Cooley, Thomas

Thomas McIntyre Cooley ( 1824–1898 ) was a leading constitutional theorist of the late nineteenth century and a prominent judge on the Supreme Court of Michigan. Born into a farm family in upstate New York, Cooley moved to Michigan in 1843 and finished his legal education there. Although he became a Republican in the mid-1850s, Cooley was markedly affected by the principles of Jacksonian Democracy that he absorbed in his youth. In 1860, Cooley was named a professor of law at the University of Michigan and subsequently became dean. Four years later, he was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court and served on the bench until defeated for reelection in 1885. A prolific scholar, Cooley published a number of legal treatises.

Much of Cooley's historical reputation is based upon his landmark work, A Treatise on the Constitutional Limitations Which Rest upon the Legislative Power of the States of the American Union ( 1868

It bears emphasis that Cooley was not a defender of corporate privilege. He was concerned with the growth of monopoly and the concentration of economic power. Cooley disapproved of treating corporate charters as contracts within the shelter of the contract clause of the Constitution. He opposed the use of tax revenue to subsidize private enterprise, maintaining that taxation could only be levied for a “public purpose.” In People v. Salem, 20 Mich. 452 ( 1870 ), Cooley, writing for the Michigan Supreme Court, struck down state laws authorizing financial assistance to railroads on grounds that such aid benefited private corporations and was not for a “public purpose.” Similarly, Cooley sought to restrain the misuse of eminent domain power to assist private interests. He championed a strict reading of the “public use” limitation on governmental takings of property, insisting that “public use” meant possession by the public or public agencies. Moreover, Cooley believed that courts must independently decide what amounts to a “public use,” and not just defer to legislative determinations. By and large, however, courts did not follow Cooley's attempts to cabin the power of taxation and the exercise of eminent domain.

In 1887, President Grover Cleveland ( 1837–1908 ) appointed Cooley to be the first chairman of the fledgling Interstate Commerce Commission. He organized the agency on a judicial model, and preferred to rely on persuasion rather than coercion to achieve regulatory goals and eliminate railroad abuses. Cooley resigned in 1891 for health reasons.


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

Ely, James W., Jr. “Thomas Cooley, ‘Public Use,’ and New Directions in Takings Jurisprudence.” Michigan State Law Review 2004: 845–58.

Jacobs, Clyde Edward. Law Writers and the Courts: The Influence of Thomas M. Cooley, Christopher G. Tiedeman, and John F. Dillon upon American Constitutional Law. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

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

James W. Ely Jr.
Vanderbilt University