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Title pageAbout the Book

Cooper, Thomas.

Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy.


Columbia, S.C.: Printed by D. E. Sweeny, 1826.



Thomas Cooper published his lectures on Political Economy, originally given for his classes at the University of South Carolina, in 1826. When he did, he provided American undergraduates with one of the first American textbooks on liberal economics. He himself recommended John Ramsay McCulloch's Principles (1825) as the best textbook available, although the New York publication of this well-known Scottish journalist-economist was not available before 1826. Both men were lecturing - McCulloch at University College, London after 1828 and Cooper at the University of South Carolina, where he also was president - in an infant field of study. Adam Smith, whom both men saw as the "father" of Political Economics, had published his great work Wealth of Nations in 1776. Most men in the following generation of economic thinkers, who were creating what was to become known as liberal or "Classical" economics, were still writing as Cooper lectured to his students in Columbia, South Carolina. Jean Baptiste Say and James Mill continued to outline their "supply side" theories that "supply creates demand," Thomas Malthus continued his stress upon the dynamics of the economy, especially where it concerned population, while David Ricardo had left a legacy which included the so-called "iron law of wages." Cooper then, in many ways, was a participant as well as an exponent of the new science, which he called "a science of modern data." As a materialist and an inveterate devotee of statistics, he came naturally to a subject that depended on empirical evidence to test all theory. His lectures published here, with their profusion of actual illustrations drawn from statistics of the day, as well as his periodic challenges to the ideas of Smith, Ricardo, and even Malthus, whom he seemed to follow most clearly, reveal Political Economics in 1825 as a new, vital, and developing field.

Cooper was certainly not without firm examples for his discourses, thanks to the advance of liberal economics in Great Britain. That nation was then becoming the world's first and leading industrial nation and was beginning to embrace economic freedoms of trade and restraint in governmental interference under the leadership of the then head of the Board of Trade, William Huskisson. At the same time, in the United States - whose politicians, if not its merchants, Cooper considered to be "half a century" behind men such as Huskisson - was demonstrating contrary appetites for governmental protection for American trade. The Tariff Act of 1824 that Henry Clay engineered through the Congress and that President Monroe signed made steeper a trend towards protectionism that favored northern manufactures over southern producers of raw materials. To this heightened atmosphere, Cooper brought his own efforts to reduce the "manifest ignorance or neglect" amongst American politicians and teach what "every gentleman" should know about economics.

Since he aims his lectures at the intelligent beginner, Cooper begins with chapters on the rise and progress of Political Economy. He finds nothing among the ancients beyond the contempt for "shopkeepers" that Napoleon later echoed against the British. Emerging from the feudal period, Europe needed cash and developed the equation between precious metals and riches that brought the "silly fallacy" of mercantilism. The early efforts of the French "Economists" such as Francois Quesnay began the long journey to modern understanding. Happily, Cooper states that we have now had thirty years of lessons to disperse the "deplorable lack of useful knowledge." The French forerunners have been recognized and Smith and the "New School" of Malthus and Ricardo have built upon them. With practical applications now underway in Britain, Cooper can now see "that science which develops the sources, the distribution, the accumulation, and the consumption of national wealth." Many fallacies remain, he says, on taxes, national debts, and designating national splendor as a sign of national happiness; young men must work to replace eloquence with knowledge as the sign of a legislator and free the economy to find "the greatest good." He follows apologetically with a lecture detailing the long list of definitions and "elementary truths" that must attend the study. His plentiful examples indicate clearly where the rest of the lectures will follow. His next is "On Property" and he shows his materialist credentials straightaway, holding that "all rights are the creatures of society" and that property rights - as they emerge from advances that separate "right from power" - imply the evidence of capital that will then produce and sustain law and government. Without citing him, he also agrees with Jeremy Bentham in the need for every law to come periodically under the scrutiny of a committee to examine whether or not it remains useful. Sections follow on price and profit in the scheme of supply and demand, definitions of wealth and of value, and of capital. All nations profit from the prosperity of all others, he writes; a wealthy nation can afford expensive experiments for the benefit of its citizens and economy, and all benefit from freedom from government interference and selfish private monopolies.

In his chapters on "Rent" and "Wages," Cooper talks about the present primacy of agriculture in the American economy, while also mentioning that the British Corn Laws protecting a declining farming sector are endangering the developments of manufacturing there. On population and wages, he follows Malthus more closely than Ricardo but rejects the fundamental idea of both, that labor is a commodity like any other, since it is "perishable" and cannot be hoarded or stored. He also decries powerful capitalists who continue to back laws outlawing workers' unions, saying that workers have just as much right to bargain as their masters. From his earliest days in Manchester, Cooper had an antipathy to the operations of manufacturing industry, and here he describes anti-union laws as "the effects of the tyrannical, encroaching, fraudulent spirit of the manufacturing system."(92) He warns that the cities of the United States could well follow Britain into these defects within the factory system.

Discussion on labor, of course, brings up the delicate subject of slavery before his young South Carolina undergraduates. Slavery he calls "the dearest kind of labour," the overhead costs for which, including feeding while children and employment of overseers, are not returned in the less than full day of work forced labor will produce. He trims his opinions somewhat, especially given the hatred for the slave trade he exhibited earlier in his life, when he holds that although nothing could justify slavery economically, the soil and climate of Georgia and the Carolinas dictate its use. In Maryland and Virginia slavery is unprofitable and not required, but for the Deep South he writes, "I doubt if the rich lands could be cultivated without slave labour." (96) He continues with a discussion on Smith's idea of division of labor that, along with labor saving machinery, has revolutionized production in Europe. He laments that machines do turn men into automatons in many cases, but hopes that the regular employment will allow workers to enjoy in their leisure "recompense for their skills." Government is needed, as are lawyers and doctors, teachers, servants, and men of ideas like Newton, Priestley, and Smith. All, more or less, "perform the function of labour saving machines." Men should be permitted to spend the product of their labors in any way that they want, including on entertainments and recreation that add to pleasure and stimulate earnings "if it be employed in the gratification of reasonable wants."

The great economic debate of the day, that of population and the usefulness or harm of charity towards the poor, takes up a significant part of Cooper's time in the lecture room. He separates himself from Malthus' fundamental theory that plenty precedes population growth by saying that this is "not the order of proceeding ordained by nature." (232) Instead, dread of poverty and death bring the frugality that produces capital which in turn produces labor and wages which buy the food that allays the fears. Cooper considers population growth important enough to add lengthy and detailed population tables covering the past three United States censuses; he himself predicts the population of the country will reach 160 million in 1928 (the actual total reached was 120 million). His strong views on charity and government alleviation through "poor laws" follow those of the utilitarians in Britain who were at the time seeking to apply economic theory to bring down the ruinous cost of spending on the poor. He sees similar problems developing in the United States in places like New York. Government should feed old soldiers and sailors and no one else, he writes. The behavior of the poor will change when confronted with the stark choice of starvation. He recommends the development of worker self-help organizations and praises the "mechanics societies" in England. Savings banks for the poor into which a man puts a dollar a week for ten years would yield $663.56, he calculates. Sentimentality is error and will destroy good economy; he states of William Paley and his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy that "I hardly know of a book containing so many flagrant proofs of gross ignorance of the very elements of political economy, as Dr. Paley's moral philosophy." (259) Given his own history of observing his fellow humans, Cooper cannot be completely unfeeling to the poor. Despite his typical, dogmatic, liberal optimism in the operation of the market to provide happiness for the greatest number, he concedes that the corruption of monopolies harm the poor by not providing equal protection. In a society with old evils, the poor may need more protection than in others. He also admits that the political economists ignore the simple fact that the distress that the market system causes, say, in the introduction of new machinery, accounts too little for the time needed for displaced workers to retrain and locate new work when starvation is only five days away for them and their families.

For much of the remainder of the book Cooper deals with the rationality of government involvement in the political economy. He states simply that all laws limiting interest rates on loan of capital be abolished. The concept of usury is ancient and still widespread; in Britain interest is legally capped at 5% while in South Carolina it is set at 7%. Noting that agricultural profits in his state are currently 18%, he holds that men of business should be allowed to negotiate their own rates at their own risks. He goes on to say that the duties of government are to protect us from without and from fraud and force within, and he announces the famous tenet of liberalism with the words that a person "having made [his money] by his own exertions . . . may spend it as he pleases provided he interferes in no degree with the rights of others in so doing."(118) His comments on government privileges, of course, reflect some of the great questions of the time in the United States. He considers government plans to extend settlements westward to have "the character of colonization" and considers both empire and government protection and prosecution of trade as "war breeders." Banks and the circulation of wealth he examines in depth, especially warning against the official chartering of banks and the maintenance of a National Debt as ruinous to freedom. Banks, he says, could even become the tools of party politics, and he remains "unshaken in my opinion that every bank chartered is unconstitutional" and goes on to warn that "of all aristocracies, a monied aristocracy is the most selfish, unfeeling, and oppressive." (157) But it is for government protection, a great American political question of the day, that he reserves his most heated complaints. Of tariffs he writes, "To talk after this, of our being the most enlightened nation upon earth, is a satire upon ourselves more bitter, than our enemies have it in their power to utter."(170) Trade should be free, as should the flow of capital, within and across borders. Neutral trade especially should be protected, asking by what right have nations to "impute neutrality as a crime?"(171) Free trade will bring "peace and good neighborhood" between nations. Tariffs have their roots in the jealousy of power, Cooper says, adding that "every country is jealous and suspicious in proportion as it is powerful, despotic, and ignorant." (179) Protection is now driving a wedge between manufacturing and agricultural interests in America at a time when Britain, following Adam Smith, is rolling back its previous errors and removing duties on almost all raw materials. With grim prescience, he posits a near future when northern manufacturers influence a heavy duty on cotton exports, then, a half decade later, encourage "philanthropists" to agitate for and get passed a law emancipating slaves. If this were to happen, he asks, what then is the South to do? The excuse always used in these cases, that of the "general welfare" he says, "has already rendered the constitution of the United States a dead letter." (206) He employs Say's writing to emphasize that the so-called "public interest is always the plea of the monopolist, and self interest the motive." (198) But his own fiery style underlines his own opinions of how government undermines rights when he states the so-called general welfare "has no limitations; it extends to all things, to all times, persons, places, and proposals. There is no tyranny that it will not authorize." (186) Government may collect taxes, of course, so long as they are the requirements of the most efficient and cheapest administration. They should not be arbitrary, not be on necessities of life, all records should be public, and they should be progressive. Taxes on the rich he calls "perfectly justifiable." Government, mostly at the state level, should be responsible for education, including a university in each state, like his own, as "an instrument of national benefit, like an army or navy for public defense."(270) Other duties, which he calls the "police laws," include the adoption and enforcement of public health laws. His science on disease and contagion "wafted on currents of air" suffers from the backwardness of his time, but he makes a strong case for forced public health, calling disease "a great consumer." These "police laws" should also force the gathering of statistical facts from all departments, as well as commerce, agriculture, and industry. He writes, characteristically, "In this country we have nothing to conceal from the people. Publicity is, or ought to be, the motto of republican government." (278) His final chapter, "Of the Public Works that fall within the Duties of Government," underlines all that he has written about government involvement in the economy, largely by its length of a mere five paragraphs. Following Smith, Cooper says that states may enter into works for the public good only where the required funds exceed private capacities. Of federal involvement he doubts any constitutional power.

Cooper's lectures provide a valuable window into the early development of the new economic philosophy that was to dominate much of the rest of the century. In Britain, the beginnings in tariff reform that Huskisson had begun were continued as the Liberal Party, and its great free trading leader William Gladstone, rose with the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1844 and took the nation to unprecedented wealth. At the same time, utilitarians were able in 1834 to revamp the Poor Laws along the lines Cooper described. Cooper, as one of the first thinkers and lecturers on political economy in the United States, provides also an illustration of how this largely English, Scottish, and French set of theories were received in the new world. The actual examples that made his lectures so interesting to his listeners and readers speak volumes about the socio-economic and political life of the emerging half-century-old nation. In the United States, unfettered economic liberalism perhaps prospered to a lesser extent than in Britain, but it played its role in the United States' rise as an industrial power. Much of what Cooper described as evils, like favored status for elements of the economy and political corruption, remained, in some cases fatally so. This would, of course, include the proximate and telling "folly" of protectionism and the growing cancer it represented to the peaceful development and unity of the United States. The 1824 Tariff Act was followed with an almost comic Jacksonian political manipulation of the Congress that resulted in the "Tariff of Abominations," passed and signed by President John Quincy Adams in 1828. The immediate response of Cooper's own state legislature to this threat of ruin to the Deep South was to pass the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. This document, ostensibly anonymous but authored by John C. Calhoun, the sitting vice-president of the United States, argued that the tariff was unconstitutional and that this and other federal laws could be nullified in that state by the vote of state legislatures. This deepened into a national constitutional crisis when the South Carolina government nullified two federal tariffs in 1832 and Calhoun became the first vice-president to resign. The so-called Nullification Crisis was ended with compromise, but the issue of states' rights, which Cooper had raised in his lectures on classical economy, would remain. Many of the young men Thomas Cooper had lectured on political economy would go on to vote in 1861 to remove South Carolina from the Union and would defend that decision with their lives and treasure.

Researched and authored by John Osborne, Ph. D.


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