Archer was born on March 5, 1789, in Amelia County, the eldest of at least five sons and four daughters of John Archer and Elizabeth Eggleston Archer. He attended the College of William and Mary in the class of 1806, studied law, and practiced in Amelia County for the rest of his life.
Archer represented Amelia County in the House of Delegates from 1812 to 1814 and again in 1818 and 1819. Late in December 1819 he was elected to the House of Representatives to succeed James Pleasants, who had resigned to become a U.S. senator. Archer took his seat on January 3, 1820. He was a conservative, states’ rights Republican who shortly before being elected to Congress had introduced a lengthy resolution in the House of Delegates denying that Congress had constitutional authority to charter the new Bank of the United States. In 1824 he supported the presidential candidacy of Virginia native William H. Crawford, and four years later he favored Andrew Jackson. Archer served in the House for sixteen years. From 1829 until 1835 he was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Archer and other southern states’ rights supporters broke with the president early in his second term after Jackson denounced nullification. Archer also criticized as high-handed the president’s removal of government deposits from the Bank of the United States. As a result, Archer joined the new Whig Party, a disparate group of politicians opposed to Jackson’s policies, albeit often for contrary reasons. Although never an advocate of Henry Clay’s American System, which became the cornerstone of the Whigs’ national appeal, Archer remained allied with the Whigs for the remainder of his life. He lost his seat in Congress to Democrat John Winston Jones in the election of April 1835.
On March 3, 1841, the General Assembly, which had a small Whig majority, chose Archer on the second ballot over the Democratic U.S. Senate incumbent, William H. Roane, for the six-year term that began the next day. Archer’s Senate service plunged him into controversies over slavery, territorial expansion, the annexation of Texas, bank policy, and the disruption of the Whig Party during the administration of President. Archer chaired the Committee on Foreign Relations from 1841 to 1845 and later supported President James K. Polk’s attempts to end British claims to the Oregon territory. He opposed the annexation of Texas, in part because he feared it would lead to war with Mexico, even though he evidently favored it in principle in order to permit the expansion of slavery to the Southwest. Archer had a reputation for long and rambling speeches that one critic stated made as much sense when read backward as forward. Before his term concluded, the Democrats had regained control of the General Assembly. Archer therefore had no real chance of reelection, in spite of the hope of some Whigs that factionalism among the Democrats would let him slip into a second term. On the sixth ballot on January 15, 1847, the assembly chose Robert M. T. Hunter over Archer and Governor William “Extra Billy” Smith.
Archer served as a trustee of Hampden-Sydney College from 1820 to 1839 and campaigned unsuccessfully for seats in the 1829 and 1850 state constitutional conventions. His published opinions on the latter convention clearly placed him in agreement with conservative leaders in eastern Virginia who resisted all efforts to broaden the franchise, introduce more democratic election practices, dilute the influence in the General Assembly of the slaveholding eastern counties, or accede to any political or economic demands that originated in western Virginia.
Archer died on March 28, 1855, at his Amelia County house, the Lodge, and was buried nearby. He was a wealthy man, with nearly 2,000 acres of land and eighty-eight slaves in Amelia County, a large and valuable estate in Mississippi, and a library of more than 2,500 volumes. Never married, he willed all of his property to his three sisters, with whom he had lived. They then divided it into four equal portions, with the fourth, according to a later report, set aside to provide for Archer’s illegitimate son, William Segar Archer Work.