Peter Cooper, Inventor and Industrialist, Once Inherited A Large Part Of Kinderhook, NY.
It’s What He Did With His Inheritance That Would Be Inconceivable Today
What kind of a man would inherit most of a town and not be willing to take possession of it?
The answer is Peter Cooper (1791-1883), a businessman who conducted his life in a principled way.
The name Peter Cooper may not be as known today as it was in the 19th century, but his influence lives well into the 21st century. Three of Cooper’s grand-daughters founded the Cooper Hewitt Museum and Peter Cooper Village is a large apartment complex on the east side of Manhattan.
But who was Peter Cooper?
Cooper was a tinkerer who lacked a formal education, but became a great inventor and entrepreneur who owned many patents. Cooper designed and built the first steam locomotive train in the United States. He developed new revolutionary methods of producing glue and one of his companies, Cooper Hewitt manufactured the wire used in laying the Transatlantic Cable.
Cooper was a strong advocate of Native American rights, the abolition of slavery and used his vast fortune in philanthropic causes. Cooper was one of the founders of an orphanage, The New York Juvenile Asylum, which is one of the oldest non-profits in the United States. But Peter Cooper’s greatest legacy was as founder of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a free college for both men and women that still exists today. (Cooper Union began charging tuition in 2014, but will soon return to being tuition free.)
Cooper’s grandson, scientist and naturalist Edward R. Hewitt, (1866-1957) wrote a book Those Were The Days (Duell, Sloan & Pearce) 1943, in which he tells highly entertaining stories about old New York City. Hewitt’s yarns about his family, especially his grandfather Peter Cooper are priceless.
In one anecdote, Hewitt best summarizes the upstanding character of Peter Cooper.
In some way, through family connections—I never knew the exact genealogy—Peter Cooper became heir to a large part of the old Dutch Manor of Kinder Hook, on the Hudson. He had never done anything to verify his title to all this real estate.
One day a lawyer, called O’Keefe, came to see him and stated that he had got together all the papers necessary to establish Peter Cooper’s claims to this large tract of land. My grandfather asked the lawyer if he was certain that these were all the papers about the claims which could have any legal value. He received the reply that they were. O’Keefe was then asked what he wanted for all the documents. He said five thousand dollars. Peter Cooper went to his table, wrote out a check for this amount, and received the bundle of papers in return. He then went to the fireplace and threw them all into the fire, where they were consumed.
“Now,” he said, “no one will ever disturb those who are living on this land. They have developed it and are entitled to its ownership and use. They will never have their titles questioned. I never did anything to acquire that land, and I do not feel that I have any right to possess it now.”
I wonder, in this day and age of undeserved entitlement, is there anybody who would have done the same thing?