Educator, scientist. Thomas Cooper was born on October 22, 1759, in Westminster, England. His father was also named Thomas Cooper; his mother’s name is unknown. Little is known about his childhood or family. In 1779 he began studying at Oxford, and although he did not obtain a degree, he went on to work as a lawyer and a chemist. On August 12, 1779, he married Alice Greenwood, with whom he had five children.
A philosophical radical, Cooper was discouraged by England’s conservative reaction to the French Revolution. He left the country in 1794 and settled in Pennsylvania. There he worked as a lawyer and a physician and became associated with the Jeffersonian Republican opposition to Federalism. Republican political triumphs eventually lifted him to a state judgeship in 1804. During this time he began to grow more conservative as the result of attacks on the judiciary by radical democrats. He was forced out of office in 1811. After leaving politics, Cooper turned to teaching chemistry and worked at a variety of schools before arriving at South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) in 1820. His first wife had died in 1800, and in 1811 he married Elizabeth Pratt Hemming, with whom he had three children.
In South Carolina, Cooper completed his philosophical journey and became an ardent proponent of states’ rights. He was appointed the second president of South Carolina College in May 1820 and taught courses in chemistry, mineralogy, and political economy. Cooper also established himself early as an opponent of religious orthodoxy, which led to confrontation with the state’s Presbyterians that played across the pages of pamphlets and newspapers.
Whatever political capital Cooper may have lost by arguing against religion he regained among many by his adoption of states’ rights and proslavery views. Although he had authored an antislavery pamphlet while living in England, Cooper purchased two slave families on his arrival in South Carolina. Cooper also opposed tariffs that would injure the southern staple economy. In 1824 he wrote his first major pamphlet that espoused states’ rights philosophy, and he later became a strong supporter of nullification. Although he was not politically active in the movement, his writings led opponents of nullification to recognize him as the intellectual leader of the nullifiers.
Cooper resigned from the college presidency on November 27, 1833, effective January 1 of the following year. His resignation stemmed in part from legislative pressure from those who disapproved of his anticlerical stance. Cooper remained active nonetheless in his retirement, authoring works on chemistry and law, including the five-volume Statutes at Large of South Carolina (1836–1839). He died on May 11, 1839, in Columbia and was buried in that city’s Trinity Churchyard. Cooper’s legacy at the University of South Carolina was recognized in 1976 when the undergraduate library was reopened as a research library and renamed the Thomas Cooper Library.
Malone, Dumas. The Public Life of Thomas Cooper, 1783–1839. 1926. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1961.