Written By: Herald Boas
In 2016, a business tycoon from New York rocketed to the fore of national politics and captured the presidency. It was the first time in history a true outsider with no prior political experience had ever won the White House. But although Donald Trump was the first business mogul to become president, he was not the first to try. That trail had been blazed nearly 150 years prior by another New Yorker whose memory is sadly all but lost from the history books.
He was America’s first self-made tycoon and its first major public philanthropist. He designed and built the first U.S. steam locomotive. He invented Jell-O. He was one of the handfuls of men who were responsible for the first transatlantic cable. He put the first elevator shaft in a building and did it before the elevator was invented. He held many patents for his inventions and created several early U.S. manufacturing companies. Cooper was the nation’s early equivalent of a billionaire and was an ardent abolitionist who also promoted the cause of Native Americans. At 85, he ran for president of the United States. To this day, he is still the oldest person ever nominated by a major political party. He lost but probably affected the outcome of one of the closest elections in U.S. history, resulting in the election of a Republican.
Yet few, outside his hometown, remember his name.
Peter Cooper was born in New York in 1791 when 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 a historically important innovator, but what made him a true visionary was his then-original and compassionate belief 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 causes for the poor and political reform. In 1876, at the age of 85, he ran for president of the United States as the populist National Independent (Greenback) Party nominee. He lost badly, but many of his then-radical ideas later became normal standards of public policy today.
His most lasting legacy and visible monument is a school and its building, the Cooper Institute (now Union), 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 a college-level school. Then, as now, no student paid to attend its classes. The only requirement was ability. Men and women could enroll, 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 student vacancy. 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 in mind an additional goal for Cooper Institute. In the building’s basement, he constructed a Great Hall, seating 1,100 persons, to be a forum for new and beneficial public ideas.
As was the subject of a recent AMAC Newsline article, 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 horse for the Republican nomination for president in 1860. The new party, which had replaced the Whig Party in 1856, now had a good 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. Some New York Republicans, however, thought that their governor, William Seward, then the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, could not win the general election. To find another candidate, they planned a series of speeches, to be given by prominent Midwestern Republicans, including Lincoln, who they knew as a successful railroad attorney who had served only one term in Congress but had run impressively in an 1858 Senate race in Illinois against 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. The organizers moved the venue to the larger Cooper Union, opened only a year before, and agreed Lincoln could come in 1860.
After and because of his speech, Lincoln was nominated and then elected president.
Cooper Union continued to be a forum for important American speeches and ideas throughout the 19th century, the 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 spoke there. In 2007, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, both then possible presidential candidates, held a nationally-televised debate in Cooper Union.
The full story of the remarkable Peter Cooper— a man who affected U.S. life and history in so many ways — is rarely told these days. He is not even mentioned in most school books. But his contributions and influence are no less, and perhaps more, than many who are.
As we look forward to the next presidential election, it is worth considering not just the professional political candidates but whether perhaps another popular tycoon will emerge.
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