Portrait of James Thornwell, circa 1840

Slavery at South Carolina College, 1801–1865:

The Foundations of the University of South Carolina

Presidents & Professors


Thomas Cooper (1759–1839), Second President (1820–1834); Professor of Chemistry, Minerals, and Geology (1819–1834)

Portrait of Thomas Cooper, circa 1820
Thomas Cooper, ca. 1820, University of Pennsylvania

Thomas Cooper, native of England, Oxford student, lawyer, philosopher, and the second president of South Carolina College, was a proponent of pro-slavery argument. The future college president was an abolitionist in his youth, but changed his mind on moving to South Carolina and purchasing slaves. Cooper’s retinue included his body-servant Sancho and his wife, as well as two slave families, who resided at the college. Cooper’s 1826 pamphlets On the Constitution and Lectures outlined his pro-slavery beliefs. He believed that slave labor was an economic necessity and that the white race was superior. As professor and president he influenced many students such as James Henry Hammond, the future governor. When Cooper was forced to resign the presidency on account of student disciplinary problems and his anti-Protestant religious beliefs, many pro-slavery figures opposed his removal. Cooper freed his slave Sancho and wife in his will, while the two slave families and their children were divided among his remaining family members. In 1976, the university’s new library was named in Cooper’s honor.

Francis Lieber (1800–1872), Professor of History and Political Economy (1835–1856)

Portrait of Francis Lieber, 1865
Francis Lieber, 1865, SCL

Francis Lieber, native of Berlin, graduate of the University of Jena, and renowned philosopher-author, left Philadelphia for a South Carolina College professorship in history and political economy. Although quiet about his abolitionist views during his tenure, he penned a steady stream of abolitionist letters to northern friends. Columbia faculty and residents suspected him of anti-slavery beliefs, and Lieber loathed the constant association with these slave owners. Lieber’s letters and journal entries are full of indignation concerning the institution of slavery. While in Columbia, he owned slaves despite his convictions. The professor wrote about Little Tom, a fourteen-year-old boy he hired for $4.50 per month. Lieber was appalled to discover, on the young boy’s arrival, that he only had a blanket to sleep on and only one shirt to wear. He was glad when two servants sewed a pillow and mattress for the young slave. This small act of kindness, however, reaffirmed Lieber’s stance against the hard-heartedness of men who allowed slavery to continue for the sake of financial gain. Lieber had to remain silent or endanger not only his professorship but also his life while in Columbia. Eventually, professors and trustees discovered his anti-slavery leanings. He was denied the college presidency for which he was the obvious choice, and was forced to resign in 1856. Lieber moved to New York City, where he held a professorship at Columbia University. He stepped into a more active abolitionist role, writing profusely against slavery, and was a Unionist during the Civil War. Lieber promoted the quick emancipation of slaves during the war, even desiring that the Constitution be amended if necessary. He died in 1872, and the university named Lieber College for him in 1946.

James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862), Seventh President (1851–1855)

Portrait of James Thornwell, circa 1840
James H. Thornwell, ca. 1840, SCL

James Henley Thornwell was a graduate, president, and professor of South Carolina College. In 1913, Thornwell College was named in his honor on the college campus. He entered the college with junior standing in 1829 and was very active in the debates of his campus society. Thomas Cooper greatly influenced Thornwell during his days as a student; as a young man, he converted to the pro-slavery position. In addition to college responsibilities, Thornwell was a Presbyterian minister and spoke in favor of slavery in public meetings. Thornwell believed abolitionism was dangerous and would cause societal disruption of a serious nature. The college president also wrote pamphlets and articles in defense of slavery. Although decidedly pro-slavery, Thornwell cared for his own slaves and claimed he was satisfied without profit as long as the plantation earnings were enough to maintain them. Thornwell brought a few of his slaves with him to Columbia. The minister urged other Columbians to allow their slaves to learn to read and attend church services. One of his slaves, Amanda, who almost certainly would have lived in the college slave quarters, joined the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia in 1849 after she discussed her faith with the church leadership. Thornwell spoke in favor of the war with the North but did not live to see the outcome.

John LeConte (1818–1891), Professor of Natural and Mechanical Philosophy (1856–1869) & Joseph LeConte (1823–1901), Professor of Chemistry and Geology (1857–1869)

Portrait of John LeConte, circa 1870
John LeConte, ca. 1870, SCL

John LeConte, physician and scientist, was professor of science and chemistry at South Carolina College from 1856 to 1869. His brother, Joseph, was also a professor at the college at this time. The LeContes’ Georgia plantation, Woodmanston, possessed numerous slaves. In his youth, LeConte doctored slaves on nearby plantations. He abhorred the northern Republicans and believed abolition would cause either a slave revolt or an erasure of racial class status. LeConte concurred with secession since the federal government denied southerners slaveholding rights. If the Confederacy was victorious, LeConte envisioned the founding of a renowned university in the new country where his work would flourish. When Union soldiers captured Columbia, the LeConte family, with twenty-two slaves, fled. In 1869, LeConte moved to the newly-founded University of California in Berkeley, California, to accept a professorship of science.

Portrait of Joseph LeConte, circa 1870
Joseph LeConte, ca. 1870, SCL

Joseph LeConte, physician, scientist, and author, was professor of science and mathematics at South Carolina College from 1857 to 1869. The professor greatly enjoyed teaching at the college and was involved in Columbia society. Growing up at Woodmanston, LeConte had fond early memories of southern life and was a firm believer in paternalism. LeConte owned fifty slaves. LeConte lost everything during the war; although he made an effort to adjust, he could not become accustomed to the war-ravaged Columbia scene. In 1869, he moved with his brother to the University of California.

Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (1790–1870), Ninth President (1857–1861)

Portrait of Augustus Longstreet, circa 1845
Augustus B. Longstreet, ca. 1845, University of Georgia

Augustus Longstreet, Yale graduate, minister, attorney, and Emory College president, was the last antebellum president of South Carolina College (1857–1861). The Georgian was pro-slavery, but his actions show that he was conflicted over the issue. As a result of his marriage, Longstreet owned thirty slaves, but soon afterward decided to sell them and their children for the sake of his reputation as an attorney. A few years later, however, Longstreet bought a plantation and was again a slave owner. He possessed, at the least, house servants until emancipation. Longstreet arranged marriages for slave couples, gave them furnished homes, and showed surprise when these arrangements failed. Throughout his life, Longstreet organized and instructed Sunday schools for slaves, advocated their humane treatment, and taught his slaves to read and write. He wrote several pamphlets defending slavery for southern organizations and, while president of South Carolina College, he encouraged students to protect southern rights, including slavery. Although he wished the institution had not been established in the United States, he felt concern for the state of the southern economy if it were abolished. Longstreet spoke strongly in favor of the Civil War but was at the same time saddened as college boys left to fight. He resigned as president and returned to Mississippi.