Founding Fathers Friday: Benjamin Harrison

by Derrick G. Jeter

The men in the Harrison family knew how to get ahead, even if they didn’t know how to accomplish much once they got there.

Founding Father Benjamin Harrison was the son and namesake of a wealthy Virginia planter, Benjamin IV. Benjamin the V—the signer of the Declaration of Independence—was also the grandson of “King” Carter, making Harrison and Carter Braxton cousins.

Living on Berkeley Plantation, just west of the colonial capital of Williamsburg, on the banks of the James River, Harrison had a pampered life. His father wanted to ensure his eldest son had a fine education, so Benjamin IV sent Benjamin V off to the College of William and Mary. However, tragedy struck when Harrison’s father and two of his sisters were killed in a freak accident. Lightening struck their plantation home electrocuting the three of them inside the mansion. As the oldest, Harrison took it upon himself to run the family plantation. He left school and began managing the estate. Eventually, he built the family holdings, including eight plantations and a successful shipping business.

Probably out of his family’s long tradition in Virginia—the Harrison clan migrated to Virginia from England in the 1640s—and his social status within the colony more than out of any great political acumen on his part, Harrison was elected to the House of Burgesses before the age of twenty. Politically, he was a moderate–conservative. However, he sided with the radicals in the House when Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765. Between the years 1765 and 1773, Harrison’s politics began to move closer to the patriot position that England was violating colonial rights and that something must be done to show the mother country the error of her ways.

Harrison’s involvement with the radicals won him a seat at the First Continental Congress in 1774. His roommate in Philadelphia was another relative, this one by marriage—George Washington. Harrison married Elizabeth Bassett, the niece of Martha Washington.

Harrison returned to Philadelphia in 1775 to attend the Second Continental Congress. A large man at six-foot-four and weighing 240-pounds, he joked that he would have walked all the way to Philadelphia if need be to attend what became a turning point in British–American relations. Not a full radical—certainly more conservative than all his fellow Virginians, except for Braxton—John Adams targeted Harrison for scorn: he was “an indolent, luxurious. heavy gentleman, of no use in Congress or committee, but a great embarrassment to both.”

Adams, as he was prone to do more than he would admit, was too harsh in his criticism. Harrison, according to the much more level-headed Benjamin Rush, had “strong state prejudices and was very hostile to the leading characters from the New England states” (read John Adams here). And though “in private life he preferred pleasure and convivial company to business of all kinds . . . he was upon the whole a useful member of Congress, sincerely devoted to the welfare of his country.”

Rush’s pen portrait is much closer to the truth. Harrison showed his usefulness as a member of the committee to visit General Washington in Cambridge at the beginning of the war, in 1775. He served on the committee to carry out foreign correspondence with those friendly to America’s cause in Great Britain, Ireland, France, and other parts of the world. And, if stories are to be believed, he made sure that John Hancock became president of the convention. It’s related that when Congress was deciding on who to elect as their president, Hancock dismissed the talk that he should serve. Harrison (remember, a large man) strolled across the room picked up the slight-framed Hancock and dropped him in the president’s chair. “We shall show Mother Britain,” Harrison reportedly proclaimed, “how little we care for her by making a Massachusetts man our president, whom she has excluded from pardon by public proclamation.” At the time, Hancock and Samuel Adams were wanted by the Crown for treason.

Harrison also served as the chairman for the Committee of the Whole, meaning he presided over important debates. In the morning Hancock yielded the president’s chair to Harrison and in the afternoon Hancock would resume the president’s chair to hear a report from Harrison’s committee. In his capacity as chairman, Harrison oversaw the two most important debates in American history: the July 2, 1776 debate and vote for independence and the July 4 adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Later, he would preside over the debates on the Articles of Confederation.

On August 2, 1776, Harrison signed the Declaration. And legend has it he turned to the diminutive delegate from Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry and joking that if America should fail in her attempt to win the war and they should all go to the gallows, he said: “With me it will be over in a minute. But with you, you’ll be dancing on air an hour after I’m gone.”

Great story, poor history. Gerry wasn’t in Philadelphia on August 2. But, as was said in the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend and the facts are crossways . . . print the legend.

Harrison left Congress in 1778 and was promptly elected back to his old House seat in the Burgesses, where he was promptly elected Speaker. In 1781, Harrison’s plantation home of Berkeley was damaged when British Loyalists, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, marched through the state. At war’s end, Harrison continue to serve Virginia and the country. He was governor three terms and fought for a Bill of Rights before the adoption of the new Constitution.

In 1791, the day after his election to the governorship for the fourth time, he invited friends over for dinner and to celebrate his victory. He had been suffering, as one historian put it, from “a good deal [of] gout in the stomach.” The next day, he would succumb to that ailment. He was sixty-five and was survived for a short time by Elizabeth, his wife, and by seven children.

One of those kids later become a war hero and President of the United States: William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately, William Henry is know for only one remarkable event during his presidency—serving the shortest amount of time in office. He died of pneumonia a month after his inauguration. William Henry’s grandson Benjamin Harrison—named after his great-grandfather and signer of the Declaration—also became President of the United States and is best know for defeating the only man to serve as president in two non-consecutive terms: Grover Cleveland who was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.