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
Harrison’s nearest neighbor, William Byrd, writing to a friend in England, described the planter’s life:
“Like one of the patriarchs I have my flocks and my herds, my bond-men and bond-women, and every sort of trade amongst my own servants, so that I live in a kind of independence on everyone but providence. … My doors are open to everybody … and a half-crown will rest undisturbed in my pocket for many moons together … we sit securely under our vines and figtrees … [and] can rest securely in our beds with all doors and windows open, and yet find everything exactly in place the next morning. We can travel all over the country by night and by day, unguarded and unarmed….”
Though Byrd might have been trying to sell himself on “the advantages of a pure air,” his description evoked the aura of the perfected plantation life in the age of the aristocrat when, on the surface, there was not even threat of internal conflict or whisper of change.
Byrd had said that they were independent of everyone but Providence, and it was an act of Providence that ended the idyll for Benjamin Harrison IV. In the summer of his forty-fourth year, a violent electric storm lashed Tidewater Virginia. Harrison was not alarmed by the storm, only mindful of the rain driving through the open windows on his imported furniture. Since no house servant was handy, the master went upstairs to close a bedroom window. He had been playing at the time with two of his daughters and took them along, one in his arms. Perhaps he was telling them there was nothing to fear as he approached the window. In the instant that he stood there, a bolt of lightning struck, and Harrison and his two little girls were killed instantly.
Benjamin Harrison V was an eighteen-year-old student at William and Mary College when his father’s death made him master of Berkeley. Tall and handsome, without the great weight that years would add to his frame, he moved with ease, grace, and the air of a born aristocrat. A genial good humor was the quality which his fellows most remarked in him, then as later.
For this fifth of the line, the plantation offered small challenge. From the beginning of his career, when he entered the House of Burgesses, he found politics his most absorbing interest. These were the years when the young Washington, whose marriage to Martha Custis made him a brother-in-law of Harrison’s wife Elizabeth Bassett, was making his reputation in the war with the French on the Allegheny frontier. In the political events of that struggle, and later in the growing contest with England, Benjamin Harrison found a natural field for his talents.
Harrison was a man of the committees. While others harangued across the green-covered table in the House of Burgesses wing, Harrison lounged at ease in the small rooms where a few men worked at the serious business of preparing bills to be presented. To the give-and-take of committee work, he brought a bluff equanimity, a forthrightness that gained force by his good nature. With his uncomplex nervous system insulated within his huge frame, Harrison smiled through wrangles that caused his friends to shout and sulk and grow damp under their tailored wigs. When business got snarled in personality clashes, Harrison broke the tension with a spontaneous line of bawdy humor. For a man who seemed to move so indolently, he was very quick verbally, especially in terms of humor. However, when business reached the point of decision, he was immovable in his firmness, and supported his position with a soundly practical intelligence.
Harrison was one of the class whose members, said a visitor, “are jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controlled by any superior power.” That was true enough. But despite his own imperiousness, cheerful Harrison believed that matters could be worked out with England so that he would be free of intruding control.
By the time the political struggle with England came to a crisis, Benjamin Harrison was a man of substance, heavy in body and broad in face, with a habitual expression of humorous benevolence. Neither political theorist nor rabble-rousing orator, the master of Berkeley Plantation was more typical than Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson of the men of estate who moved slowly in the decade from the Stamp Act protest to the formation of the extremely effective Committees of Correspondence between the colonies. His cousin, Richard Henry Lee, originally a conservative, took a bigger jump and joined Henry and Jefferson in forming the potent committee. But Benjamin Harrison, though he participated in the activist committee, was operating from the manor house of a dynasty of which he was the titular head as his cousin was not, and he was weighted with personal responsibilities that Henry never had and Jefferson never fully assumed.
When Virginia responded to the call for a Continental Congress, Harrison was chosen a delegate. In the hot August of 1774 he set out in his own fine planter’s coach, with two men on the box, for the long trip to Philadelphia.