Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cooper, Thomas (1759-1840)

COOPER, THOMAS, M.D. (1759–1840), natural philosopher, lawyer, and politician, was born in London on 22 Oct. 1759, and matriculated from University College, Oxford, in Feb. 1779, aged nineteen; in 1787 he was called to the bar from the Inner Temple. While studying law he extended his researches into anatomy and medicine. His name does not occur in the official list of graduates. He was admitted to the bar and went on circuit for a few years; but entering into the political agitations of the period, he was sent, in company with James Watt, the inventor of the steam-engine, by the democratic clubs of England to the affiliated clubs in France. There he took part with the Girondists, but perceiving their inevitable downfall he escaped to England. In his old age he said that the four months he spent at Paris were the happiest of his life, and that in them he spent four years (Encyclopædia Americana, ii. 402). For this journey he and Watt were called to account by Edmund Burke, and this led to the publication of a violent pamphlet by Cooper in reply (Muirhead, Life of Watt, pp. 492, 493; Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt, pp. 408, 414). When his publisher proposed to reissue the reply in a cheaper form, Cooper received a note from Sir John Scott, attorney-general, informing him that, although there was no exception to be taken to his pamphlet when in the hands of the upper classes, yet the government would not allow it to appear at a price which would insure its circulation among the people (Ripley and Dana, American Cyclopædia, ed. 1859, v. 674).

While in France he had learned the secret of making chlorine from common salt, and he now became a bleacher and calico printer in Manchester, but his business was unsuccessful (Sutton, Lancashire Authors, p. 25). He next went to America, to which country his friend Priestley had already emigrated, and for some time he practised as a lawyer at Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Uniting with the democrats, he opposed with vivacity the administration of John Adams. In consequence of his making a violent attack on Adams in a communication to the Pennsylvania ‘Reading Weekly Advertiser’ of 26 Oct. 1799, he was tried for a libel under the Sedition Act in 1800 and sentenced to six months' imprisonment and fined four hundred dollars (Wharton, State Trials of the United States, pp. 659–81; Rutt, Life of Priestley, ii. 61). When the democratic party came into power he transacted, in 1806, the business of a land commissioner on the part of the state with such ability as to triumph over difficulties with the Connecticut claimants in Luzerne county that had broken down two previous commissioners. Governor M'Kean appointed Cooper, in the same year, president judge of one of the Pennsylvania common pleas districts, an office which he filled with energy, but from which he was removed in 1811 by Governor Snyder, at the request of the legislature, on representations chiefly of an overbearing temper.

He next occupied the chair of chemistry in Dickinson College at Carlisle. In 1816 he was appointed professor of mineralogy and chemistry in the university of Pennsylvania, and in 1819 he became, at first professor of chemistry, and then, in 1820, president of the South Carolina College, Columbia. Retiring on account of age in 1834, he devoted his last years, in conjunction with Dr. McCord, to a revision of the statutes of South Carolina. These were published in 10 vols., Columbia, 1836–41, 8vo. Cooper died in South Carolina on 11 May 1840.

He was eminent for the versatility of his talent, the extent of his knowledge, and his conversational powers. In philosophy he was a materialist, and in religion a freethinker. President Adams referred to him in his old age as ‘a learned, ingenious, scientific, and talented madcap.’

His principal works are:

  1. ‘Some Information respecting America,’ London, 1794, 8vo.
  2. ‘Political Essays,’ 2nd ed., Philadelphia, 1800, 8vo.
  3. ‘The Bankrupt Law of America compared with the Bankrupt Law of England,’ Philadelphia, 1801, 8vo.
  4. ‘Opinion in the Case of Dempsey v. The Insurance Co. of Pennsylvania, on the effect of a Sentence of a Foreign Court of Admiralty; published by A. J. Dallas,’ Philadelphia, 1810, 8vo. Judge Brackenridge recommended every American student of law to read this judgment, as it was a model which deserved to be admired (Miscellanies, p. 525 n.)
  5. ‘Introductory Lecture at Carlisle College, Philadelphia,’ on chemistry, &c., among the ancients, Carlisle, 1812, 8vo.
  6. ‘An English Version of the Institutes of Justinian,’ Philadelphia, 1812, 8vo; New York, 1841, 8vo; Philadelphia, 1852. He contrasts the Roman jurisprudence with that of the United States.
  7. ‘A Practical Treatise on Dyeing and Callicoe Printing,’ Philadelphia, 1815, 8vo.
  8. ‘Tracts on Medical Jurisprudence,’ Philadelphia, 1819, 8vo.
  9. ‘Strictures on Crawford's Report recommending Intermarriage with the Indians,’ Philadelphia, 1824, 8vo.
  10. ‘Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy,’ Columbia, 1826, 1829, 8vo. McCulloch says that ‘this work, though not written in a very philosophical spirit, is the best of the American works on political economy that we have ever met with’ (Literature of Political Economy, p. 19).
  11. ‘Two Essays: On the Foundation of Civil Government; On the Constitution of the United States,’ Columbia [S. C.], 1826, 8vo.
  12. ‘A Treatise on the Law of Libel and the Liberty of the Press,’ New York, 1830, 8vo.
  13. ‘On the Connection between Geology and the Pentateuch, in a Letter to Professor Silliman [occasioned by his Syllabus to Bakewell's ‘Geology’]. To which is added the Defence of Dr. Cooper before the Trustees of the South Carolina College,’ Columbia, 1833, 8vo.

He was also engaged in the publication of a magazine of scientific information, ‘The Emporium of Arts and Sciences,’ five volumes of which appeared at Philadelphia, 1812–14. Two of these were prepared by Dr. John Redman Coxe, the remainder by Cooper.

[Authorities cited above; also Duyckinck's Cycl. of American Lit. (1855), ii. 331; Literary Memoirs of Living Authors (1798), i. 115; Biog. Dict. of Living Authors (1816), p. 75; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Cat. of Printed Books in Brit. Mus.; Cat. of Boston Public Library.]

T. C.