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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 777

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This is the grave of William Cooper.

Born in 1754 in Somerton, Pennsylvania, Cooper did not grow up particularly well off. He certainly wasn’t a member of the colonial elite. He may well have not attended school; in any case, there’s no record of it. He worked as a wheelwright for awhile and married a Quaker woman, but he was a lapsed Quaker himself so the religious values didn’t take in the family. He then moved to New Jersey to find work.

Like a number of Americans in this era, Cooper engaged in land speculation. Unlike most of them, he actually made a lot of money at it. This issue of land speculation cannot be overstated. For instance, George Washington was all-in on it and usually not to his financial benefit. This land speculation was a mess of poor surveying, greed to exterminate the tribes and open up land, cheating, the selling of the same piece of land to multiple people, and all the court cases dealing with this would involve. But Cooper invested in heavily in upstate New York and at least at first it worked out for him. He founded the town of Cooperstown, named after himself of course. Settlers did come, mostly from an overcrowded and impoverished New England.

He made this all work through political machinations. The first was not taking any sides during the American Revolution. He just stayed out of it. By doing so, he was able to get close to the Tory elite who were losing their status in the new nation. It’s entirely possible that Cooper was quietly a Tory; he certainly would have no patience for American democracy, never mind his humble origins. In any case, he managed to take control of a lot of the property these people had some interest in, leaving him with tens of thousands of acres around Otsego Lake. Now, he engaged in the same financial tricks to make this happen that most land speculators were doing. This meant borrowing enormous sums of money that might or might not be paid back. It meant that in the future, the heirs to these debts would have to pay them back.

Being a successful entrepreneur, Cooper entered the political realm as well. He was appointed as a county judge and then went to the state legislature and then Congress for two terms as a Federalist, first from 1795-97 and then 1799-1801. But while he was the lord of his realm, or so he thought, and had the gigantic manor house to show it (at the time the largest house in central New York), it was a democratic nation that was developing. Patricians, even if self-styled such as Cooper, were not acceptable. The locals who had moved there simply did not accept that Cooper had any power over them at all. They increasingly rejected his haughty ways. He actually called himself “the Father of the People.” This…did not go over well with the people living in New York. The courts were not going to back up giant landowners either. Slowly, he lost his power and control over the land he had successfully speculated upon. This infuriated him. After all, it wasn’t just that the town was his life project. It’s that he saw himself as a new royalty and wanted to transcend his modest raising and poor manners. So he didn’t just found a town. He created a town with institutions of learning, with the finest architecture borrowed money could buy, with culture on the frontier. So when “the people” rejected his leadership, he could not deal with it. When he was evicted from Congress and his beloved elite Federalists not accepted by the lowly people, he became a bitter reactionary.

Increasingly encumbered by the debts that he had never paid back, Cooper found his later years to be rough. He eventually tried to replicate his success in building Cooperstown by engaging a new round of speculation in the St. Lawrence Valley. But the conditions were different. He was more lucky than skilled in building Cooperstown. His reputation was not what it was in the 1770s. He also chose less fertile land. The scheme failed completely.

In 1809, Cooper died at the age of 55. We don’t really know how. Nearly a century later, one of his descendants claimed he was whacked in the head over a political fight. But that’s highly unlikely, largely reflecting the bitterness future Coopers had over the loss of their patrimony. Certainly William’s son James Fenimore Cooper felt this and the contempt for the increasingly democratic nature of New York seems into the Leatherstocking series. Part of the reason he wrote in the first place was to recoup the family fortune. Probably William just died of natural causes, i.e., the many possibilities of bad health in the early nineteenth century.

William Cooper is buried in Christ Churchyard, Cooperstown, New York.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other Federalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Rufus King is in Queens and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney is in Charleston, South Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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