Born in Westminster, England, and educated at Oxford University, Thomas Cooper (1759–1839) was a lawyer, scientist, and philosopher who identified himself with various radical causes. Emigrating to America in 1794 in hopes of finding political freedom, he settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he practiced law and medicine. By 1799 he had become well known through his pamphleteering as an opponent to the Sedition Act; in 1800, he was convicted under this legislation and served six months in prison.
Upon his release, Cooper served as a county commissioner and a state judge in Pennsylvania but soon thereafter left politics and the judiciary to take up teaching. From 1811 to 1815, he was chair of chemistry at Carlisle (now Dickinson) College; from 1816 to 1819, he was a professor of applied chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania. Through the patronage of Thomas Jefferson, Cooper was elected to the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1819 but never assumed the position.
In 1820, Cooper became professor of chemistry at South Carolina College and was elected the institution's second president in the following year. As a member of the faculty, he taught not only in the sciences but also in the social sciences; his Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy (1826) was one of the pioneer university textbooks in the United States. Retiring from the presidency in 1834, he remained an active figure in state and federal political circles until his death on May 11, 1839. He was buried in Trinity Churchyard, now Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Churchyard, Columbia, South Carolina.