He was America’s first public philanthropist. He made the first steam locomotive.
He invented Jell-o. He was one of the handful of men who was responsible for
the first transatlantic cable. He put the first elevator shaft in a building, and did it
before the elevator was invented. He was the nation’s early equivalent of a
billionaire, who was an ardent abolitionist and also promoted the cause of Native
Americans. At 85, he ran for president of the United States. He still is the oldest
person ever nominated by a notable political party. He lost (but probably affected
the outcome of one of the closest elections in U.S. history).
Yet few, outside his home town, remember his name.
Peter Cooper was born in New York in 1791. (George Washington was in his
first term as president.) He died in 1883. He was one of the greatest American
capitalists of the 19th century, and an historically important innovator, but what
made him a true visionary was his original and compassionate notion that,
having made a fortune, he needed to give much of it back to the community in
which he lived. Born in modest means, he routinely gave his money to
institutions and causes for the poor and for political reform. In 1876, at the
age of 85, he ran for president of the United States as the nominee of the
National Independent (Greenback) Party, He received only 1% of the vote, but
many of his then radical ideas later became normal standards of public policy
His most enduring and visible contribution was a building, the Cooper Union,
which was completed in 1858. It was then, and is now, a school of architecture,
engineering and fine arts. It was intended for the poor of New York who
otherwise could not attend classes. Then, as now, no one paid to attend the
school’s classes. The only requirement was superior intelligence. Men and
women could attend, as could the young and old. It also provided the only
public library in the city of its kind, open to all. Since the day it opened,
there has not ever been a vacancy in its classes. It lists great artists and
architects, famous engineers and a Nobel prize winner among its graduates.
Over the years, its faculty and students became more and more
distinguished. Today, with 600 students, it is one of the finest schools of its
kind in the nation.
But Peter Cooper had a second purpose in mind with his Cooper Union. In
the building’s basement, he constructed a Great Hall, then holding 1100
persons, that was to be a forum for new and exciting ideas.
The most famous speech given there was, of course, Abraham Lincoln’s
two-hour address on the evening of February 27, 1860. Lincoln, at that
moment, was the darkest of dark horses for the Republican nomination
for president in 1860. The new party which had replaced the Whig Party
in 1856, now had a chance to elect a president, because the crisis of the
slavery issue had split the Democratic Party into a northern faction and a
southern faction. New York Republicans, however, thought that their
governor, William Seward, then the frontrunner for the GOP nomination,
could not win the general election. They planned a series of speeches, to
be given by prominent Midwestern Republicans, to find a candidate who
could win. Among those they invited, was Lincoln, a successful railroad
attorney who had served one term in Congress, but had lost an 1858 senate
race in Illinois to Stephen Douglas (who by 1860 was the almost certain
Democratic nominee for president). Lincoln, however, could not come to
New York for the scheduled autumn, 1859 speeches at the New York
YMCA, but was able to come in February, 1860. By that time, the
organizers had moved the venue to the larger Cooper Union, opened only
a year before.
Lincoln’s speech is arguably the most important political speech in
American history. Not as poetic as the more famous Gettysburg Address
or his Second Inaugural, his bold Cooper Union speech destroyed the
pretense of the intellectual argument for slavery, and electrified his
Cooper Union audience. Lincoln had also cagily arranged for copies of
his speech to be distributed to the press, and within a few days, he was a
political sensation in the North and among Republicans. This speech
almost certainly made him the eventual nominee and president.
Cooper Union continued to be a forum for important American speeches
and ideas throughout the 19th century, the early 20th century, and to the
present time. After Lincoln’s speech, Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley,
Mark Twain, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Ingersoll, Victoria Woodhull and
Thomas Huxley spoke there, In recent years, Bill Clinton has spoken there.
When I got out of graduate school and moved to New York in the early 1
970’s, I lived for a while in the lower east side, and passed Cooper Union
to and from work every day. I did not ever go inside, although I knew it
was an historic building still in use. Later, I learned about Lincoln’s
speech there, but I still did not know until much later the full story of the
school and its remarkable founder, Peter Cooper --- a man who changed
history in so many ways.
Copyright (c) 2007 and 2019 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.