Series I. Correspondence: 1746-1878
Ezra Cornell's correspondence consists of hand-written letters sent and received, drafts of outgoing letters, documents or drafts of documents intended to clarify or develop certain points in the correspondence, and occasionally letters between persons other than Ezra Cornell.
The correspondence closely follows and details Ezra Cornell's many business enterprises, personal interests, family relations, and the founding of Cornell University. In many cases he used his correspondence as the "document of record," declaring that a letter was to serve as instruction, documentation, or mandate. This was true in both business and family correspondence. Cornell was tireless in self-documenting his affairs and those of his family, encouraging correspondents to regard their letters as important works by leaving margins on the pages and improving their spelling. Most letters were subsequently marked by a member of the family with the name of the correspondent. Cornell also kept many handwritten copies of his own outgoing letters.
Cornell and his correspondents (particularly members of his own family) discussed episodes of poor health, journeys, businesses, fires and floods, and myriad family matters (including news, gossip, and criticism of family members). But the letters also display frequent contemporary comment on many of the issues of the nineteenth century: slavery, the Civil War, temperance, religion, and national and local politics.
Ezra Cornell's letters reveal a man whose principal values did not change over the course of a long and busy life. From his first letters to his last, he ceaselessly preached the merits of industriousness, education ("Knowledge is power"), abstemiousness, and familial trust and devotion. He was always generous with his pecuniary accumulations, whether a few dollars or many thousands, so long as the cause in his view was just and embraced his own values of education and honest hard work. He was always interested in the plight and betterment of "colored" people, and employed women from the beginning. He very clearly believed in the common man's ability to prevail if afforded the opportunities his times conventionally denied.
The earliest letters derive from his travels through New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Deep South selling plows and plow patent rights, and exploring America as a place in which his skills and work could be turned into industrial and financial success. A proven aptitude for design, mechanics, and construction, and an acquaintance with Samuel F.B. Morse resulted in his working with the test laying of the buried telegraph cable between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. When the trench system failed, Cornell devised an effective way of stringing the wires on poles, and the result permitted and ensured the telegraph's success. That achievement allowed Cornell to direct the enterprise of establishing several new telegraph lines in the East and Midwest; this involved the selling of stock and the actual engineering of the projects. The demanding work took him far from home, and resulted in his writing very many letters in which he described his work and continued to attempt to maintain control of his family's upbringing by correspondence. By reinvesting his earnings and accruing stock in various telegraph lines, he was in the position to accumulate great wealth when Western Union was formed. The development of the telegraph industry was contentious from the beginning, and letters refer frequently to litigation, patent abuse, and the venal behavior of scoundrels and such "pirates" as Henry O'Reilly. Cornell was regularly dunned for payment of bills, and he frequently noted his extreme poverty; he was occasionally sued for payment. Suits dogged Ezra Cornell for much of the rest of his life. As litigation proceeded, it was not always clear that the Morse patent would prevail in court.
Throughout the papers, even before the establishment of his wealth, Cornell is beseeched for money, a job, or some other kind of favor. These appeals are ubiquitous. He often made small grants. His unquestioned leadership of the family and concerted efforts to formally augment the honor of the Cornell family resulted in his being constantly appealed to for aid. The correspondence is expanded somewhat by responses to Ezra Cornell's instruction that people in the offices of the telegraph lines, or family members apprise him of their actions.
The Civil War consolidated Cornell's relationship with members of his family, including his younger brother Daniel, who was severely wounded at Vicksburg and thereafter endured a difficult, and well documented, recuperation. Nephews of Ezra Cornell fought for the Confederacy, and became prisoners of war. One nephew, Union soldier W. Irving Wood died from wounds received in battle. Many other letters from friends or constituents describe the War, recalling the tedium and politics of army life, the tribulations of living in the field, horrible woundings, and the glory and debasement of battle and the Civil War itself.
One of Cornell's initial philanthropic efforts was to finance the construction of the Cornell Public Library in Ithaca, which housed a library, and also served as a place for the meeting of civil, social, and religious organizations. An exchange of letters in January 1864 "staggered" his lawyer F.M. Finch with news that Cornell intended to devote the largest measure of his fortune to a noble cause that would soon lead to the founding of a new kind of practical university. From this point until his death in 1874, the correspondence traces Cornell's involvement with the design of the university, pertaining particularly to the Land Grant endowment and financing the institution. Cornell had served in the New York State Legislature with Andrew Dickson White, a like-minded educational idealist who would become Cornell University's first president. Letters between them make clear that Cornell would attend to the practical problems of establishing the college, and that White was to nurture the university's intellectual foundation.
During a brief foray into the coal oil business in Ohio and Kentucky, and during his years as a New York State Legislator, Ezra Cornell also kept in close contact with his family by correspondence, still seeking to manage the affairs of his children, and concerning himself with the establishment and development of the family's Forest Park farm; land later to become the central campus of the University. A life-long interest in the science of agriculture is revealed as Cornell pays close attention to matters of cattle and crops, even during his legislative career and while founding the University. A rumored sixty million dollar legacy from the English Cornell family and Cornell's life-long pursuit of news and family history from the DeRuyter Cornells and from other long separated members of the family resulted in an increase in family correspondence. Letters to Legislator Cornell reveal New York State residents' problems and needs. When he founded the University, the newspaper stories resulted in his receiving appeals claiming pathetic need. In many cases, he sent a few dollars or a few books to the petitioner.
A detailed correspondence follows his involvement with two other enterprises late in life: the Albany Agricultural Works, and the American Photo-lithographic Company, which he founded with Thomas N. Rooker. Rooker seems to have enjoyed an especially friendly relation with Cornell, one of the few evidences in the Correspondence Series of non-family cordiality.
Principal correspondents include J.J. Speed, D.T. Tillotson, Amos Kendall, and F.O.J. Smith in the telegraph industry; Andrew Dickson White, Hiram Sibley, and F.M. Finch in matters of Cornell University; his wife Mary Ann, son Alonzo, sister Phebe Wood, and brother D.B. in his family.