Thomas Campbell was born on 27 July 1777 in Glasgow where he went to school showing promise as a poet and an interest in Classics. He studied at Glasgow University from 1791 excelling in the Classics and as a translator of Greek poetry, and then went on to study Hebrew and theological subjects with the intention of going into the Church. By the end of his studies in 1796 (and with some earlier interruption), he had attended classes in Roman law and decided to go into the legal profession. This new direction took him to Edinburgh where he first became a copying clerk then became involved in literary work and private teaching, and writing poems.
Campbell's work from this period included the Wounded Hussar and the minor poems: the Dirge of Wallace, Epistle to three ladies, and Lines on revisiting the River Cart. In 1799 however, his Pleasure of hope became instantly popular, with a passage on Poland having particular resonance among Scottish patriots after the dismemberment of Poland by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. In June 1800, he went across to the European mainland, settling first in Hamburg but also visiting Regensburg (Ratisbon), Munich, and Leipzig. While abroad he wrote The exile of Erin, Ye mariners of England, and The soldier's dream. When the British fleet bore down on Copenhagen in 1801, Campbell wrote The Battle of the Baltic, a strenuous war song.
His return to Britain in 1801 found him alternating between England and Scotland and among his social circle were Dugald Stewart and Lord Minto. Then, in 1803, he married Matilda Sinclair (died 1828) and the Campbells settled in London, at Sydenham.
By 1834, Campbell had achieved much social and academic recognition, and had been Rector of Glasgow University three times in succession beating off Sir Walter Scott as a rival the third time. However, it had not been known that he sought the chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University, which ambition is revealed in a letter to Francis Jeffrey, the Lord Advocate. In it, he writes that he is thinking about competing for this position, and asks for Jeffrey's support. The establishment of the chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University, created for Hugh Blair in 1762, is often seen as marking the start of the formal teaching of English Literature as an academic discipline at university level.
Other works by Campbell include Gertrude of Wyoming, Locheil, Hohenlinden, Navarino, Heligoland death-boat, Pilgrim of Glencoe, Song of the colonists, and Pilgrim.
Thomas Campbell died in Boulogne on 15 June 1844. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.