Founding Fathers - Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison

Born: April 5, 1726 (Berkeley, Virginia)

Died: April 24, 1791 (Berkeley, Virginia)

Born into two of the most powerful and influential families in the colonies, the focus of this week's study was known as a large figure, both in personality and physique, whose love of storytelling and good food disguised the many challenges he overcame.  Known by some as Benjamin Harrison V, he was the third child of ten born to his parents, Benjamin and Anne, but as the first son the family name that had been carried for four previous generations fell to him.  His father was a wealthy planter and had built the family's Berkeley Plantation home on 1,000 acres of land overlooking the James River.  His mother was the daughter of Robert "King" Carter, the wealthiest man in Virginia who held a number of important government positions, including acting governor for a time.  Each of the men in young Benjamin's family who bore his name had been active in government, meaning he likely had a certain measure of expectations on him as he grew, but he also came from a family that had frequently been at odds with British officials about favoring individual rights over royal privilege.  After receiving his primary education at home, Benjamin enrolled at nearby William and Mary College where he met Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, but his time there was cut short in 1745 while just 19 years of age.  In a tragic accident, his father had been struck by lightning at home, killing him and two of Benjamin's sisters.  As the oldest son, there was little choice but to return home and manage the family's many holdings, which not only included the plantation and its enslaved workers, but also ship building, horse breeding, and gristmill operations.  Three years later, at the age of 22, Benjamin married Elizabeth Bassett who was not only his second cousin but also a niece of Martha Washington.  The couple were married for 40 years and had a number of children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

Benjamin Harrison's political life began in 1749 when he was elected to the House of Burgesses, but as he was not yet old enough he was delayed until 1752 from taking his seat.  Over the course of 25 years, Harrison represented either Surry County or Charles City County at various times, and he earned a reputation for protesting actions that were against the liberties of the citizens, while also being reserved about how to act in such cases.  During his first year, for instance, a conflict arose regarding a tax that had been levied against all land patents that conveyed property into private ownership.  Harrison himself drafted the complaint that such taxation without approval of the colonists would betray their rights, an opinion that was dismissed but eventually led to a compromise.  By the time the Stamp Act was passed in 1764, Harrison's influence was so important that the royal governor attempted to secure his support through the offering of a seat on the executive council.  Harrison declined, choosing instead to help write a letter of objection on behalf of the colonists.  He did not, however, support the call by his old classmate Patrick Henry to participate in organized civil disobedience.  In 1770, Harrison signed the Virginia Association which established non-importation of British goods, and two years later he joined Jefferson and four other delegates in presenting a proposal to end the African slave trade in Virginia, which the king rejected.

Although Benjamin Harrison believed those involved in the Boston Tea Party should reimburse the East India Trading Company for its losses, he was one of 89 members of the House of Burgesses to condemn the British retaliation that came in the form of the Intolerable Acts.  The body was disbanded by the royal governor, and during the summer of 1774 Harrison was selected to join the First Continental Congress.  At the age of 48, Harrison left Virginia for the first time and traveled to Philadelphia.  More conservative than several of the more fiery delegates from New England, Harrison aligned himself with many of the wealthy centrists such as John Hancock, Robert Morris, and Carter Braxton.  Originally rooming with two other men, Harrison was left alone when one, Peyton Randolph, died suddenly and the other, George Washington, became the commander of the Continental Army.  While serving as the chair of the Committee of the Whole, he frequently presided over important moments, including some of the very first debates that formed the Articles of Confederation as well as the final discussion of the Lee Resolution that led to the vote on independence.  While signing the Declaration, Harrison famously quipped to the much smaller Elbridge Gerry that he had the advantage as his weight would allow him to die much more quickly when they were both hung.  Among his contributions to the war were supplying Washington's troops as the chairman of the Board of War, as well as lobbying for the rights of Quakers to not fight due to religious objections.  Resigning his seat in Congress a year later because he disliked being relocated due to threats from the British army, Harrison returned to Virginia to take a seat in the legislature's lower house, where he would often serve as speaker while also acting as a lieutenant in the county militia.  In 1781, the Harrison family avoided capture during a raid along the James River by Benedict Arnold, but the traitor made a point of burning every family portrait at Berkeley before inflicting heavy damages on the rest of Harrison's possessions and property.

Just one month after the war ended, Benjamin Harrison was elected as the fifth governor of the state of Virginia, and he served three terms in that office until 1784.  Because the state had very little money he adopted a policy of not pursuing military action against Indian tribes to the west.  While he gained a number of skeptics who believed in using force, his efforts to negotiate treaties with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek tribes resulted in a period of peace.  Harrison returned to the legislature the following year, and in 1788 he was chosen to participate in the Constitutional Convention.  Because the US Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights he opposed the ratification that eventually passed by a narrow margin.  After the vote was taken, however, he urged his fellow dissenters to accept the decision and improve the new government through legitimate amendments, an olive branch that was praised by his old friend George Washington.  Harrison continued serving in the legislature despite bad health and frequent attacks of gout, while also working to restore his family's plantation.  In 1791, after celebrating his re-election at home, Harrison died suddenly and was buried on his property.  His youngest son soon left medical school to join the military where he rose to the rank of general and became famous for a victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe.  That son, William Henry Harrison, would be elected in 1840 as the 9th President of the United States, although his term would be the shortest in history when he became ill and died on his 32nd day in office.  However, 49 years later another descendent by the name of Benjamin Harrison would also be elected to the Oval Office as the 23rd President of the United States.

The signature of Benjamin Harrison can be found as the ninth name in the third (center) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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