Rev Dr Myles Cooper (1735-1785)

Rev Dr Myles Cooper

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupation: College Head

Background and early career

Myles Cooper was baptised at Ulpha, near Broughton-in-Furness on the 5th February 1737, the second son of William Cooper (1693- 1759) of Whoas (or Wha) House, who married in 1728 Elizabeth (1702-78), daughter of John Dickson of Beckbank, Thwaites. The Coopers were a yeoman family who can be traced back to John Cooper (1565-1597) and the Dicksons came from a similar background.

He was educated at the free Carlisle Grammar School, under its renowned headmaster the Revd Miles Wennington, originally from Thwaites, who married Myles's only sister Esther Cooper (1730-1779) in 1753.Wennington was a graduate of the Queen's College, Oxford and in the same year Myles Cooper himself entered this College, aged sixteen. He graduated three years later, proceeded to M.A in 1760 and, in 1767, became a D.C.L. by Diploma.

King’s College, New York

In 1760 he was ordained and became second master at Tonbridge School, but a year later he returned to Oxford as Chaplain to the Queen's College. Two years later, at the age of twenty-seven, he was appointed Vice-President of King's College, New York by Archbishop Thomas Secker (1693-1768) of Canterbury. The Governors of the College had applied to the Archbishop for someone suitable to succeed the elderly Revd Dr Samuel Johnson (no connection with the lexicographer) as President of King's College and also as lecturer or assistant rector of Trinity Church, New York. King's College (now Colombia University) was established by King George II by a royal charter in 1754 and is the oldest institution of higher learning in New York State and the fifth oldest in the USA.

He arrived in New York in October 1762 and within five months succeeded as the second President of the College, having already been made a Fellow and appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy. Under his dynamic leadership the College grew in size and prestige, large grants of land secured new professorships and the Medical School were founded, the library greatly increased and New York's first public art collection was inaugurated. Cooper introduced rules of conduct, discipline and procedures based on Oxford University rather than those at Harvard, Yale and Princeton and he also altered the emphasis of the curriculum from science and mathematics to ethics, poetry, politics and on Latin and Greek grammar and logic. George Washington was so impressed by Myles Cooper that he entrusted his stepson, John Parke Custis, to Cooper's care. Others who benefitted from Cooper's erudition and administrative qualities, despite his Tory and Loyalist sympathies, were five of his early students between 1763-1775 all of whom were to become founding fathers of the USA; John Jay (1745-1829), Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), Egbert Benson (1746-1833), Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) and Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804). 

Politics and Revolution 

As a Loyalist he was not universally popular and some of his grand ideas, such as his plea to George III for a Royal Charter to merge other Colonial Colleges notably Harvard and Yale into an ‘American University’ under the control of King's, were unsuccessful. He also failed in his proposal to found two new Anglican bishoprics in North America, one for himself. He took a prominent part in the urban life of New York and was reputed to have owned more bottles than books. As an outspoken Loyalist he wrote a number of political tracts and some rather indifferent poetry.

In 1768 the governors of King's College conferred upon Cooper the LL.D degree and he published his lectures on Aristotelian ethics in Latin under the title of Ethices compendium in 1774. His portrait by John Singleton Copley, painted between 1780-1785 and showing Cooper in the academic robes of a DCL (Oxon), is now in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, although in private ownership. By now he was generally considered one of the outstanding men in the Church of England in America but his loyalist sympathies eventually made him one of the most hated figures in New York and he received many death threats, especially after publishing two political tracts, A friendly address to all reasonable Americans in 1774 and What think ye of the Congress now? in the following year. In April 1775 he was one of five New Yorkers to be warned in a public letter that 'repeated insults and unparalled oppressions have reduced the Americans to a state of desperation' and he took refuge for a few days on a British warship but soon returned to his duties.

However, once the American War of Independence had begun in earnest in 1775 his position as a prominent Loyalist became untenable and he had to escape from a hostile mob at midnight on the 10th May in his nightshirt. It was his former pupil and notional enemy, Alexander Hamilton, who saved Cooper's life by speaking to the crowd for long enough to secure his escape. Hutchinson adds that Cooper had fled half-dressed and without any of his possessions. Later that night assassins broke into his darkened bedroom and stabbed the bedclothes many times with bayonets supposing him to be still in bed but by then he had made his way to a waiting boat which took him to one of the King's ships then lying off the harbour.   He quickly sailed for England, never to return. Later King's College suspended its classes, the building became a hospital and the library was looted.

Return to England

He resumed his Fellowship at the Queen's College, Oxford, where he lived, and as  a loyalist was granted a royal pension of £200 per annum for life, later reduced by half and soon afterwards was made chaplain to a man of war commanded by Captain Andrew Snape Hamond, (1738-1828), later a Baronet, Vice-Admiral and Comptroller of the Navy. In 1777 Cooper was appointed senior minister of the Episcopal Chapel in Cowgate, Edinburgh at a salary of £150 p.a. This was to be his base for the remaining eight years of his life but in addition he held four other preferments in England in plurality and where he was non-resident. In 1778, through the influence of his friend, Edward Thurlow, later Bishop of Lincoln and then Durham, the younger brother of Lord Chancellor Thurlow, he was appointed to the Crown living of Neen Savage, and also Cleobury Mortimer, both in Shropshire, in 1781 to the Crown living of Cowley in Gloucestershire and, in 1782, his College presented him to the combined livings of Sulhamstead Abbots and Sulhamstead Bannister in Berkshire.

Myles Cooper was a large man of cultivated tastes and enjoyed good food and wine. He died suddenly from an apoplectic fit whilst amongst friends at a luncheon in Edinburgh on the 20th May 1785 aged fifty and, as he had previously directed, was buried in an unmarked grave in Restalrig churchyard. He was unmarried.

In his Will dated 7th May 1782 he describes himself as "Myles Cooper, LL.D, President of King's College, New York, Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, Rector of Cowley in Gloucestershire, Vicar of Neen Savage in Shropshire and Senior Minister of the Episcopal Chapel in Edinburgh and appointed " my good friends "Sir William Forbes, banker in Edinburgh, Bart., John Blackburn Esq. of Bush Lane, London and the Revd Thomas Dalton B.D., Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford”as his executors and trustees. He divided his estate equally between the children of his brother Major John Cooper of the Cumberland Militia,of Whahouse, Cumberland and the children of his deceased sister Esther Wennington late of the City of Carlisle or such of his nephews and nieces as should be living at the time of his death. Major Cooper had at least eight children, five sons and three daughters, and Mrs Wennington had five children, although how many of them survived their uncle is not known. By a memorandum dated the 7th May 1782 (treated as a Codicil) Cooper recited that he owed his London tailor Mr Danson £40/50 and about the same amount to John Tabor Kempe, Attorney-General of New York, but that monies due to him from various sources amounted to about £2,900, some further amounts from his livings in Shropshire and Gloucestershire and a further £250 from his New York salary. The latter he describes as ‘not very likely to be recovered tho’ it is justly due to me but all my affairs have been shattered to pieces by this abominable Rebellion’.

Probate was granted in the PCC in London to two of the executors on the 8th October 1785. His estate was valued at c. £2,000.

Cooper's heir was his elder brother Major John Cooper (1731-1805), who was also financially ruined by the war with the American colonies, fled to Scotland to escape his creditors and, in 1784, sold the former Wha House, which he had rebuilt and christened Duddon Grove (later renamed Duddon Hall) to John Robinson, an Ulverston attorney known for his sharp practices, who may have foreclosed on the estate.

Hutchinson, in his History of the County of Cumberland, remarked that Cooper's   poetry has ‘not been thought, in some instances, to rise above mediocrity’, adding that he was more fortunate in epigrams. He sums him up as, ‘of a cheerful and facetious temper, and possessed such pleasing and convivial talents, as procured him many friends; but it used to be remarked of him as a singularity, that though he constantly attempted puns, he seldom made a very good one, but still seldomer a very bad one. He was, beside a staunch loyalist, a steady friend to the church of England, a good scholar and a friendly man.’


  • Columbia University Quarterly xxii, 261-286
  • William Hutchinson, A History of the County of Cumberland, reprint 1974, vol.1, 556-557
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Myles Cooper by James B. Bell, 2008
  • CW2 lxiv, 335-348