Congressman, U.S. senator. Harper was born near Fredericksburg, Virginia, in January 1765, the only son of the cabinetmaker Jesse Harper and his wife, Diana Goodloe. Harper was raised in Granville County, North Carolina, and at the age of fifteen joined a cavalry unit under General Nathanael Greene to resist the invasion of Lord Cornwallis. Following the Revolution, Harper worked as a surveyor in Kentucky, but he continued to aspire to a military career. With the financial support of his father and a small loan from Richard Dobbs Spaight, Harper graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1785.
Harper moved to Charleston, South Carolina, following graduation. After being admitted to the bar in 1786, he practiced law at Ninety Six. He returned to Charleston in 1789 where western land speculating consumed most of his time. Thanks to his participation in the reapportionment movement, Harper’s political career began in 1794 through a confusing turn of events. In October he was elected to both the General Assembly and the Fourth Congress. However, in November he won a special election to the Third Congress to replace Alexander Gillon, who had died in office. Harper’s congressional career representing South Carolina continued until 1801.
After a brief flirtation with pro-French republicanism in the early 1790s, and contrary to what his critics often claimed, Harper remained a dedicated Federalist throughout the remainder of the decade, a position endorsed by his constituents in Ninety Six. He supported western expansion, unlike some New England Federalists. He defended the Jay Treaty with an eloquent address that went through fifteen printings, resisted attempts in the House to expand its role in foreign policy, and worked to strengthen executive autonomy. Although associated with the moderate John Adams wing of the Federalist Party, Harper was steadfastly pro-British, especially after the XYZ affair unleashed a torrent of anti-French sentiment. He led the move to enhance the country’s military capability and defended the alien and sedition laws of 1798, which he justified on the existence of a national common law implied by the Constitution.
After retiring from politics in 1801, Harper moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he had been a de facto resident since 1799. On May 7, 1801, he married Catherine Carroll, daughter of the eminent Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Most of the family wealth remained in Catherine’s name, and despite a successful law practice, Harper owed considerable debts throughout the rest of his life.
Harper’s oratorical skills attracted numerous influential clients to his law practice, whose cases took Harper before state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Judges John Pickering and Samuel Chase both employed him during their impeachment trials. Harper opposed the War of 1812, but was made a general of the Maryland soldiers who defended Baltimore. Briefly returning to politics, Harper served in the Maryland state senate and in the U.S. Senate. He stood as the Federalist vice-presidential candidate in 1816. A charter member of the American Colonization Society, Harper helped choose Africa as the location of the colony and proposed the names Liberia and Monrovia later used for the colony and its capital. Harper considered reentering politics, but died suddenly on January 14, 1825. He was interred at Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore.
Cox, Joseph W. Champion of Southern Federalism: Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1972.
Papenfuse, Eric Robert. The Evils of Necessity: Robert Goodloe Harper and the Moral Dilemma of Slavery. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997.