Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.
Benjamin Harrison was born in Berkley, in Virginia, but the exact time of his birth is not certainly known. His ancestors were among the earlier settlers of that colony, having emigrated thither from England, in the year 1640. His paternal ancestor married in the family of the king’s surveyor-general, and this gave him an opportunity to select the most fertile regions of the State for settlement and improvement. Thus he laid the foundation of that large estate which is still in the hands of the family.
The subject of this sketch was placed his father in the college of William and Mary, with a view of giving him a thorough classical education. He was there at the time of his father’s decease, which was sudden and awful; and having had a dispute with one of the professors, he left the institution before the close of his term, and never returned to get his degree. Being the eldest of six sons, the management of the estate of his father devolved on him at his decease, and, although then a minor, he performed his duties with great fidelity and skill.
Young Harrison, at a very early age, became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, where his talents and sound judgment won for him the confidence and esteem of all parties. He was soon elected Speaker, and became one of the most influential men in that Assembly, where he occupied a seat during the greater part of his life. His great wealth, distinguished family connections, and personal worth, attracted the attention of the royal governor, who, desirous of retaining him on the side of the government, when the political agitations caused by the Stamp Act took place, offered him a seat in the executive council. But he had narrowly watched the gradual development of events, and he was convinced that a systematic scheme for enslaving the colonies was being matured by the home government. He therefore rejected the offer of the governor, boldly avowed his attachment to the republican cause, and joined with the patriotic burgesses of Virginia in their opposition to the oppressive acts of the British government.
Mr. Harrison was one of the first seven delegates from Virginia to the Continental Congress of 1774, and he had the gratification of seeing Peyton Randolph, a very near relative, and his colleague from Virginia, elected president of that august body. Immediately after the return of the delegates to Virginia, a convention met in Richmond, and all the acts of the General Congress were sanctioned by them. They re-elected Mr. Harrison, with others, a delegate to the Congress of 1775, which met on the tenth of May of that year. During the autumn, he was appointed by Congress one of a committee to visit the army under Washington, at Cambridge near Boston, and co-operate with the Commander-in-Chief in devising plans for future operations. Toward the close of 1775, he was appointed chairman of a committee to carry on foreign correspondence, and in that capacity he labored with fidelity until the spring of 1777, when the necessity of such a committee no longer existed; a special agent or commissioner having been sent to Europe, and a new committee on foreign affairs organized, with different duties; and a secretary, who received a stipulated salary.
Mr. Harrison was constantly employed in active service, and was always among the first in advocating decisive and energetic measures. He was warmly in favor of independence, and when that great question was under discussion in committee of’ the whole, he was in he chair. He voted for the Declaration of Independence, on the fourth of July, 1776, and signed it on the second of August following. In 1777, his private affairs, and also public matters in his own State, demanded his presence there, and he resigned his seat in Congress and returned home.
He was immediately elected a member of the House of Burgesses, and as soon as he took his seat, he was elevated to the Speaker’s chair. That office he held until 1782, without interruption.
Having been appointed lieutenant of his native county, (which appointment constituted him commander of all the militia, with the title of colonel, and also presiding judge in all the civil courts of the county,) he was very active and efficient at the time the traitor Arnold invaded Virginia, and afterward when Cornwallis made incursions into it.
In 1782, Mr. Harrison was selected governor of the State, and he managed public affairs at that trying time, with great ability and firmness. He was governor two successive terms, and then retired to private life. But he was almost immediately elected a member of the House of Burgesses, and again resumed the Speaker’s chair, by election.
In the year 1790, he was nominated for governor, but he declined on account of the then incumbent having filled the chair only two years; and he successfully promoted his re-election. Mr. Harrison was again elected governor in 1791, and the day after his election he invited a party of friends to dine with him. He had been suffering a good deal from gout in the stomach, but had nearly recovered. That night he experienced a relapse, and the next day death ended his sufferings. This event occurred in April, 1791.
Mr. Harrison was married in early life, to a niece of Mrs. Washington, Miss Elizabeth Bassett, who lived but one year after her husband’s decease. They had a numerous offspring, but only seven lived to mature age. One of these was the lamented and venerated William Henry Harrison, late President of the United States. 1
Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.
Benjamin Harrison was the descendant of a family long distinguished in the history of Virginia. Both his father and grandfather bore the name of Benjamin, and lived at Berkeley, where they owned, and where the family still owns[in 1829], a seat, beautifully situated on the banks of the James River, in full view of City Point, the seaport of Petersburg and Richmond.
The father of Mr. Harrison married the eldest daughter of Mr. Carter, the king’s surveyor general, by whom he had six sons and four daughters. Two of the latter, with himself, were, at the same time, during the occurrence of a thunder storm, killed by lightning in the mansion house at Berkeley.
The subject of the present memoir was the eldest son of the preceding, but the date of his birth has not been satisfactorily ascertained. He was a student in the college of William and Mary at the time of his father’s death; but, in consequence of a misunderstanding with an officer of the college, he left it before the regular period of graduation, and returned home.
The management of his father’s estate now devolved upon him; and though young to be entrusted with a charge so important, and involving responsibilities so weighty, he displayed an unusual share of prudence and judgment.
His ancestors having long been distinguished as political leaders in the province, he was summoned at an early date, even before he had attained to the age required by law, to sustain the reputation which they had acquired. He commenced his political career as a member of the legislature, about the year 1764, a station which he may be said to have held through life, since he was always elected to a seat, whenever his other political employments admitted of his occupying it. As a member of the provincial assembly, Mr. Harrison soon became conspicuous. To strong good sense he united great firmness and decision of character. Besides, his fortune being ample, and his connections by marriage highly respectable, he was naturally marked out as a political leader, in whom general confidence might well be reposed.
The royal government, aware of his influence and respectability, was, at an early day, anxious to enlist him in its favor, and accordingly proposed to create him a member of the executive council in Virginia, a station corresponding to the privy council in England, and one which few would have had the firmness to have declined.
Mr. Harrison, however, though a young man, was not to be seduced from the path of duty by the rank and influence conferred by office. Even at this time, the measures of the British ministry, although not as oppressive as at a later day, were such as neither he nor the patriotic burgesses of Virginia could approve. In opposition to the royal cause, he identified himself with the people, whose rights and liberties he pursued with an ardor which characterized most of the patriots of the revolution.
Passing over the following ten years of Mr. Harrison’s life, in which few incidents either of a private or political nature are recorded of him, we arrive at the year 1774, the era of the memorable congress which laid the foundation of American liberty, of which body Mr. Harrison was a member.
From this period until the close of 1777, during nearly every session of congress, Mr. Harrison represented his native state in that distinguished assembly. Our limits forbid us entering into a minute detail of the important services which he rendered his country during his career in the national legislature. As a member of the board of war, and as chairman of that board, an office which he retained until he left congress, he particularly distinguished himself. According to the testimony of a gentleman who was contemporary with him in congress, he was characterized for great firmness, good sense, and a peculiar sagacity in difficult and critical situations. In seasons of uncommon trial and anxiety, hee was always steady, cheerful, and undaunted.
Mr. Harrison was also often called to preside as chairman of the committee of the whole house, in which station he was extremely popular. He occupied the chair during the deliberations of congress on the dispatches of Washington, the settlement of commercial restrictions, the state of the colonies, the regulation of trade, and during the pendency of the momentous question of our national independence. By his correctness and impartiality, during the warm and animated debates which were had on questions growing out of these important subjects, he gained the general confidence and approbation of the house.
An interesting anecdote is related of him, on the occasion of the members affixing their signatures to the declaration of independence. While signing the instrument, he noticed Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts standing beside him. Mr. Harrison himself was quite corpulent; Mr. Gerry was slender and spare. As the former raised his hand, having inscribed his name on the roll, he turned to Mr. Gerry, and facetiously observed, that when the time of hanging should come, he should have the advantage over him. “It will be over with me,” said he, “in a minute, hut you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.”
Towards the close of the year 1777. Mr. Harrison resigned his seat in congress, and returned to Virginia. He was soon after elected a member of the house of burgesses, of which body he was immediately chosen speaker, a station which he held until the year 1782.
In this latter year, Mr. Harrison was elected to the office of chief magistrate of Virginia, and became one of the most popular governors of his native state. To this office he was twice re-elected. In 1785, having become ineligible by the provisions of the constitution, he returned to private life, carrying with him the universal esteem and approbation of his fellow citizens.
In 1788, when the new constitution of the United States was submitted to Virginia, he was returned a member of her convention. Of the first committee chosen by that body, that of privileges and elections, he was appointed chairman. Owing, however, to his advanced years, and to infirmities which were now coming in upon him, he took no very active part in the debates of the convention. He was a friend however, to the constitution, provided certain amendments could be made to it, and opposed its ratification until these should be incorporated with it. When the question was taken in the convention as to its unconditional ratification, the majority in the affirmative was but ten. A minority so respectable in point of number and character was not to be slighted. Hence, the convention appointed a committee to prepare and report such amendments as they should deem necessary. Of this committee Mr. Harrison was a member, and, in connection with his colleagues, introduced such a series of amendments as were thought advisable, and which, after passing the convention, formed tile basis of the alterations which were subsequently made.
In 1790, Mr. Harrison was again proposed as a candidate to the executive chair. Finding, however, that if run it must he in opposition to Mr. Beverley Randolph, who was at that time governor, a gentleman distinguished for his great amiableness of character, and a particular and intimate friend of Governor Harrison, the latter declined the designed honor, in consequence of which, Mr. Randolph was elected, but by only a majority of two or three votes.
In the spring of 1791, Mr. Harrison was attacked by a severe lit of the gout, of which however he partially recovered. In the month of April, he was elected a member of the legislature. On the evening of the day after, however, a recurrence of his disease took place, which on the following day terminated his life.
In his person, Mr. Harrison was above the ordinary height; he possessed a vigorous constitution, and in his manners was remarkably dignified. Owing to the free manner in which he lived, he, at length, became quite corpulent; his features were less handsome, and the vigor of his constitution was much impaired.
Those who recollect him represent his talents as rather useful than brilliant. He seldom entered into public discussions, nor was he fond of writing; yet when occasion required, he appeared with respectability in both.
Mr. Harrison became connected by marriage with Elizabeth Bassett, daughter of Colonel William Bassett, of the county of New Kent, a niece to the sister of Mrs. Washington. He had many children, seven of whom only attained to any number of years. Several of his sons became men of considerable distinction, but no one has occupied so conspicuous a place in society as his third son, William Henry Harrison. While young, this gentleman distinguished himself in a battle with the Indians at the rapids of Miami; since which time, he has filled the office of governor of Indiana Territory, served as a high military officer on the north-western frontier, been sent as a delegate from the state of Ohio in Congress, been appointed to the important office of minister plenipotentiary to Mexico, and lastly, elected to the Presidency of the United States. From this high office he was removed by death, just one month after his Inauguration. His sudden decease filled the nation with unfeigned son. 2