Governor. Robert A. Cooper was born on June 12, 1874, in Waterloo Township, Laurens County, the son of Henry Addison Cooper and Elizabeth Archer. He graduated from Jones High School in Abbeville, and after reading law he ultimately received an LL.D. from the Polytechnic Institute at San German, Puerto Rico. On admission to the South Carolina Bar in 1898, he established a law practice in Laurens. On March 22, 1899, Cooper married Mamie Machen. Following her death in 1914, Cooper married Dorcas Calmes on November 15, 1917.
In 1900 Laurens County elected Cooper to the S.C. House of Representatives, where he served until 1904. The following year he became solicitor of the Eighth Judicial Circuit. He resigned in 1912 to resume his lucrative private practice. In August 1918, thanks in part to the support of the outgoing governor Richard I. Manning, Cooper defeated several rivals to secure the gubernatorial nomination in the Democratic Party primary. On November 5 he won an uncontested general election, and he was sworn into office on January 21, 1919.
Emulating the progressive policies of his predecessor, Cooper proposed an ambitious reform program, notably statewide compulsory public school attendance. Cooper and his legislative allies enacted measures that guaranteed seven-month public school terms, as well as higher salaries for public educators. He advocated a notable expansion of state public health services. He also successfully pressured the legislature for money to pave South Carolina roadways. To finance road construction projects, Cooper proposed a reevaluation of property taxes throughout the state and rigid enforcement of state tax laws. Despite bitter objections from various legislators, Cooper also secured legislation that limited the work schedule for textile workers to ten hours per day and fifty-five hours per week.
Buoyed by the optimism of a strong wartime economy, South Carolina voters approved of Governor Cooper’s ambitious agenda and reelected him in 1920. Unfortunately, Cooper’s second term as governor was marked by a serious agricultural depression and post-war economic recession that undercut public support for his progressive programs. Cooper resigned on May 20, 1922, following his appointment to the Federal Farm Loan Board, a post he held for five years. He served also as assistant to the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee from 1929 to 1932. Two years later President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Cooper to be the U.S. district judge for Puerto Rico. After retiring from the bench in 1947, Cooper died on August 7, 1953, and was buried in Greenville.
Wallace, David Duncan. The History of South Carolina. 4 vols. New York: American Historical Society, 1934.