Essay 74 – Guest Essayist: William Rasmussen

One of the most influential and conspicuous of the delegates at the 1775 Second Continental Congress was Benjamin Harrison V of Berkeley (1726-1791). Elected Chairman of the Congress’s Committee of the Whole, he presided, with flair, over the final deliberations that shaped the Declaration of Independence. Harrison was given that important position because he was “a favorite of the day,” stated Edmund Randolph, his colleague from Virginia: “With strong sense and a temper not disposed to compromise with ministerial power, he scruples not to utter any untruth.”

To explain the respect that Harrison received in Philadelphia, Randolph pointed to his colleague’s years of legislative experience in Virginia: “During a long service in the House of Burgesses, his frankness, though sometimes tinctured with bitterness, has been the source of considerable attachment [to him].” The “bitterness” had resulted when Harrison said whatever he pleased, with sometimes brutal frankness. John Adams used the words “obscene,” “profane,” and “impious” to describe the sometimes-boisterous behavior of Harrison that was the antithesis of what the New Englander considered proper. Adams even compared Harrison—an obese man—to Shakespeare’s comical figure Falstaff, although—in confirmation of Edmund Randolph’s observations—he admitted that “Harrison’s contributions and many pleasantries steadied rough sessions” of the Congress.

Harrison’s conspicuousness at the Congress was confirmed by accounts of the time and by the painter John Trumbull’s famous canvas of 1818 that recreates the “Signing of the Declaration of Independence.” Harrison is pictured at the table on the extreme left, easy to spot. The “Signers” passed in front of him to sign what they feared might be a death warrant. According to delegate Benjamin Rush, there was a “pensive and awful silence” that Harrison dared to interrupt. His best-known exchange was with Eldridge Gerry, a slight man: “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes and be with the Angels, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”

The fact that Benjamin Harrison is little known today would have shocked his contemporaries. The explanation, however, is simple: Harrison has been overshadowed by the fame of Virginia colleagues who became some of the most illustrious figures in all of American history—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and John Marshall. In addition, it is easy to lose sight of Harrison because he was fifth in his family line to carry exactly the same name, as did his oldest son, Benjamin Harrison VI. (The Roman numerals have been added by modern historians; the confusion was even greater without the numerals.)

All six of the Benjamin Harrisons were active in public service. For that reason, the fifth Benjamin Harrison is generally dubbed “Benjamin Harrison the Signer.” Benjamin I (who arrived in the colony c. 1630) became Clerk of the Governor’s Council, and Benjamin II, III, and IV all served in the House of Burgesses. Benjamin IV built the house at Berkeley plantation, where in 1745, at age fifty-one, he—and a child he had with him—died when struck by lightning while closing an upstairs window. Son Benjamin V, the principal heir, inherited at age nineteen a vast empire of land and slaves. For the next forty-six years, however, Harrison spent little of his time and energy managing the vast operations at both Berkeley and other plantations he had inherited on both sides of the James River. Instead, Harrison gave his time to public service.

The decades prior to 1775 formed a tumultuous period in American history when Harrison involved himself in numerous pursuits that culminated in the decisions of the Second Continental Congress and the establishment of a new nation. Those experiences developed Harrison into an effective legislator, and they made him as well the “favorite” that Edmund Randolph recognized.

Harrison served three decades in the Virginia House of Burgesses, representing Surry County and Charles City County. In 1752, as a member of the Committee of Propositions and Grievances, he assisted in drafting a complaint to the governor and to King George and Parliament regarding the taxing of land patents—that was taxation without representation. Harrison with that stance became one of the earliest of the patriots. A decade later, when Britain passed the Townsend Acts in 1767 that asserted Parliament’s right to tax the colonies, he helped draft a response from the Virginia Burgesses that claimed the opposite—British subjects can be taxed only by their elected representatives.

In the next decade, as more issues came to the fore, Harrison became more involved in the resistance. In 1770, he joined an association of Virginia lawmakers and merchants that boycotted British imports until the British Parliament repealed its tea tax. He was as well a sponsor of a bill that declared illegal any laws passed by Parliament without the consent of the colonists. In 1772, Harrison and Jefferson were among six Virginians who petitioned the King to end the importation of slaves from Africa. Although Harrison sided with the East India Company’s demand for payment when its tea was dumped into the Boston harbor in 1773, he condemned the Intolerable Acts that were the response of the British Parliament. He was among eighty-nine Virginia Burgesses who denounced the new policy—and invited colonies to convene a Continental Congress. It followed that Harrison was selected as one of Virginia’s delegates to that gathering.

On the eve of the Second Continental Congress, Harrison was present when Patrick Henry presented his “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech at a March 1775 convention in Richmond. Two months later when the Second Continental Congress convened, Harrison’s choice of roommates signaled his importance there. They were his brother-in-law Peyton Randolph, who was elected president of both the First and the Second Continental Congresses (he died in October 1775), and George Washington, who soon left to take command of the Continental Army. Harrison served on a committee that reviewed the needs and morale of that army.

For his prominence at the Second Continental Congress and the signing, Harrison won election to positions in the newly formed state of Virginia, but he also paid a price—when the British ravaged his Berkeley plantation. In 1777 Harrison was elected Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, soundly defeating Thomas Jefferson for that position, to which he was reelected several times. He next served as Virginia’s fifth governor, from 1781 to 1784. It was early in 1781 that Benedict Arnold led a British force of 1,600 up the James River in an effort to shift both the setting and course of the Revolutionary War, and to punish the rebellious leaders of Virginia. A specific target was Harrison’s plantation, which Arnold succeeded in only partially burning, though he was able to burn its furnishings, including the family portraits on its walls. (A rare and priceless miniature painting of Benjamin the Signer is in the collection of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.)

Before he died in 1791, Harrison was elected to the Virginia House for two additional terms. In 1788 he cast one of his last votes in opposition to ratification of the new Constitution, due to its lack of a bill of rights.

Harrison and his wife Elizabeth Bassett, who married in 1848, were blessed with eight children during their 40-year marriage. The youngest was William Henry Harrison (1773-1841), who served as a congressional delegate for the Northwest Territory, became a governor of the Indiana Territory, then a general who turned back Indian uprisings, and, finally, became the ninth president of the United States. Benjamin Harrison’s great-grandson (1833-1901), also named Benjamin Harrison (probably to no family member’s surprise), was a Union general in the Civil War, a senator, and, finally, the twenty-third U.S. president.

William M.S. Rasmussen serves as Senior Museum Collections Curator & Lora M. Robins Curator of Art at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. He is co-author of The Story of Virginia, Highlights from the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, with Jamie O. Bosket, among many other books and articles on Virginia history.

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.

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