Benjamin Harrison, Congressional “Falstaff” and Signer of the Declaration of Independence


Public Domain – via Wikipedia Berkeley Plantation, home of the Harrison family (two Presidents), initial construction of Georgian mansion in 1726. In Charles City County, Virginia.

Born on 5 April 1726, Benjamin Harrison V lived the life guaranteed him by his wealthy parents. He was the eldest son of Benjamin Harrison IV and Ann Carter and took over the family’s extensive holdings at the age of 19, when his father and two sisters were killed in a lightning storm. Berkeley Plantation is located west of Williamsburg, Virginia, upon the James River. Although young, Harrison V built the family fortune, eventually claiming eight plantations and an extensive shipping business. “Benjamin’s great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison I, first stepped on American soil on March 15, 1633. He emigrated from the Isle of Wight in England, became a tobacco planter, and was the first clerk of the Royal Council. Benjamin’s mother, Ann Carter, was the daughter of Robert “King” Carter whose family like the Harrisons was a force in Virginia and American politics. He served for many years as treasurer of the Colony and member of the King’s Council. The “King” was a wealthy and influential member of the Virginia aristocracy and owned over 300,000 acres and a thousand slaves. Ann’s great-grandfather, William Carter, a resident of Casstown, Hereford County and the Middle Temple in England, came to Virginia about 1649 and built the ancestral home Corotoman in Lancaster County, Virginia.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

He was a classmate of Patrick Henry and of Thomas Jefferson at William and Mary College. He married his second cousin Elizabeth Bassett, the niece of Martha Washington. “Eight of the Harrisons’ children survived to adulthood. Their most famous son was William Henry Harrison, the American general in the victory over the Indians at Tippecanoe, and who was elected President of the United States in 1840. [He died after only one month in office.] Their great-grandson, Benjamin Harrison, a Civil War general, was also elected President, in 1888. Politics was a way of life for the Harrisons. As early as the 1640s, the First Family of Virginia had a reputation of arguing with British authorities over individual rights. One Harrison was imprisoned for six years for complaining about tyranny and treason.”(The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

At age 21, Harrison began his political career as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He spent a quarter of a century in the Burgesses, often leading the group as Speaker. He was most outspoken against the Stamp Act and assisted in penning Virginia’s protest. Even so, he opposed Patrick Henry’s civil disobedience stance. He supported taxes for the importation of slaves. Eventually, he was elected to the First Continental Congress. He helped to write the Articles of Association. He was said to have roomed with George Washington and Peyton Randolph during those early of days of the revolution. Benjamin was grandson of “King” Carter, and therefore, cousin to Thomas Nelson and Carter Braxton, who also signed the Declaration of Independence. He often served as Chairman of the Whole. 

 Benjamin Harrison was highly regarded in Congress, and was frequently appointed Chairman of the Whole from March 1776 to August, 1777. He remained in Congress until 1778, when he became speaker in the Virginia legislature. He was a vocal advocate for the Bill of Rights being in place before the ratification of the U. S. Constitution.

“Benjamin Rush noted that Harrison “had strong state prejudices and was hostile to the leading men from the New England states.” But Harrison appreciated the evenhandedness of the new President, John Hancock, complimenting him as “noble, disinterested and generous to a very great degree.” On the important date of June 7, 1776 Benjamin Harrison was chosen to introduce fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee whose resolution called for independence from England. He was selected to read Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence to the assembled delegates on July 1, and served as Chairman of the Whole during the debate over independence on July 2.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

Harrison was well known for his sense of humor, and many tales are remarked upon. From Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnest in Signing Their Lives Away, we learn “Once the story goes, when the members needed to select a new president of Congress, some liked Hancock for the job, but Hancock pooh-poohed the notion. Six-foot-four Harrison crossed the room in a bound, physically lifted the smaller Hancock, and plopped him down in the President’s chair. ‘We shall show Mother Britain how little we care for her,” Harrison reportedly said, ‘by making a Massachusetts man our president, who she has excluded from pardon by public proclamation.’ (At this point in history, Hancock and Samuel Adams were reportedly wanted for treason by the Crown.)”

“On August 2, while preparing to sign the Declaration of Independence, Harrison famously quipped to Elbridge Gerry who had taken his place at the table to sign: ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes and be with the Angels, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.'” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence) [Note that Gerry was not in Philadelphia On August 2, 1776, when this supposedly took place, but it is a wonderful story, nonetheless.]

In Congress Harrison solicited financial and other assistance from other countries as a member of the Secret Correspondence Committee. He also worked closely with General Washington as part of the Marine and War and Ordinances Committees in planning the American army. During the war he also took care of matters at home by serving as a lieutenant in the county militia, and took the job of chief magistrate as well.

After the war, Harrison remained active in Virginia politics. Soon after his 65th birthday he suffered from a severe case of gout, and on April 24, the disease took his life. He is buried at his beloved Berkeley Plantation. Because of Harrison’s 240-pound, six foot four stature, he was often referred to as the “Falstaff of Congress.” 


BenjaminHarrison.1968.28.1-VHS-220x300“The miniature at left is the only surviving life portrait of Harrison. It was apparently survived only because one of Harrison’s family carried it it with them when they fled their house at Berkeley Plantation just before the traitor Benedict Arnold and his men landed their boats at next door Westover in January, 1781.

Redcoats-at-Berkeley2“The Redcoats proceeded to pillage from Berkeley to Richmond.  While at Berkeley, Arnold’s men built a bonfire of all the Harrison family portraits and took rifle practice using his cows. They were repaid on October 19th, when the British Army surrendered at nearby Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to Benjamin Harrison, Congressional “Falstaff” and Signer of the Declaration of Independence

  1. How did the gout kill him? I was plagued with it for years, felt like Big Harry himself at times, did they perhaps bleed him once to often?

    • I am not certain. The sources say the gout was in his stomach, but as we both know the gout is an inflammation of the joints. Likely, he experienced Chronic tophaceous gout. This is the most disabling stage of gout. It usually develops over a long period, such as 10 years. In this stage, the disease may have caused permanent damage to the affected joints and sometimes to the kidneys. With proper treatment, most people with gout do not progress to this advanced stage. Likely his kidneys could no longer process the uric acid. In those days, diet was not best practices for gout.

  2. “when we are all hung for what we are now doing” They surely would have used correct English even though they were “traitors” XD and said hanged and NOT HUNG which is very wrong indeed 🙂

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