In discussing his original wishes for Cooper Union in his unpublished memoir, Peter Cooper stated that the ”subject of the science of government should forever be one of preeminent importance in the course of instruction.” A gentleman by the name of William Foster, then 92 years old, read about Cooper’s intention, and wrote to Peter Cooper to tell him how much he agreed with this concept. Foster had witnessed massacres in the French Revolution, and told Cooper that America was on the verge of a violent struggle (the Civil War), and “who ever lived to see that struggle would witness a scene that would leave as mere gymnastics the massacre that he had witnessed in France,” Cooper recalled:
“So deeply impressed was I with that terrible fear of that approaching revolution that I placed on the front of the Cooper Union the single solitary word “Union,’ and on the other end I placed the words of “Science and Art,” having a determination in my own mind, if I ever lived to finish the building, I would invite all the Governors of the Southern States and all the Governors of the Northern states to meet me here in New York and dedicate that building to Union.”
Cooper had further plans to get all the Northern Governors and Southern Governors to tour each other’s states, “hoping thereby to make them better acquainted with justice and to let them see the decided advantages that could be obtained by a more perfect union.”Union represented the hopes for a united country. It also represented the union of science and art, and the union of public and private. The trades Peter Cooper devoted his early his life to would be industrialized in his lifetime. Today, we are only beginning to address the consequences of industrialization. Growing inequity and environmental destruction will be the roots of impending future struggles. It is more relevant than ever to have an institution like Cooper Union, dedicated to art and science, and commitment to serve public good, engaged in such solutions.
Years after I graduated, I returned to the Great Hall in 2004 to see the actor Sam Waterston re-enact Lincoln’s “Right Makes Might” speech that challenged Stephen Douglas, and paved the road for Lincoln to the White House. Waterston read Lincoln: “Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored – contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong, vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man – such as a policy of “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care.”
The Lincoln Douglass debates were about what our Founding Fathers intended. At Cooper Union, there seems to be a similar debate on the interpretation of the founder Peter Cooper’s vision. How do we become a more Cooper Union? What aspects of history do we choose to preserve while charting a course for the future?
Cooper Union is a both a concrete place and an abstract idea. It harbors both the concept of union and provides a forum for it.
For over 150s years, students and activists have found a home at Cooper Union to exchange thoughts, ideas, nurture creativity and pursue their passions. At Cooper Union, we learned to be resourceful. The challenges we face as engineers, architects and artists is one of resourcefulness. Students, faculty, staff and alumni are gathering and organizing trying to be part of a solution that keeps Cooper Union “wild and free, ” looking for another option besides the false choice of a closed school and a tuition model.
Peter Cooper perhaps hoped for such rallying, in his first address:
“I trust that all the youth of our city and country, through all coming time, will realise that this Institution has been organised for their special use and improvement; and I trust that they will rally around and protect it, and make it like a city set on a hill, that cannot be hid.”