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Guide to the James Harper Papers
1843-1855
 MS 284

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Rachel Schimke

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on May 04, 2012

Biographical/Historical note

Although James Harper (April 13, 1795-March 27, 1869) is perhaps best known as one of the founders of what is today the HarperCollins publishing company, his other major achievement was serving as mayor of New York City. Harper was born in Newton, Long Island, New York, the oldest son of Joseph Harper, a farmer, carpenter, and storekeeper, and Elizabeth Kollyer, a Dutch burgher's daughter. He became drawn to the printing profession after reading Benjamin Franklin's autobiography as a young boy, and subsequently took on an apprenticeship at a print shop when he was sixteen. In 1817, he formed the J. & J. Harper printing company in New York with his brother, John. The other two Harper brothers, Fletcher and Wesley, joined the firm in the 1820s, prompting the company's name to change to Harper & Brothers in 1833. By 1830, the company was the largest book publisher in the United States. The company's success continued to grow towards the midcentury, as the brothers established the magazine Harper's Monthly and published the works of authors like Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, and Washington Irving.

In 1844, James Harper was elected mayor of New York as a member of the American Republican Party, a nativist political organization which was the precursor to the Native American Party and laid the groundwork for the Know-Nothing Party. Founded in New York in 1843, the American Republican Party focused much of its anti-immigrant energies on Irish Catholics, and as mayor Harper removed Irishmen from the city's payroll. Though Harper was only in office for one year, during his term he created his own municipal police force (a year before the state established a system of city police wards), reduced animal traffic on the streets, and made garbage collecting and street sweeping more efficient. In accordance with his Methodist upbringing and membership in the Friends of Temperance, Harper also restricted the city's sale of liquor.

Harper ran for reelection reluctantly, stating in a letter to his party that though he could not "but think and feel that a more worthy candidate might be selected, I recognize also the right of my fellow citizens to call upon me, and my duty, as one who owes them much, to place myself at their disposal." The threat of violence that many New York voters feared after the outbreak of anti-Irish riots in Philadelphia, as well as the election of James Polk, the Democratic candidate for president in 1844, ensured that Harper was a one-term mayor. Following his defeat, Harper devoted the rest of his professional life to his publishing company. He never again ran for public office, and plainly wrote "I do not desire the office" in 1855 when he was rumored to be a candidate for the New York governorship (though he also conceded that he would accept the nomination if the "harmony" of the Know-Nothing party was threatened by lack of consensus). James Harper died in New York in a carriage accident in 1869.