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About the Ezra Cornell Papers

Preface

Ezra Cornell referred to himself as a farmer and mechanic who had spent some time working in the telegraph industry. His ambition and imagination, however, were not so prosaic. Skillful work, uncommon tenacity, and fortuitous circumstances resulted in his amassing a fortune. As soon as it became clear that it was a fortune, he promptly rejected conventional practice and sage advice, and directed that those riches be used to found a unique university: a comprehensive and practical institution dedicated to all forms of intellectual endeavor.

Ezra Cornell spent much of his time far from home, walking through the ante-bellum south, selling plows in Maine, supervising the construction and operation of lines for the telegraph industry, and serving as a New York State legislator in Albany. Throughout these endeavors, he wrote detailed and descriptive letters to many members of a large family. Both he and they were careful to archive those letters, as well as many other documents related to his various enterprises. Similarly, as Cornell and Andrew Dickson White conceived, planned, and founded Cornell University, their correspondence closely noted the evolution of their dreams and their preparations for the University's opening and operation. These letters and documents show a practical but visionary man whose life both exemplified and shaped 19th century America. His close observations provide a contemporary account of the country's cultural development, the profound effects of industrialization and the Civil War, and his own role in engineering the century's principal communication technology and its most innovative educational experiment.