Cornell’s social stature eventually made him a political force.A life-long Republican, he attended Lincoln’s inauguration.In 1861, he was elected to the New York State Assembly, and, as Chair of the Committee on Agriculture, soon went on to become President of the New York State Agricultural Society.In this capacity, he and Mary Ann visited European farms, as well as the Exposition of the World’s Industry in London and the Royal Agricultural College of England.
This position also made Cornell an ex officio trustee of Ovid Agricultural College, founded in 1853 as the first agriculture school in the United States.He became convinced of the need for a technical university for the working class of New York State, one that would teach scientific methods of farming and industry.Cornell’s plan was to create an institution on his farm in Ithaca to train farmers in scientific agricultural techniques.He also wanted to develop workshops, directed by Mary Ann, to train young women in practical household skills, so that all the students could provide for their own maintenance by working part-time while they spent the rest of the day at conventional studies.The legacy of this vision is the state side of Cornell University, the Agriculture, Veterinary and Human Ecology schools.
Ezra also found his calling in philanthropy at this time, and his first act was to build a public library in Ithaca in 1863, a large building with commercial space housing the post office and bank, and an 800-seat auditorium upstairs to help finance the operation of the library.Rich beyond his expectations, Cornell wanted to use his money to help the “deserving poor”; thus he limited his own children’s inheritance to $100,000 each, in his view for their own good.Ezra defined his personal philosophy in a letter to his son Alonzo in 1840: “There is no other safe rule than to establish character upon a fixed principle; do right because it is right, for the sake of the right and nothing else.Every act should be measured by that rule – ‘is it right’?Let a pure heart prompt an honest conscience to answer the question and all will be well.”Writing again to Alonzo in 1846, Ezra underlined his belief in the power of knowledge: “You had better pay very close attention to Mathematiks, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Civil engineering & &, with that you want to learn thoroughly the English language, History, Composition, Writing, Geography, Phylosophy, Chemistry & & [sic].”Never did a Renaissance man have higher ambitions for his progeny than those of the self-taught Ezra Cornell.
A letter to Mary Ann, in 1854, states his religious convictions, and his view of the problematic nature of organized religion, as well as his hope for the triumph of secular humanism:
The happiness of man is the completion and perfection of His works.Anything short of the full and complete happiness of man would mar the grand design of the architect of the heavens…But the gospel as it is preached…falls more like a mildew upon a benighted world, and tries to shield the deformities of the dead and putrid carcass of ‘the Church’ from the penetrating eye of advancing science and enlightened humanity…The steam engine, the railroad and the telegraph are the great engines of reformation, and by the time we enter upon the 20th century the present will be looked back to as we now look back to the dark ages…A new era in religion and humanity will have arrived.
The new religion of science did indeed arrive, although the humane society that Cornell predicted has proven more elusive; still, 19th century utopianism was the basis of the secular institution that he envisioned.