- 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
Arnold did not miss the chance to hurt a Signer of the Declaration and a close friend of the man he had betrayed. As a fellow American, he recognized the sensitive point of a Virginia aristocrat, and there was a subtlety in his cruelty which would touch Harrison without destroying his plantation’s future usefulness. He removed all the portraits from the walls and placed them on a bonfire in front of the mansion. That not only hurt the Signer’s family—for the planters spent heavily on journeymen artists to preserve their likenesses into earthly immortality—but also future historians seeking portraits of the Harrisons.
The festivities of the portrait fire incited the idling soldiers to practice target shooting on Harrison’s cows while frightened Negroes gathered in the nearby quarters. Since the Berkeley slaves belonged to Washington’s friend, Arnold directed his men to herd along forty of the likeliest and unknowingly dealt Benjamin Harrison a deadlier blow than the hurt to his pride. This capital loss (one third of his active slaves) was more than the fading fortunes of Berkeley could absorb.
By the end of the war, Berkeley had drifted into a state of muted splendor which characterized the older plantations of Virginia from the upheaval of the Revolution to the destruction of the Civil War. It was during this period that plantation life, observed by northern visitors when already in decline, assumed its mythical character. At Berkeley an outsider would find the hot land and the crops, the great manor house and outbuildings, the gardens and the river-bordered lawn, grazing animals and playing children, and the Negroes, wearing bright-colored cotton and speaking in soft, liquid voices, but the scene began to hold the hushed, slightly decayed quality of the legend.
No boats were built on the fortune-making docks, and few ocean-going trading vessels rode the swells of the tidal river. The gristmill and sawmill, the blacksmith shop, and what they called “merchant mills” still operated, but on the lackadaisical schedule of overseers. Produce was grown for the plantation’s people, providing that lavish self-sufficiency which gave plantation life its air of indolent abundance.
After Yorktown Benjamin Harrison was elected first governor of the independent republic of Virginia. In a period of painful readjustment the governor’s job was a hard, inglorious one, but the men who had made the Revolution did not feel that in conscience they could quit until the task was finished. Unlike Washington, whose years on the national scene had committed him to the cause of a strong union, Harrison still thought as a Virginian and, despite his great friend’s entreaties, opposed the Constitution that was drafted at Philadelphia. Yet when there was talk of a new revolution against the Constitution, it was Harrison who rose to the floor, his face red and puffy, his heavy body held with effort in its customary erectness, to urge them against any effort to overthrow the union that he himself had opposed. It was the gouty old gentleman’s last outstanding act for his country. Within three vears he was dead.
That genetic drive to plantation mastery which spanned four generations in Virginia faltered in the fifth, and Benjamin Harrison’s three sons did not want to work at planting, nor did any of his four sons-in-law. They still wanted to work, for they were not yet the idle generation, but the plantation was no longer a challenge to them. It was a home to support; a way of life rather than a career. The youngest boy aspired to be a doctor, the middle boy became a lawyer, and the eldest, Benjamin Harrison VI, heir to the home plantation, was an unstable young man who failed in a mercantile business he started at Richmond and returned to live at Berkeley. There, free at last to indulge his true gift for fine living, he revived high style in the manor house, as if land and slaves could be sold off forever. To him Berkeley owes the lovely Adam woodwork with which, in a gesture of gallantry, he replaced the sturdier and simpler paneling deemed adequate by his vastly rich grandparents. Berkeley was never more splendid than during his brief reign.
The younger sons of Virginia with energy and resourcefulness began to leave the state. Among those who migrated to a totally new area, the most representative—with typical Harrison adaptiveness—was the youngest of the Signer’s sons, William Henry, who became President of the United States and grandfather of another President.
William Henry Harrison was an eighteen-year-old medical student in Philadelphia when his father died and left him a tract of land in the original Berkeley Hundred. There was in the slim, well-made six-footer a strong strain of self-reliance. A child at home during the impoverishing dislocations of the Revolution, he had heard from his mother the tales of his ancestors’ greatness, and had formed early the ambition to excel on his own. The physical tumult of the Revolutionary fighting on his own land also exerted an influence on the impressionable boy, who at the age of eight had seen Benedict Arnold’s redcoats. Nothing would indicate more keenly the fading glory of the plantation than the choice of the son of the master of Berkeley to migrate west of the Alleghenies—the dividing line between civilization and the wilderness.