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It may be said, without exaggeration, that few men in our time and country, not occupying official position, have been so widely and sincerely mourned as the late Peter Cooper. Other men have been as genuinely good as he, and have founded charitable institutions as worthy and as useful, in their way, as the one which is to be the lasting monument to his memory. But Peter Cooper held a place in the hearts of his fellow-citizens which belonged to him alone. A man, to outward seeming, in manners and conversation as plain and homespun as his name, he held unshaken from youth to old age--and to few men is it allotted to live in uninterrupted health and action to the age of ninety-two--the confidence, the respect and the affection of all sorts of people: the rich and the poor, the high and the low, the learned and the unlearned, people of all parties and of all religions. Character is the accumulation of little actions, and makes its deepest impression, of course, when these actions have been observed by great numbers of people during a long period of time. The whole of his ninety-two years, with the exception of a short time passed in his youth in its vicinity, were spent by Mr. Cooper in the city of New York. It was little more than a country town when he was born; it was already one of the great cities of the world when he died; and in all that time he had been associated with the business enterprises that had helped its growth, as one of the chief actors.
The fortune that he built up was both earned and expended here; the manner of its earning was known of all men, but the way in which it was expended was rather felt than known, for, like all great and generous benefactors, Mr. Cooper was without ostentation; but as he gave while he was alive and all the time that he was alive; and as he gave to the people among whom he lived, and not to outsiders, it naturally followed that his name, his person, his traits of character, became, as it were, a common possession to the people of New York; but few men upon whom such a glare of publicity had fallen for so many years would have been able to bear the scrutiny so well as Peter Cooper.
He was born on February 12, 1791, presumably in Little Dock Street, now Water Street, Coenties Slip, where his father, John Cooper, carried on the trade of a hatter. His shop was near the store of John Jacob Astor, from whom he bought the beaver-skins which he made up into hats. John Cooper had served in the war of the Revolution, and when it ended, he retired with the rank of lieutenant. He married Margaret, the daughter of John Campbell, who also had served in the Continental army, as quartermaster, and who now carried on the trade of potter and tile-maker on the spot where St. Paul's Chapel now stands.
To John and Margaret Cooper nine children were born, two daughters and seven sons, of whom Peter was the fifth, and was named after the apostle in the belief, as his father expressed it, that he would come to something. Following the fashion of the time, he was set to work at his father's trade as soon as he was old enough to work, as all his brothers had been before him: and in later years he described himself as a little boy, with his head just reaching the top of the table where he was set to pulling out the hairs from rabbit skins to use in making fur hats; and he was kept at the business until he was fifteen, when, as he used to tell, he had learned to make every part of a hat. So independent is business success of what is commonly called education, that it may be of interest to record that Peter Cooper never went to school for more than one year, and only in the half of each day of school: his parents were poor, and could not spare what his labor earned, and besides his health was delicate, and the confinement of school was thought more injurious to him than the work in the shop. In consequence of this restriction Peter Cooper grew to manhood with very little learning beyond reading, writing, and the rudiments of arithmetic, and while this was a source of regret to him all his life, it was in reality the spur that drove him to found an institution that should take away all excuses for ignorance from the coming generations of poor boys in his native city.
The elder Cooper would seem to have been a man of small practical capacity or staying power, for he moved about from place to place, changing his business in the hope of bettering his condition; now going to Peekskill to set up a brewery; thence to Catskill, where he added brick-making to making beer; then to Brooklyn to try hatting again; and finally to Newburgh, where he returned to brewing. In all these shiftings of home and business Peter remained with his father and gave him what help he could; he used in later life to recall his carrying about the beer-kegs to his father's customers; but at the age of seventeen, with his parents' consent, he came back to New York, and looked about for work on his own account. He had saved up from his small earnings, while with his father, the sum of ten dollars, and with this, he tells us, he bought a lottery ticket, which drew a blank. This seeming misfortune he turned to good account, for he then determined never to trust to luck again, but to be content to earn his bread in the appointed way: it was his first and last speculation. On reaching New York he had the usual difficulty in finding employment, but at length was accepted as an apprentice by a firm of carriage-makers, to whom, with his father's consent, he bound himself until he should come of age; his masters agreeing to pay him $25 a year and his board. His grandmother had a house on Broadway, in which she gave him the use of an upper room, and here in his spare hours he employed himself in wood-carving, in which he acquired some proficiency. In his business he worked so industriously, and made himself so valuable to his employers, that when his time expired they offered to lend him the money to go into business for himself; but he did not accept this generous offer, as he was determined never to be in debt. While with Messrs. Burtis and Woodward he had invented a machine for mortising wheel-hubs, thus giving the first evidence of an inventive faculty which, though never accomplishing great things, was often of considerable service both to himself and the community. On leaving the business of carriage-making Peter Cooper went to Hempstead, L. I., where he found work in a woollen factory. Here he invented and patented an improvement on the machine in use for shearing the nap of cloth; and as during the war of 1812 all commerce with England ceased, cloth-making in America flourished, and from the sale of his machines, which he could hardly make fast enough to supply the demand, young Cooper reaped a considerable profit. One of his first customers was the late Matthew Vassar, of Poughkeepsie, to whom he not only sold some of his machines, but also the right to dispose of them in Dutchess County. When he found that his earnings had enabled him to lay by the sum of $500, he thought himself justified in asking a young woman, Miss Sarah Bedel, whom he had met when in Hempstead, to become his wife; but before doing so, he determined to visit his parents in Newburgh, and inform them of his intention. He found them in great trouble, his father in debt and needing help; and without hesitation he placed his small savings at his disposal, paid the most pressing of the debts, and made arrangements for paying off the rest. His father was thus saved from bankruptcy by his son's devotion; but the action was characteristic of Peter Cooper, both in its unselfishness, and as indicative of his business integrity. He would never be in debt himself, and he was equally resolved to keep those belonging to him as free as himself. He took pride in the fact that neither he nor his father had ever failed in business; and this is the more remarkable, since in the course of his business life the country passed through no less than ten serious commercial panics.
Peter Cooper and Miss Bedel were married on December 22, 1813, when he was twenty-two and the lady twenty-one. Their married life, as it was exceptionally long, so it was exceptionally happy. It lasted fifty-six years; Mrs. Cooper died in 1869, and Mr. Cooper survived her fourteen years, dying in 1883. Their golden wedding was celebrated in 1863. They had six children, but only two lived to grow up; the Hon. Edward Cooper, once mayor of the city, and Sarah Amelia Cooper, the wife of the Hon. Abram S. Hewitt. Mr. James Parton says: "There never was a happier marriage than this. To old age Mr. Cooper never sat near his wife without holding her hand in his. He never spoke to her, nor of her, without some tender epithet. He attributed the great happiness of his life and most of his success to her admirable qualities. She seconded every good impulse of his benevolence, and made the fulfilment of his great scheme possible by her wise and resolute economy."
Mr. Cooper seems to have inherited something of his father's business restlessness, for in addition to the many pursuits in which we have seen him engage, he now bought a grocery stand, and in about a year gave that up and purchased a glue factory, selling his grocery business and buying a lease of the glue factory for twenty-one years, for $2,000, his whole savings. He differed from his father in this, that everything prospered with which he had to do. The grocery had done well, but the glue factory did better. "At that time nearly all the glue used in this country was imported from Ireland, and sold at a high price. Mr. Cooper studied the subject and experimented, until he was able to make better glue than the Irish and sell it at a lower price, and he soon had nearly the entire glue business of the country in his hands." But chance had nothing to do with Mr. Cooper's success: the secret of that success was unremitting industry and generous economy. He worked that he might earn, and he saved that he might use and give. For twenty years while he held the glue factory, he was his own bookkeeper, clerk, and salesman; going to the factory at daybreak to light the fires, and spending the evenings at home, posting his books, writing, and reading to his family.
In 1828, moved by the interest in business circles in the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Mr. Cooper, with two partners, bought a tract of three thousand acres within the city limits of Baltimore. By the failure of his associates to meet the payment of their shares, Mr. Cooper was obliged to shoulder the whole cost, amounting to $105,000. The road, too, owing to unexpected difficulties in construction, was dreading bankruptcy, from which it was saved by Mr. Cooper's ingenuity in devising a locomotive that enabled the company to overcome certain difficulties that had been thought insurmountable. Failing in the end to sell his land as he had hoped, Mr. Cooper decided to utilize the timber growing on it in the manufacture of charcoal iron. When he had, after many difficulties, established his works, he sold out to some Boston capitalists, who formed the Canton Iron Company. Mr. Cooper took a large part of the purchase in stock at $45 a share, which he finally sold out at $230 a share.
This was the beginning of his interest in the iron business, where the greater part of his fortune was made. The remainder came from his glue works and the industries connected with them. In 1873, the year of the great panic, in a letter to President Grant suggesting remedial legislation, Mr. Cooper said that not less than a thousand persons depended for their bread on the business carried on in the circle of his family. He had at that time two rolling-mills running, and two mills for the manufacture of wire and springs; and his glue, oil, and isinglass works gave employment to two hundred persons.
The story of Mr. Cooper's connection with the laying of the Atlantic cable has been so often told, that we do not repeat it here. It adds further testimony to his indomitable energy, his largeness of view, his financial ability, and the confidence that was felt in him by his fellow-men. The story of the difficulties, failures and final success of this grandest achievement of modern science and enterprise, is as romantic as any episode in social history.
But, in Peter Cooper's view, the most important event in his life--the one to which all his energies, his thoughts, his economics had been steadily directed since his youth--was the founding of the institution that bears his name, and that has made him a powerful factor in the development of New York. It was the outcome, in the first place, of its founder's regret for the deficiencies of his own early training, which were owing partly to his parents' poverty and partly to the lack of public or free schools in his native city when he was a boy. But this regret, which could only have been felt by a man of superior intelligence, was made to flower in this great result by Mr. Cooper's genuine, deep, and unfailing love for his fellow-men, and his belief in the duty of every man to help the race forward in its progress to a better social condition. He has himself stated the principles on which his life was founded. His aim was "to render some equivalent to society, in some useful form of labor, for each day of his existence;" and "while he had always recognized that the object of business is to make money in an honorable manner, he had endeavored to remember that the object of life is to do good."
In 1876 Mr. Cooper was nominated for the presidency by the National Independent or "Greenback" party. It was with no selfish ambition that he allowed his name to go before the voters of the country, and his only regret at the result was that a policy was defeated which he believed to be for the public good.
Mr. Cooper died April 4, 1883, at the age of ninety-two, after a short illness, the result of a cold. At his funeral, the late Dr. Crosby said: "What an example has been set by this life to our young men! How it shows them what the true aim of life should be! What an example to our wealthy men to show that money obtained by honest industry, and spent in benefiting mankind, will never produce war between labor and capital, but will assuage all angry elements, and give universal peace! Oh! if all our wealthy men were like Peter Cooper, all classes would be satisfied, all commotions cease, and the community would be as near perfection--as near perfection in the pecuniary view--as it possibly could be on earth."