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A Fighting Modernist

ISSUE:  Winter 1926

In a peaceful churchyard in the capital city of South Carolina, a stone’s throw from the scene of the last of his many battles with the fundamentalists, the dust of Thomas Cooper, fighting modernist, has lain for almost a century. Many of his contemporaries questioned the propriety of burying this arch-heretic in hallowed ground. Tradition has it that the Presbyterians would grant him no place at all, even in death. In Calvinistic earth he would undoubtedly have been uncomfortable, for he had expressed the hope that when dead, at least, he could escape association with members of the sect he most abominated.

Toward the Episcopalians he had been more kindly and they, either because of greater theological tolerance or more generous appreciation of his distinguished services to the state, granted the dead scholar-controversialist the five-foot space in Trinity churchyard that his small body required. It is said, however, that a dumb beast protested against this profanation of sacred earth. If we can believe the story, the mule that drew the wagon on which his coffin lay, warned by an apparition such as once confronted the ass of Balaam, balked in terror, and the remains of the relentless critic of the Christian clergy had to be borne to their last resting place by the hands of dauntless men. Although Cooper, second president of South Carolina College, has been dead since 1839, his ghost yet haunts the campus of the present university, and defenders of the faith once delivered to the saints yet tremble at the mention of his fearful name. Well do they know what he would be doing were he living now: he would be defending the evolutionists with passionate vehemence and flinging vitriolic epithets in the faces of the foes of academic freedom.

Even before he came to South Carolina in 1820, Thomas Cooper’s days had been many and full of controversy. Born in England near the middle of the eighteenth century, he found his native land strangely unappreciative of radicals and reformers and hopefully emigrated to America in 1794 with the more famous and somewhat less radical Joseph Priestley. For twenty-five more or less happy years he lived in Pennsylvania. Here he served a prison sentence because he dared criticize President John Adams, here he was seven years a state judge until removed from his position by political foes, here at length, having failed at everything else, he became a professor of chemistry. While a member of the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania he carried on a violent academic flirtation with the youthful University of Virginia, which came to naught because of the dangerous modernism of the suitor for the maiden’s hand. Thomas Jefferson, the free-thinking parent, regarded the objections to his favored candidate as preposterous, but certain Presbyterian relatives were bitterly hostile and the immaturity of the lady provided a sufficient excuse for the annulment of an embarrassing contract.

The trustees of South Carolina College, nothing if not bold, proceeded to elect the itinerant scholar first to a professorship and then to the presidency. For fourteen years he enhanced the reputation of the college by his great learning and imperiled its very existence by his successive controversies with the clergy. At length the legislature demanded an investigation of his conduct and he won a nominal victory when the trustees formally vindicated him. He never regained public confidence, however, and in 1833, at the age of seventy-four, voluntarily retired from a position that had become untenable. His final battle with the clergy was the old warrior’s last major engagement.

In earlier days he had matched swords with Edmund Burke, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others too numerous to mention. More recently he had assailed the South Carolina unionists and spoken disrespectfully to the godlike Webster. A disciple of Joseph Priestley, he became the chosen intellectual companion of Jefferson, and corresponded intimately with Madison, Van Buren, Nicholas Biddle, and many other more or less eminent statesmen. Philosopher, chemist, geologist, economist, jurist, he deserved to be termed a “two-legged library of all knowledge and all science,” even if Jefferson’s tribute to him as “the greatest man in America, in the powers of mind, and in acquired information,” may seem extravagant. Barrister, judge, manufacturer, physician, editor, professor, college president, he was unrivaled in versatility and apparent failure. If not famous on two continents, as one of his friends claimed he was, in old age he was perhaps “the most hackneyed controversialist in America.” Few men have spoken with more truly prophetic voice; few controversialists have so endangered the success of worthy causes by excessive vehemence and bad manners.

The key to the far from consistent career of this universal scholar and perennial agitator is to be found in his lifelong insistence upon freedom of speech and the unimpeded march of mind. Freedom of inquiry he always regarded as the sine qua non of human progress, and he never entirely lost his youthful confidence that the triumph of truth would follow the “collision of opinion.” He himself delighted in advocating unpopular causes; he was almost always a member of the political and intellectual minority, protesting against the existing order. He was essentially destructive, not constructive; an agitator, not a statesman; a critic, not a builder.

Religious, in the conventional sense, he certainly was not. The God he worshipped was Truth and his creed was Freedom. Nominally he accepted Unitarianism, which he regarded as the only theological system that was at all reasonable and comprehensible. Trinitarian dogma he declared to be contradictory and meaningless—a mere juggling with words. All mystery was to him abhorrent; he would turn the bright light of truth into every department of human life and thought, whatever the consequences. The dim religious fight brought no peace to his restless spirit, and he never could understand why so many men loved to loiter in the shadows he was so passionately seeking to dispel. His hope was in the emancipation of the intellect; he realized neither the dangers of such emancipation nor the relative unimportance of the purely intellectual in matters of religion. It is not surprising that many simpler, less rational, and less ruthless men should have regarded him as heartless and irreverent.

Many striking analogies can be drawn between his numerous religious controversies and the conflict between the modernists and fundamentalists in our own day. He fought for science against theology, for freedom of opinion against doctrinal conformity and external authority. In America he was a pioneer higher critic and one of the first geologists openly to question the Mosaic account of the creation. He surpassed most present-day modernists in audacity. Few men in high educational position today would dare attack the clergy as he did. He always carried a chip on his shoulder and nearly always found somebody to knock it off. He would have got into trouble in any country in any age, and would probably be endured less patiently in America today than he was a hundred years ago.

During his first years in South Carolina, Cooper, with unaccustomed discretion, restrained himself from the public expression of offensive religious opinions. He wrote Jefferson that prayers were “enforced” upon the students twice a day and were attended by the faculty, including himself, and that on Sunday he went regularly with his family to worship with the Episcopalians, toward whom at this time he manifested a benevolent tolerance. In his public addresses he urged the students to continue in the religious practices of their parents until convinced that they should do otherwise, and recognized the importance of religion in the social order, although emphasizing conduct more than opinion. His general philosophical and theological position must have been well known, however, for he had boldly described it in his earlier writings. Before he became a college president, unfortunately he had put himself on record. In a passage written early in the century which had been quoted against him with deadly effect when he was a candidate for a professorship in Virginia, he had said with characteristic recklessness, “the time seems to have arisen, when the separate existence of the human soul, the freedom of the will, and the eternal duration of future punishment, like the doctrines of the Trinity and transubstantiation, may no longer be entitled to public discussion.” Such all-comprehending heterodoxy was certain to terrify practically all the sects, and he had spoken with special abusiveness of Calvin-istic theology and, to use his own words, “its horrid criterion, the doctrine of election and reprobation.” The Presbyterians thought that Cooper had deliberately gone out of his way to insult them. And doubtless in personal conversation he had manifested something of that contempt for the clergy, or as he called them, “the priesthood,” which he showed so clearly in his letters to the comprehending Jefferson and which he was so soon publicly to express.

Theological doctrine probably meant more to the Presbyterians than to any other prominent sect, and both Cooper and Jefferson felt that their aggressive orthodoxy was chiefly responsible for the growth of intolerance in the country as a whole. Cooper was entirely convinced that they were trying to gain control over all agencies of education. They and other similar groups would doubtless have admitted their desire to place a definite religious stamp upon institutions of higher learning and would have defended it as perfectly legitimate. Some of the more aggressive of them probably desired to gain indirect control over the policies of South Carolina College through domination of the trustees and faculty. Such control has been sought and acquired elsewhere and at other times. In this particular instance, however, Cooper’s foes justified their hostility to him in all good conscience on other grounds. If he regarded the Presbyterians as fanatics and opponents of freedom of speech, they adjudged him from his written words a dangerous heretic who was exerting an insidious and pernicious influence upon the minds of impressionable youth.

Cooper had two pitched battles with the Presbyterians in South Carolina. The first, which raged during 1822 and the following year, was forced by his foes and resulted in their complete discomfiture. They claimed that the college was declining because of the attitude of its president toward religious questions, and he in turn asserted that the most powerful obstacle to the prosperity of the college was the hostility of the clergy to any educational institution not dominated by them. The Episcopalians denied the charge with dignity and without bitterness, but the Presbyterians accepted the challenge and carried on such a vigorous campaign that Cooper for a time was terrified. To safeguard himself and make sure of a living for his family he went so far as to seek to reopen the question of his appointment to the University of Virginia, an action in which not even Jefferson could encourage him.

The old man and his family fortunately were not turned out in the cold to beg for bread. The college trustees and the state legislature staunchly upheld President Cooper, as they should have done. His official conduct had been unexceptionable and the charges against him had been chiefly due to sectarian zeal. Present-day governors and legislators might be benefited by reading what the governor and legislature of South Carolina in 1823 had to say on the question of academic freedom, though some of them might find such educational statesmanship beyond their comprehension. In South Carolina, science and learning had won the full support of the political authorities against religious narrowness. Cooper wrote Jefferson, however, that the situation was still far from comfortable, that clerical influences were at work which he could keep at bay only by great exertion, that he was weary even of being victor, and that the spirit that guided the clergy would never die. Despite his fears, the controversy abated and the president and the college appeared to be in high favor. Three years later a senate committee went so far as to say that it would be a libel upon the intelligence of the community to speak of the utility of the college or the wisdom of its founders, and that the influence of the college was felt throughout the state and nation. Cooper’s victory was complete, but the wounds of his foes yet rankled.

Before serious clerical opposition again arose, he had put himself at the forefront of the extreme state rights party and won the undying gratitude of the political group that was becoming dominant in South Carolina. He probably was emboldened to renew the conflict with his Presbyterian foes by his confidence that his political allies would not desert him in time of peril. Thanks to the highly commendable tolerance of the ruling class in the state he had emerged triumphant from his first encounter with the Calvinists. Had he been content to let matters rest he might not have been troubled again, but he took the offensive against the hated clergy and fanned into flame their smoldering resentment. He precipitated a conflict by publishing two pamphlets in which he bitterly assailed the Christian “priests,” and especially complimented the Presbyterians. The reckless charges he made and the abusive language he used cannot possibly be justified. Never courteous in controversy, in old age he became hysterical. The clergy had become an obsession.

In the year 1829, after Cooper had said almost all he had to say on the subject of state rights and the tyranny of the Federal government, he turned his attention momentarily and incidentally, but fatefully, to the question of the Christian Sabbath. It was reported that the stopping of Sunday mails and the enforcement of Sabbath observance by civil penalties would be urged upon Congress, and Cooper wrote an anonymous pamphlet in violent opposition to the action. Many soon suspected and everybody ultimately knew the work was his. With recklessness beyond even his own high average he here asserted that the real reason for the petitions against Sunday mails was that the clergy wanted to keep everybody else from making hay beneath the Sabbath sun. Those “avaricious, ambitious, fraudulent and impudent impostors, the Christian priests,” had ordained the Sabbath, he said, in order to create business for themselves. For their particular business he saw no necessity. All public prayer was forbidden by Christ, he claimed, and there was no need for oral preaching now that the Gospels were so widely diffused. The clergy he declared to be not only unnecessary and expensive but menacing; for fifty years they had been aiming to acquire political influence and in general they subjugated the minds and preyed upon the substance of the people.

The following year he added insult to injury by publish- . ing another anonymous pamphlet, universally credited to him, in which he sought to show that no one who really believed the doctrines of Calvinism and made them the guide of his conduct could be a good citizen or a good man. He challenged his readers to produce “from ancient or modern times, a set of tenets so absolutely, so unprovokingly cruel, blasphemous, and devilish.” He asserted that the Presbyterian clergy were the most numerous, wealthy, arrogant priesthood in the country and were trying to gain dominance over all educational institutions and to establish themselves as the rulers of the land.

That such attacks would pass unnoticed was not to be expected. One of Cooper’s critics said there was scarcely a family of consequence in the state that did not have some clergyman in its number or connection. Most South Carolinians doubtless were grieved, and very many must have been exasperated by his undiscriminating condemnation of a group whom the citizenry in general honored. His foes, in numerous pamphlets, described him as a prime mover in a “daring and insidious scheme” to undermine the religion of the country by bringing the clergy into disrepute and ridicule. Basing their arguments on various passages in his extensive writings, they asserted that he had been granted unexampled liberties of speech which he had grossly abused, claimed that his conduct amounted to a breach of trust and high misdemeanor in office, and appealed to the trustees to remove this dangerous man from his position of commanding influence.

Cooper’s friends rallied to his defense, but he gained no favor by publishing several works on materialism during the heat of the controversy. These were probably read by few people and understood by fewer. None the less, it became known that Cooper had predicted that the doctrines of materialism would prevail, that he had declared them to be inconsistent with belief in a separate, immaterial, and immortal soul, and that he had even tried to prove that they were held by Christ and the apostles! He avowed his belief in the resurrection, but public opinion probably gave him no credit for it. The current opinion in South Carolina doubtless was that the president of the college disbelieved in immortality and thought only of this life and things material and economic. Had he been a mere closet-philosopher there might have been little alarm, but he was the most conspicuous figure in the intellectual circles of the state and was already notorious as a controversialist. Now, emboldened by his strong political position, he dared proclaim his dangerous philosophy from the house-top; this supremely audacious old man was publicly asserting that his doctrines were genuine Christianity and that the clergy were impostors!

Cooper’s political foes, the unionists, were more than pleased with the opportunity to discredit one of their most formidable opponents, and they took the lead in a powerful movement against him in the legislature. In December, 1831, a resolution was presented which asked the board of trustees of the college to remove the president because of his dangerous and offensive religious doctrines. The debate which followed was the most important of the session in the lower house. Cooper was defended solely by his political allies, the nullifiers, and assailed only by unionists. The former procured the passage of a substitute resolution which requested the trustees to investigate the conduct of the president and to remove him from office if they should find that his continuance would defeat the ends and aims of the institution. Cooper’s party associates did not here desert him; they were merely playing for time and, as it duly appeared, adopted the wisest possible tactics.

Before the passage of the resolution Cooper himself presented his case to the legislature and people of the state in a vigorous and intemperate pamphlet. He frankly admitted holding the opinions that were objected to. He said that he disagreed with the Calvinists in theology and opposed a “hireling ministry,” as did the Quakers and, by implication, the Methodists since they paid very small salaries. He admitted that he had denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and that his teachings in geology did not conform with the Biblical account of the creation. He asserted, however, that he had stated his religious views in class only when the subject under discussion rendered it unavoidable that he do so. He claimed that he had the constitutional right to hold and freely promulgate any religious opinions he cared to, and that neither the legislature nor its creature the board of trustees had any right to take a stand in a religious controversy. His contract with the trustees could not be repudiated, he said, and the whole movement against him he interpreted as being the work of an interested group—obviously the Presbyterians—who were appealing to religious and political prejudice. He claimed that he was fighting for freedom against tyranny, for fundamental American principles against unworthy prejudice.

The trustees began their investigation immediately but final action came only in December, 1832, a year after the passage of the resolution. By this time the nullification party was clearly in the ascendant and circumstances were highly favorable to Cooper. Never averse to publicity and generally preferring to fight in the open, he secured the consent of the trustees to a public hearing. The trial accordingly occurred in the hall of the house of representatives at Columbia, before a large and intensely interested audience, on two successive evenings. As in the more famous trial of a far greater man, at the Diet of Worms three centuries earlier, the charges against the accused were supported chiefly by his writings. Passages from these were read which Cooper, like Luther, could not deny. The sealed testimony of students was also read, but the meager evidence gained here went little beyond what Cooper had himself admitted. A hostile commentator upon the case stated that, though little doubt of the president’s guilt was entertained among the people, it was very difficult to secure testimony against the old man. The hostile press had earlier admitted that the students sided with him and would withdraw if he were summarily removed. Most of them probably remained loyal to him to the end, as students are prone to do when their teachers are attacked by outsiders.

Cooper defended himself part of one evening session and all of the next. His opponents admitted that he pleaded with signal ability but asserted, with considerable justification, that sophistry abounded in his arguments. He made no plea for sympathy on the ground of age or infirmity. His most effective appeal was based upon the claim that he stood accused before a court of ecclesiastical inquisition, and that he was contending for freedom of religious opinion and for constitutional and natural rights. He recognized that the pioneer of thought was exposed to grave dangers, but felt that differences of opinion were really of small importance and that the objections to him were too trivial to warrant the serious consideration of sensible men. His hearers, many of whom were his neighbors and most of whom were doubtless in sympathy with his political opinions, manifested strong approval of his arguments and applauded his sallies of wit with enthusiasm. It is said that during the course of his speech, “the plaudits of the multitude . . . threatened to interrupt the business of the evening, but they were silenced by a remonstrance from the president of the board.”

Even the hostile press predicted his acquittal, and in due time it came. On December 8, 1832, the trustees met in the college library, where a portrait of him now hangs, and adopted a resolution “that no charges against Dr. Cooper showing that his continuance in office defeats the ends and aims of the institution, or authorizing his removal, have been substantiated by proof, and that ‘he charges against him be therefore dismissed.” It is reported that there were only three or four votes against him.

Thus the old heretic won his fight. It is very surprising that he did, for his religious views were undoubtedly offensive to many, and probably to most, of the citizens of the state. He regarded the paid clergy as not only unnecessary, but even objectionable, and had attacked them in a way that must have seemed outrageous. On the other hand, he contended for the principle of academic freedom, and the trustees showed highly commendable educational statesmanship in refusing to remove him at the instance of a particular religious group. The obvious explanation of his vindication, however, is that he was supported by the political faction which was now dominant. A union paper reported that the nullifiers boasted of his acquittal and there is every reason to believe that they did. Politics was the absorbing question of the hour, not religion, and the majority faction undoubtedly felt that it would be base ingratitude to cast out in his old age one who had been a pioneer advocate of their principles. Whatever might be said about his religion or lack of it, they had no fear that he would corrupt the political principles of the youth or teach them other than sound South Carolina doctrines.

The controversy did not end, however, with the action of the trustees. The college grew steadily in disfavor with a portion at least of the public and by the autumn of the following year rumors were afloat that it was about to be “broken up.” The main ground of suspicion and hostility was undoubtedly religious. The feeling of the orthodox was well described by one of the union papers when it stated that “Dr. Cooper was acquitted of infidelity, though in his defense he confessed the charge and triumphed in his guilt.” Although the grim old fighter staunchly defended the college against its critics, at seventy-four even he was weary of strife. In November, 1833, he resigned the presidency, though he was continued as a lecturer in the college. As a parting token of esteem the trustees voted him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. This he bore very proudly during the remaining six years of his life, when, appropriately enough, he was chiefly occupied with the arduous task of editing the statutes of South Carolina. Even after his retirement from the presidency, attacks on the faculty continued, and the following year the trustees requested the resignation of all the professors. During the next few years the college passed through a series of crises. Criticism on the part of the evangelical sects persisted; they disliked the new faculty almost as much as they had disliked the old. Apparently there was considerable justification for Cooper’s assertion that the ambition of the Presbyterians was excessive.

Local public opinion in later years, however, did not condemn Cooper’s clerical foes and uphold his own position as he had expected. The triumph of Unitarianism and materialism, which he so confidently predicted, never came in South Carolina. Nor have later generations there looked upon him as the persecuted prophet of an ultimate religious philosophy. Rather have they regarded him as a dangerous heretic who once greatly disturbed the peace of a Christian commonwealth and seriously injured its most cherished institution. He has had fewer defenders since his death than he had during his lifetime, perhaps because later generations became more intolerant of religious innovators, more probably because they remembered his political services less than did his contemporaries.

Hostility to state universities in the South because of their alleged religious infidelity has been sometimes attributed to the fears once aroused by Thomas Cooper. Such an explanation of an attitude of mind fairly general among evangelicals in other sections is obviously inadequate, but is not without significance. It is possible that despite all his brilliancy and courage he injured the cause of religious toleration more than he aided it. And this not so much because of his opinions as his manners. Perhaps he was too contemptuous of the opinions of the masses of mankind. Perhaps he was too confident of the advantages of “collision of opinion” and often rushed into needless controversy. Perhaps he identified the eternal principle of freedom of speech too closely with the particular opinions he himself chanced to hold. But his advocacy of the free discussion of all subjects whatsoever, his implacable hostility to all forms of bigotry, and his insistence that the march of mind be unimpeded, entitle him to a conspicuous place in the history of intellectual liberty in America. And, if principles rather than personalities or opinions be emphasized, the battle which raged between this intrepid warrior and the fundamentalists of South Carolina differs in few important respects from the conflict that now is convulsing the United States.


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