Cooley, Thomas McIntyre

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Cooley, Thomas McIntyre

As a jurist, scholar, and educator in the late nineteenth century, Thomas McIntyre Cooley greatly influenced the development of U.S. Constitutional Law. In particular, Cooley's writings shaped later interpretation of the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. His ideas were used, and sometimes misused, by others to help define a laissez-faire approach to constitutional law that sought to minimize the power of government over private and commercial life. (Laissezfaire is French for "let [people] do [as they choose].") Cooley's most important books include A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations Which Rest upon the Legislative Power of the States of the American Union (1868) and A Treatise on the Law of Torts (1879, 3d ed. 1906), both of which became the leading texts in their respective fields. In his writings, Cooley consistently defended constitutional government and its ability to protect the rights of individuals from Arbitrary actions by the state.

Cooley had a distinguished career on the Michigan Supreme Court between 1864 and 1885. From the 1870s onward, he was considered a leading candidate for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court; however, he never received a nomination. Cooley was also a founding member of the University of Michigan's law department in 1859, remaining there as a professor until 1884. As an indication of the complexity of Cooley's brand of conservatism, he served as the first chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the body that regulates interstate transportation. He was instrumental in the establishment of the ICC as the federal government's first regulatory commission.

A descendant of seventeenth-century New England settlers, Cooley was born January 6, 1824, on a farm near Attica, New York, the eighth of his mother's thirteen children. He had a very basic education in local schools and did not attend college. In 1842, he began studying law under Theron R. Strong, a politician and lawyer from Palmyra, New York. After moving to Adrian, Michigan, to explore life on the frontier, Cooley earned Admission to the Bar in 1846. In that same year, he married Mary Horton. Cooley's frontier experiences in Michigan had a profound effect on him and shaped much of his later thought. He learned the benefits of frugality and self-reliance, and he took great pride in being one of the state's pioneers. He later wrote of the way in which Michigan had been transformed before his very eyes: "It was a state almost lost in its woods … but the magic touch of industry plied by vigorous hands speedily transformed the scene; the woods opened to the building of many beautiful and prosperous towns."

"The value of government to any man is proportioned to the completeness of the protection it extends to all men."
—Thomas Mcintyre Cooley

Cooley was influenced in his youth by the history and traditions of his New England fore-bears, as well as the values of Jacksonian Democracy, so named for Andrew Jackson, president of the United States from 1829 to 1837. The Jacksonians lay claim to the legacy of thomas jefferson, and, like Jefferson, they had a bias in favor of an agrarian society rather than a commercial one. The Jacksonians were, therefore, suspicious of big government and big business, and saw both as a potential danger to the common individual. Cooley's constitutional philosophy grew out of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideals of self-reliance, free trade, equal rights, limited government, and maximum personal liberties such as Freedom of Speech.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Cooley was a member of the radical wing of the Democratic Party. He was, for example, a Free-Soiler, believing that territories and new states should remain free of Slavery. In 1854, he accepted the Democratic nomination to run for district judge of Common Pleas in Toledo, but he lost the election. His views on slavery led him to join the Republican Party shortly after its inception in 1854, and he remained a member of it for the rest of his life.

After a difficult decade spent moving about and trying to get his legal career underway, in 1855, Cooley formed a law partnership in Adrian with Charles M. Croswell, who later became governor of Michigan. Two years later, the state legislature chose Cooley to compile the state statutes. He performed this task so ably that in 1858 he was appointed the official reporter of the state's supreme court, an office he held through 1865 and in which he edited volumes 5 through 12 of Michigan Reports. Cooley became one of the three founding professors of the law department at the University of Michigan in 1859, and later he served as its dean. In 1884, he gave up his position with the law department to serve as professor of U.S. history and constitutional law in the literary department, a position he held until his death on September 12, 1898.

Largely because of his excellent work editing the Michigan Supreme Court's reports, Cooley was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1864. Not long afterward, he began to prepare a book based on his lectures on constitutional law. A Treatise on Constitutional Limitations made Cooley a nationally recognized authority on the Constitution.

Further readings

Carrington, Paul D. 1997. "The Constitutional Law Scholarship of Thomas McIntyre Cooley." American Journal of Legal History 41 (July): 368–99.

Cooley, Thomas M. 1868. A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations Which Rest Upon the Legislative Power of the States of the American Union. Boston: Little, Brown.

Fleener, William J., Jr. 2000. "Thomas McIntyre Cooley: Michigan's Most Influential Lawyer." Michigan Bar Journal 79 (February): 208.

Jacobs, Clyde E. 2001. Law Writers and the Courts: The Influence of Thomas M. Cooley, Christopher G. Tiedeman, and John F. Dillon upon American Constitutional Law. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.

Jones, Alan R. 1960. The Constitutional Conservatism of Thomas McIntyre Cooley: A Study in the History of Ideas. Ph.D. Thesis. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1987.