The second president of what is now known as the University of South Carolina, Dr. Thomas Cooper had a remarkable reputation. He was an excellent scholar, political activist, insurgent, pamphleteer, sometime physician, lawyer and judge, strict disciplinarian, chemist, geologist, and an agnostic. He courted controversy throughout his life, but had the good sense to make friends with those in power, including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and several governors of South Carolina. Thomas Cooper's history is a remarkable and varied story.
Hoping for a position at Mr. Jefferson's University in Charlottesville, Virginia, it became apparent that Cooper's political and religious views were unacceptable to the religious leaders in Virginia. Cooper then accepted a professorship in chemistry at South Carolina College in 1820. As the South Carolina College Board of Trustees was eager to retain this well-known scholar, they quickly granted him the professorships of geology and mineralology with an appropriate salary increase.
Within a year of his arrival, Cooper was elected president pro tempore of the College, based on his age, public stature, scholarly reputation, and his reputation as a dynamic and learned instructor. Soon thereafter, he was officially elected as college president. For the first two or three years as college president, the normally outspoken Cooper kept a relatively low profile. The college board of trustees was well pleased and Cooper was well-liked by his students. Cooper's students described him fondly, using respectfully bemused terms.
To his credit and to the credit of the University, Dr. Cooper made great strides to improve the academic atmosphere of South Carolina College. During his tenure as college president, Cooper retained and fostered quality professors, raised admission testing standards, and raised the entrance age from 14 to 15 years old. Cooper attempted to raise the age to 16, and repeatedly pushed to establish graduate level study at South Carolina College. Cooper was also one of the first professors in the United States to offer a course in Political Economy. In addition, he advocated a free school, hoping to make college available to more of the great unlearned in South Carolina.
While his tenure was known for frequent expulsions, Cooper was not viewed as a great disciplinarian. He was often accused of being unable to understand Southern youth and Southern honor. After two years in South Carolina Cooper grew so frustrated with the student hi-jinks he wrote to Jefferson that he did not believe a collegiate institution could be permanently maintained south of the Potomac. His frequent use of expulsion was one of many reasons for static or declining enrollment during his tenure as college president.
An incendiary pamphleteer, and once convicted of Sedition in the United States, Cooper did not keep the low profile of his early tenure for long. Cooper was an adamant advocate of states' rights, and was one of the first and most vocal advocates of secession from the Union. In one famous and oft-quoted speech of 1827 he said, "we...shall be compelled to calculate the value of the Union." He also supported the institution of slavery, a reversal of an earlier view. Additionally, Cooper was a strident agnostic, refusing to allow the teaching of religion or theology at South Carolina College. Cooper even went so far as to say that students needed to be "cured" of religion.
Cooper's political views made him enemies, and his religious views made even more. Fortunately, Cooper was an excellent professor, and personally savvy, for though he was challenged and questioned several times by the state assembly he managed to remain College President until 1834. In 1834 he was finally forced to resign because of his religious views, and his use of the classroom to air his views. Even when forced to resign, Cooper was still supported by many friends who hired him to compile the complete code of law for South Carolina.
John Morrill Bryan. "An Architectural History of the South Carolina College, 1801-1855.
Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina P., 1976.
Edwin L. Green. A History of the University of South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.:
The State Company, 1916.
Daniel Walker Hollis. South Carolina College, Vol. I. Columbia, S.C.: University
of South Carolina P., 1951.
Last updated October 22, 1999
Photo courtesy University of South Carolina Archives
This page created by Laura Haverkamp