- Historic Sites
The Harrisons Of Berkeley Hundred
Five successive Benjamin Harrisons created a private empire of tobacco and trade and a great Virginia plantation
April 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 3
Like the legendary image of the Old Massa, all these components existed, though scarcely in such idyllic arrangement.
The composite picture would fail to suggest what existed beyond its frame—the wharf and warehouses, tobacco fields and sheds, sawmill and stock barns, and the countless small buildings where wool was carded, hides were tanned, bread was baked, and hogsheads made. All that was outside the picture constituted the life of Benjamin Harrison far more than the idle hours passed on the shaded lawn.
Though no routine was fixed in Benjamin Harrison’s fluid pattern (except for going to nearby Westover Church on Sunday morning), his mornings usually started early with a conference with his overseers and an inspection tour of his fields. Some planters began the day by reading Greek or Hebrew, some by making love to their wives (as recorded in diaries); some ate a light breakfast and some ate heartily; none by record began the day with a hooker of rum or brandy, and all began the day very early—between five and six.
The long mornings were the least likely to be interrupted by visitors, and if house guests were around they amused themselves. After Harrison assured himself that his planting and subsidiary operations were moving as they should, he went to his wharf and shipyard, where masts for his boats were cut from nearby virgin timber. The buying of tobacco and selling of imports were closely under his own supervision, as was the shipping on the boats which he either owned or had interest in. His shipping of other planters’ tobacco was so extensive that his plantation came in time to be popularly called “Harrison’s Landing.”
Harrison had put in something close to an eight-hour day when, around two o’clock, the family gathered for the midday dinner. Unless they were entertaining specially, wine was not likely to be served, though before a heavy meal the master might take a hot rum toddy in the winter or a cooled punch in the summer. This main meal was the time for casual visiting with intimates.
In the afternoons, unless his visitors tarried, Harrison settled down to his greatest time consumer—letters to London and what amounted to bookkeeping. He, like other planters, engaged in constant wrangles with British factors, who regarded Virginia planters as existing entirely to be milched by English businessmen. Factors showed endless ingenuity in finding new charges for handling tobacco and imports, and, to be blunt, they cheated all except the most wary.
For his young son, Benjamin Harrison provided a school at Berkeley, to which planters in the neighborhood sent their boys of Ben’s age. Young Ben was still a boy when his father died suddenly at 37, leaving him heir to Berkeley.
Benjamin Harrison IV entered William and Mary, to become the family’s first college man. “The College,” established at the new capital, Williamsburg, taught him rhetoric, logic and ethics, physics, metaphysics, and mathematics. It was some time after he returned as master of Berkeley that he married Anne, daughter of Robert “King” Carter, the richest man in Virginia, owner of 330,000 acres, one thousand slaves, and large sums of cash. Although he neither needed position nor had an interest in politics, Benjamin Harrison IV accepted his class responsibilities as a member of the House of Burgesses.
Now in this generation, the dream of the private principality was completed with the erection of the baronial mansion to serve as the symbol and center for the new dynasties. The money was there; it no longer needed to be earned.
When the Harrisons’ neighbors built on either side, at Shirley and Westover, the new houses were erected near the site of the old, close to the river. From the living room at Shirley, you look right into the water. At Westover, the classically beautiful house is back about fifty yards on a broad lawn, so that the river, shaded lawn, and house form an open court of slumberous tranquillity.
The Harrisons abandoned the old site of Berkeley closer to the river and built the new house on a slight elevation nearly a quarter of a mile back, which gave to their foreground (it was not all lawn) a vast and impressive sweep. During the Civil War all of McClellan’s army—one hundred thousand men with animals, guns, and wagons—camped there between the house and the river.
At Berkeley, the walls, three feet thick, were laid in English bond below the water table and Flemish bond above. The unknown journeyman architect enclosed the top story with the first heroic pediment roof in Virginia, which he presumably copied from a bookplate of James Gibbs’s church at Derby, England.
The house at Berkeley was, in brief, an advanced representation of the greatest architectural flowering ever in an American colony. When Anne and Benjamin moved into their new house in 1726, the design of the baronial life of the Virginia planter was completed. They were, as far as they knew, as integrated in time as the country life of the British aristocracy on which they modeled themselves.