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Enter Thomas Cooper

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

The Public Life of Thomas Cooper 1783–1829. By Dumas Malone. New Haven: Yale University Press. $4.00.

The kaleidescope of history is pulled to pieces periodically and the glimmering bits that compose its dissolving patterns are separated, reconsidered, some of them thrown away, and new ones put in their places. Just now most of us are insisting upon dropping out of our American kaleidescope a number of old pieces, upon introducing a number of very different ones. We are tired of crowding the broad page of history, with second and third rate politicians while first rate men who did the piping to which eventually the politicians danced are omitted. By striking out a great deal of the mere mechanism of political intrigue we are finding room to display the great indirect forces which have moulded the life which the politicians merely manipulated.

Professor Malone has ranked himself bravely among the forward facing historians. His work on Thomas Cooper has been done so admirably that a review may fairly content itself with effecting an introduction of the book to the general reader. Such differences as may exist between the author and the reviewer are altogether minor matters of interpretation, quite negligible for the present purpose.

If you divide the book roughly in halves, you will find that each portion has a central event around which its other events may be assembled. In the first half, this is the assertion of the radical political science of the late eighteenth century, expressing itself in the battle of Republicans and Federalists over the scope of the authority of government: in the second half, it is an outcome of the same idea, now transmuted from terms of the individual to terms of the community and reorganized as the doctrine of State Rights. Interwoven with these and in part explaining them is Cooper’s radical philosophy and his acceptance of the anti-commercial views of the extreme Republicans of his earlier period.

The party of Jefferson cannot be fully understood without taking into account what it was that lured such lofty dreamers as Cooper, Priestley, Gallatin, to quit Europe and seek in America the promised land. In none of them was mere fortune the motive. The lure they, followed contains the clew to the idealism of the Jeffersonian party, the portion of its thinking that transcends locality and gives it a place among the great movements of history. Professor Malone explores the sources of Cooper’s inspiration with delicate caution. It is so easy to be too rash in such matters. However, as mere dicta, the reviewer mentions that at least one reader would like to have more of Professor Malone’s belief as to what was the exact connection between Cooper and the school of Rousseau, and regrets that he has not let himself go more freely by way of pronouncement how far Jefferson was related to the French romanticists. But, of course, he might well reply that the question involves a wider perspective than, for biographical reasons, he has deemed it best to assume.

It is no easy task to make convincing a character that seems now to be all the philosopher and then all the politician. What the scientists might call the “curve” of such a character is seldom regular, at times may appear self contradictory. Not the least of Professor Malone’s qualifications as a biographer is his qnick sense of the variable elements in his subject, his close scrutiny of its wayward, or inconstant, or even reactionary tendencies. Cooper illustrates all these things. He had an impetuous, not to say passionate, nature, and like all of his sort, he had his moments tof weariness, of despairing reactions. Consequently, the totality of his development—to use a rather ponderous expression!—compels an evaluation of the conflict of main tendencies with minor tendencies and with reaction. A biographer seeking the primrose path would adroitly slip over the lesser values in the picture, come out strong on the highlights, and give us a Cooper that would be clear-cut, dramatic, and unreal. Or, he might easily lose himself developing the conditions of his leading assertions, and thus reduce a great man to a shadow. Professor Malone avoids both dangers. He keeps the outward person a reality while making vivid to us the fluctuations of his inner life.

Cooper’s arrest under the Sedition Law of 1798—a scandalous instance of the abuse of power!—and his imprisonment for having said things about the government that anybody might have said, ought still to be of interest to the American public. But, naturally, his later course strikes a more definite response to-day. It involves one of the most curious ironies in our history. Cooper, the radical philosopher, was forever getting into trouble. As President of the University of South Carolina his religious views twice became an issue. Between whiles he became a popular hero—and the hero of a conservative class. There is a familiar dramatic situation which has nnderlain many a successful play: A opposes X for one reason while B takes the same attitude for diametricaUy the opposite reason and from the confusions of their joint objective contrasting with their divergent motives the play arises. It cannot be said that Cooper as the protagonist of State Rights fits exactly this formula. But the formula is worth remembering in the story of his later life. Professor Malone’s ninth chapter is an admirable discussion of how this one time radical became the constructive thinker of the State Rights philosophy. This, and the succeeding chapter, “Calculating the Value of the Union,” form a penetrating and scholarly contribution to American political history in that crucial era when the sectional conflict was precipitated.


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