Thomas Nelson

Associated Locations:

  • Yorktown, Virginia

Associated Dates:

  • December 26, 1738 – Born

Thomas Nelson is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

Life Sketch from Lives of the Signers

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.

Thomas Nelson was born at Yorktown, in Virginia, on the twenty-sixth of December, 1738. His father, William Nelson was a native of England, and emigrated to America about the beginning of the last century. By prudence and industry he accumulated a large fortune, and held rank among the first families of Virginia.

Thomas was the oldest son of his parents, and his father, in conformity to the fashion of the times among the opulent of that province, sent him to England at the age of fourteen years to be educated. He was placed in a distinguished private school not far from London, and after completing a preparatory course of studies there, he went to Cambridge and was entered a member of Trinity College. He there enjoyed the private instructions of the celebrated Dr. Proteus, afterward the Bishop of London. He remained there, a close and diligent student until 1761, when he returned to America.

Mr. Nelson watched with much interest the movements of the British Parliament, during and after the time of the administration of Mr. Grenville, and his sympathies were keenly alive in favor of the Americans and their cause. His first appearance in public life, was in 1774, when he was elected a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, and there he took sides with the patriots. It was during that session, that the resolutions reprobating the “ Boston Port Bill” caused Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, to dissolve the Assembly. Eighty-nine of the members, among whom was Mr. Nelson, met the next day at a neighboring tavern, and formed an association far more efficient in throwing up
The strong bulwarks of freedom, than was the regular Assembly. Mr. Nelson was a member of the first general convention of Virginia, which met at Williamsburgh in August, 1774, and elected delegates to the first Continental Congress. In the spring of 1775, he was elected a member of another general convention, and there he displayed such boldness of spirit, that he was looked upon as an efficient leader in the patriotic movements of the day. Much to the alarm of his friends, he proposed in that convention, the bold and almost treasonable measure of organizing the militia of the State for the defense of the chartered rights of the people. Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and others, warmly seconded the proposition, and it was adopted by the convention. This act told Governor Dunmore and his royal master, in language that could not be mistaken, that Virginia was determined to exercise with freedom all the privileges guarantied to her by the British Constitution.

In August 1774, the Virginia convention elected Mr. Nelson a delegate to the General Congress, and he took his seat in September. There he was very active, and gave such entire satisfaction to’ his constituents that he was unanimously re-elected for 17 76. Although he seldom took part in the debates, he was assiduous and efficient in committee duty. He was a zealous supporter of the proposition for independence, and voted for and signed the declaration thereof.

In the spring of 1777, Mr. Nelson was seized with an alarming illness, which confined its attack chiefly to his head, and nearly deprived him, for a time, of his powers of memory. His friends urged him to withdraw from Congress for the purpose of recruiting his health, but he was loath to desert his post. He was, however, compelled to leave Philadelphia, and he returned to Virginia to recruit, with the hope and expectation of speedily resuming his seat in Congress. But his convalescence was slow, and when the convention met, he resigned his seat and retired to private life. But he was not suffered long to remain there, for the appearance of a British fleet off the coast of Virginia, and the contemplated attack of the enemy upon the almost defenseless seaboard, called him into the field at the head of the militia of the State. The alarm soon subsided, for the Fleet of Lord Howe, instead of landing a force, upon Virginia, sailed up the Chesapeake bay for the purpose of making an attack, by land, upon Philadelphia.

About this time, the financial embarrassments of Congress caused that body to make an appeal to the young men of the Union, of wealth and character, to aid in recruiting the army, and otherwise assisting their country. Mr. Nelson entered heartily into the measure, and by the free use of his influence and purse, he raised a volunteer corps, who placed him at their head, and proceeded to join Washington at Philadelphia. Their services were not called into requisition, and they returned home, bearing the honor of a vote of thanks from Congress. The physical activity which this expedition produced, had an excellent effect upon General Nelson’s health, and in 1779, he consented to be again elected a delegate to the Continental Congress. He took his seat in February, but a second attack of his old complaint obliged him to leave it in April, and return home. In May, the predatory operations of the enemy upon the coast, in burning Portsmouth, and threatening Norfolk and other places, caused General Nelson again to resume the services of the field. He collected a large force and proceeded to Yorktown, but the fleet of the enemy soon afterward returned to New-York.

In 1781, Virginia became the chief theatre of warlike operations. The traitor Arnold, and General Phillips, with a small flotilla ravaged the coasts and ascended the rivers on predatory excursions; and Cornwallis, from southern fields of strife, marched victoriously over the lower counties of the State. About this time, the term of Mr. Jefferson’s official duties as Governor of the State, expired, and General Nelson was elected his successor. This, however, did not drive him from the field, but as both governor and commander-in-chief of the militia of the State,”‘ he placed himself at the head of a considerable force, and formed a junction with La Fayette, who had been sent there to check the northward
progress of Cornwallis. By great personal exertions and a liberal use of his own funds he succeeded in keeping his force together until the capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown. He headed a body of militia in the siege of that place, and although he owned a fine mansion in the town, he did not hesitate to bombard it. In this as in everything else, his patriotism was conspicuous, and General Washington in his official account of the siege, made honorable mention of the great services of Governor Nelson and his militia. Within a month after the battle of Yorktown, Governor Nelson, finding his health declining, resigned his office and retired to private life. It was at this period, while endeavoring to recruit his health by quiet and repose, that he was charged with malpractice, while governor, as alluded to in a preceding note. A full investigation took place, and the legislature, as before mentioned, legalized his acts, and they also acquitted him of all the charges preferred. He never again appeared in public life, but spent the remainder of his days alternately at his mansion in Yorktown, and his estate at Offly. His health gradually declined until 1789, when, on the fourth day of January, his useful life closed. He was in the fifty-third year of his age. 1

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.

Thomas Nelson, Jr. was born at Yorktown on the twenty-sixth of December, 1738. He was the eldest son of William Nelson, a merchant of highly respectable character, who was descended from an English family, which settled at York, in the province of Virginia. By his prudence and industry, the latter acquired a large fortune. After the meridian of life, he held several offices of high distinction; and at his death, which occurred a few years before the revolution, left a character, not only sullied by no stain, but justly venerated for the many virtues which adorned it.

At the age of fourteen, Thomas Nelson was sent to England, for the purpose of acquiring an education. He was for some time placed at a private school, in a village in the neighbourhood of London; whence he was removed to the university of Cambridge, where he enjoyed the instruction of that distinguished man, Doctor Beilby Porteus, afterwards bishop of London. Under the guidance of this excellent man and accomplished scholar, young Nelson became deeply imbued with a taste for literary pursuits.

About the close of 1761, he returned to his native country, and in the following year became connected by marriage with a daughter of Philip Grymes, Esq. of Brandon, with whom he settled at York. The ample fortune given him by his father, at the time of his marriage, enabled him to maintain a style of no common elegance and hospitality.

At what period Mr. Nelson commenced his political career, we have not been able to ascertain. He was, however, a member of the house of burgesses in 1774, and during the same year was appointed to the first general convention, which met at Williamsburg on the first of August. The next year, 1775, he was a second time returned a member to the general convention of the province, during the session of which, he introduced a resolution for organizing a military force in the province, a step which obviously placed the colony of Virginia in the attitude of opposition to the mother country. This plan was at first startling to some of the warmest friends of liberty; but in the issue, it proved a measure of high importance to the colonies.

In July, 1775, the third convention of Virginia delegates assembled at Richmond, and in the following month Mr. Nelson was appointed a delegate to represent the colony in the continental congress, which was to assemble at Philadelphia. Agreeably to this appointment, he took his seat in that body on the thirteenth of September.

From this time, until May, 1777, Mr. Nelson continued to represent the colony of Virginia in the national council, where he was frequently appointed on important committees, and was highly distinguished for his sound judgment and liberal sentiments. In the month of May, of the year mentioned above, while attending in his place in congress, he was suddenly attacked with a disease of the head, probably of a paralytic nature, which, for a time, greatly impaired his mental faculties, particularly his memory.

He now returned to Virginia, soon after which he resigned his seat in congress. His health gradually returning, his services were again demanded by the public, and by the governor and council he was appointed brigadier general and commander in chief of the forces of the commonwealth. In this office he rendered, he most important services to his country in general, and to the colony of Virginia in particular. His ample fortune enabled him, in cases of emergency, to advance money to carry forward the military operations of the day, nor did the generosity of his nature allow him to withhold his hand whenever occasion demanded advancements.

In 1779, the health of Mr. Nelson being, as it was thought, confirmed, he was induced again to accept a seat in congress. The arduous duties, however, to which he was called, connected with the long confinement which those duties required, induced a recurrence of his former complaint, which compelled him again to return home.

Happily for his country, his health was again restored, and he entered with great animation into several military expeditions against the British, who, at that time, were making the southern states the chief theatre of war. In 1781, Mr. Jefferson, who had for three years filled the executive chair, left it, upon which General Nelson was called to succeed him. This was a gloomy period in the annals of Virginia. In repeated instances the state was invaded, and the path of the enemy marked by wanton and excessive barbarity. The legislature were several times interrupted in their deliberations, and repeatedly obliged to adjourn to a different and more retired place. Immediately following the accession of Mr. Nelson to the executive chair, they were driven, as was noticed in the life of Mr. Jefferson, by Tarleton, from Charlottesville to Staunton.

At this time they passed a law, “by which the governor, with the advice of the council, was empowered to procure, by impress or otherwise, under such regulations as they should devise, provisions of every kind, all sorts of clothing, accoutrements and furniture proper for the use of the army, negroes as pioneers, horses both for draught and cavalry, wagons, boats, and other vessels, with their crews, and all other things which might be necessary for supplying the militia, or other troops, employed in the public service.”

According to this law, Mr. Nelson could not constitutionally act, except with the advice of his council. Owing to the capture of two of the council by Tarleton, and to the resignation of two others, that body was reduced to four members, the least number which agreeably to the constitution could act. Even this number, in the distracted state of the country, it was difficult and nearly impossible to keep together.

Thus circumstanced, Governor Nelson determined, at the risk of public censure, to take those measures which the safety of the state and the good of the country demanded. These measures were taken; and though departing from the strict line of duty as defined by the laws of the commonwealth, it was owing to his prompt and independent course that the army was kept together until the battle of Yorktown gave the finishing stroke to the war.

Soon after the occurrence of that memorable and glorious event, Governor Nelson had the pleasure of receiving a just expression of thanks from General Washington, who, in his general orders of the 20th of October, 1781, thus spoke of him: “The general would be guilty of the highest ingratitude, a crime of which he hopes he shall never be accused, if he forgot to return his sincere acknowledgments to his excellency Governor Nelson, for the succours which he received from him, and the militia under his command, to whose activity, emulation, and bravery, the highest praises are due. The magnitude of the acquisition will be ample compensation for the difficulties and dangers which they met with so much firmness and patriotism.”

At the expiration of a month, following the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, Governor Nelson finding his health impaired by the arduous duties to which he had been called, tendered his resignation as chief magistrate of Virginia.

The many services which he had rendered, the great self denial which he had practised, the uncommon liberality which he had manifested, entitled him to the gratitude of the people, and to the unmolested enjoyment of the few years which remained to him. But scarcely had his resignation been accepted, when an accusation was laid before the legislature by his enemies, charging him with having transcended his powers in acting without the consent of his council.

Soon after the presentment of this accusation, Governor Nelson addressed a letter to the legislature, requesting an investigation of his official conduct. In compliance with this request, a committee was appointed for that purpose, who, at length, having reported, the legislature, on the 31st of December, 1781, passed the following act:

“An act to indemnify Thomas Nelson, Junior, Esquire. late governor of this commonwealth, and to legalise certain acts of his administration. Whereas, upon examination it appears that previous to, and during the seige of York, Thomas Nelson, Esquire, late governor of this commonwealth, was compelled by the peculiar circumstances of the state and army, to perform many acts of government without the advice of the council of state, for the purpose of procuring subsistence and other necessaries for the allied army under the command of his excellency General Washington: be it enacted, that all such acts of government, evidently productive of general good, and warranted by necessity, be judged and held of the same validity, and the like proceedings be had on them, as if they had been executed by and with the advice of the council, and with all the formalities prescribed by law. And be it further enacted, that the said Thomas Nelson, Jun. Esq. be, and hereby is, in the fullest manner, indemnified and exonerated from all penalties and dangers which might have accrued to him from the same.”

Having thus been honourably acquitted of charges from which his noble and patriotic conduct ought to have saved him, he now retired wholly from public life. His death occurred on the 4th of January, 1789, just after he had completed his fiftieth year. Few patriots of the revolution have descended to the grave more justly honoured and beloved. Few possessed a more ample fortune; few contributed more liberally to support the cause of liberty. It was the patriotism, the firmness, the generosity, the magnanimous sacrifices of such men, that conducted the colonies through a gloomy contest of seven years continuance, and gave them a rank among the independent nations of the earth.

We shall conclude this notice of this illustrious man, by presenting to our readers the tribute, which was happily and affectionately paid to his memory by Colonel Innes:

“The illustrious General Thomas Nelson is no more! He paid the last great debt to nature, on Sunday, the fourth of the present month, at his estate in Hanover. He who undertakes barely to recite the exalted virtues which adorned the life of this great and good man, will unavoidably pronounce a panegyric on human nature. As a man, a citizen, a legislator, and a patriot, he exhibited a conduct untarnished and undebased by sordid or selfish interest, and strongly marked with the genuine characteristics of true religion, sound benevolence, and liberal policy. Entertaining the most ardent love for civil and religious liberty, he was among the first of that glorious band of patriots whose exertions dashed and defeated the machinations of British tyranny, and gave United America freedom and independent empire. At a most important crisis, during the late struggle for American liberty, when this state appeared to be designated as the theatre of action for the contending armies, he was selected by the unanimous suffrage of the legislature to command the virtuous yeomanry of his country; in this honourable employment he remained until the end of the war; as a soldier, he was indefatigably active and coolly intepid; resolute and undejected in misfortunes, he towered above distress, and struggled with the manifold difficulties to which his situation exposed him, with constancy and courage.

In the memorable year 1781, when the whole force of the southern British army was directed to the immediate subjugation of this state, he was called to the helm of government; this was a juncture which indeed ‘tried men’s souls.’ He did not avail himself of this opportunity to retire in the rear of danger; but on the contrary, took the field at the head of his countrymen; and at the hazard of his life, his fame, and individual fortune, by his decision and magnanimity, he saved not only his country, but all America, from disgrace, if not from total ruin. Of this truly patriotic and heroic conduct, the renowned commander in chief, with all the gallant officers of the combined armies employed at the siege of York, will bear ample testimony; this part of his conduct even contemporary jealousy, envy, and malignity were forced to approve, and this, more impartial posterity, if it can believe, will almost adore. If, after contemplating the splendid and heroic parts of his character, we shall inquire for the milder virtues of humanity, and seek for the man, we shall find the refined, beneficent, and social qualities of private life, through all its forms and combinations, so happily modified and united in him, that in the words of the darling poet of nature, it may be said:

“His life was gentle: and the elements
So mixed in him, that nature might stand up
and say to all the world–this was a man.”2



Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, Benjamin Rush

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, 1848 original
  2. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1829 original
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