Thomas Cooper (US politician)

Dr. Thomas Cooper (October 22, 1759May 11, 1840), American educationalist and political philosopher was born in London, England. He attended Oxford, but did not graduate. Though Cooper is virtually unknown in today's historical world, his ideas were taken very seriously in his own time. There were substantial reviews of his writings, and some late eighteenth-century critics of materialism directed their arguments against Cooper, rather than against the better-known Joseph Priestley.

Threatened with prosecution at home because of his active sympathy with the French Revolution, he emigrated to America with Priestley in 1794, and began the practice of law in Northumberland county, Pennsylvania. He was president-judge of the Fourth District of Pennsylvania in 1806-1811. Like his friend Joseph Priestley, who was then living in Northumberland, he sympathized with the Anti-Federalists, and took part in the agitation against the Sedition Act, and for a newspaper attack in 1799 on President John Adams. He was removed from his position as judge in 1811 on a charge of arbitrary conduct. Cooper was convicted, fined and imprisoned for libel. Like Priestley, Cooper was very highly esteemed by Thomas Jefferson, who secured for him the appointment as first professor of natural science and law in the University of Virginia position which Cooper was forced to resign under the fierce attack made on him by the Virginia clergy.

After serving as the chair of chemistry at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (1811-1814) and at the University of Pennsylvania (1818-1819), he became a professor of chemistry at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) in 1819. Later he would also provide instruction in political economics. In 1820, he became acting president of this institution and was president from 1821 until 1833, when he resigned owing to the opposition within the state to his liberal religious views.

In December 1834, owing to continued opposition, he resigned his professorship. He had been formally tried for infidelity in 1832. He was a born agitator: John Adams described him as a learned, ingenious, scientific and talented madcap. Before his college classes, in public lectures, and in numerous pamphlets, he constantly preached the doctrine of free trade, and tried to show that the protective system was especially burdensome to the South. His remedy was state action. Each state, he contended, was a sovereign power and was in duty bound to protest against the tyrannical acts of the Federal government.

Upon his arrival in America, Cooper had a positive outlook towards our country saying he preferred America because, "There is little fault to find with the government of America, either in principle or in practice…we have no animosities about religion; it is a subject about which no questions are asked…the present irritation of men's minds in Great Britain, and the discordant state of society on political grounds is not known there. The government is the government of the people and for the people". By 1831 his perspective had changed: "In no other country is the wise toleration established by law, so complete as in this. But in no country whatever is a spirit of persecution for mere opinions, more prevalent than in the United States of America. It is a country most tolerant in theory, and most bigoted in practice", not that this made him feel obliged to return to Mother England.

He was friends with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and several Governors of South Carolina. In philosophy he was a materialist, in religion a free thinker, and by nature of being an adamant advocate of states' rights was in favor of Interposition. Cooper was one of the most vocal supporters of secession. Cooper's political views made him enemies, and his religious views made even more.

He supported the institution of slavery, which was the opposite of his earlier viewpoint. In the mid to late 1780s Cooper fought passionately against "that infamous and impolitic traffic". He wrote that "negroes are men; susceptible of the same cultivation with ourselves", claimed that "as Englishmen, the blood of the murdered African is upon us, and upon our children, and in some day of retribution he will feel it, who will not assist to wash off the stain". Once in America, Cooper changed his mind completely and accepted slavery. He doubted that "in South Carolina or Georgia...the rich lands could be cultivated without slave labour". Whether this is the case or it simply became necessary to adopt this viewpoint in order to be consistent with his states' rights persona is questionable.

President Adams thought Cooper was a "learned, ingenious, scientific, and talented madcap." Cooper was arrested, convicted, jailed and fined under the United States early Alien and Sedition Laws after violently attacking the administration of John Adams in print. It was during this trial that Cooper stated that he knew the king of England could do no wrong, "but I did not know till now that the President of the United States had the same attribute".

As mentioned, Cooper's religious views brought him criticism as well. He was an agnostic, but did not reject the notion of life after death. He rejected evolution, but believed in an old earth with a late introduction to man on that earth based upon the Biblical literalism: "Nor does the discovery of the human relics at Engis, or Cro-Magnon, or Mentome, aid the high scientific people in their attempt to discredit the Bible account of the late introduction of Man, by the Creator." Cooper was a young-earth creationist in that he believed that God created man within the past few thousand years.

Cooper was a relentless campaigner for political freedom. He believed freedom of speech was the most fundamental of those freedoms and that America had major improvements to make in this area: "the value of free discussion is not yet appreciated as it ought to be in these United States". He blamed the clergy in particular for this state of affairs: "the clergy of this country...are united in persecuting every man who calls in question any of their metaphysical opinions, or who hints at their views of ambition and aggrandizement". Not surprisingly, the evangelical Charles Colcock Jones, who was a missionary to slaves as well as a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, was unimpressed with Cooper. Jones called him "the Father" of the "infidel Party" in South Carolina. "That old man," he wrote, "has done this state more evil than fifty years can remove. He has a world of iniquity to answer for in poisoning the State with his infidel principles." [Erskine Clarke, "Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 172.]

Cooper was at the center of the nullification movement and taught South Carolina about the dangers of consolidation. In 1827, as the tariff controversy grew, Cooper publicly questioned the benefit of the Union. In a speech, he described the South as the perennial loser in an "unequal alliance.". Cooper predicted that South Carolina would in the near future "be compelled to calculate the value of our union.". The idea that the South should withdraw "received its first extensive advertising as a result of that speech".

Though he became increasingly controversial during his tenure as president of then named South Carolina College, Thomas Cooper was very popular with his students. Most of them came to his defense in the years of 1831-33, when Cooper was frequently challenged by the State Legislature. Though many students disagreed with Cooper's philosophies, they liked the man personally.

He exercised considerable influence in preparing the people of South Carolina for nullification and secession; in fact he preceded Calhoun in advocating a practical application of the state sovereignty principle. The last years of his life were spent in preparing an edition of the Statutes at Large of the state, which was completed by David James McCord (1797-1855) and published in ten volumes (1836-1841). Dr Cooper died in Columbia on the 11th of May 1840. As a philosopher he was a follower of Hartley, Erasmus Darwin, Priestley and Broussais; he was a physiological materialist, and a severe critic of Scotch metaphysics. Among his publications are "Political Essays" (1800); "An English Version of the Institutes of Justinian" (1812); "Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy" (1826); "A Treatise on the Law of Libel" and the "Liberty of the Press"(1830); and a translation of "Broussais On Irritation and Insanity" (1831), with which were printed his own essays, "The Scripture Doctrine of Materialism, View of the Metaphysical and Physiological Arguments in favor of Materialism", and "Outline of the Doctrine of the Association of Ideas".

The University of South Carolina has a library named for Cooper and bestows an achievement award presented by the University's Thomas Cooper Society: the Thomas Cooper Society Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Letters and Arts.


External links

* [ Encyclopedia Dicensonia biography of Thomas Cooper]

NAME= Cooper, Thomas
SHORT DESCRIPTION=American educationalist and political philosopher
DATE OF BIRTH=October 22 1759
PLACE OF BIRTH=London, England
DATE OF DEATH=May 11 1840

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