
remaining, nevertheless, still steadfast in his former conception, and
ready to seize any opportunity for its realization.

Thus it came to pass that Mr. Cooper's abortive improvement upon the
steam engine was the source of his fame as the builder of the first
American locomotive, as the following chapter will explain.



IN the specification of the patent secured in 1828 by Mr. Cooper for an
improved steam engine, he took pains to declare the suitability of his
invention as a motor for "land carriages." No doubt he had heard of
Stephenson's "Rocket," if not of the engine built by Blenkinsop in 1813,
the sight of which in operation caused Stephenson to resolve that he
would "make a better." The famous competitive trial of the Rocket, the
Novelty, the Sanspareil, and the Perseverance, on a two-mile section of
the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad, took place in October, 1827, at
which time Peter Cooper must have been perfecting the application for
his patent.

But other circumstances played their part in the result which we are
about to consider. Some time before 1830 Mr. Cooper had been drawn into
a land speculation at Canton, in the suburbs of Baltimore. Failing of
support from his partners, he had been obliged to buy them out, and to
assume the whole burden of the enterprise. Just at that time there was
great popular expectation of the future importance of Baltimore. A
little earlier, there had been general despair among the merchants of
that city. New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were seeking the trade
of the region beyond the Alleghanies,--then "the West," but now the
centre of the population of the United States. New York flanked the
mountains with her Erie Canal; Philadelphia got at last a practicable,
though less satisfactory, water line; but Baltimore, though nearest of
all to the longed-for market, found, through careful examination by
eminent engineers, that no canal was practicable for her, at a cost
within her means. In 1824 and 1825 the consequent general despondency
concerning the future of the city was so strong that Baltimore
merchants began to move to New York and Philadelphia.[3]

But at this period the world began to hear of railways. A well-known
merchant of Baltimore, returning from England, described with enthusiasm
the coal trains, drawn by the cumbrous ante-Stephenson engines, which he
had seen there. The idea of a tramway (with or without steam motors)
found ready acceptance in a community both enterprising and desperate. A
town meeting, held in 1826, to consider Western communications, resulted
in an application to the Maryland legislature, and the incorporation, in
March, 1827, of the Baltimore and Ohio,--the first railroad company thus
created in the United States for purposes of general transportation,--the
leader of that vast multitude of similar enterprises, the history of
which is the history of our nation's marvelous commercial progress. By
the legislative charter, the city of Baltimore and the State of Maryland
were authorized to subscribe to the company's stock.

In the address already cited, Mr. Latrobe, an eye-witness, says of the
scenes which followed:--

"Then came a scene which almost beggars description. By this time,
public excitement had gone beyond fever heat and reached the boiling
point. Everybody wanted stock. The number of shares subscribed were to
be apportioned, if the limit of the capital should be exceeded; and
every one set about obtaining proxies. Parents subscribed in the names
of their children, and paid the dollar on each share that the rules
prescribed. Before even a survey had been made, the possession of stock
in any quantity was regarded as a provision for old age; and great was
the scramble to obtain it. The excitement in Baltimore roused public
attention elsewhere; and a railroad mania began to pervade the land."

The proposed railroad was to pass through Mr. Cooper's Canton property,
which he had already begun to develop, "so that it should pay the
taxes," by building upon it charcoal kilns, after a design of his own,
with the purpose of turning the forest into charcoal, and, by means of
this fuel, smelting the iron ore which the land contained. What was the
immediate commercial outcome of this enterprise is not recorded. Mr.
Cooper's characteristic recollection, more than sixty years later, was
that, "with the exception of a dangerous explosion," which nearly cost
him his life, the charcoal kilns were "a great success!"

But the great value of the property was expected to be realized through
the new railroad; and this expectation suffered a serious blow when the
horse cars failed to pay expenses; the operation of the line was
suspended; the directors lost faith in the enterprise; and many of the
principal stockholders declared that they would rather lose the
investment made so far than "throw good money after bad." For the hope
that the new agency of steam might help them out was blighted by the
news from England that Stephenson had said that steam could not be used
as a motive power on a road having curves of less than 900 feet radius;
and this road had, at Point of Rocks, a necessary curve with a radius of
only 150 feet!

The situation presented exactly the sort of challenge calculated to
arouse the courage and ingenuity of Peter Cooper, besides appealing to
another of his personal characteristics, namely, his undying and
unalterable faith in his own ideas and conclusions, whether they had
achieved recognition or not. He could lay aside a scheme which had not
found immediate and successful application, and turn his attention, with
undiminished vivacity, to something else; but he never owned to a real
defeat. And now the problem presented at Baltimore seemed to him a
providential call for his intervention. If the English engineers could
not run their locomotives around sharp curves, it must be because they
persisted in using the vicious crank, which he had already superseded by
his (temporarily unappreciated) invention! And, with unshaken faith in
that device, he informed the Baltimore and Ohio directors (to use the
words in which, long afterwards, he told the story) that he thought he
"could knock together a locomotive which would get a train around the
Point of Rocks."

It is a curious circumstance that, ever since that day, the
characteristic difference between English and American locomotives has
been the ability of the latter to pass curves of shorter radius than the
former can safely follow. The reason, as all railway engineers know, is
that the usual English construction involves a rigid frame, while the
American has a movable truck or "bogie" under the front part of the
engine. This solution of the problem was not reached by Mr. Cooper. What
he, in fact, accomplished was simply a piece of audacity, which
encouraged the enterprise of his countrymen, by proving that the dictum
of limited experience abroad was not conclusive. Two features of his
Baltimore experiment were characteristic of him. The first was that he
undertook it, not merely in order to vindicate his invention, but to
effect a practical result, namely, to make his land speculation pay. And
the second was that when he found it difficult to operate his pet
invention in this experiment, he laid it aside at once,--without losing
an atom of faith in it, but also without persisting (as a typical
enthusiast would have done) in risking upon the vindication of his
personal opinion in one matter the success of another undertaking, more
immediately important.

Mr. Cooper's own recollection of this event deserves to be told in his
own words. He says:[4]--

"I came back to New York for a little bit of a brass engine of
mine--about one horse power (it had a 3½ in. cylinder and 14 in.
stroke)--and carried it back to Baltimore. I got some boiler iron and
made a boiler about as high as an ordinary wash boiler; and then how to
connect the boiler with the engine I didn't know. I couldn't find any
iron pipes. The fact was that there were none for sale in this country.
So I took two muskets, broke off the wooden parts, and used the barrels
for tubing, one on one side and the other on the other side of the
boiler. I went into a coach-maker's shop and made this locomotive, which
I called the Tom Thumb, because it was so insignificant. I didn't intend
it for actual service, but only to show the directors what could be
done. I meant to test two things: first, I meant to show that short
turns could be made; and secondly, that I could get rotary motion
without the use of a crank. I effected both of these things very nicely.
I changed the movement from a reciprocating to a rotary motion.

"I got up steam one Saturday night. The president of the road and two or
three other gentlemen were there. We got on the truck and went out two
or three miles. All were delighted; for it opened new possibilities for
the railroad. I put up the locomotive for the night in a shed, and
invited the company to ride to Ellicott's Mills on Monday. Monday
morning, what was my chagrin to find that some scamp had been there,
and chopped off all the copper from the engine,--doubtless in order to
sell it to some junk dealer!

"It took me a week or more to repair the machine; then some one got in
and broke a piece out of the wheel, in experimenting with it; and then
two wheels, cast one after the other, were damaged by the carelessness
of the turner. I was thoroughly disgusted and discouraged; but, being
determined that I would not be balked entirely, I changed the engine so
that the power could be applied through the ordinary connection with a

"At last all was ready; and, on a Monday, we started,--six in the
engine, and thirty-six on the car which I took in tow. We went up an
average grade of eighteen feet to the mile; made the thirteen miles to
Ellicott's Mills in one hour and twelve minutes; and came back in
fifty-seven minutes. The result of that experiment was that the bonds
of the railroad company were sold at once, and there was no longer any
doubt as to the success of the road."

The Tom Thumb continued for several weeks to make trips to Ellicott's
Mills; and on one occasion (September 18, 1830) ran a race from Riley
House into Baltimore (about nine miles) with a light car, drawn on a
parallel track by a gray horse noted for speed and endurance. The
contest was planned by the stagecoach proprietors of Baltimore, with the
view of demonstrating that nothing could be gained by the substitution
of steam for horse power on the railroad. The gray horse won the race,
but not until after the Tom Thumb had passed him, and only by reason of
a temporary breakdown of the machine, which caused a delay too great to
be subsequently made up. Mr. Cooper's characteristic recollection of the
event, as given fifty-five years later, was that "they tried a little
race one day, but it didn't amount to anything. It was rather funny; and
the locomotive got out of gear."

Mr. Latrobe says of the Tom Thumb:--

"The machine was not larger than the hand cars used by workmen to
transfer themselves from place to place; and as the speaker now recalls
its appearance, the only wonder is that so apparently insignificant a
contrivance should ever have been regarded as competent to the smallest
results. But Mr. Cooper was wiser than many of the wisest around him.
His engine could not have weighed a ton; but he saw in it a principle
which the forty-ton engines of to-day have but served to develop and
demonstrate. The boiler of Mr. Cooper's engine was not as large as the
kitchen boiler attached to many a range in modern mansions. It was of
about the same diameter, but not much more than half as high. It stood
upright in the car, and was filled above the furnace, which occupied the
lower section, with vertical tubes. The cylinder was but three and one
half inches in diameter; and speed was got up by gearing. No natural
draft could have been sufficient to get up steam in so small a boiler;
and Mr. Cooper used, therefore, 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. The contrivance
for dispensing with a crank, though its general appearance is
recollected, the speaker cannot describe with any accuracy; nor is it
important,--it came to nothing. . . .

"In a patent case, tried many years afterwards, the boiler of Mr.
Cooper's engine became, in some connection which has been forgotten,
important as a piece of evidence. It was hunted for, and found among
some old rubbish at Mount Clare. It was difficult to imagine that it had
even generated steam enough to drive a coffee mill, much less that it
had performed the feats here narrated."

After this experimental demonstration, the Tom Thumb retired into
honorable but obscure repose in its maker's warehouse at New York, from
which it emerged, fifty years later, to take part in the centennial
celebration of the beginning of the commercial history of Baltimore
(that place having been made a port of entry in 1780). According to a
contemporary report of the festival, "in the vast procession, Mr. Cooper
and his little Tom Thumb locomotive were the two most conspicuous
objects, and received all the honors which could be paid by a quarter of
a million of enthusiastic people."


[3] These and other statements in this chapter are taken from a lecture,
delivered March 23, 1868, before the Maryland Institute, by Hon. J. H.
B. Latrobe, giving his personal recollections of the early history of
the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

[4] Manuscript of his _Reminiscences_.

[5] This was the sacrifice of a favorite invention to immediate
practical considerations, which has been mentioned above as an instance
of Mr. Cooper's common sense.



PETER COOPER'S acquaintance with the affairs of New York city ranged
from the time when, as a child, he was taken by his mother to see the
last remaining fragments of the stockade erected by the early
inhabitants for protection against the Indians, to the full metropolitan
glory of the decade of his death. This wonderful municipal history is
too commonly regarded from a special standpoint, as if it were but the
record of a continually renewed and often unsuccessful struggle against
corrupt and incompetent city government. Contests of this kind, under
democratic institutions, always occupy more space in the press, and make
more noise in public oratory, than the quiet but steady progress of
commercial undertakings, and the labors of unselfish citizens for
education, art, and social improvement, which go on beneath the
turbulent surface. Americans have long suffered under the unjust
imputation of peculiar devotion to "the almighty dollar." The fact is
that in no other country do individuals give so much or do so much
without pecuniary reward--whether for personal friendship or for public
spirit--as in the United States. The munificence of private benefactions
and endowments, far surpassing the government support given in other
nations to similar institutions, furnish an abundant proof of the first
half of this proposition; while the other half is proved by the
innumerable boards, committees, and other organized bodies, to which
active business men give time and thought without remuneration.

This spirit has never been wholly missed in public affairs, even in the
city of New York, so often charged with the lack of it. All the great
features of its municipal progress, even those which have been, at some
stage, tainted with lamentable corruption, have been originated or
supported by unselfish public spirit. It might even be said that
without this support, innocently given and deceitfully misused, the
schemers for private gain could not have achieved their periodical and
temporary successes.

Peter Cooper was an illustrious example of good citizenship in this
respect. First elected to public office as "assistant alderman," in
1828, he turned his attention immediately upon the subject most
important to the growth and welfare of a city, yet most likely to be
neglected until it is forced upon the community as an unwelcome
necessity,--namely, the water supply. Up to that time, New York had
depended upon the springs of Manhattan Island, some of which supplied
water, conveyed through the streets by means of wooden pipes (bored
logs), while most of them were utilized by means of pumps only, to which
the inhabitants sent for their supply.[6]

Mr. Cooper induced the water committee, of which he had been appointed a
member, to visit Philadelphia and inspect the works by which the water
of the Schuylkill was raised to a high reservoir, and thence distributed
in iron pipes throughout that city, and then to examine the Croton and
Bronx rivers, for the purpose of ascertaining what these streams could
supply. The season being dry, the rivers were so low that Mr. Cooper was
not satisfied of their capacity to furnish the needed quantity; so he
investigated further, on his own account, the watershed (then a
wilderness) of the Hackensack River in New Jersey, and subsequently
submitted to the board of aldermen plans and models, illustrating a
scheme for the supply of water to New York from that region, by means of
pipes laid under the North River.

To the end of his life, Mr. Cooper adhered to his preference for this
method of conveying water across river channels, as compared with
elevated aqueducts, like the "high bridge" subsequently constructed
across the Harlem River. And in this particular, his intuitive
engineer's judgment was not at fault, although the classic example of
the Romans, who spent untold labor and time in building aqueducts, where
buried conduits would have been both cheaper and better, still dominated
the professional world. But Peter Cooper furnished another example of
his practical wisdom, by sacrificing his superior theory for the sake of
the useful result contemplated. Thorough study showed that, although the
Croton region could not be relied upon at all times for an immediately
adequate water supply, yet its average through the year was sufficient
for the purpose, so that the creation, by means of higher dams, of
large storage reservoirs, would solve the pressing problem. This plan
was ultimately adopted, and has been pursued with suitable enlargements,
ever since. Peter Cooper was made chairman of the water committee,--a
position which he retained until some years after the Croton system was

In the procurement of iron pipes for the system of distribution, and
their proper testing before acceptance, his integrity and intelligence
were specially effective in protecting the interests of the city, by
securing the best material at the lowest cost. While Mr. Cooper was a
strong "protectionist," favoring the encouragement of American
industries, he never recognized any distinctions among Americans. In his
patriotic thought, the unit to be regarded was not the city or the State
of New York, but the United States of America; and he earnestly opposed
the contention of the New York iron founders, that contracts for the
pipe of the Croton system ought not to be made with inhabitants of
another State. His arguments prevailed; and the pipe was ordered from a
Philadelphia manufacturer, who offered a better article at a lower

During Mr. Cooper's official service, and not without his active aid and
advice (though his personal attention was mainly given to the water
department), the beginnings of an organized police and fire service were
established. When he was first elected to office the city was guarded by
watchmen, who served four hours every night for seventy-five cents.
Every householder was expected to have leathern buckets in his hall, and
in case of an alarm of fire to throw them into the street, so that the
citizens voluntarily running to the rescue could form a line to the
nearest pump, and, passing the water by means of the buckets, supply the
tank of the small hand-engine, which then squirted it upon the burning
building. It is needless to detail here the steps by which out of this
crude beginning the present effective New York Fire Department has been
perfected. Suffice it to say that the beginning itself was promoted,
and its future importance was foreseen, by Peter Cooper and his
public-spirited colleagues.

But a still more profoundly important element of municipal and national
progress, in which the participation of Peter Cooper was active and
influential, was the free public school system in New York. This system
was originally planted by the great mayor and governor, De Witt Clinton,
to whom the State is indebted for the Erie Canal, and for many other
plans and impulses scarcely less significant. While Clinton was an
advocate of universal suffrage, he perceived the danger of granting this
power to an ignorant and largely foreign population; and in 1805 he
secured a charter for "The Society for Establishing a Free School in the
City of New York for the Education of Such Poor Children as do not
Belong to, or are not Provided for by, Any Religious Society."

The appeal of this society to "the affluent and charitable of every
denomination of Christians" was liberally answered, and by December,
1809, a school capable of accommodating five hundred children had been
erected upon a purchased site. This was the beginning in New York city
of the free school system, over which for twenty-five years De Witt
Clinton presided. During that period the schools, supported by generous
private contributions, and also after a while by a state tax, steadily
increased in number, efficiency, and public favor. Peter Cooper had been
always a zealous supporter of these schools, but not until 1838 did he
become--by election as a trustee of the Free School Society--officially
connected with them. It was a critical period in their history. The
original national debt of the Union had been recently extinguished, and
a considerable surplus had been returned to the contributing States, of
which New York devoted its share to educational purposes, thus largely
increasing the fund for the city. In 1822, sixteen years before, the
common council had made the free schools "unsectarian," excluding from
the benefits of the fund all institutions of denominational character.
The various sects had submitted reluctantly to this decision so long as
the fund was too small to be divided among them; but its sudden
enlargement encouraged an attempt to secure appropriations for parochial

In his first annual message Governor Seward recommended to the
legislature the establishment of schools in which the children of
foreigners might be "instructed by teachers speaking the same language
with themselves and professing the same faith." The Roman Catholic
community, acting at once upon this suggestion, sent a deputation to the
New York common council demanding for their schools "a pro rata share"
of the educational fund, to which as taxpayers they contributed.

In the resistance made to this claim by the Free School Society Mr.
Cooper took a prominent and ardent part. The advocates of unsectarian
public schools were victorious; but the controversy continued to agitate
the State until the passage by the legislature in 1842 of an act
establishing in New York city a new board of education to control the
schools supported from the funds of the State, and at the same time
forbidding the support from this fund of schools in which "any religious
sectarian doctrine or tenet shall be taught, inculcated, or practiced."
The Free School Society, resenting and distrusting this new (and in some
respects complicated) arrangement, continued its separate activity for
eleven years; but in 1853, the unsectarian character of the public
schools of New York having been established beyond question, the society
and the board of education were by common consent amalgamated by
statute. At the final meeting of the society Peter Cooper delivered the
valedictory address, the language of which indicates that not without
apprehension did he contemplate the surrender of the public schools to
the exclusive control of a body of officials likely to be more or less
influenced by partisan or political considerations.

Yet his characteristic common sense came again in this instance to the
front. The moral which he drew from his doubts and fears was that "the
stewardship we are about to resign is not a reprieve from the
responsibilities of the future." And in obedience to this conviction he
accepted, with fourteen of his old colleagues, membership in the board
of education, of which he served for two years as vice-president,
resigning in January, 1855, at which time he had formed and begun to
carry out the great plan of an institution for free popular education
with which his name is now forever associated.

Many years later Mr. Cooper became the president of the Citizens'
Association of New York, which he supported with untiring enthusiasm and
lavish expenditure, and which in its day did good work in securing for
the city an efficient fire department, boards of health, docks, and
education, and an improved charter. Mr. Cooper retired in 1873, and the
association died soon after, to be revived in other organizations, which
have from time to time continued the perennial battle for good
government in New York begun by him.


[6] A curious survival of this state of things is the Manhattan Company,
which secured from the legislature a perpetual charter, so skillfully
framed (by Aaron Burr) that, although it grants much more extensive
powers than could now be obtained by a corporation, it cannot be
successfully assailed so long as the fundamental condition is
fulfilled,--namely, that the company shall be prepared to furnish water
at all times, on demand. It is said that, in compliance with this
requirement, a small steam pump is kept continually running, in
connection with a short system of pipes, somewhere near the City Hall,
and that the company stands ready to furnish water to any
applicant--only, the charter does not fix the price which it may exact!
So far as I know, the only use now made of the extensive powers granted
by this famous charter is the maintenance of the Manhattan Bank. A few
years ago, excavations in lower Broadway brought to light bored logs,
which were supposed to be relics of the old "Manhattan" system.



IN many respects the industrial conditions under which Peter Cooper
began his career had been revolutionized before he finished it. The
apprentice system has well-nigh passed away; and the old freedom with
which an intelligent, industrious, and ambitious young man could turn
from one occupation to another, seeking that road which offered greatest
promise of preferment, is greatly hampered by the modern regime of
"organized labor," which, whatever its advantages, presents its own
peculiar perils for the workingman. But it remains forever true that
under either of these systems, or any others that can be evolved or
invented, knowledge is power, and the bestowal of it is the one gift
which neither pauperizes the recipient nor injures the community.

As a struggling young apprentice, Peter Cooper regarded with intense
sympathy the needs and limitations of the class to which he belonged.
But his notion of a remedy was not that of paternal legislation, or
belligerent organization, or social reconstruction. To his conception
the atmosphere of personal liberty and responsibility furnished by the
new democratic republic, offering free scope to individual endeavor and
rewarding individual merit, was the best that could be asked.

What he dreamed of doing was simply to assist these social conditions by
providing for those who were handicapped by circumstances the means of
power and opportunity, to be utilized by their own assiduity. This plan
included not only what he then thought to be the most effective system
for intellectual improvement, but also provision for such innocent
entertainment as would supersede the grosser forms of recreation, which
involved the waste of money and health.

Walking up the Bowery Road--then the stage route to Boston, but now a
crowded down-town street--he selected in the suburbs of the city the
site for his great institution; and, as he accumulated the necessary
funds, he bought at intervals lot after lot at the intersection of Third
and Fourth Avenues, until he had acquired the entire block, paying for
his latest purchases (made after the neighborhood had been solidly built
up and had become a centre of business) very high prices compared with
those he had paid at the beginning. At last (in 1854) he commenced the
erection of a six-story fire-proof building of stone, brick, and iron.
This work occupied several years, and during its progress a period of
great financial distress threatened to interrupt it. But he persisted in
the undertaking, at great risk to his private business; and the building
was finished at a cost (including that of the land) of more than six
hundred and thirty thousand dollars. Subsequent gifts from Mr. Cooper,
together with the legacy provided by his will, and doubled by his heirs,
and still later donations from his family and immediate relatives, make
up a total of more than double that amount.[7]

Up to the time when the building was completed Mr. Cooper had taken
little advice as to the details of his project. Its outlines in his mind
were those which he had conceived a quarter-century before, and though
he was doubtless conscious that new social and industrial conditions had
intervened which would require some modifications of his plan, he had
not formulated such changes.

The classes which he wished especially to reach were those who, being
already engaged in earning a living by labor, could scarcely be expected
to take regular courses in instruction; and the idea of such instruction
appears to have been at the beginning subordinate in his mind. He had a
strong impression that young mechanics and apprentices, instead of
wasting their time in dissipation, should improve their minds during the
intervals of labor; and not unnaturally his first thought as to the
means of such improvement turned to those things which had aroused and
stimulated his own mind. Probably he did not realize that the mass of
men were not like himself, and that something more than mere suggestion
or opportunity would be required to develop the mental powers and
enlarge the knowledge of the average workingman. However that may be,
the original vague design of Mr. Cooper was something like this:--

There was in the city of New York a famous collection of curiosities
known as Scudder's Museum. Barnum's Museum afterwards took its place;
but that, too, has long since disappeared; and the small so-called
museums now scattered through the city but faintly remind old
inhabitants of the glories of Scudder's or Barnum's in their prime.
These establishments contained all sorts of curiosities, arranged
without much reference to scientific use,--wax-works, historical relics,
dwarfs, giants, living and stuffed animals, etc. There was also a
lecture-room, devoted principally to moral melodrama; and on an upper
floor a large room was occupied by the cosmorama,--an exhibition of
pictures, usually of noteworthy scenery, foreign cities, etc., which
were looked at through round holes, enhancing the effect of their

Peter Cooper doubtless often lingered in these museums, receiving the
inspiration which came from visions of a world much wider than his
individual horizon, from the curious and wonderful works of nature, and
from the works of man in former times and in foreign lands. From the
queer mechanical devices exhibited by inventors to the "Happy Family"
and the cosmorama, everything was full to his quick sympathy of
intellectual, moral, or sentimental suggestion; and no doubt he felt,
after an hour of such combined wonder and reflection, a satisfying sense
of time well spent.

He wished that this means of mental improvement and recreation combined
might be freely afforded to those whose scanty earnings would not permit
them otherwise to make frequent use of it, and he resolved that the
museum and the cosmorama should be included in his institution.

Another agency of which Mr. Cooper had made fruitful use, and the
efficacy of which he highly appreciated, was conversation and debate. If
people could be brought together and made to talk he thought they would
learn a great deal from each other. In this he had undoubtedly grasped
one of the great principles of progress. To meet and interchange our
ideas of books and by personal discussions is indeed the mightiest
factor of modern improvement. But the mere meeting to talk _about_
things unless it is combined with the disposition and the apparatus for
_studying_ things is but barter without production, and may degenerate
to a barren exchange of words, as unprofitable as that described in the
Yankee proverb, "swapping jackknives in a garret." This aspect of the
truth Mr. Cooper doubtless came to appreciate; but at the outset,
habituated as he was to get ideas from everybody he met and everything
he saw, it seemed to him that free discussions would be an unmixed
benefit to all, and he resolved that his institution should contain
rooms, devoted to the several handicrafts, where the practitioners of
each could meet and "exchange views."

It was also his intention that the lower part of the building he erected
should be occupied by stores and offices, the annual rent of which
should pay the running expenses of the institution. In the course of
time the Cooper Union came to need for full efficiency both more money
than this source would supply and more room than was left to it after
subtracting the rooms thus rented. These needs have now been met in some
measure by further endowments, so that before long the whole building
will be devoted to educational uses. But the wisdom, at that time, of
Mr. Cooper's plan has been vindicated by the great work done with the
modest means thus provided.

The building of the Cooper Union represented his original ideas. Above
the shops and offices to be rented was an immense room intended for the
museum. A large part of the building was cut up into small meeting-rooms
for the conferences of the trades; in an upper story another great room
was provided for the cosmorama; and the flat roof was to be safely
inclosed with a balustrade, so that on pleasant days or evenings the
frequenters of the institution might sit or promenade there, partake of
harmless refreshments, listen to agreeable music,[8] and enjoy the
magnificent prospect of the city below,--the heights beyond the East
River on one side, the Hudson on the other, and the magnificent
island-studded harbor.

A noteworthy feature of this scheme was the complete obliteration of all
distinctions of class, creed, race, or sex among its beneficiaries. It
is a significant fact that through nearly half a century, while these
distinctions have been the subjects of vehement and sometimes bitter
social and political discussion, the Cooper Union has gone quietly on
educating its thousands of pupils without the least embarrassment in its
discipline, and apparently without even the consciousness on the part of
its founder or its trustees that in this perfect solution of what was
supposed to be a difficult problem they had accomplished anything

When Mr. Cooper, consulting with wise and practical advisers, addressed
himself at last to the final arrangement of details, he surrendered one
after another many parts of his youthful design. The name, "The Cooper
Union for the Advancement of Science and Art," epitomized this change.
His primary purpose was unchanged; but he perceived that systematic
education would be of more value to the class he sought to aid than mere
amusement or miscellaneous talk. The great free reading-room of the
Cooper Union was substituted for the museum; the conversation parlors
for the various trades became class-rooms for instruction; the cosmorama
yielded to lecture-halls and laboratories; and the roof was abandoned to
the weather. To all these changes, and to many other novelties adopted
afterwards, Mr. Cooper was reconciled by one conclusive argument;
namely, the proof afforded by their results that the Cooper Union was
giving to the working classes that which they needed most and most
desired. Now and then perhaps a sigh might escape him for the dream of
his youth. I remember one occasion when I accompanied him to the roof of
the building, where some new construction was going on which he wished
to inspect. The old man stood for some time admiring the view in all
directions, and at last, recalling how he had once imagined happy crowds
enjoying the delights of that "roof-garden," and casting a mournful
glance at the central spot where the band was to have been, he said,
"Sometimes I think my first plan was the best!"[9] But such regrets did
not occupy his mind. He was satisfied to know that the institution he
had founded, building better than he knew, had proved its fitness by its
success in the eager and grateful use made of it by those for whose
benefit it was intended and in the actual evidences of such benefit.
Every year managers of the different departments took pains to report to
him instances in which students already earning wages had increased
their earnings through the added knowledge or skill acquired in the
evening classes; and this was the feature of the annual statements upon
which he dwelt with the greatest satisfaction.

The charter of the Cooper Union was finally adopted in its present form
by the legislature of the State of New York, April 13, 1859; and the
deed of trust, executed in compliance therewith, on the 29th day of the
same month, by Peter Cooper and his wife, Sarah, conveyed to the board
of trustees the title to "all that piece and parcel of land bounded on
the west by Fourth Avenue, on the north by Astor Place, on the east by
Third Avenue, and on the south by Seventh Street, . . . to be forever
devoted to the advancement of science and art, in their application to
the varied and useful purposes of life."

Even through this dry legal phraseology, it is not difficult to discern
the frank and simple joy of the patient enthusiast, who was at last able
to speak of the land which he had laboriously acquired, lot by lot,
through many years, and the building which he had raised, stone by
stone, through many more, as _one_ "piece or parcel," his to dedicate

The delivery of this deed to the board of trustees was accompanied with
a long letter, setting forth the wishes, hopes, and plans of the
grantor, in the formal and diffuse rhetoric peculiar to his generation,
and, perhaps, too much contemned by ours. To say the least, we are no
more warranted in despising the utterances of noble, self-sacrificing
philanthropists, because they are clothed in phrases now deemed verbose
and stilted, than we would be in disparaging the deeds of historic
heroes, because they wore armor now antiquated and struck their doughty
blows with weapons obsolete. When Peter Cooper wrote, in the letter now
before me, "The great object I desire to accomplish by the establishment
of an institution devoted to the advancement of science and art is to
open the volume of nature by the light of truth--so unveiling the laws
and methods of Deity that the young may see the beauties of creation,
enjoy its blessings, and learn to love the Being 'from whom cometh every
good and perfect gift,'"--he was not guilty of cant, because cant is the
use of language expressing an emotion which the user does not really
feel. And the same may be said of the elaborate additional exposition,
contained in this letter, of the writer's faith in God and man, and of
his confident hope in the future of his race, and particularly of his

The letter shows some traces still of his original plan. Thus, he

"In order most effectually to aid and encourage the efforts of youth to
obtain useful knowledge, I have provided the main floor of the large
hall on the third story for a reading-room, literary exchange, and
scientific collections--the walls around that floor to be arranged for
the reception of books, maps, paintings, and other objects of interest.
And when a sufficient collection of the works of art, science, and
nature can be obtained, I propose that glass cases shall be arranged
around the walls of the gallery of the said room, forming alcoves around
the entire floor for the preservation of the same. In the window spaces
I propose to arrange such cosmoramic and other views as will exhibit in
the clearest and most forcible light the true philosophy of life."

Other characteristic paragraphs are here quoted,--the whole letter being
too long for full republication.

"To manifest the deep interest and sympathy I feel in all that can
advance the happiness and better the condition of the female portion of
the community, and especially of those who are dependent on honest labor
for support, I desire the trustees to appropriate two hundred and fifty
dollars yearly to assist such pupils of the female school of design as
shall, in their careful judgment, by their efforts and sacrifices in the
performance of duty to parents or to those that Providence has made
dependent on them for support, merit and require such aid. My reason for
this requirement is not so much to reward as to encourage the exercise
of heroic virtues that often shine in the midst of the greatest
suffering and obscurity without so much as being noticed by the passing

"In order to better the condition of women and to widen the sphere of
female employment, I have provided seven rooms to be forever devoted to
a female school of design, and I desire the trustees to appropriate out
of the rents of the building fifteen hundred dollars annually towards
meeting the expenses of said school.

"It is the ardent wish of my heart that this school of design may be the
means of raising to competence and comfort thousands of those that might
otherwise struggle through a life of poverty and suffering. . . .

"Desiring, as I do, to use every means to render this institution useful
through all coming time, and believing that editors of the public press
have it in their power to exert a greater influence on the community for
good than any other class of men of equal number, it is therefore my
sincere desire that editors be earnestly invited to become members of
the society of arts to be connected with this institution. . . .

"It is my desire, also, that the students shall have the use of one of
the large rooms (to be assigned by the trustees) for the purpose of
useful debates. I desire and deem it best to direct that all these
lectures and debates shall be exclusive of theological and party
questions, and shall have for their constant object the causes that
operate around and within us, and the means necessary and most
appropriate to remove the physical and moral evils that afflict our
city, our country, and humanity." . . .

Other paragraphs indicate his plan that the students shall, in the first
instance, frame the rules which shall control the discipline of the
institution. Thus he says:--

"It is my desire, and I hereby ordain, that a strict conformity to rules
deliberately formed by a vote of the majority of the students, and
approved by the trustees, shall forever be an indispensable requisite
for continuing to enjoy the benefits of this institution. I now most
earnestly entreat each and every one of the students of this
institution, through all coming time, to whom I have intrusted this
great responsibility of framing laws for the regulation of their conduct
in their connection with the institution, and by which any of the
members may lose its privileges, to remember how frail we are, and how
liable to err when we come to sit in judgment on the faults of others,
and how much the circumstances of our birth, our education, and the
society and country where we have been born and brought up, have had to
do in forming us and making us what we are."

In this scheme Mr. Cooper anticipated the plan of self-government now
followed in some of our colleges; and while he expected too much of the
students of the Cooper Union, and was himself afterwards obliged to
consent to the restriction of their autonomy, it may be fairly said that
the spirit of his hope and exhortation has never ceased to be felt; and,
to the great honor of the Cooper Union, it may be recorded that
questions of discipline have been well-nigh unknown within its walls.

This noble trust was accepted by a body of men who have discharged it
with unwearied fidelity, zeal and wisdom. The original board consisted
of Mr. Cooper, his son Edward Cooper, his son-in-law Abram S. Hewitt,
and John E. Parsons, Wilson G. Hunt, and Daniel F. Tiemann. Three of
these, Messrs. Cooper, Hewitt, and Tiemann, have been mayors of the city
of New York. All of them were well-known and eminent citizens, burdened
with the duties of active business; and the time they gave so freely to
the management of the Cooper Union was not the superfluity of leisure.
The difficulty with "business men" too often is, that, when nominally
charged with the administration of organized charities, they slight the
work because they have not time to attend to it. But the United States
can show not a few instances in which the affairs of religious,
educational, or benevolent institutions are carefully managed by the
active directors of great private enterprises; and their management,
when it is thus thorough, is generally much better than that of literary
or philanthropic amateurs. This is conspicuously shown in the history of
the Cooper Union.[10]

This is not the place for a detailed account of the development of the
Cooper Union, or even of its present scope and prospective operations.
Such an account would worthily occupy a separate volume; for the
institution, in the hands of its wise directors, was a pioneer and model
in many respects in which later enterprises, with larger means, have,
perhaps, surpassed it. I must content myself here with brief mention of
a few particulars.

The immense free reading-room, with its average daily attendance of
nearly 1500 to 2000 persons, was Mr. Cooper's special delight; and well
it might be so; for the sight is one almost without a parallel--not in
the architecture, size, or furnishing of the place, but in the extent
and constancy of its use by the public. Entrance is free to all who are
not unclean, intoxicated, or disorderly. In the main, the privileges
thus given are not abused, but occasionally the evils almost inseparable
from so large an attendance have been felt. At one time, the curator
earnestly represented to the trustees the necessity of doing something
to check the mutilation of books--a practice which public librarians
know well as one of their most troublesome foes. It appeared that some
unknown persons, who combined a love of the beautiful in language with a
barbaric ignorance of it in conduct, were accustomed to slash out with
their penknives favorite passages of poetry for preservation, treating
in this matter newspapers and books alike. It was found difficult to
keep whole the volumes of Tennyson and Longfellow. But a more frequent
and injurious practice was the cutting out of plates from illustrated
books. This was not for love of art, as the other for love of poetry.
The object was to sell such engravings for two or three cents each to
the print-shops in the city, where they were bought by refined amateurs,
for the purpose of "illustrating" special volumes. This fashionable
hobby has been the indirect cause of the ruin of many a choice book; and
buyers of fine old editions are well aware that they must look well to
their bargains, lest they find that the thief, at the bidding of the
"collector," has plundered the volumes of the plates which once adorned

When this subject came up for discussion in the board of trustees, Mr.
Cooper was so full of pity for the poor fellows, who were obliged to
sell stolen engravings at two cents a piece to keep body and soul
together, that he could scarcely be brought to take a severe view of the
offense. Nor was he willing (and in this his fellow-trustees agreed with
him) to impose any restriction or censorship upon admittance to the
reading-room. Even if the books suffered, the room must continue to be
free. The great mass of well-behaved people must not be annoyed by
measures intended to exclude a few rogues. The result vindicated the
sagacity, as well as the charity, of this view. The officers in charge,
not being permitted to adopt any sweeping measures of prevention, simply
redoubled their vigilance, and finally caught one or two offenders and
"made examples of them;" and the nuisance was immediately abated, though
perhaps not entirely and permanently abolished.

The report of 1900, after mentioning the great (legitimate) wear and
tear of the books, of which 12,000 had to be re-bound, adds:--

"The decorum of the visitors has been excellent, and it is remarkable,
in view of such a very large number of persons visiting the room, that
so few mutilations and injuries occur to the periodicals and books, and
that so few books, probably not more than half a dozen in the course of
a year, and those of small consequence, are stolen."

It seems then, after all, that Peter Cooper's faith in the people was

The great hall in the basement is another noteworthy feature, and worthy
of wider imitation than it has yet received. Such a hall, if located
upstairs in such a building, would have been open to three objections:
it would have monopolized, for occasional use only, space which was
required for constant use; it would have been intolerably noisy, by
reason of the roar and rattle in the streets which surround the building
on all sides; and it would have been dangerous, as all such places are,
when great audiences must make their exit by going down stairs. Nothing
has ever been invented that will prevent people from being crushed and
trampled when they are crowding down a stairway. In all these respects,
the great hall of the Cooper Union is admirable. It occupies space not
otherwise valuable. It is quiet, and acoustically perfect. The means of
exit and entrance are ample and safe. Even in case of an unreasoning
panic, there is little danger that a crowd, tumbling up the stone
stairways to the street, would cause the horrible maiming and killing
which so often attend the efforts of a frightened multitude to get down.
Finally, the ventilation is excellent, for the simple reason that
natural or automatic ventilation of such a large, low basement room
could not be expected, and consequently mechanical ventilation by means
of a large fan, run by steam power, was provided. The efficiency of this
system has sometimes been severely tested. On one occasion, during a
scientific lecture, the experimental illustrations of which were on a
large and imposing scale, the learned professor on the platform had the
misfortune to crack an immense glass jar, in which he was exhibiting the
brilliant combustion of phosphorus in oxygen gas. The white fumes of
phosphorous acid floated out into the air, and began to diffuse
themselves through the hall towards the ventilation outlets at the sides
and rear. To one who knew the irritating nature of these fumes it seemed
inevitable that the hall must be emptied of its crowded audience in a
few minutes. Already coughing had begun on the front seats, when Mr.
Hewitt, who was seated on the platform, quickly rose, and pulling a
cord, reversed the currents of ventilation and opened a new outlet into
the street, behind and above the platform. The curling clouds of vapor
paused, wheeled, and retreated, and in another minute the air was
perfectly pure. The lecturer had not even been interrupted. It was a
beautiful and timely "experiment" not on the programme, and, to use the
words of one who was present, "It was just the sort of thing to please
Peter Cooper to the bottom of his soul."

The great hall was dedicated from the beginning to free speech. Peter
Cooper may have overestimated the value of mere talk. As I have already
told, it was his first notion that conversation and discussion were the
chief things required in education. He came to see that study,
instruction, and training were equally essential, but he never
surrendered his faith in free speech; and the great hall was at the
service of all sects, parties, and classes, religious, philosophical,
political, scientific, literary, or philanthropic. It has been the scene
of many memorable meetings and addresses. But nothing in its history has
been more useful and noteworthy than the series of free popular lectures
which were given, as part of the operations of the Cooper Union, within
its walls. These lectures began in 1868, and continued until they were
adopted by the city as part of the general scheme of free lectures which
has been so successful during the last few years. In awarding due praise
to the promoters and managers of this plan, it should not be forgotten
that the Cooper Union inaugurated it, and maintained it for many years,
during which the free Saturday night popular lectures in its great hall
were the only ones of their kind. They covered many sciences and arts,
chronicles of travel and themes of history and literature. The most
eminent authors, teachers, investigators, travelers, and orators of the
generation were comprised in the list of lecturers; and many of them
performed this service without other reward than the consciousness of
contributing to a noble charity, and the evident gratitude of the vast
and eagerly attentive audience.

Mr. Cooper loved to attend these Saturday evening lectures, and an
arm-chair was always ready for him on the platform. Many a speaker on
that platform has been surprised by an untimely outburst of applause and
has turned to discover the cause in the entrance of the beloved founder.
Often the subject of the evening was beyond his experience or knowledge,
but that made no difference in his respectful attention, or in the
benign satisfaction with which he contemplated the attentive audience,
and realized that they were receiving benefit. I have often felt that
the scene exhibited almost every Saturday night for many years during
the latest period of his life could be equaled only by the spectacle
presented at Ephesus, where the aged St. John the Divine fronted the
congregation of loving believers, always with his one last message,
"Little children, love one another."

But sometimes the old man would be intensely interested and aroused by
the lecture. I remember such an occasion, when I was myself the
lecturer, and had been laying down, with due scientific decorum and
diagrams, the "law of storms." At the close of the lecture, Mr. Cooper
arose, advanced to the front, and gave a vivid and animated description
of a whirlwind which he had witnessed some seventy years before, which
was received with rapt attention and tremendous applause. The lecture
was undoubtedly eclipsed in interest by this unexpected after-piece; but
the lecturer was amply compensated by his triumph in having thus
stirred the spirit and aroused the recollections of the dear old

With regard to the various schools and classes of the Cooper Union, it
must suffice to say briefly that under the elastic and comprehensive
plan of the deed of trust, two objects were constantly kept in view by
the trustees. In the first place, a complete four years' course was
always maintained, for the benefit of those who could afford the time
and who felt the need of such training. In the second place, classes
were instituted in such special departments as were most likely to be
useful and most evidently in demand; and with regard to these the demand
and the evidence of usefulness were followed as guides in determining
the extent of the facilities offered, up to the capacity and means of
the institution.

De Morgan, in his "Budget of Paradoxes," tells of an old fellow who,
wishing to have a chair that would fit him perfectly, sat for a while on
a mass of shoemaker's wax, which he then carried to a worker in wood,
and instructed him to "make a seat like that!" This homely illustration
indicates the manner in which the special classes of the Cooper Union
have been established, enlarged, and regulated, to meet the evident
demands of its constituency. It is pleasant to know that the future
means and sphere of the institution will be enlarged under the same wise


[7] Not all of this amount is represented in permanent endowments, since
large contributions to cover deficits in annual income as compared with
current expenses, or for special repairs and alterations, do not appear
under that head. According to the balance-sheet of January 1, 1900, the
total assets consist of $1,075,428.62, the appraised value of the
building, furniture, and apparatus; and $947,021.39 in cash on hand or
investments,--making a total of $2,022,450.01. Of the invested sum
$953,159.30 is in "special endowments," of which the income only can be
expended. This fund comprises $200,000 from Peter Cooper and $340,000
from the family of the late William Cooper, his brother; the remainder
is made up of smaller gifts (the chief of which are a bequest of $30,000
from Wilson G. Hunt, one of the original trustees, and $10,000 each from
Mary Stuart, J. Pierpont Morgan, Morris K. Jesup, and John E. Parsons),
and one of $300,000 made in December, 1899, by Andrew Carnegie. In
addition to the aggregate thus made up Hon. Edward Cooper, the son, and
Mr. Abram S. Hewitt, the son-in-law of Peter Cooper, have undertaken to
furnish a further income of $10,000 per annum; and finally, according to
the 41st Annual Report of the Trustees (May, 1900), the Cooper Union, as
residuary legatee under the will of the late John Holstead, will
ultimately receive between $200,000 and $300,000.

These recent additions to the endowment of the institution will enable
the trustees to enlarge its usefulness in many ways, and especially
(being no longer dependent for annual income upon rents) to utilize the
whole of the building for educational purposes. Yet the total endowment
will still be modest, as compared with that of many similar institutions
of later origin.

[8] Old New Yorkers will be reminded of the closing lines of Fitz-Greene
Halleck's poem,--

          "And there is music twice a week
           On Scudder's balcony."

[9] There may have been more than a mere sentimental regret in his mind
at that time; for his inventive intuition had struck out half a century
before an idea to which the slow thought of his fellows had not yet
attained,--the plan of utilizing roofs for the purpose of giving to all
classes an ownership of free air and far distance and boundless sky as
complete as any landowner could command by fencing off a mountain for
his own pleasure. As he looked down upon the vast wilderness of roofs
and thought of the multitude laboring beneath them or trudging through
the streets ("up one cañon and down another," as old Jim Bridger the
scout said in St. Louis), ignorant of the upper sphere within reach, he
might well have felt that one part of his original scheme would still be
a physical and moral boon to the metropolis. In fact the disappearance
of the "vacant lots," so numerous in his youth, and so freely available
as informal parks and playgrounds, had created new necessity for air and
space. Whether he consciously recalled the hanging gardens of Babylon,
or the flat roofs universally utilized for social and domestic purposes
in eastern and southern countries, I do not know. At all events he had
seized upon a similar idea, and now--nearly a score of years after his
death--we are waking up to its value. Even the Cooper Union building
some day, after more pressing needs of equipment shall have been
satisfied, may be crowned with its garden of rest and outlook.

[10] Of the original board, Peter Cooper was the first to pass away. Mr.
Hunt and Mr. Tiemann have since died, and Mr. R. Fulton Cutting has been
elected a trustee. The other vacancies have not been filled.



PETER COOPER'S prominent activity in national politics belongs to two
periods,--that of the war for the Union, and that of the subsequent
controversies over questions of financial policy.

As has been explained, he felt his life to be peculiarly identified with
that of the nation born with him; and the idea that this nation should
be destroyed in the midst of its triumphant progress was profoundly
abhorrent to him. Like many other patriots, he was ready to save the
Union by a compromise, if that were practicable. He advocated the
purchase and liberation by the government of all the slaves in the
United States; he promoted a "peace conference" on the very eve of the
war. But when South Carolina had formally seceded and the gauntlet had
been cast at the feet of national authority, his course was not
uncertain. He was a representative of the New York Chamber of Commerce
in the deputation of thirty leading citizens of New York which visited
Washington in order to discover what plan Mr. Buchanan (then still
President) had in view. They got no satisfaction from the President, but
assured themselves of the firm loyalty of Mr. Seward, then Senator from
New York.

A few weeks later the bombardment of Fort Sumter put an end to all
projects of compromise. At the memorable mass meeting held in Union
Square, New York, shortly after the receipt of this news, Peter Cooper,
then seventy years old, was among the first to mount the platform. His
familiar white hairs and kindly face were recognized by the crowd, which
vociferously called for a speech from him. Stepping to the front, he
uttered a few ringing sentences which sounded the keynote of the
meeting. I quote but one or two:--

"We are contending with an enemy not only determined on our destruction
as a nation, but to build on our ruins a government devoted with all its
power to maintain, extend, and perpetuate a system in itself revolting
to all the best feelings of humanity,--an institution that enables
thousands to sell their own children into hopeless bondage.

"Shall it succeed? You say 'No!' and I unite with you in your decision.
We cannot allow it to succeed. We should spend our lives, our property,
and leave the land itself a desolation before such an institution should
triumph over the free people of this country. . . .

"Let us, therefore, unite to sustain the government by every means in
our power, to arm and equip in the shortest possible time an army of the
best men that can be found in the country."

From that day on his patriotism never doubted or faltered. When the war
loan was announced he was the first man at the door of the subtreasury
in New York waiting to make payment over the counter of all the money
he had been able to collect without business disaster. "In those days,"
says a friend, "whenever he had nothing else to do, he would go down to
the recruiting office and put in a substitute." It is estimated that he
must have sent, first and last, about a score of soldiers to serve for
him under the flag.

From the first he urged the emancipation and enlistment of the Southern
negroes,--a policy which was ultimately adopted with successful results;
and when in 1864, at the darkest hour of the struggle, there was danger
of a fatal compromise, he actively promoted that great mass meeting in
the hall of the Cooper Union which marked the turning-point of the
struggle, carried the State of New York for Lincoln, and secured the
triumph of the Union.

After the war was over he presided at another meeting, called to favor
aid to the disabled soldiers of the nation; and the following paragraph
quoted from his remarks on that occasion forms a fitting close to this
brief notice of his patriotic activity:--

"If we required a stronger stimulus to urge us to perform our duty, we
have only to turn our thoughts back to that fearful day when the armies
of rebellion had entered Pennsylvania with the intent to subjugate the
North to their domination. Had they been successful, they would have
gloried in making us pay for the loss of their slaves and the expenses
of their war. I trust that the government will not hesitate to tax my
property and the property of every other man enough to provide for the
comfort of our disabled soldiers and the families dependent on them for

In the financial controversies which accompanied and followed the period
of "reconstruction" after the war, and were involved in the payment and
adjustment of the national debt, Mr. Cooper appeared as an advocate of
the "Greenback" party, and did not seem to realize that this was a
complete reversal of his earlier position as a "hard-money" Democrat. I
think the clue to this change may be found in his recollection of the
war waged by Andrew Jackson on the United States Bank, and a vague
feeling that the national banking system instituted by Secretary Chase
was open to similar objections. To this may be added his growing
inclination in favor of "paternal government,"--which in a man so
thoroughly self-supporting and self-reliant can be explained only by the
fact that his personal philanthropy overbalanced his political
philosophy; that he became more anxious to relieve the distress he saw
than to question the wisdom of measures taken for that purpose. Two
things are certain: first, that Mr. Cooper's motives in his later
political course were thoroughly pure and unselfish; and secondly, that
his utterances and publications in this connection show him to be
dealing with subjects which he did not understand. This statement is
made without regard to the merits of the controversy, or the strength of
the arguments contributed to it by others. The simple truth is that Mr.
Cooper was too old to make original investigation of such questions,
intelligently weighing all the modern conditions of industry and
commerce, in which he was no longer an active participant. He accepted
in 1876 the nomination of the Greenback party for the presidency; but
the issue was already practically dead, and he received but 81,740 votes
out of a total of 8,412,833 cast. Undaunted by this defeat, he continued
to utter his views. Those who wish to study them in detail may consult
the volume "Ideas for a Science of Good Government in Addresses,
Letters, and Articles on a Strictly National Currency, Tariff, and Civil
Service," which he issued at the age of ninety-two, in the last year of
his life. His own summary of his position, given on page 212 of this
book, shows that he desired a national legal-tender paper currency,
irredeemable in coin, but "interconvertible" with government bonds, and
regulated by law as to volume per capita; a "discriminating" protective
tariff, "helpful to all the industries of the country, where the raw
material and the labor can be furnished by our own people;" and a civil
service divorced from party politics, based on personal fitness, with
tenure of office during good behavior, moderate salaries, and pensions
for the aged and sick, and provision for widows and orphans.



IN 1874, at the age of eighty-three, Mr. Cooper said at a reception
given in his honor:--

"When I was born, New York contained 27,000 inhabitants. The upper
limits of the city were at Chambers Street. Not a single free school,
either by day or night, existed. General Washington had just entered
upon his first term as President of the United States, the whole annual
expenditures of which did not exceed $2,500,000, being about sixty cents
per head of the population. Not a single steam engine had yet been built
or erected on the American continent; and the people were clad in
homespun, and were characterized by the simple virtues and habits which
are usually associated with that primitive garb. I need not tell you
what the country now is, and what the habits and the garments of its
people now are, or that the expenditure, per capita, of the general
government has increased fifteen-fold. But I have witnessed and taken a
deep interest in every step of the marvellous development and progress
which have characterized this century beyond all the centuries which
have gone before.

"Measured by the achievements of the years I have seen, I am one of the
oldest men who have ever lived; but I do not feel old, and I propose to
give you the receipt by which I have preserved my youth.

"I have always given a friendly welcome to new ideas, and I have
endeavored not to feel too old to learn; and thus, though I stand here
with the snows of so many winters upon my head, my faith in human
nature, my belief in the progress of man to a better social condition,
and especially my trust in the ability of men to establish and maintain
self-government, are as fresh and as young as when I began to travel the
path of life.

"While I have always recognized that the object of business is to make
money in an honorable manner, I have endeavored to remember that the
object of life is to do good. Hence I have been ready to engage in all
new enterprises, and, without incurring debt, to risk in their promotion
the means which I had acquired, provided they seemed to me calculated to
advance the general good. This will account for my early attempt to
perfect the steam engine, for my attempt to construct the first American
locomotive, for my connection with the telegraph in a course of efforts
to unite our country with the European world, and for my recent efforts
to solve the problem of economical steam navigation on the canals; to
all of which you have so kindly referred. It happens to but few men to
change the current of human progress, as it did to Watt, to Fulton, to
Stephenson, and to Morse; but most men may be ready to welcome laborers
to a new field of usefulness, and to clear the road for their progress.

"This I have tried to do, as well in the perfecting and execution of
their ideas as in making such provision as my means have permitted for
the proper education of the young mechanics and citizens of my native
city, in order to fit them for the reception of new ideas, social,
mechanical, and scientific--hoping thus to economize and expand the
intellectual as well as the physical forces, and provide a larger fund
for distribution among the various classes which necessarily make up the
total of society. If our lives shall be such that we shall receive the
glad welcome of 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' we shall then
know that we have not lived in vain."

For nine years after this utterance he continued the peaceful and happy
life which it describes. When the end came, it was quiet and painless.
Surrounded by his children and grandchildren, and whispering with almost
his last breath the desire for an increase of his bequest to that other
well-beloved child, the Cooper Union, he "fell on sleep," April 4, 1883.

On the day of his funeral New York city presented an almost unexampled
spectacle. All Soul's Unitarian Church, in which his body was
deposited, early in the morning was thronged with a mighty multitude,
passing in procession to look upon the beloved face. Eighteen young men
from the Cooper Union surrounded it, as a guard of honor. A body of 3500
students of that institution, of both sexes, marched by, casting flowers
upon the coffin, and followed by delegations from all the municipal and
charitable organizations of the city, and by uncounted multitudes, whose
relation to the beloved philanthropist was not official or
representative, but simply personal.

The busiest streets of New York, through which the funeral procession
passed on its way to Greenwood Cemetery, beyond the East River, were
closed to business and hung in black. The flags on all public buildings,
and on the ships in the harbor, were at half-mast. The bells of all
churches were tolled. The whole city mourned, as it had not done since,
eighty years before, the funeral procession of George Washington moved
through its streets.

If we seek, without affectionate prejudice, to discover the cause of
this universal grief, affection, and admiration, we shall find, I think,
that it lies chiefly in two circumstances; namely, the character of
Peter Cooper as a lover of his kind, and the opportunity afforded him by
his long life, not only to prove that character, but to become
personally known to many thousands of those whom he sought unselfishly
to serve. Few persons except military commanders have such an
opportunity. The philanthropists who labor in secret, no matter with
what noble motive, and do not come face to face with their
beneficiaries, may win the applause of posterity, but cannot expect to
receive the immediate and personal affection of their contemporaries.
Least of all do posthumous gifts arouse this sentiment. Peter Cooper,
above all other claims to renown and gratitude, identified himself with
his philanthropy, and was known where he was loved.

          "Who gives himself with his gift, feeds three:
           Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

The original text had the list of books first and then the first title
page. These were reversed so that the title occurs first in this

Page xii, "8" changed to "6" (6. This experience)

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