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Cooke The Financier

July 2024
1min read

Our story about the Ogontz School for Young Ladies (“A Schoolgirl’s Album,” December, 1971) was read with both interest and irritation by Charles B. Harding, of Rumson, New Jersey, retired senior partner of the Wall Street firm of Smith, Barney & Company, and the great grandson of Jay Cooke, who donated the mansion that became the school’s home. The photographs reminded Mr. Harding of ones he had seen before, for he recalled that his mother and her five sisters had all attended the school. He took exception, however, to two phrases used to describe Jay Cooke—that he was a “wily manipulator” and was known as the “so-called” financier of the Civil War. As Mr. Harding put it:
Jay Cooke had his faults, perhaps overoptimism was the greatest, but his career was banking, not manipulation. … I might add that the recouping of his fortune after the failure of Jay Cooke & Co. in 1873 is an interesting story: He met a Scotsman on a train going out West who told him that he had discovered a silver mine which he believed to contain some rich ore, but that he could not get it out as there was no railroad to the site. He offered Jay Cooke a half interest in the mine if he would build a branch line from one of the railroads he controlled. This Cooke did and later sold his half interest for over one million dollars. The mine was the famous Horn silver mine. …

With regard to his being referred to as the “so-called” financier of the Civil War: as a result of his and Drexel & Co.’s success in the sale of a Pennsylvania loan in 1861, and subsequent assistance to the U.S. Treasury in disposing of various issues of bonds and notes, Jay Cooke was appointed by Secretary Salmon P. Chase in October, 1862, as his special agent for the sale of the first great ($500,000,000) war loan. … It has been estimated that in all about 60 per cent of the u.s. Government loans during the Civil War were made through “Jay Cooke, Special Agent.” Some have gone so far as to say that the Union was victorious primarily because of the efforts of three men—Lincoln, Grant, and Cooke. One kept the country on its course, one provided winning military leadership, and the third provided the means to accomplish the purposes of the other two.
We must, on looking into the record, apologize for our ill-chosen epithets.

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