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Title pageAbout the Book

Cooper, Thomas.

Some Information Respecting America, Collected by Thomas Cooper, Late of Manchester.

London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1794.

Thomas Cooper arrived in the United States in August 1793 and re-embarked at New York for England in February 1794. The clear purpose of his visit was to gauge the prospects for his growing family in the young republic. He had with him the son of Joseph Priestley and several members of his own family. Soon after his return to Manchester, he wrote that the questions about his travels were so numerous that he set out to answer them all comprehensively in print, as an aid to other prospective emigrants. This he did in a remarkable "prospectus" that offered a near-complete set of his observations (and those of others) on the politics, economics, and topography in the various United States. He also included tables and comparisons of many kinds that he felt would be helpful for the emigrant's economic planning. That he could do this in such a complete way was impressive, especially since his time in the United States was so short and his own travels only included the eastern and central portions of Pennsylvania and parts of New York State. He enlisted help, though. He included large excerpts from a letter written by a fellow English visitor, the Reverend Toulmin, detailing the Lancashire clergyman's own travels through the middle south. He also diligently gathered government documents and announcements. In addition, the United States Congress was meeting while he was there, probably in Germantown since there was yellow fever in Philadelphia, and he made contact with several representatives.

In his preface, Cooper makes clear both the intent of his book and of his own decision permanently to leave England for Pennsylvania. The personal reason he gives as a political and philosophical one, which is unsurprising considering the public attacks he had been suffering from a hostile majority in Britain as a result of his support for reform and the French Revolution. But he also maintains that the studies he includes are just the things that he would have liked to know about the climate, the economy, and the prospects for settlement before he had first traveled to America. The bulk of the work is divided into five letters.

Letter One lays out the appeal and the drawbacks for the Englishman of moderate fortune and a growing family in selecting livelihood and location for settlement. Manufacture is in its infancy, he states, as an example, and to attempt the development of, say, a textile factory of the type now becoming common in northern England would bring about only ruin. Land and agriculture are the only prudent course. Englishmen would not like the south because of its dependence on slavery, most would not want to hazard settlement on the western borders where Indians threaten, and servants and farm help must be available. The climate and soils also dictate to the new settler, says Cooper. New York's Genesee Valley has the best land, but servants are scarce, Indians are closer, and there is fever in the area. He warns against the coastal areas in general for climate and health reasons. Some areas he discards for their politics: Delaware's constitution has "a religious test law," and New York requires a non-citizen to have a citizen "trustee." After a long examination of possible sites in Maryland and Virginia - where he finds the building of "Washington City" a possible attraction for surrounding farmers - and in the Shenandoah Valley, he settles on central Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna Valley, "generally north of latitude 41." He is impressed with plans for the Commonwealth's infrastructure, reproducing verbatim the announcements of Secretary A. J. Dallas opening bids for river navigation and scores of roads in the west and northwest of the state. Transport and markets are vital to farmers, and he sees access to Philadelphia by river, canal, or turnpike as far more valuable than to the smaller New York.

Letter Two outlines comparisons in culture and conveniences for Englishmen of his type. He also describes American society and its costs and opportunities. The cities he describes as on a par with the largest provincial towns of Britain. New York, for example, is about equivalent to Liverpool in comforts and culture. Prices in the cities are about one third higher than in England and houses more expensive. Outside the city the picture changes markedly, with the living far better than rural areas at home and prices far less for provisions. He does, however, find the farmers more "slovenly" in comparison with their trans-Atlantic counterparts, with habits of fencing, cultivation, and gardens far less developed. Shopkeepers of character will do well, he writes; lawyers can charge similar fees as in England, doctors can succeed being that surgeons are not as experienced, and schoolmasters are needed everywhere. There are no beggars, and "depravity" is less. A man can fail and rise again without stigma. He then goes on to describe politics in America dividing the population between the "Federalists" and the "Anti Federalists." The former seek to extend executive power in the British and French style and encourage manufactures and business, while the latter believe in decentralization, are against the "insulting arrogance of superiority" in foreign affairs, and lean towards France. Most of the central government he sees as Federalist and most of the people and their representatives in Congress he counts in the opposite camp. (Cooper himself is clearly against the capitalist "manufacture" that, he says, turns humans into "mere machines" to the benefit of the very few, and he cannot support men like Hamilton who want it for the United States). He then rehearses his reasons for choosing America, and in particular the area around Sunbury in Pennsylvania. He concludes with highly detailed information on travel across the Atlantic, costs and arrangements for passage, what to bring for the voyage, and what to include in one's baggage valuable for use in America.

Letter Three provides a host of facts and opinions about land, prices, wages, and transport costs. This is almost completely drawn from the comprehensive information Reverend Toulmin wrote concerning the middle states of the South. Toulmin landed in Norfolk, Virginia in July 1793 and traveled through Virginia, Maryland, and up the Shenandoah Valley to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Cooper uses much of the letter verbatim, including its detailed information on soil types, prices of all sorts, and observations on shoeless slaves in Norfolk and the "unsociable" inhabitants of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. (From Carlisle westwards, people were none too happy about the new tax on whiskey at this time.)

Letter Four offers the observations Cooper and his own party made during their travels across Pennsylvania and up to the New York line. They leave Philadelphia on horseback in mid-December 1793 in the direction of Reading and Hamburg, calling the scenery "barren and uninteresting." Once they reach the higher elevations, however, and the valley of the Susquehanna around Sunbury, his attitudes change. He finds the Northumberland towns delightful and is even more impressed as they move upriver. Throughout, he provides details on the flora and the topography - on December 17, the river at Sunbury was half a mile wide and ten foot deep in its center - as well as a constant stream of comments on prices and other useful information. Back down river at Harrisburg (beautifully situated, but low and damp) and Middletown, he discusses transport of goods on to Philadelphia. At Paxtang, he describes what he considers the ideal typical farm, the 300-acre property of one Mr. McAllister. In a long section he outlines McAllister's crops, rotation, ploughing and other methods, describing completely the operation of the "cyder press." Costs, produce taken to market, and the numerous outbuildings, including a sawmill, distillery, gristmill, and smokehouse impress Cooper. The group then makes its way through Elizabethtown and Lancaster, observing some of the "best cultivated" land in the country. Finally, down the Lancaster to Philadelphia turnpike, the first such experiment in the United States, Cooper and his friends complete their sixteen-day journey.

Letter Five brings together the remaining "scraps" of information Cooper has yet to share. It includes the observations of his journey between Philadelphia and New York, with opinions on land near Hartford, Connecticut and around Albany, New York. He then adds what would aptly be called an extended set of appendices. They include tables of currency, "sundry coins" then in use, extensive lists of comparative prices between London and Philadelphia, and the long list of duties to be paid on imports to the United States, from carriages to tea. "Tonnage" registration fees on vessels using American ports - for American ships six cents per ton annually - and port and surveyor permits and their fees are also included. A table of exports by state between the autumns of 1792 and 1793 and where they went - one third to Britain and one quarter to France - follows, along with figures from the 1791 census that counted 39 million Americans, with Pennsylvania second in population behind Virginia. He reproduces the complete new Constitution of the United States, including the legal documents leading to its ratification. Cooper concludes with two lengthy pieces borrowed from other sources; he prints the concluding and summarizing chapter of a book soon to be published by Tench Coxe, the well-known Philadelphian and future Pennsylvania land speculator (while conveniently at the head of the Pennsylvania Land Office), called A View of the United States of America, and he reprints in full Benjamin Franklin's famous 1782 pamphlet Information to Those Who Would Remove to America.

Cooper's Some Information Regarding America is a valuable primary resource for understanding the United States during its first decade under its new Constitution. Cooper is an enthusiastic booster of the new nation and reflects much of the self-confidence and self-assurance of its early years of independence. Always the spokesman for Pennsylvania as the "most flourishing state of the Union," his work here is especially valuable for the study of how the Commonwealth was settled, worked, and looked upon by strangers. The detail involved in this book is astounding. Although some of his figures and opinions need verification, and his organization was often at the mercy of his struggle to include every scrap of information he could, Cooper does present a priceless picture of Pennsylvania as a hope filled but discerning immigrant saw it. (It is indeed ironic that, after having settled and worked in his beloved Pennsylvania, he ended his life as a valuable citizen of South Carolina, in the midst of slave owners.) The booster must always be questioned, however. One might ask, for example, why he did not mention in his account the devastating yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia that took the lives of a tenth of its population in the three months after his arrival in the country? (He would perhaps point in his defense to his blanket warning against settlement anywhere on the unhealthy Atlantic coast.)

Cooper was a newcomer, but not an ordinary one. A barrister and a scientist, he already had extensive experience with revolution, having seen it first hand in Paris. A contentious character that was to have many an encounter with what he saw as dangerously gathering authority - in his new surroundings as much as his old - he never saw the success he had imagined in this hasty but careful study of the prospects of life as a Pennsylvania farmer. He did, however become an editor, a lawyer, a judge, a scientist, and a college professor and president who over his long and turbulent days never quite lost the confident idealism for his adopted country and for the new form of government he called in this book "government of the people and for the people."

Researched and authored by John Osborne, Ph. D.

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