Thomas Cooper: Harbinger of Proslavery Thought and the Coming Civil War

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author K. Howell Keiser Jr….

Thomas Cooper (1759-1839) From the Dickinson College Archives

Thomas Cooper, British émigré to the United States, public intellectual, and later proslavery educator at South Carolina College, is today often overlooked when scholars discuss the maturation of proslavery thought and the coming Civil War. With his death in 1839, scholars have tended to focus on other notable Southern intellectuals – John C. Calhoun, James H. Hammond, Edmund Ruffin, George Fitzhugh, among others – who guided the sectional conversation relating to Southern rights, slavery, and the Federal Union. However, Cooper had a lasting impact on proslavery thought. In fact, Cooper’s critique of free labor – that is, wage labor – and his defense of slavery predated the supposedly mature proslavery defenses of the 1850s. His readings of Thomas Malthus – British political economist famous for his treatise on population – shaped Cooper’s proslavery logic. It guided him towards a forthright and aggressive defense of slavery which manifested, by the nullification crisis, in an open declaration in favor of secession. “We shall ‘ere long be compelled to calculate the value of our Union; and to enquire what use to us is this most unequal alliance?”[1] To fully understand the proslavery defense of the 1850s, and its appeal to Southern distinctiveness and ultimately secession, one must reckon with the proslavery Malthusianism articulated by Cooper in the 1820s. It formed the foundation of the education he offered the sons of slaveholders while at South Carolina College in Columbia, and it enjoyed widespread circulation in published treatises on political economy. Continuing Cooper’s intellectual legacy, slave apologists, as historian James L. Huston observes, “consumed” Malthusianism in a “fit of ideological inebriation and applied it everywhere.”[2]

To understand the importance of Cooper’s proslavery defense, it is first necessary to begin with a brief overview of the political-economic theory proposed by Thomas Malthus. According to Malthus, population growth inevitably outpaces food production unless fertile land is acquired. Without land acquisition, demographic growth would instigate either famine, disease, or social unrest (Malthusian specter). In other words, population collapse and social disorder would follow. Malthus, like Cooper in the 1820s, focused his critique on industrial free labor societies who had ignored this aspect of political economy. Industrialism fostered population growth. It created numerous jobs and encouraged immigration. However, such a large population drove down wages, as competition in the labor pool exceeded demand. Meager wages and bare subsistence was the laborers lot. The solution, which both Malthus and Cooper despised, became poor laws (welfare) to supplement the subsistence needs of the pauper class. While this would stave off population collapse at least for a time, Malthus argued that this would only encourage the pauper class to procreate without repercussions, believing their subsistence needs would be continually met. This would, over time, stress the ability of the agricultural sector to provide subsistence for the entire population. “To remedy the frequent distress of the common people,” Malthus wrote, “the poor laws of England have been instituted; but it is to be feared, that though they may have alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune, they have spread the general evil over a much larger society.”[3]

Failing to grasp the paramount importance of the laws of population, in Malthus’s view, only allowed for a continued growth of a discontented lower class. Shaped by the disastrous events of the French Revolution, Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population associated a redundant population of urban poor with revolutionary turmoil and demographic collapse. It was societies embracing industrial urban growth and rejecting the importance of population that would face a “war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague,” which will advance “in terrific array and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands.” It was from this position that Malthus came to favor a “retired living in the country.” An agricultural lifestyle far removed from the deplorable conditions of urban crowding, according to Malthus’s biographer David Reisman, was always preferable.[4]

This political economic perspective was particularly appealing to Cooper, and he voraciously applied it to his defense of Southern slavery and the South’s agricultural ideal. He opened his 1826 Lectures on Political Economy with a reminder of Malthus’s population premise and an unequivocal defense of slavery. “Population [is] the most important subject of Political economy,” he declared, and “Slave labor is undoubtedly the dearest kind of labor.” While he agreed with Adam Smith’s belief that free labor represented a cheap and abundant form of labor, he questioned its long-term sustainability. He reminded both his students and the planter class in his pamphlet on political economy that, “when population exceeds the demand [of labor], wages fall.” If the United States turned from slave-based agricultural production and instead embraced the developmental model of England and the free labor North, “our great cities will gradually put on the character of old and long settled countries.” Throughout his career in the South, he would extensively reference his Lectures on Political Economy and Manual of Political Economy, as one scholar has noted, to urge “his students, future southern leaders, to avoid Britain’s example of manufacturing and impoverished masses by preserving slavery.” The expansion of slavery and plantation agriculture, he concluded, offered the best preventative check to population redundancy and subsistence wages.[5]

Pamphlet publication of his university lectures on political economy (1829) From the South Caroliniana Library Digital Collections, University of South Carolina

Similar to Malthus’s criticism of urban-industrial England, Cooper attacked the North’s industrializing free labor society. He argued that this economic system tended to pay laborers the lowest wage possible. To make matters worse, the free labor mantra that individuals could enjoy socio-economic advancement was a “fallacy.” Northern free labor advocates “distorted the facts to condemn slavery.” A truthful analysis of the matter in relation to Malthus’s theory would force honest men to conclude that “slavery is a better system for the black population in the South, than the falsely and fraudulently called free-labor system … for the wretched pauper population who drag out their miserable existence there.”[6] As such, Cooper predated the 1831 “positive good” thesis of his economic admirer, Thomas R. Dew of Virginia, and instructed his students that slavery was a positive good – a stable social relation between capital and labor. Slavery, he explained in 1826, had proven by observation to “be productive on the whole, of a balance of good.” Southern progress relied on the perpetuation of slavery because he “doubt[ed] if the rich lands could be cultivated without slave labour.” This vision he articulated would do more than simply generate new outlets for Southern wealth; it would also maintain social order by sidestepping a violent and scarcity-driven Malthusian specter.[7]

Cooper thus made the protection of slavery an existential imperative. This life-or-death conception of the institution, according to Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, prompted later proslavery intellectuals to energetically celebrate slavery’s superiority by arguing that the free labor capitalism of the Northern states was heading into “a Malthusian population crisis of fearful proportions.”[8] By the eve of the Civil War, educated Southerners in general had come to accept this rationale and expected free labor societies to face an insurrection of unemployed and exploited free laborers. Anarchy and despotism would then follow. The expansion and continued existence of slavery, on the other hand, prevented this dismal outlook in the South; if the North hoped to circumvent a Malthusian specter, it was necessary that they halt their rejection of slavery and embrace agriculture over industrialization. Ultimately, Cooper declared, politicians in support of the urban industrial system must “declare them [free laborers] unfit to be trusted and thrust them out from any participation of the most essential rights of man.” By the late 1850s, according to Eugene Genovese, this had become “the logical conclusion” of the proslavery argument, as Southern apologists, like George Fitzhugh, came to privately consider the idea of “raceless slavery.” Yet Cooper expressed this perspective thirty years prior. It was thus Cooper who had first articulated the universal need for slavery and “identified the destructive implications of” free labor, and “the great social upheavals in Europe and predicted mounting ferocity.”[9]  In doing so, he provided an intellectual foundation for the later free labor critiques espoused by James Henry Hammond, George Fitzhugh, Daniel Hunley, Henry Hughes, and Edmund Ruffin.  

Slavery prevented a Malthusian specter by limiting population growth and class animosity for a poor class living at the level of bare subsistence. This was, according to one contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger, the “very self-protecting power against overpopulation existing in slave countries…This is our safeguard.”[10] Following Cooper’s proslavery Malthusianism, the proslavery thinkers of the 1850s embraced the logic that the South’s slave-based agricultural system successfully side-stepped (or masked) class inequality by substituting enslaved Africans as a permanent mudsill – that is, a redundant laboring poor class. However, this only remained possible if slavery remained intact and expanded. Cooper thus made the expansion of slavery to the West a necessary addition to the proslavery defense.

Whereas Southerners had initially demanded the diffusion of slavery to the West as a tool for gradual emancipation, Cooper made its expansion necessary to preserve the institution and prevent the emergence of class antagonism from a large population of non-slaveholders. “To decry slavery,” historian William L. Barney wrote, “was to deny those coveting planter status their most cherished ambition.”[11] Slaveholders and proslavery apologists like Cooper thus utilized the West as a way to preserve slavery, prevent overpopulation in a regionally confined space, and remind the non-slaveholding class that the slaveholding social ideal remained an attainable goal. Cooper reasoned at the onset of the 1820s that if slavery persisted and “emigration to another portion of earth, where land is plentiful, and inhabitants scarce” continued as a viable option for slaveholder, non-slaveholder, and slave, a Malthusian specter could be prevented, for without expansion and an “increasing of the productiveness of land…the tendency of population unchecked will always and everywhere enable it [population] to overrun the food supply.”[12] By the climax of the territorial debates in the 1850s, slavery’s defenders gravitated to this point in unison. James De Bow’s appeal to the non-slaveholder prior to the secession winter of 1860-1861 is a particularly useful example. For De Bow, socio-economic advancement was made possible by the “opening of land.” Access to “cheap lands, abundant harvests, high prices,” wrote De Bow, “give the poor man soon a negro.” Stripped of the frontier and the ability to control the loyalty of a large population of non-slaveholders, George Tucker – an economist colleague of Cooper’s from Virginia – argued that the South would face an internal “war of extermination.” In light of this, Tucker maintained, like Cooper, that “Malthus’ premises are in the main true.”[13]

Cooper’s political economic thought became the foundation for later proslavery appeals as the South marched toward disunion. Indeed, by the eve of secession, writes historian Laura A. White, “Malthusianism…the despotism of numbers” was “expounded by them [slaveholders] with relish and with special application to the United States.” Cooper instigated this logic in his Lectures on Political Economy. He was, after all, according to Thomas Jefferson, a man holding the most “advanced” views on political economy in the country.[14] As such, his influence enabled him to shape the mind of proslavery men who would lead their regions to war. Historian Daniel Hollis, for example, noted that Cooper left a lasting influence on the South as a whole. “Cooper’s career…resembled the course of a meteor; he flashed across the heavens with brilliant light and exploded. The results never quite disappeared.” He had educated men such as Basil Manly, James Henry Hammond, James Henley Thornwell, John B. Floyd, William Gist, Francis W. Pickens, and Andrew Magrath, among others, all of whom led and instructed South Carolina, as well as other Southern states, through secession and war. Furthermore, twenty-four of his former students stood as delegates for the South Carolina secession convention in 1860. Others became proslavery theorists and public intellectuals, and their arguments continued to adhere to the proslavery Malthusian defense they had learned from Cooper, or “old Coot,” as his students called him.[15]

Proslavery theorists of the later antebellum period built on the legacy of Cooper’s teachings and imparted his defense of slavery onto a wider audience. According to Fitzhugh, the victory of Southern society which Cooper had long desired meant there would be “no Malthusian spectres frightening us for the future.” For George Frederick Holmes, a continued union with the North ensured the depopulating checks now common in “France, England, and the northern States.”[16] In the mind of Edmund Ruffin, the “risks of great suffering” would arise from a Northern triumph, the “abolition of slavery…and where the increasing population has no sufficient and advantageous outlet.” Others, like James H. Hammond and Henry Hughes, mirrored these predictions by following Cooper’s legacy of using Malthusianism to harass anti-slavery activists over the growing social crisis in Northern cities.[17] Cooper, in the end, provided each of these men with a foundation to rest their defenses. As a result of his lasting proslavery influence, it is not too far off the mark to posit, as historian H.M. Ellis did in 1920, that “Thomas Cooper, writer, scientist, and political agitator…bears probably the greatest share of individual responsibility for the American Civil War.”[18]


Howell Keiser is a PhD candidate at Louisiana State University (LSU). He has served as the John L. Nau III Library Fellow at the University of Virginia, the T. Harry Williams Fellow at LSU, the William Gilmore Simms Research Fellow at the University of South Carolina, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. He has also published reviews for the Civil War Book Review and The Alabama Review. His current dissertation – tentatively titled, “The Dismal Science of Union: Pro-slavery Malthusianism and the Coming Civil War” – explores the ways proslavery intellectuals selectively utilized Malthusian theory to defend slavery and ultimately foment rebellion.


[1] Thomas Cooper, A Tract on the Alteration of the Tariff. Submitted for the Consideration of the Members from South Carolina in Congress (New York, 1828), 17.

[2] James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004), 50.

[3] Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798), 286.

[4] Malthus, Essay, XXII, 61; David Reisman, Thomas Robert Malthus (Macmillan, 2018), 4.

[5] Thomas Cooper, Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy (D.E. Sweeney, 1826), 26, 77, 88-94, 261; Jamie Diane Wilson, “Proslavery Thinking In Antebellum South Carolina: Higher Education, Transatlantic Encounters, And The Life Of The Mind,” PhD Diss. (University of South Carolina, 2016), 32.

[6] Daniel Kilbride, “Slavery and Utilitarianism: Thomas Cooper and the Mind of the Old South,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 59, No. 3 (August 1993), 475, 478-479; Thomas Cooper, An Introductory Lecture to a Course of Law (Columbia, S.C., 1834), 7; Thomas Cooper, “Slavery,” Southern Literary Messenger (1835), 191.

[7] Daniel Kilbride, “Slavery and Utilitarianism: Thomas Cooper and the Mind of the Old South,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 59, No. 3 (August 1993), 475, 478; Cooper, Lectures, 23, 88, 96, 98, 237, & 254.

[8] Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Slavery in Black and White: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 34.

[9] Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 15-16 & 37-53.

[10] “R.E.C.,” Southern Literary Messenger, XXVI (1858), 402-403, 418.

[11] William L. Barney, The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860 (University of Alabama Press, 2004), 44.

[12] Cooper, Lectures, 94, 233-239.

[13] James De Bow, The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-slaveholder (Charleston, 1860), 8-10; Speech of Mr. Tucker, of Virginia, on the Restriction of Slavery in Missouri, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA; Tipton R. Snavely, George Tucker as Political Economist (UVA Press, 1964), 61-63. “The Malthusian Theory Discussed in a Correspondence between Alexander Everett and Prof. George Tucker May 14, 1844” (1845), in Everett’s New Ideas on Population with Remarks on the Theories of Malthus and Godwin, 298.

[14] Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper (November 19, 1819), Thomas Cooper Papers (SHC Z Box 089), Southern Historical Collection (SHC).

[15] Daniel Hollis, History of the University of South Carolina, 95-96; Edwin L. Green, A History of the University of South Carolina (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1916), 312; Hollis, History of the University of South Carolina, 95-96.

[16] George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South; Or, The Failure of Free Society (A. Morris, 1854), 254; J.J. Spengler, Jr., “Population Theory in the Ante-Bellum South,” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 2, no. 3 (Aug. 1936), 384.

[17] Edmund Ruffin, Political Economy of Slavery (1857), 8; Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Slavery, Economic Development,” 24.

[18] H.M. Ellis, “Thomas Cooper – A Survey of His Life, Part 1 – England, 1759-1794,” Southern Atlantic Quarterly (Jan. 1920, 24).

6 Responses to Thomas Cooper: Harbinger of Proslavery Thought and the Coming Civil War

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this read. One of the clearest, easily comprehended views of 1850’s Southerners on the good/evil of slavery and why it led to the most destructive war this Nation has ever endured. This is almost always lacking in any history class studying The Civil War.

  2. Fascinating. Here is hoping that your dissertation is the launch point for a book that I look forward to reading.

  3. Very erudite, especially when contrasted with late colonial Southern thought.

  4. Excellent article which I thoroughly enjoyed. I find the political/economic theories and debates of the early to mid 1800’s to be a fascinating subject. I also hope there will be a book on this subject by Mr. Keiser. Good luck obtaining the PhD.

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