About William Joseph Harper
William Joseph Harper (January 17, 1790 – October 10, 1847) was a jurist, politician, and social and political theorist from South Carolina.
Born in Antigua and partly educated in Baltimore, Harper became one of the most prominent lawyers in Columbia during the 1810s. After a brief stint as a chancellor in the Missouri territory, Harper returned to South Carolina in 1823. In 1826 Governor Richard Manning appointed Harper to fill the U.S. Senate seat that had become vacant with the death of John Gaillard. Harper served from March 28 until December 7 of 1826, when the South Carolina legislature elected William Smith.
Returning to his home state, Harper moved to Charleston and became active in state politics. He served in the state house of representatives, the South Carolina Court of Appeals, and as state chancellor, an office he held from 1835 until his death. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Harper was an active defender of South Carolina, free trade, and state rights. He prominently supported the nullification movement led by John C. Calhoun, and argued in a series of court opinions that states in the Union were sovereign political entities, each possessing the right to reject federal laws it found unconstitutional.
Defense of Slavery
Harper is probably best remembered as an early and important representative of pro-slavery thought. His Memoir on Slavery, first given as a lecture in 1838, and reprinted in the Southern Literary Journal, classed Harper as a leading proponent of the notion that slavery was not merely a necessary evil, but a positive social good.
Harper advanced several philosophical, racial, and economic arguments on behalf of slavery, but his central idea was that "slavery anticipates the benefits of civilization, and retards the evils of civilization." The slaveholding South, he contended, had achieved a social balance that allowed for steady economic and technological progress, while avoiding the chaos of urban and per's assessment of other nations around the world confirmed this point of view: non-slaveholding civilizations in northern climates, such as Great Britain, were riven by inequality, political radicalism, and other dangers. Non-slaveholding civilizations in more southerly areas, meanwhile, such as Spain, Italy, and Mexico, were rapidly slipping into "degeneracy and barbarism." Only in the slaveholding Southern United States, Brazil, and Cuba, could be seen making "favorable progress."
Like nearly every other defender of slavery before 1840, Harper nominally conceded that slavery, at an abstract level, did constitute a sort of (necessary) moral evil. Yet his strong, positive emphasis on the social and economic benefits of the institution separate him from the weaker apologists for slavery in earlier decades. Harper's idea of slavery as a social good put him on par with Thomas Roderick Dew, James Henry Hammond, and other significant figures in the history of pro-slavery thought.