Born in Jonesboro, Tennessee, on January 21, 1846, Harris spent his formative years in Pine Log, in Bartow County. Harris attended Martin Academy until age sixteen, when he joined the Confederate army. He eventually rose through the ranks to become an officer in the Sixteenth Virginia Cavalry. After the Civil War (1861-65), Harris returned to Georgia to finish his education. He received financial help from former Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens and ultimately received an A.B. degree from the University of Georgia in 1870. Harris taught school in Sparta and then practiced law there before moving his practice to Macon in 1873.
Over the next twenty-seven years, Harris practiced law with Walter Hill, and between 1874 and 1882 he worked as a public attorney for the city of Macon. In 1882 Harris decided to run for the Georgia legislature in order to push for the establishment of a school of technology in the state. Between 1882 and 1886, Harris served in the Georgia General Assembly, and in 1885 he sponsored and oversaw the passage of the bill that created the Georgia School of Technology. In October 1885 Georgia appropriated $65,000 to build that institution in Atlanta. Over the next several decades, Harris became heavily involved in the activities of the new school, serving as chair of the board of trustees from 1885 until his death in 1929. Harris was a fervent believer in the power of education, and while in the Georgia legislature, he also sponsored legislation requiring compulsory education statewide, which he signed into law in 1916. In 1910 Harris received an honorary LL.D. degree from the University of Georgia.
Harris served a term in the state senate from 1894 to 1895 and also sat on the bench in Macon. For about six months in 1912, he was judge of the superior court for the Macon Judicial Circuit. Harris ran again for political office in 1915, this time as the Democratic candidate for governor. Harris won the governorship and shortly after taking office worked diligently to apprehend the lynch mob responsible for hanging Leo Frank in Marietta months earlier. Frank, a Jewish manufacturing supervisor in Atlanta, had been tried and convicted of the 1913 killing of Mary Phagan, a young female employee at the pencil factory Frank managed. Despite Harris’s efforts, Frank’s murderers were never apprehended.
Harris’s legislative agenda as governor was largely oriented toward improving public services and social welfare in the state. While governor, Harris signed legislation requiring that all motor vehicles in Georgia be licensed. He also lobbied for and gained authorization for the formation of a state highway commission to regulate road construction and repair. A reform-minded politician during the Progressive Era, Harris worked to pass legislation that permitted Georgia state banks to become part of the Federal Reserve System. He also reformed teacher pay in the state, placing it on a regular schedule. He even advocated for a mandatory four-month school term for Georgia’s children between the ages of eight and fourteen.
Harris also worked hard to prohibit the sale of alcohol in the state. In 1917, Harris’s final year as governor, he called for a special session of the legislature to consider a state prohibition law. Harris succeeded in passing a law that prohibited the sale and importation of alcohol to or through the state, as well as a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol within the state. Harris was the last veteran of the Confederate army to serve as governor of Georgia.
After leaving the governor’s office, Harris continued his private legal practice. He returned to public service in 1924 and 1925 to serve as the pension commissioner for the entire state. During this period, Harris also served as the president of the Electoral College of Georgia. A lifelong advocate of public education, Harris continued his activities as a member of the boards of trustees for the University of Georgia in Athens, the Georgia School of Technology, and Wesleyan College in Macon. In his private life, Harris was a devout Christian. He was a Sunday school teacher at Mulberry Street Methodist Church in Macon, where he was a member for more than fifty years. Harris married Fannie Burke in 1873, and they had seven children. After Fannie died of typhoid, Harris married Hattie Jobe in 1899. He died in Hampton, Tennessee, on September 21, 1929.