Cooke was born in Sandusky, Ohio in 1821 and died in Elkins Park, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, in 1905. A road, a school, a state park and at least two towns are named for him due to his philanthropic efforts and his conspicuous role in financing the Union cause during the Civil War.
Jay Cooke & Company began operations in Philadelphia on the eve of the war. Due to his relationship with Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and the Treasury’s difficulty marketing its own bonds, Cooke and his company contracted to sell $400 million of “five-twenty” bonds for a commission that averaged less than one half of one percent. That was enough for Cooke to hire some 2,500 agents to aggressively market the bonds throughout the country, even in occupied areas of the Confederacy, to banks, wealthy capitalists and common folk.
Cooke also enlisted Northern newspapers to run advertisements and editorials extolling the bonds as patriotic investments. His organization also kept the Union war machine well greased with cash by selling some $800 million of “seven-thirty” notes. Chase called the efforts of Cooke and his agents “indefatigable” and claimed that “the history of the world may be searched in vain for a parallel case of popular financial support to a national government.”
After the war, Cooke became interested in the Northern Pacific Railway and its terminus in Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior. Speculation in the railroad’s watered shares, which dropped in value at the outset of the Panic of 1873, fomented his bankruptcy. By 1880, however, Cooke had recouped some of his fortune due in part to a shrewd investment in a Utah silver mine.
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Memo from President Abraham Lincoln to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase listing assets Lincoln wanted converted into bonds.
Bond issued to Abraham Lincoln featuring his portrait, 1864. Courtesy of the Bureau of the Public Debt.