The name of the second president [of Columbia College], Myles Cooper, being somewhat prominently connected with the Revolutionary era in New York, and his story furnishing several notable anecdotes, it may be of interest to state particularly what is known of his life and writings.
Myles Cooper came over to America in 1762. He brought a letter from Archbishop Secker, who had chosen him, at the request of the college, as a competent assistant and successor to President Johnson. The amiable and useful friend to America, Dr. Fothergill, had a hand in this appointment. He was then but twenty-seven years of age; a youthful incumbent of so grave an office, in which he was fully installed the following year. Cooper was born in 1735. He took the degree of Master of Arts at the University of Oxford in 1760, and the next year published a volume of poems by subscription at that city. They are occasional verses, amatory and bacchanalian, full of the spirit of the old English gentleman who sang of Chloe, Delia, and Silvia; put old stories of cuckoldry into epigrams, and wrote heroic little poems on ladies' gaiters; at times subsiding into tranquillity in an ode to Contentment, or some touching lines to a Singing Bird in Confinement, and rising — if it be rising — into dull stanzas on sacred subjects; for all of these things did Myles Cooper in his salad days at Oxford, before he came to America to confront "sons of liberty" on the Hudson. It is not likely that he brought many copies of his Poems over for the use of the students and the eyes of sober Dr. Johnson of Connecticut, with the letter of the archbishop. Some of his verses are censurable, though the taste of the age allowed publications then to gentlemen which the more delicate standard of the present day would reject.
It was one of the doctor's notions in his book that "power," "bower," "tower," should be printed when they made one syllable in poetry, "powre," "bowre," "towre," and he modestly states in his unsettled, apologetic preface, that some of his poems were imitations, and others were written by his friends.
In this old British period the young president's manners and convivial habits were much admired. He was a member of a literary club, which, "like those of modern days, mixed up a little literature with a great deal of conviviality."
On the breaking out of the Revolution, Myles Cooper, with Seabury and Auchmuty, were active on the Tory side in writing and scheming. Cooper is said to have had a hand in the tract, a publication of the times — A Friendly Address to all reasonable Americans, on the subject of our Political Confusions; in which the necessary consequences of violently opposing the King's troops, and of a general Non-Importation are fairly stated; which one of his pupils, the young Alexander Hamilton, who had matriculated at the college in 1774, answered with signal ability. He is twice mentioned in M'Fingal.
Cooper became exceedingly obnoxious to the people, as one of the Tory plotters, and in April, 1775, he and his friends received a significant hint from a published letter, signed "Three Millions," to "fly for their lives, or anticipate their doom by becoming their own executioners."
On the night of May 10, of that year, after Hamilton and his youthful companions had destroyed the guns on the Battery, and one of their comrades had fallen, the mob became incensed, and proceeded to expel Dr. Cooper from the college. Hamilton and Troup, students, ascended the steps, and, to restrain the rioters, Hamilton addressed them "on the excessive impropriety of their conduct, and the disgrace they were bringing on the cause of liberty, of which they professed to be the champions." Dr. Cooper, who mistook the case and thought he was exciting the people, cried out from an upper window, "Don't listen to him, gentlemen; he is crazy, he is crazy" — but Hamilton kept them engaged till the Tory president escaped. He made his way half-dressed over the college fence, and wandered about the shore of the Hudson till near morning, when he found shelter in the old Stuyvesant mansion in the Bowery, where he passed the day, and was at night taken on board the Kingfisher, Captain James Montagu, an English ship-of-war in the harbor, in which he sailed to England. He kept the anniversary of these events next year by writing a poem, full of the circumstances, which he published in the Gentleman's Magazine for July, 1776. It is a favorable specimen of his poetical powers.
STANZAS WRITTEN ON THE EVENING OF THE
10TH OF MAY, 1776, BY AN EXILE FROM AMERICA.
To thee, O God, by whom I live,
The tribute of my soul to give
On this eventful day,
To thee, O God, my voice I raise;
To thee address my grateful praise,
And swell the duteous lay.
Now has this orb unceasing run
Its annual circuit round the sun,
Since when the heirs of strife,
Led by the pale moon's midnight ray,
And bent on mischief, urged their way,
To seize my guiltless life.
At ease my weary limbs were laid,
And slumbers sweet around me shed
The blessings of repose:
Unconscious of the dark design,
I knew no base intent was mine,
And therefore feared no foes.
When straight, a heav'n-directed youth,
Whom oft my lessons led to truth,
And honour's sacred shrine,
Advancing quick before the rest,
With trembling tongue my ear addrest,
Yet sure in voice divine:
"Awake! awake! the storm is nigh—
This instant rouse — this instant fly—
The next may be too late—
Four hundred men, a murderous band,
Access, importunate, demand,
And shake the groaning gate."
I wake — I fly — while loud and new,
Dread execrations wound my ear,
And sore my soul dismay.
One avenue alone remained,
A speedy passage there I gained,
And winged my rapid way.
That moment, all the furious throng,
An entrance forcing, poured along,
And filled my peaceful cell;
Where harmless jest, and modest mirth,
And cheerful laughter oft had birth,
And joy was wont to dwell.
Not e'en the Muses' hallowed fane
Their lawless fury can restrain,
Or cheek their headlong haste;
The push them from their solemn seats,
Profane their long revered retreats,
And lay their Pindus waste.
Nor yet content — but hoping still
Their impious purpose to fulfil,
They force each yielding door;
And while their curses load my head
With piercing steel the probe the bed.
And thirst for human gore.
Meanwhile along the sounding shore,
Where Hudson's waves incessant roar,
I work my weary way;
And skirt the windings of the tide,
My faithful pupil by my side,
Nor wish the approach of day.
At length, ascending from the beach,
With hopes revived, by morn I reach
The good Palemon's cot;
Where, free from terror and affright,
I calmly wait the coming night
My every fear forgot,
'Twas then I scaled the vessel's side,
Where all the amities abide,
That mortal worth can boast;
Whence, with a longing, lingering view,
I bade my much loved York adieu,
And sought my native coast.
Now, all composed, from danger far,
I hear no more the din of war,
Nor shudder at alarms;
But safely sink each night to rest,
No malice rankling through my breast,
In Freedom's fostering arms.
Though stript of most the world admires,
Yet, torn by few untamed desires,
I rest in calm content;
And humbly hope a gracious Lord
Again those blessings will afford
Which once his bounty lent.
Yet, still, for many a faithful friend,
Shall, day by day, my vows ascend
Thy dwelling, O my God!
Who steady still in virtue's cause,
Despising faction's mimic laws,
The paths of peace have trod.
Nor yet for friends alone — for all,
Too prone to heed sedition's call,
Hear me, indulgent Heav'n!
O may they cut their arms away,
To Thee and George submission pay,
Repent, and be forgiven!
Upon his arrival in England Dr. Cooper became one of the ministers of the English Chapel in Edinburgh, in which capacity he died at that city, suddenly, May 1, 1785. The epitaph which he wrote for himself is characteristic:
Here lies a priest of English blood,
Who, living, lik'd whate'er was good;
Good company, good wine, good name,
Yet never hunted after fame;
But as the first he still preferr'd,
So here he chose to be interr'd,
And, unobscur'd, from crowds withdrew
To rest among a chosen few,
In humble hopes that Sovereign love
Will raise him to be blest above.
His portrait, which hangs in the college library, was engraved for a biographical article in the American Medical and Philosophical Register. It exhibits his happy constitutional temperament.
Upon the flight of Dr. Cooper in 1775, the Rev. Benjamin Moore was appointed president pro tem., but the college education was soon entirely interrupted by the Revolution. The building was taken possession of as a military hospital; the library, containing many valuable works from the University of Oxford and other sources, was removed and almost destroyed, but a few of the books coming to light many years afterwards in a room of St. Paul's chapel. There were consequently no graduates from 1776 to 1784. On the restoration of peace the iron crown was removed from the cupola of King's College, which henceforth, by the act of 1784, and under the new organization of trustees established in 1787, became Columbia College. The first student who presented himself after the Revolution was Dewitt Clinton; one of the last who left the college before it was Alexander Hamilton. John Randolph, of Virginia, appears among the early students of the restoration.