Thomas Cooper was born on October 22, 1759 in London.
He attended University College, Oxford, and though he failed to obtain
a degree he was learned in science, medicine, and law. After work at
the Inner Temple, he became a barrister in 1787. In England, he was
a lawyer, scientist, and philosopher. Though acquainted with men like
William Pitt and Edmund Burke, his radical views were not well received
at the time. An eventful four month visit to Paris, including an address
to leading Jacobins in April 1792, did not aid his reputation (even
though he and his companion, James Watt, had to flee the country for
their lives after standing up to Robespierre in public arguments). He
was condemned on his return to England; his admission into the Royal
Society, after his friend Joseph Priestley had nominated him, was rejected.
He first visited the United States in 1793 for a few months and returned
with the remainder of his family the following year. Along with his
friend Priestley, himself seeking quieter surroundings, Cooper settled
in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
He became a United States citizen in 1795 and was admitted to the Northumberland
Bar. But Cooper's radical philosophical and political views were not
met with a warm reception in America, either. As a friend of Jefferson
and an enthusiastic anti-Federalist, he criticized the Sedition Act,
passed under John Adams' administration, in the Northumberland Gazette,
which he edited. This criticism led to Cooper being brought to trial
in April 1800 under that very act. He was convicted, sentenced and served
six months in prison. Upon his release, Cooper was elected the president
judge for the district in the area of Northumberland in 1804. His radicalism,
combined with his exacting and rigorous procedures, eventually alienated
even his strongest supporters and he was removed from the bench in April
1811. After this, the diminutive Cooper -- barely over five feet tall
-- turned his energetic mind to the academic path he would follow for
the rest of his days.
On August 7, 1811, Cooper assumed the position of the chair of natural
philosophy and chemistry at Dickinson College, after having been unanimously
elected by the college trustees. Cooper's religious beliefs -- he was
a Deist -- were bound to cause friction with then President of the College
Jeremiah Atwater. Atwater, a conservative Presbyterian clergyman, mistrusted
Cooper from the start and watched for any act of Cooper's that would
corrupt the young men of the College. The rivalry between the two eventually
embroiled the entire institution. By 1814, Cooper had organized faculty
members against the President and issued his own stinging denunciation
of Atwater. In 1815, Cooper resigned his position in favor, he stated
emphatically, of a better paying situation elsewhere.
After his time at Dickinson, he served as a professor of applied chemistry
and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania from 1816 to 1819.
In 1819 he was, through the influence of Thomas Jefferson, elected to
the faculty of the newly founded University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Cooper never did assume this position but instead became professor of
chemistry at South Carolina College in 1820. He was elected as the College's
second president in 1821 and remained in that post until his retirement
in 1834. He continued to be active in political circles at the state
and federal level until his death.
Cooper had married Alice Greenwood in England and they are known to
have had at least four children, sons Charles and John and daughters
Eliza and Eleanor, all of whom accompanied him to America. Cooper died
on May 11, 1839 and was buried in South Carolina at the Trinity Churchyard
Please visit the following link for materials authored
by Thomas Cooper maintained in the Their Own Words database:
Cooper, Thomas, 1759-1839.
Researched, authored, and
edited by John Osborne, Ph. D., and James Gerencser.