Five successive Benjamin Harrisons created a private empire of tobacco and trade and a great Virginia plantation
Berkeley Hundred, as a working plantation still in operation after more than three centuries, is older than any English-speaking settlement in America outside Virginia. In fact, a Thanksgiving was celebrated on its river front and an experiment made there with corn whiskey before the Puritans, setting sail in one of the boats bound for Virginia, were blown off their course and landed in New England.
One of the very first plantations settled in the New World, Berkeley evolved out of the wilderness to become the demesne of the Harrisons—Presidents of the United States, governors of Virginia, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, and an ancestor of Robert K. Lee. The Harrisons helped shape their immediate region into one of the most powerful and fabled sections of Virginia. Their home place sat between the Westover of William Byrd and the Shirley of the Hills and Carters; President John Tyler lived nearby, and when he was William Henry Harrison’s Vice President it was probably the only time in the country’s history that a President and Vice President had grown up in the same neighborhood. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson came to that section for their wives, and Lee’s mother was born there.
The aristocratic pattern which was to characterize the Old South was created in that region, and the first democratic form of government on the continent was introduced there. The men were America’s first Indian fighters, first patrician grandees, and first rebels, fighting the power of England a hundred years before the successful revolution. Underlying all things, they were the country’s first planters.
The southern plantation seems remote today, almost legendary, intertwined with the half-romantic and half-barbarous myths of the ante-bellum South. In these myths of the slaveholding South, the plantation seems always to have existed in some perpetual and semi-tropical feudalism, where time ceased in the slumberous heat, the seasons never changed, and the cast of characters in the white-columned mansions, identical on each plantation, were as impervious to the mutations of life as the characters in a familiar play. The protagonist was always Old Massa. Ridden with debts and vice and high personal honor, always booted and spurred, with a whip in one hand and julep in the other, this highborn and arrogant wastrel kept a harem of mulattoes, a stable of blooded horses (on which he repeatedly ruined himself by betting), and, when he wasn’t out duelling under the live oaks, he was entertaining friends with prodigal lavishness.
Actually, for this composite image, many gentlemen in the South would contribute aspects to the whole. Some were debt-ridden (as William Byrd III), some were always booted and spurred (as John Randolph even in the halls of Congress), some were addicted to drink and some to horse racing (as President Andrew Jackson), some were impoverished by hospitality (as Thomas Jefferson), and some had Negro mistresses (or there would be no mulattoes). Certainly all held a high sense of personal honor, and duelling in protection of personal honor was an established custom, though actual duels were few.
But plantations were neither developed nor maintained by men who embodied all these traits or only these traits. They were built by men who, with whatever weaknesses of the flesh, combined the qualities which have made for success throughout the ages-ambition and energy, self-discipline and resourcefulness, and the power to conceive boldly.
Stripped of romantic connotations, the plantation was both a large-scale agricultural operation and a commercial center. In Virginia, where plantations were first established, the money crop was tobacco. For this operation, the virgin forests were cleared, the seeds planted, the plants tended, the leaves cut, stripped, and hung; then packed into hogsheads made on the place and shipped to England from the private wharf. Besides marketing their own crops, the big plantation owners bought tobacco from the small planters, shipped it for export and brought in English goods beyond their own needs, which they handled as importers. In addition to tobacco, the planter raised food for his own people, who might number as many as 1,000. Some river plantations baked hard biscuits which they sold to ships’ crews, as on the plantation of the Berkeley Harrisons’ kinsmen. Artisans made the clothes from cotton and wool, tanned hides, built the outbuildings and sometimes boats, as at Berkeley Hundred. Kroni their sawmills the planter sold planks and clapboards to England.
The plantation master was also responsible for every detail in the total group life of his microcosmic world: he represented law and order, the Church, and the courts. The mayor, judge, sheriff, and preacher combined would not be so powerful as he. In combination with other planters, he formed the ruling bodies of his immediate country, and his state; and from their ruling class the planters sent their own chosen representatives to London or, later, Washington. If you accused the planter of not being democratic, he would look at you in surprise and say, “Of course not. I am an aristocrat.”
For all his aristocratic manner and belief, however, the planter was not the firstcomer to Tidewater Virginia; others had preceded him. First to come and settle Jamestown in 1607 were 105 “Gentlemen” and “men of the common sorte,” picaresque characters all, all of them in search of gold and adventure. Led by the resolute John Smith, they found nothing of the former and rather more of the latter than they had bargained for, together with disease, starvation, and danger from Powhatan’s powerful Indians.
Successive waves of adventurers, some stockholders in the Virginia Company, many indentured to pay their passage, made up the depleted ranks, but Virginia did not even begin to show signs of lasting until a sturdier breed arrived, of whom John Rolfe is a good example. Rolfe made himself a romantic place in history by marrying Powhatan’s tempestuous daughter Pocahontas, but a more significant one by experimenting with tobacco, which turned out in the end to be the real wealth of the new El Dorado.
Soon, maintaining an uneasy peace with the remarkable Indian leader, the colony spread out beyond the palisaded fort at Jamestown, and small holdings spread up the lazy James River, which became a sort of watery Main Street for the colonists. Now appeared in 1619 a boatload of indentured wives, sturdy but anonymous ladies from whom, apparently, no one in Virginia is today descended, but a welcome sign of permanence in their own time. And there was established this same year a kind of popular government, the House of Burgesses. This self-governing body would give England trouble later, but no more, certainly, than was foreshadowed for this new land by the arrival, also in the notable year 1619, of a shipload of black slaves from Africa.
It was in 1619 that Berkeley Hundred was founded as a private venture by a small group of English investors, headed by one John Smythe, Esq., of Nibley. To stave off failure, the Virginia Company had begun chartering settlements known as “hundreds” (either because a hundred acres was the basic grant for a share of stock or because 100 was the ideal number of settlers). At Berkeley, 38 settlers arrived after two and a half months on the ship Margaret, to build their settlement on a tract of 8,000 acres, stretching for three miles along the north bank of the James River. The next spring found the colonists living in split-log houses and experimenting with mulberry trees for silk and grape vines for wine, as well as with tobacco, while the English backers impatiently waited for the colony to become self-supporting. At this and neighboring hundreds, though the dream had shifted from gold to tobacco, the methods had not been discovered for the big killing. Probably the British financiers would never have discovered the way to colonial riches. As it happened, they were not given the opportunity.
The blow from which the Virginia Company and its proprietors never recovered occurred on Good Friday morning, March 22, 1622. By then the great Powhatan had died, and his brother, ferocious Opechancanough (Opie-can-canoe) did not feel bound to the truce. With the kind of wiliness that used to be associated only with the savage, he encouraged the whites to believe in the Indians’ friendship until he had them set up, off guard, for the stroke designed to annihilate the colony.
At breakfast time, at practically every holding in Virginia, groups of friendly Indians drifted in without weapons. At Berkeley Hundred they were received warmly and invited to sit down in the assembly hall for a breakfast of gruel. No white man or woman saw a signal given, but as if by some group impulse, the unarmed Indians suddenly snatched up the muskets which the unsuspecting settlers had propped in corners. The men fought hard for their lives but the records list eleven Berkeley settlers as “slayne.”
Many of the plantations were virtually wiped out. Small family units perished and their holdings were reclaimed by the brush. The college recently founded at the new city of Henricus, south of the river, and the iron works nearby were destroyed beyond repair. Only Jamestown was saved. A converted Indian warned an adventurer on the mainland, and this Richard Pace, with no poet to make a Paul Revere of him, rowed at daybreak to the island and saved the colony from destruction.
As it was, 347 of the 1,200 inhabitants were killed in America’s greatest massacre. Stored corn was burned in the crude barns, cattle and hogs were run off, and the wholesale disaster—just when the colony seemed to have turned the corner—was more than the Virginia Company could absorb. James the First, impatient for gain from this genesis of empire, withdrew the charter in 1624 and made colonizing the business of the Crown. With this change, the age of the yeomanry began to supersede that of the adventurer.
During the age of the yeomanry, half a century long, Virginia had her only approach to a classless society. Her citizens, in a soundly growing colony, formed what later became the stalwart middle class. Yet, even while the yeomanry enjoyed its hour, the men of the future were settling in Virginia. These were people of substance who dreamed of acquiring in the New World the positions of rank and privilege pre-empted at home by kinsmen. These were the embryonic plantation masters, who came with the baronial dream.
Of the first Benjamin Harrison only the barest facts are known. He evidently arrived in Virginia some time after the massacre and settled south of the James River. Of somewhat more substance than the average yeoman, he did not adventure to the colony with the means of, say Richard Lee and some of the later large landowners. He did, however, possess at least sufficient education to become clerk of the Council, he enjoyed sufficient standing in his locale to he elected to the House of Burgesses, and he laid the foundation on which his family was to rise into the ruling class.
The year following his occupancy of the clerk’s job Harrison bought 200 acres outright—a good average holding in that day of the yeomanry’s small agricultural operations—and at an unrecorded date he married a woman whom history can only know as Mary. She was illiterate, signing an X for her name, though this was typical for the times. Perhaps through his salary, more than through his small holding, Harrison prospered sufficiently to buy in 1643 a 500-acre grant on the south side of the James River, across from Jamestown. In 1645 his wife bore a son, and shortly after, on an unknown date and at an unknown age, this sire of Presidents died.
The second Benjamin Harrison came into the world with the arrival of the Cavaliers to Virginia. These elegant gentlemen, followers of the late King Charles I, came to Virginia as refugees from the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Virginians, loyal to the Crown and shocked at the King’s execution, welcomed the Cavaliers; the colonial governor, Sir William Berkeley, made them at home in his Green Spring estate, the first great house in the New World. The Cavaliers had a graciousness of manner, and a flair for fashion, which sonic of the natives admiringly noticed, and a taste for good living that was welcomed by those long exposed to the harshness of a dangerous frontier.
The second Benjamin Harrison’s world was influenced by these courtly Cavaliers and the elegant life they lived in Virginia during the harsh years of Cromwell’s Protectorate. But it was shaped even more decisively by the impact on Virginia of the Restoration of King Charles II. That irresponsible monarch, whose reign brought ease and gayety to England, brought disaster to the yeoman economy of Virginia. Viewing the colonies simply as a means of fattening the royal purse, Charles imposed restrictions on the tobacco trade which drove prices down to a penny a pound and ruined the small growers. The big planter could by volume operate on a smaller margin of profit.
To Benjamin Harrison II, growing into young manhood during these dynamic changes, the pattern of the big planters determined the course of his own ambitions. In his late teens, when Charles’s Navigation Act began to crush the small planter, Harrison was, in practical terms, among the relatively small himself—except that he did not think as they thought.
In any emergency for the many there is opportunity for the few. Harrison was among those men, of all ages, who can turn a time of crisis into personal advantage. Since profit depended on volume and volume depended on workers, he must get more workers: further, since profits from small acreage were insufficient for the purchase of new indentures or slaves, he must find another way to cash profit. He found it in trading and began to operate a river-front store.
A planter’s “store” was something of a combination wharf, tobacco warehouse, and importing storage house. Harrison had small boats built and he plied the bark creeks to take on the tobacco hogs-heads of small planters. In London, the tobacco would be credited against goods which he imported, and from his store some of the goods would be taken by the small planters in exchange for their tobacco. Some he sold for cash. He profited both from a charge on handling their tobacco and a markup on the goods. By these manipulations he established favorable credit balances with his British factor and could sell his own tobacco for cash—to buy more people and get more land. His operation would grow bigger, and he would be recognized as a planter of substance—“discreet,” as the coldly sagacious were called—worthy to share the honors and the burdens of the ruling group. Except for the few who came well endowed to the colony, this is the way they all got to be Old Maassa.
Harrison was still a young man when the yeomanry made its last stand against the domination of the planters in the affair known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Harrison appears to have stood outside that struggle, but two years after the rebellion was over he had done well enough to be given the profitable and honorable steppingstone of sheriff of his county. In 1680 he was sent to the House of Burgesses from Surry County.
Once in the government, Harrison showed himself to be as astute a politician as he was a planter. After serving five terms over a period of eighteen years, Harrison was established among the political rulers even before he was tapped for the Council at 53. As councilors were the recognized royalty of Virginia’s untitled nobility, Benjamin Harrison II had gone as far as there was to go.
He had won the top position himself in a life of steady, unobtrusive acquisition. Building soundly lrom the first 500 acres, and then his river-front store, he paid quit-rent on 2,750 acres in several working plantations, in addition to land settled on his sons. Though he seems to have tended less to conspicuous consumption than some of his more lavish-minded friends, he made the standard investments in silver and books and furnishings from England. He wanted of all things to do well by his children, and this he most certainly accomplished.
Benjamin Harrison II had married a lady named Hannah, whose last name, as with his mother, has remained undiscovered by the most diligent genealogists. Evidently she belonged to the class of his birth and not to the well-recorded ruling class to which her husband was striving. With her children it would be a different story.
Hannah Harrison’s children were trained for the large responsibility—to their estate, their class, their country (Virginia). They were born too late to remember the frontier. They matured as aristocrats with an inherited sense of privilege, a position of rule, and a dedication to sustain the existing order. One daughter married Philip Ludwell’s son, himself a Councillor, and from their union came an ancestor of Robert E. Lee. Another married “Commissary” Blair, commissioner of the Church to Virginia (unofficial bishop, as the Church never established Virginia as a diocese), founder and first president of William and Mary College, and long president of the Council. Benjamin Harrison III married the daughter of another Councillor, Colonel Lewis Burwell, who had done extremely well in land and indenture speculation.
In sterner times the purpose of training was not to postpone a child’s assumption of responsibility but to hasten it. The early growth was particularly developed on plantations. At his father’s river store—that combination of wharf, warehouse, and trading post—young Ben learned his ciphering and practical balancing of books. The knowledge of planting he also acquired in the same way, by observing and doing under tutelage. He had to know how tobacco plants needed to be guarded from suckers and worms and weeds, how the tobacco stem had to be cut in a single strong stroke downward and sliced off at the bottom, how the leaves were hung and graded as they cured in the sheds, and how the sizes were arranged for packing in hogsheads. It was not intended that young Harrison should ever work in the hot fields or roll a hogshead to the boat, but he must be able to judge tobacco and know when others were working poorly.
Reversing the English procedure, Benjamin III, the oldest son, left the home place, and established his line of the family on the north side of the river at Berkeley Hundred. He might have been sensible of the ghosts of the early settlers who tried to farm those acres before the Indian massacre, but the source of his attraction was that three-mile river front with a landing where “the big boats could ride.”
When Benjamin Harrison III was 27, he was given the special assignment of acting attorney general for the prosecution of criminals on trial, with the title of “His Majesty’s Council at Law.” He went up very fast. Within five years of his special appointment, he became treasurer of the colony, while already Speaker of the House of Burgesses.
His Berkeley Hundred house was commodious and well built, but neither pretentious nor designed for the ages. Around the time when William Byrd II became Benjamin Harrison’s neighbor, the big planters were just beginning to envision great houses as the crowning glory of their baronies. The Governor’s Mansion in Williamsburg perhaps inspired the idea of the splendor that was to come later. Then, too, as the planters began to buy slaves for the house as well as the fields, the families acquired the servants necessary to maintain a large establishment. Benjamin Harrison III had the servants before the great house. Along with his wharf and shipping enterprises, he worked eighty slaves at Berkeley plus twenty at his south-side holdings.
The broadly based sufficiency of his operations enabled his home plantation to run with such outward blandness that, on the surface, his life could appear to illustrate the idyll of the legend. Place him in one of those typical paintings of a life in thrall. There, with family and friends, playing cricket of a warm afternoon, the group figure would be frozen in time, as graceful and as lifeless as a pageant. The frame would contain the broad, shaded lawn, the background of the tidal river and a cloudless sky. To one side of the happy cricket players would stand a sleek, saddled horse, held by a brightly liveried Negro, and on the other side, to balance, little Ben Harrison IV, born in 1700, would be caught in some moment of childish grace with a fat Mammy beaming over him. Squarely in the center a Negro butler, with starched front, would stand smiling with a vast silver tray containing decanters and goblets. In the foreground the master, in silver knee breeches, blue silk-lined coat with silver buttons and linen neckpiece, would stand transfixed forever with a mallet in his hand while the sun, breaking through a willow tree, would fall like a nimbus upon his head.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.