Founding Fathers - Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Born: December 26, 1738 (Yorktown, Virginia)

Died: January 4, 1789 (Hanover County, Virginia)


Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there!  This week we meet the second member of our "Thomas Junior" trio, and this one had a royal connection.  Thomas Nelson, Jr. was a direct descendent of England's King Henry III, and also the grandson of the exceptionally rich and powerful Robert "King" Carter.  He was the first of five children born to William Nelson and Elizabeth Carter, and stood to gain an enormous inheritance from his aristocratic family of planters and merchants.  Like last week's focus, Thomas Heyward, Jr., he was not named after his father but adopted the suffix to distinguish himself from his uncle of the same name.  After studying with a local reverend as a boy, Thomas set sail for England at the age of 14 to receive his formal education.  He graduated from Christ's College at Cambridge in 1761, and returned home to help run his family's mercantile and agriculture businesses.  The following year, at the age of 23, Thomas married a wealthy widow named Lucy Grymes and began managing several plantations that had been left to the minor children she'd had with her first husband.  The new couple was given wedding gifts from her wealthy family that included 20,000 acres of land and hundreds of slaves, and they would eventually have 13 children together.

Public life soon called for Thomas Nelson, Jr., as he became a justice of the peace for York County after two years of marriage, and in 1764 he became a member of Virginia's House of Burgesses due largely to his father's efforts on his behalf.  Although still a young man, Nelson soon began to question the direction of Britain's methods of governing the colonies, and openly questioned the relationship between those on opposite sides of the ocean.  When the House of Burgesses opposed punitive actions taken by the Crown in response to the Boston Tea Party, the Royal Governor disbanded the body.  Working closely with leaders such as Patrick Henry, Nelson began spending his own money to send supplies to Boston while also participating in a Yorktown Tea Party where he personally threw chests of tea overboard.  He served in a series of provincial conventions where he helped form a Virginia militia and served as its first commander, but when he was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775 (replacing the departing George Washington) he resigned his military position and prepared to depart for Philadelphia.  He was able to deliver news to fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee that the colonial assembly had passed his proposed resolutions of independence from Britain, which then prompted Lee to make a motion to Congress that the colonies as a whole make a similar declaration.  Within a month, the Declaration was written and approved.

After participating in a committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation his health became a concern, so after experiencing an asthma attack in 1777, Thomas Nelson, Jr. resigned his congressional seat and returned to Virginia, where he began to recover and once again participate in military activity.  He received the rank of brigadier general in the Virginia militia and was personally involved in funding the creation and outfitting of a light cavalry unit.  Nelson's successes as a military leader and fundraiser for the army were widely recognized, but when it became apparent that his efforts to lead were being hampered by civilians he was elected by the state legislature to succeed Thomas Jefferson as the Governor of Virginia in 1781.  He received the news while encamped with his troops, which had joined with those led by Marquis de Lafayette, and was immediately sworn in.  For a number of months, Nelson operated as both the civil leader and military commander of Virginia, making him one of the most powerful men in the new nation.  He participated at the Siege of Yorktown in his hometown where legend says that he ordered artillery to fire on his house while British officers were inside - his plantation was damaged but still stands with cannonballs lodged in its walls.

The British surrendered on October 19, 1781, and by November 22 bad health forced Thomas Nelson, Jr. to resign his seat as governor.  Physically and financially exhausted, he had spent a substantial amount of his own money to support the war but was never repaid.  Lacking the necessary funds to repair his primary home, Nelson moved his family to a more modest location while he focused on rebuilding his family business.  He continued to be elected to Virginia's House of Delegates as a representative for York County but his health never recovered to the point where he was able to be a consistent participant.  While visiting the home of one of his sons in 1789 he suffered a severe asthma attack that claimed his life at just 50 years of age.

The signature of Thomas Nelson, Jr. can be found as the tenth name in the third (center) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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