American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

Five Scenes in a Noble Life

"I Reckon him greater than any man

That ever drew sword in war;

I reckon him nobler than king or khan,

Braver and better by far."



Come with me into a little hatter's shop, such as they had in New York a hundred years ago.

The dingy little sign over the door tells us that it belongs to John Cooper and that hats are both made and sold here.

[Illustration] from American Book of Golden Deeds by James Baldwin


We enter the single room. It is narrow and low, with small windows at each side and a yawning fireplace at one end. The air is close and stifling. The furniture is very old-fashioned.

The hats, too, although in the style of that day, are strangely old-fashioned when compared with those of the twentieth century. You would laugh at their shape and texture; and all are made by hand.

There are only five or six apprentices and workmen in the shop. Business is not carried on in a large way here.

The proprietor greets us cordially. He is a hard-working man, well past middle age. He is always busy, always planning great things for the future, and never succeeding very well at anything. It is said that John Cooper was lieutenant in the Revolutionary War—a stanch patriot and an honest man.

But more interesting than the proprietor is a little boy who stands at a long table near one side of the room. He is so small that his head comes just above the edge of the table. He is pulling the hairs out of rabbit skins and putting them carefully into a bag. These hairs will be used in making beaver hats.

You ask the lad how long he has been at this kind of work. He does not know. He cannot remember when he began it, but it was certainly as soon as he was big enough to do anything.

His large, long face beams with intelligence. Small as he is, and simple as his work may be, he is anxious to do everything well. Even the pulling of rabbit hairs requires care and dexterity.

His father, John Cooper, watches him with parental pride.

"His name if Peter," he says. "I named him after the great apostle, because I have always felt that he will do much good in the world."

Peter has heard this remark often, and the words are not lost on him. True, he doesn't know much about the world. His experience has taught him that life is a daily round of eating a little, sleeping a little, playing a little, and working a great deal. But since his father expects him to be like his name-sake and do much good in the world, he is determined not to disappoint him.

"Peter works hard," continues his father, "and he plays even harder. Do you see that scar on his forehead? He got that when he was four years old, falling off the framework of a house which he had climbed. He likes to play with knives and axes, and he has cut himself more than once. He'll carry some of those scars as long as he lives.

"He helps his mother do the washing—in fact, he's handy at almost everything. And he's always trying to make something."

His father's praise pleases the lad; and he goes on, pulling hairs from the rabbit skins.


Several years have passed.

In an upper room of a coach-maker's shop on Broadway, a young man is at work. It is evening and all the other workmen have gone home.

The room is dark, save for the little light that comes from a sputtering tallow candle. The young man is standing by a carpenter's bench. He moves the candle from place to place to throw the best light on his work.

It is plain that he is not working at a coach. The evening hours are his own, and he is using them for his own purposes. While the other workmen are wasting their time in idleness or folly, he is trying to perfect some invention which his brain has studied out.

By the flickering candlelight we are able to discern his features. We see the same large, open countenance, the same earnest eye—yes, and that same scar on the forehead. The lad who was pulling rabbit hairs has grown to be a man.

Presently the door opens. The master coach builder enters.

"Peter," he says, "you have been with me now almost four years and your apprenticeship will end next week. How would you like to set up a shop of your own?"

"Oh, Mr. Woodward," answers Peter, "I should like it very much, indeed. But I have not the means to do so. You know that my salary with you has been only twenty-five dollars a year."

"Yes, I know," answers Mr. Woodward, "and I don't suppose that you have been able to save any of your salary. But there is that patent cloth-shearing machine of yours. Surely you have realized something from that?"

Peter stammers and hesitates. Then he says: "Yes, I did realize something from that, and I will tell you what became of it. I had five hundred dollars in my pocket, which Mr. Vassar paid me for the county right to the machine. I had never expected to have so much money, and I was very proud: The first thing that I did, as you know, was to go to Newburgh to see father and mother and tell them about it.

"What do you suppose I saw when I opened the door, expecting a glad welcome? Why, I saw the whole family in tears and such a look of distress on my father's face as I shall never forget. I soon learned what the trouble was. You know how he has tried many kinds of business—hatmaking in New York, brickmaking in Peekskill and Catskill, brewing in Newburgh, and then hatmaking again. Well, he failed in them all, and the last failure was the worst.

"In fact, the sheriff was expected at any moment to seize upon and sell everything in the house, and even to arrest father and take him to jail.

"I asked father how much he owed. He told me that his debts were more than a thousand dollars, but he thought that if he had only half that amount he might satisfy his most clamorous creditors and manage in some way to pull through. Well, there was my five hundred dollars in my pocket. What better could I do than to give every penny of it to father? Then I signed notes for the rest of the debts, and left everybody happy.

"So you see, Mr. Woodward, that I have nothing from the machines that I can invest in business, and that it would be simply impossible for me to set up a coach-maker's shop of my own."

"Yes, Peter, I understand," says Mr. Woodward. "In fact, I have known all this for some time. What I wish to do is to lend you the money to set up in business. You can give me your notes without interest, and make the payments after you have begun to realize something from your shop. Will you allow me to help in this way?"

Peter hesitates a moment; and then replies: "I thank you with all my heart, Mr. Woodward. But I must decline your kind offer. I have seen so much distress and disappointment caused by going in debt, that I have made a firm resolution never to buy anything for which I have not the ready money to pay immediately. Your offer is very tempting, but you must pardon me if I stand by my resolution, which I think is the safer way."

Thus at the age of twenty-one Peter Cooper's apprenticeship is ended. He is his own man, and he goes forth to make his way in the world, independent, and confident of success, and yet almost penniless.

His school days have been few—only a month or two each winter for three or four years. His opportunities have been limited. But he is an accomplished hatmaker, he has worked at brickmaking, he is a coach builder, and he is expert with all kinds of tools. He has strong arms, willing hands, and a boundless ambition to succeed.

And he will succeed.


It is the 13th of April, 1859.

At the junction of Third Avenue and Fourth Avenue in the city of New York, a new building has just been completed. It is a stately edifice, built of brown stone, and six stories in height.

At the time which I mention, there is not another building in the city that equals it in magnitude and beauty. It is the wonder and admiration of all visitors to the metropolis.

Above the main entrance, carved on the brown-stone front of the building, is the mystic work, "union." Should you ask why this word is here, you will be told that it indicates the name and the purpose of the building, for this is the home of the "Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art."

Its construction was begun six years ago. It has cost three quarters of a million dollars—an immense sum at this time.

An old man has watched with eager interest every process in the construction of this monumental building. Observe him as he passes now through the completed rooms. He is plain—very plain—certainly a man of the people. And that broad, kindly countenance—surely we have seen it before. Yes, and there is the scar on the forehead.

This is our old friend Peter Cooper. He is sixty-eight years old, and on this day he sees the completion of the dearest project of his life.

Nearly half a century has passed since his apprenticeship to the coach maker ended. What has he been doing in the meanwhile?

Few men have been more active in business. Let us name some of the industries and enterprises in which he has been engaged:—

Peddling, with a knapsack and a hurdy-gurdy.

The grocery business.

The manufacture of glue, oil, whiting, and prepared chalk—the real foundation of his wealth.

The manufacture of iron at Baltimore, at Trenton, and at several other places.

The development of coal mines and mining lands.

The building of the first locomotive engine in the United States.

The laying of the first Atlantic cable.

But none of these enterprises has been so dear to the heart of the busy man as the construction of the brown-stone building to be known as the Cooper Union, "to be forever devoted to the advancement of science and art."

As he passes from room to room in the now completed edifice, his fancy pictures to him the thousands of young men and young women who will come from all parts of the country to be benefited by his munificence.

He has known what it means to be poor. He has known what it is to be denied the opportunity of acquiring useful knowledge. In the Cooper Union the poorest young man may now be instructed in every branch of science or art that will aid him in becoming a better citizen or leading a happier life.


It is May, 1881.

This morning the routine of work in the various class rooms at the cooper Union is being carried on much as it has been for the past twenty years.

Promptly at half-past nine o'clock, Mr. Cooper drives into the street just in front of the Union.

Sitting alone in a plain little wagon which is drawn by a very steady old horse, he appears to be the most unassuming of mortals. Who would guess that this simple, farmer-like individual is one of the most famous men in America?

Yet everybody in New York knows him as such. The people on the street recognize him, they honor him. Among all the rushing, crowding vehicles, his little carriage has the right of way. Cabs and coaches, trucks and express wagons, all alike turn aside that "Uncle Peter" may pass on without annoyance.

He drives to his own hitching place near the Union. He alights and walks, slowly and somewhat feebly, into the building that is forever to be known by his name.

He sits awhile in the main office, talking with any one he may change to meet there. Then he begins his accustomed round of the various schoolrooms and recitation rooms.

Some of the teachers, knowing how feeble he is, wish to walk with him, to help him. But, no; ninety years old as he is, he does not like to be waited on.

With what delight does he watch the recitations, first in this branch, then in that! With what genuine interest does he inquire after the progress of the various students, and how earnestly does he observe the methods pursued by the different instructors!

There are many things which he does not understand; but the very idea that all this wonderful knowledge is now being placed freely within the reach of young people is extremely pleasing to him.

And when he learns of some poor student who needs help, how readily are his sympathies aroused, how quickly are his purse strings loosened! He has known what it means to thirst for knowledge and be unable to satisfy that thirst.

Later in the day the annual reception is held.

Mr. Cooper takes his place in the east corridor to receive the thousands of friends and well-wishing strangers who come with their congratulations. He sits in the great chair provided for him, and shakes hands with the men, women, and children as they pass.

Each person, whether young or old, rich or poor, is welcomed with the same hearty "How  do you do?" and the same genial smile.

Hundreds of the guests are old students who have come, perhaps, from distant places, to testify to the good which they have derived from the Union.

"Mr. Cooper, I owe everything to you," whispers one who is now a prosperous man of business.

"Mr. Cooper, we must put our little boy's hand in yours," say a young couple, leading a child of four or five years between them.

"God bless you, Uncle Peter!" cries an honest day laborer in his workman's blouse. "You've helped a good many of us poor fellows."

Boys, too bashful to come forward and speak to the great man, stand at a distance and admire. "That's him," they whisper to one another; and they go home full of good resolutions which they will not soon forget.

The day closes, the evening passes. The old man sits in his place and listens with delight and pride to the music, and the pleasant voices, and the laughter of youth. By and by the last of the guests bid him good night.

Then he calls for his modest little carriage, and is driven home. The blessings of thousands go with him.


It is the sixth day of April, 1883.

Two months ago, Peter Cooper was ninety-two years old. Now the crape hangs on his door, and to-day is his funeral.

Never has there been such another funeral in New York.

Stand anywhere on Broadway below Twentieth Street, and you see none of the bustle of business. The stores are all closed. There is not a vehicle of any kind in sight. A solemn stillness fills the whole length of the street. The crowds that line the sidewalks stand silent and speechless.

And now the funeral carriages, two abreast, come in orderly procession down the street. As the hearse passes, every head is bared in honor of the hero whose body it carries. Mothers hold up their little children that they may see. The poor, the wretched, foreigners as well as Americans, seem strangely touched. The rich vie with each other in attesting their esteem.

Not until the procession has moved the whole length of its course and has disappeared in a side street, is the silence of the great thoroughfare broken. Then gradually the crowd begins to move, and little by little the turmoil of business is resumed.

It is thus that the brotherhood of mankind sometimes, perhaps one in many ages, publicly manifests itself. Never will the great city of New York see another such day.

Why should such homage be given to plain Peter Cooper, the man of the people? Why should the pulses of humanity be so strangely stirred by his death?

He was a doer of golden deeds.