Founding Fathers Friday: Carter Braxton

by Derrick G. Jeter

Carter Braxton had much to lose if the American colonies let their differences with England dissolve into open warfare and America lost. One of the riches men in America with a very large family (he had eighteen children), Braxton was perhaps the most reluctant signer of the Declaration.

Braxton was born into wealth. The son of George Braxton, a Virginia planter, and Mary Carter, whose father was known as “King” Carter because of his vast landholdings—he owned forty-two plantations. But Braxton’s wealth couldn’t buy him a mother and father. Mary died shortly after Braxton’s birth, and George died when the young man was in his teens. He remained with family friends until he went off to college at William and Mary. Shortly after graduation, Braxton married Judith Robinson who endowed his already hefty bank account with a greater infusion of cash. But more importantly, Judith gave Braxton two children. Sadly, however, Judith died in 1757 after the birth of their second child—two years after their wedding; she was twenty-one.

Heartbroken, Braxton sought to ease his despair in England. He remained there for three years.

When he returned home in 1760, Braxton moved into two plantation homes—Elsing Green and Chericoke—and remarried, this time to Elizabeth Corbin. She gave him sixteen children.

With wealth and political connections—his father-in-law was the royal receiver-general of the customs house—Braxton was soon elected to the House of Burgesses (Virginia’s legislative body). These were trying times. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act—a direct tax on all paper products. Patrick Henry, a colleague of Braxton in the Burgesses, railed against the act in one of Henry’s most famous speeches on the floor of the House. Henry’s persuasive eloquence won the day—the Burgesses passed a series of resolutions, known as the Virginia Resolves, against the Stamp Act. And though Braxton voted in favor of the Resolves, hoping to keep the King out of his pocket, he was reluctant to go as far as Henry, who was called out by the Speaker of the House for treason during the fiery speech.

Things calmed down after the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but remained at a low boil for a decade. The battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 turned the heat up and the pot boiled over. Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, after receiving news of the battles panicked and seized the colony’s gunpowder stores in Williamsburg, the capital, and stowed them on the British ship-of-war, HMS Fowey. According to an older historian, Lord Dunmore was “a man of very defective judgment and unyielding disposition, whose unpopular management greatly increased the spirit of opposition to royal misrule in Virginia.”

Patrick Henry was incensed by Dunmore’s seizer of the powder and formed a rabble of militiamen to march on Williamsburg in order to force the governor to either return the powder or pay for it. The captain of the Fowey positioned his ship to broadsides and declared his intention to fire on the town if any harm came to the governor. Fortunately for Williamsburg, Braxton came to the rescue by hammering out an accord with the governor’s representative. Eventually, Dunmore paid for the powder, and Henry and his patriots emerged as the victors. Braxton was the perfect ambassador to defuse this potentially violent standoff. First, he was part of the landowning British aristocracy and a friend of the radicals in the House of Burgesses. Second, he was related to the governor’s representative, Richard Corbin, Braxton’s father-in-law.

When Peyton Randolph, one of the Congressional delegates from Virginia, died in 1775, Braxton was sent to Philadelphia to fill his vacancy. Braxton was committed to finding someway to negotiate with Great Britain. His opinion of breaking away from the mother country was simple and straightforward: “Independence is in truth a delusive bait.” He held to that line because he believed America too weak and defenseless against the might of the British navy, and he wouldn’t waver from it even as late as July 1, 1776.

But something happened over night. Perhaps his fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson, the Lee brothers, Benjamin Harrison, and Thomas Nelson put the screws to him. Perhaps he could see the writing on the wall and didn’t want to be the lone holdout. Whatever the reason, on the morning of July 2, Carter Braxton voted yea for independence and signed the Declaration a month later.

Apparently, however, people back in Virginia didn’t full trust his yea. He wasn’t reelected in 1777, and his draft for a new state constitution was rejected as being too aristocratic. Braxton was reelected to his seat in the Burgesses and lived out the remainder of his years as a Virginia legislator.

Braxton may have shown reluctance in voting for independence, but once it was declared and America was at war with England, he help in a sizable way. He bought supplies for American troops and lent the Congress £25,000. He was never repaid by the United States government.

An early biographer summed up Carter Braxton’s life like this:

Mr. Braxton was not a brilliant man, but he was a talented and very useful man. He possessed a highly cultivated mind, and an imagination of peculiar warmth and vigor, yet the crowning attribute of his character, was sound judgment and remarkable prudence and forethought. These, in a movement like the American Revolution, were essential elements in the characters of those who were the prominent actors, and well was it for them and for posterity, that a large proportion of not only the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, but those who were called to act in the councils of the nation, possessed these requisites to a remarkable degree. While fiery spirits were needed to arouse, and bold, energetic men were necessary to control and guide, the success of that rebellion, so far as human ken can penetrate, depended upon the calm judgment and well directed prudence of a great body of the patriots.

Of this class Mr. Braxton was a prominent one. His oratory, though not brilliant was graceful and flowing, and it was persuasive in the highest degree. He always fixed the attention of his auditors and seldom failed to convince and lead them. In public, as well as in private life, his virtue and morality were above reproach, and as a public benefactor, his death was widely lamented.

That’s not a bad epitaph to mark his life, his character, and his grave—if only his grave could be found. Braxton is buried on the grounds of his Chericoke plantation, but for some unknown reason he was buried in an unmarked grave.

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