Did you know… Benjamin Harrison?

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Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin Harrison V(April 5, 1726 – April 24, 1791) was born at Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia, about thirty-two miles southeast of Richmond. His parents were Benjamin Harrison IV and Ann Carter. The family had been in Virginia since the previous century. His parents built the manor house at Berkeley Plantation, which still stands.

Benjamin grew up in luxury, with a private tutor and attended the College of William and Mary. During his college years, an intense thunderstorm with sheets of lightning struck the manor house, killing his father on July 12, 1745, at age 51, as he shut an upstairs window. Benjamin was the eldest of ten children. Two sisters were also killed in the storm.

The tragic death interrupted his studies. He needed to return home at once to manage his father’s estate. He also got into a dispute with an official of the college that made retreat seem the better part of valor.

He was a tall man, with a forceful demeanor. Even at the tender age of nineteen, he assumed the mantle of family responsibility with uncommon prudence and judgment. At the age of twenty-three, he met and married Elizabeth Basset. The couple had eight children. Elizabeth died in 1792.

In 1764, at the age of thirty-eight, he was elected to the Virginia Burgesses. Because of his rotundity, joviality, love of good foods and wines, and fondness for luxury, he acquired the nickname “Falstaff of Congress.” He opposed the Stamp Acts, but was a somewhat reluctant patriot, opposing Patrick Henry’s calls for civil disobedience as a response to the Acts. As tensions with the Crown grew, Benjamin altered his position and joined those who sought independence. Between 1773 and 1776, he shared in the tasks of the Revolutionary conventions, the committee of correspondence, and the provincial congresses.

In 1774, Benjamin was appointed to the Continental Congress. He wasn’t known for fiery rhetoric on the floor, but rather as a facilitator, quietly working in the background. He was conservative, not in line with the radicals like John Adams, but  so eager to participate in the Continental Congress that “he would have come on foot.”  He gravitated toward John Hancock and those who followed him.

“As a member of the board of war, and as chairman of that board, an office which he retained until he left congress, he particularly distinguished himself. According to the testimony of a gentleman who was contemporary with him in congress, he was characterized for great firmness, good sense, and a peculiar sagacity in difficult and critical situations. In seasons of uncommon trial and anxiety, hee was always steady, cheerful, and undaunted.

   Mr. Harrison was also often called to preside as chairman of the committee of the whole house, in which station he was extremely popular. He occupied the chair during the deliberations of congress on the dispatches of Washington, the settlement of commercial restrictions, the state of the colonies, the regulation of trade, and during the pendency of the momentous question of our national independence. By his correctness and impartiality, during the warm and animated debates which were had on questions growing out of these important subjects, he gained the general confidence and approbation of the house. “

He was again appointed to the Second Continental Congress, and was present at the signing on July 4. He is said to have remarked:

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“I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing [signing the Declaration of Independence]. For the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead. “

Benjamin Harrison, referring to Gerry of Massachusetts. Harrison was often derided for his size, weight, and delight in good food

Towards the close of the year 1777. Mr. Harrison resigned his seat in congress and returned to Virginia. He was soon after elected a member of the house of burgesses, of which body he was immediately chosen speaker, a station which he held until the year 1782.
   In this latter year, Mr. Harrison was elected to the office of the chief magistrate of Virginia and became one of the most popular governors of his native state. To this office, he was twice re-elected. In 1785, having become ineligible by the provisions of the constitution, he returned to private life, carrying with him the universal esteem and approbation of his fellow citizens.
   In 1788, when the new constitution of the United States was submitted to Virginia, he was returned a member of her convention. Of the first committee chosen by that body, that of privileges and elections, he was appointed chairman.  Owing to advanced age, and physical maladies, he took no great part in the Constitutional debate, though he opposed its adoption without a Bill of Rights. He declined to run for re-election as chairman. Gout afflicted him greatly in these latter years and eventually caused his death in 1792. One of his children, William Henry Harrison, became the ninth president of the United States.

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