Kemper was born in Madison County on June 11, 1823. He entered Washington College, in Lexington, at age sixteen, and was greatly influenced by the college president, Henry Ruffner, acquiring liberal views on education and slavery. Kemper took advantage of a course on military instruction offered at neighboring Virginia Military Institute. At his own school he joined the “Cincinnati Cadets” and the Washington Literary Society, honing his debating and public speaking skills. Among his classmates were future Virginia governorand future Confederate general John D. Imboden.
Kemper graduated in June 1842, read law with Judge George W. Summers in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), and was admitted to the state bar in October 1846. Driven by duty and ambition, Kemper was commissioned a captain of volunteers in the Mexican War, departing from Old Point Comfort in February 1847. His reputation for earnest industry followed him back to Madison County, where he opened a law office in August 1848. Not a social figure, Kemper nevertheless wooed and married Cremora “Belle” Cave, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prominent local planter in July 1853. That same year he won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, which he held for almost a decade. A Jacksonian Democrat, Kemper earned an image as friend of the farmer and common workingman.
In 1855, as a delegate to the state Democratic convention, Kemper threw his support tofor governor; Wise won the nomination and election. The next year Wise appointed Kemper to the Board of Visitors at Virginia Military Institute, where he served as board president from 1857 until 1858. Kemper’s keen interest in military affairs led him to propose the reorganization of Virginia’s militia, which the General Assembly approved in March 1858. Public support for defense rose with fears of slave insurrection after ‘s raid on in October 1859. Ignoring the Unionist sentiments of his old schoolmate John Letcher, who had just been elected governor, Kemper sponsored legislation in December 1860 for a secession convention. The began meeting in February 1861 and voted to leave the Union in April.
With the coming of the war Kemper once again volunteered for military service. Commissioned ain the 7th Virginia Infantry in May 1861, Kemper was promoted to brigadier general after the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks (1862) and commanded a brigade in ‘s Virginia division. He balanced his field duties while serving as Speaker of the House.
Kemper’s commendable soldiery came to an end on the third day at Gettysburg, when, during, he caught a minié ball in the thigh at Cemetery Ridge. Taken prisoner, Kemper was exchanged in September 1863 for Union general Charles K. Graham. Still suffering from paralysis of the left leg, Kemper was declared unfit for active duty. He was nevertheless promoted to major general in September 1864 and commanded the Virginia Reserve Forces until May 2, 1865, when he was paroled in .
After the war, the pragmatic Kemper returned to Madison and tried his hand at business, hoping to lure northern capital to Virginia by brokering land speculation. He became a bankruptcy lawyer, partnering with former classmate and fellow Confederate general John Imboden. Kemper’s reentry into state politics came in 1867 as one of the founders of the state Conservative Party, a mix of former Democrats,, and the nativist Know-Nothings (so-named because members of the party were supposed to reply “I know nothing” when asked about the semi-secret party’s activities) intent on opposing the Radical Republicans, then in power. In 1869 Kemper became aligned with the powerful railroad man and former Confederate general when he backed Mahone candidate Gilbert C. Walker for a local House seat—and Walker won.
Intense and complex, Kemper lost his wife, Belle, in 1870 when she died during the birth of their seventh child. Kemper then devoted himself to public service. In 1872 he ran unsuccessfully as the Conservative candidate for the Seventh Congressional District. A vigorous speaker and campaigner despite continual pain, Kemper ran against Republican Robert W. Hughes in the gubernatorial race of 1873, supported by former Confederates, , and . Former ally Henry Wise scorned moderation of any kind, however, and refused to endorse him. Kemper won the contest by more than 25,000 votes and kindled a hope among Conservatives that Republican rule was over.
Kemper’s administration was dominated by the issue of the state war debt, with Funders desiring to pay off the money, and Readjusters hoping to avoid paying full measure to the hated Republicans dominating state and national politics. Kemper favored repayment and strict enforcement of civil rights as guaranteed in the new state constitution. A critical moment came on March 12, 1874, when Kemper vetoed a General Assembly bill transferring control of Petersburg’s city government from elected Republican officials to a board of commissioners appointed by a city judge. Kemper’s veto was sustained by the Virginia Senate. Although Kemper termed the effort “in violation of the very spirit of a republican form of government,” his contemporaries were outraged by what they viewed as a Conservative’s betrayal: Kemper was burned in effigy.
Kemper continued to pursue his goals of prison reform and an increase in the number of state schools, despite crippling budget shortages. Prior to the dedication of a statue to Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Capitol Square in 1875, Kemper agreed to let a black militia unit participate in the festivities. Jubal Early hotly protested, but Kemper wrote back “the programme is fixed; all Hell can’t change it.”
Kemper attacked budget issues personally, cutting back costs at the Governor’s Mansion. A widower with six children, he marked his time at the home with simple entertainments and he reduced staff, using his eldest son Meade as a secretary. At the end of his term Kemper left Richmond trailing a train of children, personal papers, “ponies, pet goats, a pack of dogs, and other animal life his family cherished.”
Selling the Madison homestead in 1878, Kemper moved his family to Walnut Hills, his last home, near Orange Court House, Virginia, and resumed his law practice. He lived, as he noted, a life of “quietude,” suffering increasing pain and eventual paralysis of his left side. Kemper died on Sunday, April 7, 1895.