Charles Augustus (C. A.) Harper (1818–1884)

Charles A. Harper, originally from New England, spent a nomadic career soldiering, practicing law, and in business, farming, the ministry, and the judiciary, including a brief and undistinguished period as a justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court around the end of the Civil War. He was elected to the court when Republicans formed a state government under the new constitution of 1864, but he resigned two years later after apparently sitting on only five minor appellant cases and writing three opinions. The inactivity was not his fault, as the government and entire judicial system were in turmoil and functioned erratically.

Charles Augustus (C. A.) Harper was born on December 2, 1818, in Canterbury, New Hampshire, the second son of Joseph Harper, who was a doctor and politician, and Elizabeth Clough Harper. Harper’s father was the acting governor of New Hampshire for a period and later a U.S. representative. Harper graduated from Dartmouth University at the age of nineteen. He studied law and practiced for several years at Clarksburg in what was then Virginia (later West Virginia). Believing the climate in the mountains too harsh and unhealthy, he went south.

In 1845, he moved to Texas just as the United States was annexing the independent country and making it the twenty-eighth state. War with Mexico was imminent, and when it began, Harper joined Colonel John Coffee Hays’s Texas Mounted Riflemen Regiment as an adjutant. He later attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. The Texas volunteers would play a crucial role in the Battle of Monterrey, a decisive juncture in the Mexican War. After the war, in 1849, Harper married Emily Maria Strickland at her church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and they settled in Indianola on the Texas coast southwest of Houston, where he apparently established a law practice. They would have three children, each born in a different state.

Midway in the Civil War, Harper moved to Van Buren (Crawford County) and established a law practice. Like his father, Harper was a Republican. With the adoption in 1864 of a new constitution drafted by Republicans who gained control of the state government, the legislature elected Harper, Thomas D. W. Yonley, and Elisha Baxter to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Baxter never actually participated in any decision but resigned to accept his election by the legislature to be a U.S. senator, an office that he also never actually occupied; he was later governor. Yonley, who was the chief justice, and Harper did not hold court on a single case in 1864 or in the 1865 term, according to Supreme Court records.

In the December 1865 term, the two men decided a single case, Rison v. Farr, but it was a significant one. Yonley wrote the court’s lengthy and scholarly opinion, which interpreted the constitutional powers on voting in the Unionist charter. The state required people who attempted to vote in the 1865 election to take an oath that they had not aided or abetted the Confederate cause after April 1864, which was the date the new Unionist government took power. Yonley and Harper ruled that the oath requirement violated the 1864 constitution, which said the only requirements to vote could be that the voter was white, at least twenty-one years old, and an Arkansas resident for at least six months. Their opinion was cited by the state Supreme Court in 2014 (Martin v. Kohls), when it struck down an act by the Arkansas General Assembly that barred people from voting if they did not present an official photo identification at the polling place. The rationale was the same as Yonley’s and Harper’s—that legislators could not impair the right to vote guaranteed by the Arkansas Constitution, which specified that the legislature could never add voting qualifications beyond those specified in the constitution.

In 1866, the two justices decided only five appeals before they resigned. Harper apparently authored only three opinions on the court, all in 1866. One was a dispute over a small promissory note, another over selling liquor without a license, and the third, Osborn Ex Parte, involved a murder. George Osborn was charged with first-degree murder for shooting a neighbor, Joseph Price. Osborn thought the trial judge was wrong in refusing to free him on bail while awaiting the trial. Osborn could have been allowed to go free before trial if he were charged with second-degree murder or manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, which required premeditation. Osborn thought his shooting did not deserve the first-degree charge. Price’s wife had told Osborn that her husband planned to kill him for stealing his meat while remarking that Osborn had stolen enough of Price’s lard “to grease his way to hell.” Osborn went to Price’s home to confront him about the threat and wound up killing Price in the confrontation. Harper found no reason to overrule the trial judge on bail.

After Harper resigned, he and his family moved back east, where both of his parents had grown up. Subsequent federal censuses listed him as a farmer. Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, which he must have attended as a child, listed him as a telephone or telegraph company official for three years and also as a minister. The Harpers lived in Burlington, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, for several years and moved to Ridgefield, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, in the last years of Harper’s life.

He died on November 9, 1884, and is buried in Ridgefield Cemetery.

For additional information:
Livingston, John. Biographical Sketches of Distinguished Americans Now Living. New York: 1853.

Looney, J. W. Distinguishing the Righteous from the Roguish: The Arkansas Supreme Court, 1836–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.

Rose, G. B. “The Supreme Court of Arkansas.” The Green Bag 4 (1892): 417–437.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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