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
With a commission as an ensign in the Army obtained for him in 1791 by Washington, young Harrison rose fast in what Virginians called “the West” and won national fame for his victory over the Indians at Tippecanoe. He had inherited his father’s cheerfulness, generosity, and forthrightness, and it was simple to express his innate courtesy in the plain manners of the frontier. Too self-assured for snobbishness, he quickly put others at their ease. All of this caused him to be accepted as a simple son of democracy. As in the day of the big planters his ancestors became the biggest, in the day of the plain man William Henry became the plainest.
It was Harrison’s folksiness that the powers in the new Whig party seized upon as a campaign asset when they nominated him for President in 1840. The son of Virginia’s plantation aristocracy thus became “Old Tippecanoe,” the log-cabin candidate, and beat poor, foppish Martin Van Buren, who was born over a saloon, to the tune of:
And lounge on his cushioned settee.
Content with hard cider is he.
On his way to Washington, William Henry made a sentimental journey to his birthplace. He perhaps knew that Berkeley would not be much longer in the family. His 54-year-old nephew, Benjamin Harrison VII, had deeded the remnants of the plantation to the Bank of the United States for a twenty-thousand dollar debt, the top loan that could be made on the deteriorated property. The Signer’s grandson was living on in such fashion as he could sustain in the manor house he no longer owned.
Berkeley’s fortunes were beginning a long decline in which the land would change hands many times and the great house would fall into disrepair, its fine chairs split up for kindling by McClellan’s Union army and its beautiful old brick painted over with red barn paint. Not until another century dawned would the house at last fall into hands that would restore it with loving care as a relic of a distant past. By then the Harrisons’ last tie with Berkeley would have long since been cut and the name of Benjamin Harrison would have been made more famous than ever by William Henry’s grandson, a Republican and an abolitionist, whose rise to the White House began with his command of a Union brigade in Sherman’s campaign of devastation through the South.
All this lay in the future when William Henry Harrison, in February of 1841, returned to the great-roomed house and went into his mother’s bedroom, where he was born. From there he could look across the idle land to Westover, where the Harrisons and Byrds had walked together in other years, and where Benedict Arnold’s redcoats made their landing. From the shelves in that eastern room he took down the books he had studied in his youth and marked the classic quotations with which he loved to fill his speeches. Then, in the ancestral home that was fast becoming as remote from the pattern of American life as it was from his own later years, Berkeley’s most famous son sat down to write his inaugural address as ninth President of the United States.