Cowper was elected as the member for the County of Cumberland in the Legislative Council in 1843 after a bitter contest against James Macarthur and held his seat until 1850. In September 1848 he sent out a circular convening a meeting to consider the establishment of a railway company. The company was formed and the first railway in New South Wales was begun on 3 July 1849. It proved impossible for the company to finance the railway, and it was taken over by the government six years later.
After coming last in the election for the City of Sydney and failing to win Cumberland, at the end of 1851, Cowper was elected for Durham. He had opposed transportation since the 1840s and had presided at a public meeting protesting plans to revive transportation in October 1846. He also fought transportation vigorously in the Council and in May 1851 he became president of the Australasian League for the Abolition of Transportation, which included representatives of New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and New Zealand. The association actively campaigned in Britain and, partly as a result, the British Government announced in December 1852 that there would be no more transportation to eastern Australia.
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