Founding Fathers Friday: Thomas Nelson Jr.

by Derrick G. Jeter

Suffocating while surrounded by air will strike panic even into the most stout-hearted. Anyone who has suffered from an asthma attack has known such fear, including Thomas Nelson of Virginia. Born into a wealthy Yorktown family, Nelson was a sickly child—as most asthmatic children were before modern medicine. Before steroids and inhalers, adults and children asthmatics alike were treated with opium, marijuana, cigars, steam baths, bloodletting, and even leeches—with very little help, except to make one high, nauseous, or anemic. Nelson suffered his share of some of these treatment, all in an effort to get air. But no amount of colonial-era medical hocus-pocus would relieve, much less cure, Nelson of his life-long diseased lungs.

And certainly his time spent in the damp confines of London couldn’t have improved his asthma. But like other sons of other wealth families, Nelson’s father sent him to England, at the age of fourteen, to study. Having finished his preparatory course for the university, Nelson entered Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating in 1761. While in England and after his return to America, Nelson, according to one early account, “watch[ed] with much interest the movements of the British Parliament, during and after the time of the administration of Mr. [George] Grenville, the Prime Minister of England [who] in 1765, was the author of the Stamp Act. He is represented as an honest, but short-sighted politician, and the Stamp Act was doubtless more an error of his head than of his heart. He saw an empty treasury, with large demands upon it waiting to be satisfied, and he thought to replenish it by taxing the American colonies.”

Nelson, as would be expected, was keenly in favor of the American position on the Stamp Act—he opposed it.

When Nelson returned to American in 1761, he fell in love with Lucy Grymes. A year later they married and began producing a brood of children—at least eleven in all.

Working with his father in managing their vast landholdings and cash crops, Nelson added a mercantile business to the family enterprises. But as the political heat began to rise in the decade following the Stamp Act, Nelson was sent to the House of Burgesses where he sympathized with the citizens of Boston who were suffering under the closing of Boston harbor.

The reaction in the House to the Boston Port Bill, which ordered the closing of the harbor, spurred Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, to disband the Burgesses in 1774. Nelson, and eighty-eight other patriot leaders, including Patrick Henry, George Washington, and the Lee brothers, defied the governor. They simply reconvened at Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg. In August of that year, Nelson was elected to represent Virginia in the First Continental Congress. Later that year, on November 7, Nelson and a few other men from Yorktown boarded the Virginia, a British ship laden with tea, and dumped her cargo into the York River. Thereafter known as the Yorktown Tea Party of 1774. Nelson and his merry band didn’t dress as Indians nor try to disguise themselves in any way (as had their Bostonian brothers a year earlier), but proudly took credit for the destruction of the tea and just as proudly declared that neither the ship, her crew, or any other cargo was in any ways damaged.

In May 1776, the patriots in the House of Burgesses seized control of the royal government after Lord Dunmore seized control of the colony’s powder and shot from the Williamsburg armory. This action pushed Nelson to propose that Virginia declare her independence from Great Britain and that the militia be organized for her defense. Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee seconded Nelson’s proposal and the measure was adopted by the House. Nelson, Henry, and Lee were then appointed to command three regiments of the militia and given the rank of colonel.

The real significance of Nelson’s motion, however, came on June 7, 1776. It was the impetus—the thumbs-up—for Richard Henry Lee to present his now-famous proposal for colonial-wide independence from England. Once Lee’s proposal passed the Congress on July 2, with Nelson’s backing, he signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2.

As a Congressman, Nelson was retiring. He seldom took part in debates, though he worked assiduously in committee. John Adams, one never to hold his pen when it wanted to wag, called Nelson a “fat man”—a fact that couldn’t have helped his asthma. But Adams was quick to add that Nelson was “alert and lively for his weight.” In the spring of 1777, Nelson was seized by by what appeared as a stroke, forcing his retirement from Congress.

Resting at home didn’t mean rest for Nelson. When a British fleet appeared off the coast of Virginia, and despite his health problems, he was appointed a brigadier general and commander-in-chief of the state’s militia. Though this immanent threat soon passed, the threat to the financial stability of America was always teetering on the edge.

Congress put out a plea in 1778 for the various states to assemble their militias and march to their aid in Philadelphia because the capital city appeared to be under British designs. Nelson immediate set out with his men, mostly farmers, and according to one biography:

The sudden call of the militia from their homes left many families in embarrassed circumstances, for a great part of the agricultural operations were suspended. General Nelson used the extent of his means to ameliorating the condition of their families, by having his own numerous servants till their land. He also distributed his money liberally among them, and thus more than a hundred families were kept from absolute want.

When Nelson reached Philadelphia, the danger passed—the British already pulled back to New York—and the militia was sent home with the thanks of Congress.

Throughout the war, Nelson helped raise funds for Congress, often using his own monies. When the French fleet arrived off the shores of America in 1780 Congress promised to provision them but the Continental Treasury was empty. Virginia proposed to raise $2 million. Nelson placed his name on the subscription list and offered to help secure the money. He was met with slammed doors. But his character and esteem among Virginians won him a hearing. Many wealthy men told Nelson that they would not give a penny to the state or to the federal government, but they would lend him all he wanted. Giving his word and putting up his own collateral to pay these men back, Nelson was able to raise the money. He believed Congress would make good the loan in time and refresh his bank account. They never did. Though the payment of Nelson’s debts to these men didn’t impoverish him it did cost him much of his land and many of his slaves.

In 1781, Thomas Jefferson left his post as governor and Thomas Nelson succeeded him. It was also during that year that General Washington cornered Lord Cornwallis and his British army in Nelson’s home village of Yorktown. Serving both as governor and as brigadier general of the state’s militia, Nelson led troops in bombarding his beloved town. One story about his conduct during the siege of Yorktown forever sealed Nelson’s fame as a true American patriot and hero.

Cornwallis made his headquarters in the home of Nelson’s uncle, “Secretary” Thomas Nelson. Nelson’s own home housed a gaggle of staff officers. As rocket and shell rained down on the town, Nelson observed that gunners were careful to shoot around his home. Nelson demanded to know why his house was spared. The gunners informed him it was due to personal regard for him. He immediately ordered them to fire upon the house, offering, as one legend has it, five guineas for every hit. And by one account, “at that moment a number of British officers occupied it, and were at dinner enjoying a feast, and making merry with wine. The shots of the Americans entered the house, and killing two of the officers, effectually ended the conviviality of the party.”

After the war, his home damaged but not destroyed and his finances damaged but not destitute, Nelson moved to a smaller estate at Offly. There, asthma did what a stroke or shell couldn’t—it took his life. He is buried in Yorktown and deserves every honor that came to him in life and comes to him in death.