The library was built in 1959 as the “undergraduate library,” and was designed by architects Lyles, Bissett, Carlisle and Wolff and Edward Durrell Stone. Stone’s design for the library won the First Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects in 1963. The library was named after Thomas Cooper (1759-1839), college president, scientist and politician, in 1968. In making this decision, the Board of Trustees credited Cooper with “doing more to give South Carolina a national reputation than anyone except Francis Lieber.”1 A massive expansion of the library, which added to the rear and below it to create four underground levels and three above-ground floors, was completed in 1976.2
Cooper’s ties to South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina:
- Second president of the college (pro tem. 1820-1, 1821-1834)
- While president, taught courses in chemistry, political economy, mineralogy
- Contributions to the Southern Naturalist Collection held at McKissick Museum on campus
- Stepped down as president when enrollment plummeted due to his clashes with the Presbyterian church and insistence on separation of church and state
- Was known as the “schoolmaster of states’ rights” and was an early and strong proponent of nullification.
- Intellectually defended slavery and owned slaves, disavowing his early antislavery views
- Used enslaved labor in his laboratory on campus, lobbied the college trustees for permission to rent enslaved people for his sole use at the college
- Strongly opposed abolition, claimed that “a population of free blacks, is the most idle, debauched, thievish and insolent [group] that we have ever witnessed in the United States.”
Thomas Cooper was born to Thomas Cooper and an unknown mother on October 22, 1759, in Westminster, England. Though he matriculated into Oxford to study law in 1779, he never graduated. Cooper was known as a philosophical radical and vocally supported the French Revolution and fled Paris in 1792 after a vocal confrontation with Jean Pierre Robespierre. This altercation caused his admission to the Royal Society of Scientists in England to be rejected, and shortly after — 1794 — he left England and settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
Shortly after his arrival in Pennsylvania, Cooper became a U.S. citizen and passed the Northumberland bar. Cooper was also a practicing physician. A friend of Thomas Jefferson and a vocal anti-Federalist, Cooper was brought to trial in 1800 for violating the Sedition Act, which he criticized in the paper he edited, the Northumberland Gazette. He was convicted, sentenced and served six months in prison for this violation, which only increased his popularity among opponents of President John Adams. Cooper was elected president judge for the Northumberland district in 1804 but was removed from the bench in April 1811 due to his radicalism and strict procedures. Cooper was also a known Deist and his criticism of religion and insistence upon the separation between church and state caused him trouble throughout his many careers.
Cooper served as the chair of natural philosophy and chemistry at Dickinson College from 1811 to 1815, then as a professor of applied chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania until 1819. Jefferson recommended him for a position at the University of Virginia, but his anticlerical views forced him to withdraw his candidacy. He became a professor of chemistry at South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina, in 1820. During his time in South Carolina he became an advocate for state’s rights and his pamphlets were heavily circulated during the Nullification Crisis (1832-1833).
Cooper continued to work as a scholar after he “retired” from the university in 1833, and wrote works on chemistry and law, including a five-volume Statutes at Large of South Carolina (1836-1839). He died in Columbia on May 11, 1839, and is buried in Trinity Churchyard. Upon his death, he deeded at least four enslaved people, as well as his home near Sand Hills, to his widow Elizabeth or — should she remarry — his children.
Cooper married Alice Greenwood in 1779. They had five children. After she died in 1800, Cooper married Elizabeth Pratt Hemming in 1811. They had three children.
Cooper at South Carolina College
Cooper arrived at South Carolina College as a chemistry professor and shortly after became the school’s second president upon the death of president Jonathan Maxcy in June 1820. At the College he taught courses in chemistry, political economy, and mineralogy. The students called him “Old Coot,” in part due to his short and squat stature. One student even described him as “a wedge with a head on it.”3
Cooper often clashed with the Presbyterian leadership in South Carolina, and his opposition to religious orthodoxy led to an investigation by the Board of Trustees of South Carolina in 1831. As college president, Cooper strove to limit religious curriculum. His opponents, mostly members of the clergy, pointed to his scandalous 1829 publication Fabrications of the Pentateuch as well as political remarks on nullification as grounds for removal. He was acquitted, however his presence on the campus created an extreme decline in enrollment and he resigned on November 27, 1833.4 His contemporaries did not remember him fondly as president and often found him overly particular. Dr. J. Marion Sims was a student at the college at the time and called him an “infidel” having “exerted a very bad influence on the interests of the college” with his discussions about “the authenticity of the Pentateuch.”5 Cooper’s presence at the college was a significant motivator for the opening of several Presbyterian colleges in the state.
On October 5, 1968, a joint meeting of the Board of Trustees and a faculty committee voted to name the undergraduate library the Thomas Cooper Library.6 The University of South Carolina reopened the undergraduate library as a “research library” after a massive expansion in 1976.
The South Caroliniana Library holds the Thomas Cooper Papers, and several of his contributions to the Southern Naturalist Collection can be found online through the university libraries’ Digital Collections and at McKissick Museum.
Cooper on Slavery and Nullification
Initially, Cooper held antislavery ideals, as indicated by his 1787 “Letters on the Slave Trade” pamphlet. Cooper stated that Blacks and whites were physical equals: “as to their [mental] capacity,” he wrote, “let the Poems of Phillis Wheatley and the Letters of Ignatius Sancho be perused, and the question is decided.” He criticized the abuse of slaves and named specific U.S. states for their cruel and unusual slave punishments. He applauded the emancipation attempts of the Northern states and Great Britain. Later, in 1794, he declared himself opposed to the system that created “a humiliating distinction between man and man” and expressed “very strong, if not insuperable, objections, to those parts of the continent where slaves are the only servants to be procured, and where the law and practice of the country tends to support [slavery.]” Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina were singled out for the loathsome practice.7
These antislavery views quickly vanished when Cooper moved to the United States and eventually South Carolina. He purchased Sancho and his wife, Lucy, in 1819 as well as two enslaved families upon arriving at South Carolina College. Despite his purported closeness to longtime enslaved valet Sancho, Cooper justified slavery in the South on the grounds that it was necessary to cultivate crops along the eastern seaboard in Georgia and South Carolina as white men could not tolerate the summer heat: “The nature of the soil and climate,” Cooper explained, “incapacitates a white man from laboring in the summer time…on the rich lands in Carolina and Georgia.”8 “Slave labour is undoubtedly the dearest kind of labour,” he claimed in 1826, proceeding to break down the labor costs of not only an enslaved man’s work, but his physical body, clothing, and “life insurance.” Eventually he relied upon a common pro-slavery argument that Southern slaves were treated better than the “majority of the labouring people of Great Britain.”9
Cooper also abhorred the idea of freed African Americans on U.S. soil. Cooper remarked
in 1826 that “a population of free blacks, is the most idle, debauched, thievish and
insolent [group] that we have ever witnessed in the United States.” No longer were
whites and Blacks equal, and he instead commended South Carolina’s law “prevent[ing]
free negroes and mulattoes from coming to and settling in the state.” General manumission
would only “convert [Blacks] into idle or useless vagabonds and thieves.”10
Slavery, States’ Rights, and Nullification
Cooper also used the states’ rights argument to strengthen his case. Slavery could not be anti-republican, as the republican Constitutional Convention allowed it, and the framers even openly acknowledged its existence. Due to this legitimacy, he argued that slavery “can only be judged of by the citizens of the State” in which it exists, “being a matter of internal policy and domestic regulation” where “Congress can have no right to intermeddle, no such authority having been committed to them.”11
He opposed tariffs that would injure the southern staple economy, which relied heavily upon slave labor.12 This opposition led to many pamphlets on states’ rights which defended slavery as a necessary cheap labor source. Though he was not a politically active nullifier, his first pamphlet (1824) and ensuing writings were circulated frequently in South Carolina in the lead up to the Nullification Crisis. In 1827, Cooper’s remark that “it is time to calculate the value of the Union” in response to the tariffs made nationwide ripples.
Excerpts from Cooper’s 1827 speech:
“we have not lost sight of the rights secured to us under the constitution, and that we have not lost all feeling of the wrongs afflicted on us, by fraud, injustice, and oppression…it is high time we should “up and be doing.”
“The planting interest, refusing to become the dupes, have at length…becomes the victims of manufacturing monopoly. The avowed object now is, by means of a drilled and managed majority in congress, permanently to force upon us a system, whose effect will be to sacrifice the south to the north, by converting us into colonies and tributaries…We are met today sir, to consider whether we ought to continue to bear the burthens imposed, and patiently submit to others that are mediated.”
“I have said, that we shall ‘ere long be compelled to calculate the value of our union: and to enquire of what use to us is this most unequal alliance? By which the south has always been a loser, and the north always the gainer?...The question, however, is fast approaching to the alternative, of submission or separation…if the monopolists are bent upon forcing the decision upon us, with themselves be the responsibility. Let us however apply to the feelings of truth and justice, and patriotism among our fellow citizens, while there are hopes of success…But at all events we must hold fast to principle: if we compromise our rights…we trust to a broken anchor, and all that is worth preserving will be irretrievably lost.”13
These comments garnered Cooper the nickname “schoolmaster of states rights.” His pamphlets
on nullification were widely circulated.
Cooper as slaveowner
In Cooper’s will, Cooper deeded “Sancho, Lucy, Sancho junior, Rachel and any others that I may possess at my deceased” to his wife upon his death.14 Perhaps Rachel was Sancho junior’s wife. The 1830 Census lists eight slaves owned by the Cooper household in Richland County. This number does not classify Cooper as a planter (owning 20+ slaves) but it is worth noting that Cooper was an academic. The researcher would be interested in further attempts to trace Sancho and his family to see if they appear in Cooper’s children’s records.
Cooper and slavery at South Carolina College
When Cooper joined the chemistry department he began oversight of Jack, an enslaved scientist who worked in chemistry with the “apparatus” and other technologies. Jack was well-respected by the previous chemistry professor Edward Smith, who petitioned the College to purchase Jack and spoke often of his good character. Apparently, Cooper disagreed, and complained to the Board of Trustees when he did not have complete authority over Jack:
“I consider the negro man Jacko...idle, careless, void of veracity, and of honesty. He considers himself rather as the Servant of the Students than of the Trustees...the Servant of the Trustees, ought not be permitted to earn any money in the employ of the students...he should have one master...the Chemical Professor...[who] may direct reasonable punishment when...it would be of service.”15
Though owned by the college, Jack had been hiring out his services to students on campus, which clearly irked Cooper. He also attempted to exert mastery over Jack by, for what was perhaps the first time, receiving permission from the Board to “direct proper punishment to be inflicted upon him, whenever he deem[ed] the same expedient.”16 Cooper hoped that his complete authority as professor and president to inflict bodily harm upon Jack would help to control a man who he viewed “a dangerous person to be employed in College; from whence he should be banished.”17 Cooper, or perhaps another Board of Trustees member influenced by Cooper’s views, also wrote an unfavorable letter that prevented Jack from gaining a desired church membership.18
Jack died in 1828, and immediately after the Board of Trustees purchased three enslaved men with the justification that the long-term investment was less than a repeated hiring cost. The three men cost the school $1600. Though all three—Henry, and two men named Jim, cleaned rooms, waited tables, and made beds, Jim was purchased for the science laboratory and was likely faced with similar treatment from Cooper, who was university president during these purchases. Cooper repeatedly asked the Board of Trustees to allow the college to rent enslaved people for his sole use, a request the school denied. This repeated line of questioning reveals Cooper’s complete abandonment of his earlier antislavery sentiments and suggests that Cooper directly controlled and benefitted from the coerced labor of more than the eight slaves listed at his residence in the 1830 census.19
When Cooper was president, he “at the expense of $320 erected a comfortable wooden building of 4 rooms for the accommodation of servants.” Thus Cooper erected a four room slave quarters on the college presidents’ lot. Before this building was erected slaves were “lodged in rooms in the cellar of the President’s house which besides other inconveniences proved unhealthy.”20
1Minutes of the Board of Trustees, University Archives, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, South Carolina. 5 Oct. 1968
2 A Spirit of Place: Buildings and Gardens of the University of South Carolina Columbia Campus, 1801-2016 (Columbia: Division of Administration and Finance, University of South Carolina, 2016), 49.
3 Elizabeth Cassidy West, The University of South Carolina (Charleston, SC: Arkadia, 2006), 13.
4 Some sources say 1834—the 1833 date is from the South Carolina Encyclopedia entry for Cooper. Aaron W. Marrs, “Cooper, Thomas,” South Carolina Encyclopedia Online, 11 Aug. 2016.
5 He did, however, call him a “man of great intellect and remarkable learning.” J. Marion Sims, The Story of my Life (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 82-3.
6 During this meeting, they also named the Longstreet Theatre; the Honeycomb Buildings—Baker, Burney, Douglas, LaBorde, Moore, and Snowden; the Osborne Administration Building; and the McBryde Quadrangle. “11 Buildings Are Named,” The Daily Gamecock October 8, 1968.
7 Thomas Cooper, Letters on the Slave Trade (Manchester: C. Wheeler, 1787), 30; Thomas Cooper, Some Information Respecting America (London: J. Johnson, 1794,) 3-4.
8 Thomas Cooper, Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy (Columbia: Sweeny, 1826), 95-96.
9 Cooper, “On the Constitution of the United States,” Two Essays Reprint (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), 45. First published in 1826.
10 Ibid, 45-6.
11 Ibid, 47.
12 Sea Island cotton, rice, indigo (to an extent), and, increasingly, short staple cotton were all considered staple crops that necessitated slave labor. Cooper died right around the short staple cotton boom.
13 Speech from the Columbia Telescope reprinted in Niles’ Weekly Register, September 8, 1827 (Baltimore: Franklin Press, 1828), 36-40.
14 Many other sources say that he freed Sancho and Lucy after his death, but they also do not seem to know that Sancho’s wife is named Lucy. Cooper’s probate case does not mention manumission. Richmond County, South Carolina, probate case files, estate of Thomas Cooper (1839), box 40 no. 997.
15 Letter, 22 Apr. 1821, Thomas Cooper to the Board of Trustees. Thomas Cooper Papers, South Caroliniana Library (hereafter SCL), Columbia, SC
16 Minutes of the Board of Trustees of the South Carolina College, 3 May 1821. University Archives, SCL.
17 Letter, 22 Apr. 1821, Thomas Cooper to the Board of Trustees. Thomas Cooper Papers, SCL.
18 Jill Found, “Jack’s ‘particular qualities:’ Violence, Science, and Slavery at South Carolina College,” (unpublished manuscript, May 2017, typescript), 27.
19 Trustees’ minutes, 10 Dec 1827, 26 Nov 1828, 24 Nov 1829, University Archives, SCL.
20 Trustee’s minutes 7 Dec 1833, University Archives, SCL. Minutes do not list when Cooper made these improvements, so how long the enslaved servants lived in the English basement. Structure is no longer extant as President’s House was at McKissick site.