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HAWB 1870s - American producer class hero Peter Cooper - How America Was Built

Tony Wikrent's picture

I suppose some words of introduction are in order. Around the end of 2014, I conceived the idea of compiling a chronological history of how the USA economy had actually been built, highlighting the role of government in nurturing and promoting science and technology in industry, agriculture, and transportation. This would, of course, directly repudiate the right-wing myths of heroic entrepreneurs as "wealth creators" in a "free market" liberated from the deadening hand of government. But, it also repudiates part of the leftist, especially Marxist, critique of the American economy, by changing the focus from looting and exploitation to the actual ways in which "wealth" is created. (I define wealth not has hoards of cash, financial paper, gold, land, or other property, but as the human knowledge of how to find and use natural resources to support and sustain human life). Please note I am NOT arguing that there was no looting and exploitation in USA economic history--there has been, and much of it has been terribly bloody, such as the forcible removal of native Americans. What I am arguing is that BEFORE there is looting and exploitation, there has to be the accretion of the science and technology by which useful goods and services are created. Once the goods and services are created, then those goods and services can be looted, and people and nature exploited in the making of them. Also, there is the case, usually of land, where there must pre-exist the potential to apply technology to that land to extract resources.

My approach is informed by my reading of Thorstein Veblen, the American economist of the 1890s through 1920s who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class. For Veblen, I am indebted to Jon Larson of RealEconomics, who argues that you will learn more about economics from reading the first two pages of The Theory of the Leisure Class than you will learn from reading any modern textbook on economics. I reject Marx's class analysis, because it has failed repeatedly, and because Veblen's class analysis is much more accurate and powerful. Veblen's class analysis allows us to understand why oppressive authoritarian economic, political, and social structures arise not only in capitalist societies, but also in societies which claim to be socialist or Marxist.

Veblen and Larson divide all members of society into two basic classes: producers, and predators. Producers are not just industrial workers and farmers, but also the scientists, engineers, and even supervisors who oversee the industrial system of production. In fact, the second book by Veblen I recommend, after The Theory of the Leisure Class, is The Engineers and the Price System, which explores how business owners and managers sabotage the work of engineers in order to create artificial shortages and thereby support price levels, or even achieve monopoly positions in the market.

HAWB 1870s - American producer class hero Peter Cooper - How America Was Built
I wanted to learn how to create and post a video to Youtube, and last month, Jon Larson, owner/operators of the RealEconomics blog, graciously obliged me by sharing as much as he could of what he has learned in the past two decades of shooting and editing video.

I once had a college professor who told me he spends one hour preparing for each minute he actually lectures. Making video is much more time intensive. In three solid days of collaboration, Jon and I produced and posted a four minute video on American producer class hero Peter Cooper, builder of the first American steam locomotive, inventor of Jell-O, and founder of Cooper Union.

There are plenty of other producer class heroes we could have chosen, but what sets Cooper apart is that he had also elaborated a full, producer class version of American School economics, and, as a result, was nominated by the new Greenback Party as its candidate for US President in 1876. Creating a video on Cooper therefore allowed us to present the policies of the Greenbackers--and there is precious little accurate information on the Greenback Party available, either in print, or on the internet. If there was anything we could change in the video, it would be the last sentence, which would become: "And, all these Greenbacker policies formed the basis for progressive economic policies over the next century, including seeding the ideas for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal."

The full transcript is below the video. You will note there are a few, small cuts we made from the full transcript in order to meet our target of four minutes.

We were delighted to find a YouTube video of Eastman Kodak's film of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's 1927  "Fair of the Iron Horse... History of Transportation." This film includes footage of actual operation of nineteenth-century locomotives, including a complete reproduction of Cooper's 1830 locomotive Tom Thumb. We included only the few seconds showing the Tom Thumb; if you want to watch the entire 1927 file, here is the link

We were also delighted to find and use in the video scans of the actual Civil War greenbacks, the fiat paper money issued by the U.S. Treasury.



One of the most important, and most forgotten, members of the American producer class is Peter Cooper, who established the Cooper Union in New York City in 1853. Born in 1791, Cooper began his career as an important producer class industrialist in 1821 by buying a glue factory at Kipps Bay in Manhattan. Glue factories often exploded when the glue was heated directly by fire. Cooper solved this problem by inventing a double boiler in which direct fire was used to heat water, and the boiling water was used to heat the glue.

In 1829, Cooper was elected as Councilman of New York, and worked to bring clean water to the city through a long-distance pipe built across the Harlem river. This successful 1835 project was the prototype of New York’s massive water supply system built a few decades later.

Around the same time, Cooper started an business iron in Baltimore. The iron beams Cooper produced were used in the Flatiron Building, the Philadelphia Mint, The Cooper Union, and the US Treasury building.

This was the time when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was just getting started, and in 1830 Cooper built and operated the Tom Thumb. This was the first steam locomotive designed and built in America,a and it helped convince the company and local citizens that steam locomotives were a practical means of pulling trains.

In 1845, Cooper invented gelatin desert, which we know today as Jell-O.

In 1854, at the age of 65, Peter Cooper began construction of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He wanted to provide as good an education in engineering and architecture, as The Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, but wanted tuition to be free. He also insisted that Cooper Union welcome progressive thinkers and ideas, and after the Civil War, Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony had their offices there.

In 1857, Cooper bought control of the North American Telegraph Company, which would eventually become American Telephone and Telegraph, or A T and T. Cooper then played a key role in the design and laying of the first transatlantic cable.

During the Civil War, Peter Cooper was among the first to buy war bonds. More importantly, he supported and promoted the issuance of paper money by the United States Treasury. This broke the stranglehold of the big banks in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. These currency notes, issued by the national government instead of private banks, became known as Lincoln’s Greenbacks, and made it possible for the Union to pay for winning the war. When these Greenbacks were replaced by the hard money of gold in 1873, farmers and small industrialists around the country suddenly could not get money or credit, and the economy collapsed into a depression.

In 1876, even though he was 85 years old, Peter Cooper, ran for President as the candidate of the new Greenback Party. The policy platform of the Greenbackers called for:

  • a return to flexible fiat paper money, 
  • regulation of Interest rates, 
  • breaking up industrial and transportation monopolies, 
  • protective tariffs to help industrial development, 
  • increased government support for the poor and needy, 
  • imposing a tax on high incomes, 
  • an eight hour work day, and 
  • giving women the right to vote. 
  • In addition, Cooper revived George Washington's idea that bankers and stock brokers should be excluded from Congress. 

Though Cooper barely received one percent of the national vote, 14 Greenbackers were elected to Congress. And, all these Greenbacker policies would later be enacted over the next half century, seeding the ideas for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The first post in my HAWB series was on January 26, 2015: HAWB - Introduction - How America Was Built. I have yet to code a full list of all the posts, but there are less than a dozen so far, because 2015 I had some medical issues to deal with. However, there are two I would recommend to people at this time:

Michael Hudson on the American School of Political Economy, November 1, 2015. There are a lot of unhappy people these days, wondering if there is not some viable alternative to neo-liberal market capitalism that does not involve risking the failures of socialism. Well, there is, and it used to be known as the American School of Political Economy. I consider Veblen to simply be a continuing refinement of that school. Hudson, by the way, is one of the few professional economists I recommend people follow closely:

The only other full profile of a producer class hero I have written so far is of steam engineer and Civil War US Navy Admiral B. F. Isherwood: HAWB 1863 - Admiral Benjamin Franklin Isherwood and Steam Power - How America Was Built, December 28, 2015.

Thank you for any and all feedback and comments.

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