- 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
In the three years that followed, Harrison had plenty of chance to observe the North and his northern associates to observe him. An acquaintance recorded the impressions Philadelphia made on Harrison and his friends: “They allow the City to be fine, neat and large … but they complain of the small rooms, uniformity of the buildings, and several other like faults. They call the inhabitants grave and reserved; and the women remarkably homely, hard-favored and sour!” Harrison personally offered to give a guinea for every handsome face found in Philadelphia, if anyone else would give a copper for every face that was not comely.
For their part, the northerners had some reservations about Harrison. He was, wrote John Adams in his diary, “an indolent, luxurious, heavy gentleman, reported to be … at home … a cornerstone in which the two walls of party meet.” Though certainly Adams did not mean this as a compliment, the description of Harrison’s function in revolutionary times would describe a very useful citizen, and his fellow Virginians so regarded him.
Even Adams conceded Harrison’s “many pleasantries” that steadied rough sessions of the Congress, and the big Virginian was almost continually made chairman of the Committee of the Whole, second in importance only to the presidency. It was Harrison, replacing John Hancock in the president’s chair, who solemnly read to the Congress the words of the Declaration of Independence.
“When the time of hanging comes,” the large Harrison said to small Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, “I shall have the advantage over you. It will be all over with me in a minute, but you will be kicking in the air for half an hour after I am gone.”
More than three years had passed since the Signer’s carriage had first carried him northward across the far Pennsylvania countryside. Now, as he started home, the cushions in the carriage were worn, the lamps no longer polished, and the homeward-bound planter, wrapped in a greatcoat against the winter’s chill, did not look—and probably did not feel—any part of the legendary master of a plantation.
No Harrison clan head had ever so diverted his attention from planting and mercantile enterprises. His long stretches away from home had made Berkeley almost an absentee-owned plantation, and the marks of neglect were visible. The planter, despite the later-day Virginian’s scorn of trade, was a trader and Harrison’s trading markets were cut off. He was living off capital. Harrison understood this but it was too late in the day for him to do anything about it.
In the war years the radical party of Henry and Jefferson had won political ascendancy at Williamsburg over the conservative party of Washington and Harrison. Jefferson believed that a landed aristocracy long entrenched in power grew stultified and protective of its own interest, without regard to the welfare of the commonwealth. Under his influence the Virginia legislature passed measures which shrewdly undermined those supports which had sustained the oligarchy in power. It liberalized the land-owning restrictions on the voting franchise to increase the popular vote; it abolished the English-inherited laws on entail and primogeniture; it separated Church from State in a Statute of Religious Freedom, which broke the community power of the Episcopal vestries.
In the traditional revolution, the aristocrat was destroyed by the people; in the American Revolution the Virginia aristocrat destroyed himself. In order to sustain his society, Benjamin Harrison had been led, step by step—often reluctantly, sometimes protestingly—into his present situation where, if his society were sustained at all, its idyllic quality was lost; and within the broken idyll his family had lost security. Along the way, there was nothing he could have done to change events. When issues he had fought became facts, he had adapted to the necessity and given of his time, talents, and fortune. He was Speaker of the House of Delegates when, in 1778, the military situation in Virginia grew seriously ominous. Two thousand British regulars, commanded by the traitor Benedict Arnold, landed by boat at the mouth of the James River and began a campaign of ravagement along both sides of the river. With the lion among them, the Virginians hastily dispatched Harrison to Philadelphia to plead with Congress for troops to defend them. It was Washington who made the painful decision to hold his army outside New York, to immobilize Clinton, and not come to the rescue of his countrymen.
Before leaving Virginia, Harrison had taken the precaution of moving his family from the exposed river plantation of Berkeley to the less accessible plantations of other members of the family. It was fortunate for the girls that he did. On January fourth, Arnold’s hard-bitten force disembarked at the foot of the wide lawn of Westover, where the shade of elegant William Byrd strolled in the evening, and pushed across to neighboring Berkeley by the path that the Byrds and Harrisons had so often followed when visiting in the olden days.