Open main menu

Benjamin Harrison V (April 5, 1726 – April 24, 1791), of Charles City County, Virginia, was an American planter and merchant, a revolutionary leader, and a Founding Father of the United States. He received his higher education at the College of William and Mary and was a representative to the Virginia House of Burgesses for Surry County, Virginia (1756–1758, 1785–1786) and Charles City County (1766–1776, 1787–1790). He was a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777 and a signer of the Declaration of Independence during the Second Continental Congress. He served as Virginia's fifth governor from 1781 to 1784.[1] His direct descendants include two presidents: his son William Henry Harrison and his great-grandson Benjamin Harrison.

Benjamin Harrison V
Benjamin Harrison V miniature portrait.png
miniature portrait,
5th Governor of Virginia
In office
December 1, 1781 – December 1, 1784
Preceded byThomas Nelson Jr.
Succeeded byPatrick Henry
3rd Speaker of the Virginia
House of Delegates
In office
May 7, 1781 – December 1, 1781
Preceded byRichard Henry Lee
Succeeded byJohn Tyler Sr.
In office
May 4, 1778 – March 1, 1781
Preceded byGeorge Wythe
Succeeded byRichard Henry Lee
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Charles City County
In office
May 5, 1777 – December 1, 1781
Preceded bySamuel Harwood
Succeeded byWilliam Green Munford
Personal details
Born(1726-04-05)April 5, 1726
Charles City County, Colony of Virginia, British America
DiedApril 24, 1791(1791-04-24) (aged 65)
Charles City County, Virginia, U.S.
Resting placeBerkeley Plantation, Charles City
Spouse(s)Elizabeth Bassett (m.1748; his death 1791)
Children7, including William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison VI, and Carter Bassett Harrison
ParentsBenjamin Harrison IV
Anne Carter
Alma materCollege of William and Mary
ProfessionPlanter, Politician, Merchant



Harrison was the oldest of ten children born to Benjamin Harrison IV and Anne Carter, who was a daughter of Robert Carter I. The first Benjamin Harrison arrived in the colonies around 1630. British historian F. A. Inderwick contends that Benjamin IV is also descended from Thomas Harrison, a participant in the regicide of Charles I, but this is disputed.[2] Benjamin IV and Anne built the manor house at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, and he served as a Justice of the Peace and represented Charles City County in the Virginia House of Burgesses.[3]

Berkeley Plantation, the Harrison family homestead in Virginia

Benjamin V was described in his youth as "tall and powerfully built", with "features that were clearly defined, and a well-shaped mouth above a strong pointed chin".[4] His brother Carter Henry became a leader in Cumberland County; brothers Henry and Robert died young. Brother Nathaniel settled in Prince George County, became sheriff, and was later elected to the House of Burgesses. Brother Henry fought in the French and Indian War and later settled at Hunting Quarter in Sussex County. Brother Charles joined the Continental Army and rose to the rank of brigadier general.[5]

Harrison's father was struck by lightning while shutting an upstairs window on July 12, 1745 at age 51, and he and daughter Hannah were killed.[6] Benjamin inherited the bulk of his father's estate, including the family home Berkeley and a number of surrounding plantations. He also assumed ownership and responsibility for the manor house's equipment, stock, and numerous slaves. His siblings inherited another six plantations, possessions, and slaves, as the father chose to depart from the tradition of leaving the entire estate to the eldest son.[7] Harrison's father specifically prohibited any splitting of slave families in the distribution of his estate.[8]

Local politics and First Continental CongressEdit

Harrison followed his father in representing the counties of Charles City and Surry in the House of Burgesses, and he also served as a county justice. He was among the first signers in 1770 of an agreement among Virginia lawmakers and merchants boycotting British imports until the British Parliament repealed its taxes on tea. He also joined in sponsoring a bill which declared that laws were illegal if Parliament passed them without the consent of the colonists.[9] The Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773 and the British Parliament enacted punitive measures which Colonists called the Intolerable Acts. Harrison and 88 members of the Virginia Burgesses signed a new association on May 24, 1774 condemning the action of the Parliament, and they invited other colonies to convene a Continental Congress. Harrison was selected on August 5, 1774 as one of seven delegates to represent Virginia at the Congress. He set out that month, leaving his home state for the first time, and arrived in Philadelphia on September 2, 1774 for the First Continental Congress.[10]

Harrison gravitated to the older and more conservative of his fellow delegates in Philadelphia, and was more distant with the New Englanders and the more radical, particularly John and Samuel Adams. John Adams described Harrison in his diary as "another Sir John Falstaff", "obscene", "profane", and "impious", but he also recalled Harrison saying that he was so eager to participate in the Continental Congress that "he would have come on foot." Their dislike for one another was primarily due to differences in personality and party factionalism; Harrison aligned with John Hancock, and Adams with Richard Henry Lee, whom Harrison had adamantly opposed in the House of Burgesses.[11]

The First Congress concluded in October with finalization of a Petition to the King, which was signed by all delegates including Harrison, requesting the King's attention to the colonies' grievances and restoration of harmony with the crown.[12]

Second Continental Congress and Declaration of IndependenceEdit

John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence – Benjamin Harrison V is seated at the table far left.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775. Harrison resided in a house in north Philadelphia during the Congress with Peyton Randolph and George Washington. He remained there alone after Washington assumed command of the Continental Army and Randolph died. Harrison was in attendance to the session's end in July 1776, serving frequently as Chairman of the Committee of the Whole in the Congress. He presided over the final debates on the Lee Resolution offered by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee, and he presided over the debates and amendments to the final Declaration of Independence.[10]

The Committee of Five presented Jefferson's draft of the Declaration on June 28, 1776, and the Congress resolved on July 1 that the Committee of the Whole, chaired by Harrison, should discuss its content. The Committee amended it on July 2 and 3, then adopted it in final form on Thursday, July 4. Harrison duly reported this to the Congress, and gave a final reading of the Declaration. The congress unanimously resolved to have the Declaration engrossed and signed by those present.[13]

Harrison was known for his sense of humor; even detractor John Adams conceded in his diary that "Harrison's contributions and many pleasantries steadied rough sessions."[14] Elbridge Gerry had taken Harrison's place at the table to sign the Declaration, and the rotund Harrison quipped: "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."[15]

Revolutionary WarEdit

Harrison returned to the reconvening Congress in Philadelphia in November and assumed duties required in the conduct of the war. He went to Cambridge with George Washington and a number of other delegates to plan the support and regulation of the Continental army.[16] He also worked closely with fellow delegates specifically for the defense of South Carolina, New York, and Massachusetts.[17] From December 1776 until March 1777 the Congress was forced by threat from British forces to remove itself to Baltimore, a location which Harrison did not prefer. A similar relocation was again required the following fall, to Pennsylvania on that occasion. His service was requested as a member of the Committee of Secret Correspondence for the Congress, and also as Chairman of the Board of War during the Revolution.[18]

Harrison found himself at odds with Washington over Marquis de Lafayette's commission, which Harrison insisted was honorary only and without pay. He also created controversy by endorsing the rights of Quakers not to bear arms in accordance with their religion. He unsuccessfully argued throughout the formation of the Articles of Confederation that Virginia should be given greater representation than other states based on population and land mass. His Congressional membership ended in October 1777 and he returned to Virginia where he quickly renewed his efforts in the House of Burgesses, retaining the Speakership until 1780.[19]

In January 1781, a British force of 1,600 was positioned at the mouth of the James River, led by turncoat Benedict Arnold, and Harrison was called upon to return immediately to Philadelphia and make request for military support in his state. He knew that Berkeley was one of Arnold's primary targets, so he relocated his family before setting out. In Philadelphia, his pleas for Virginia were heard, and he obtained increased gunpowder, supplies, and troops, but only on a delayed basis. Meanwhile, Arnold advanced up the James, wreaking havoc on both sides of the river. The Harrison family avoided capture in Arnold's January raid on Berkeley, but Arnold, intent that no likeness of the family survive, removed and burned all the family portraits there. Most of Harrison's possessions were destroyed, along with a large portion of the house. Other signers were similarly targeted, with more horrific consequences.[20] Harrison took up the rehabilitation of his home, then returned to his correspondence with Washington and continued efforts to obtain armaments, troops, and clothing supplies for other southern states.[21]

Governor of VirginiaEdit

The Yorktown victory in October 1781 provided only brief respite for Harrison, age 55, who began to serve on November 30 as the fifth Governor of Virginia until 1784. Money was the primary problem that he confronted, as the coffers were drained in the Virginia treasury by the war and the government was plagued by creditors, both domestic and foreign. It was clear that there was no capacity for military action outside of the immediate area, so Harrison steadfastly opposed offensive action against Indians in the Kentucky and Illinois country. He alternatively pursued a policy of treating with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek Indian tribes, which allowed peace to last for the remainder of his term.[22]

Return to legislature and deathEdit

In 1788, Harrison participated as a member of the Virginia Ratifying Convention for the Constitution. However, he was skeptical of a large central government and opposed the constitution because of the absence of a bill of rights, along with Patrick Henry and others.[23]

He continued his work in the House until he died in April 1791 at his home, after a dinner party celebrating his final electoral success.[24] He is the namesake of a residence hall at the College of William and Mary, as well as a primary bridge spanning the James River at Jordan’s Point near Hopewell, Va.[25]



  1. ^ Smith, pp. 59, 74, 79, 83.
  2. ^ Harrison, pp. 83–85.
  3. ^ Smith, pp. 4–5.
  4. ^ Dowdey, pp. 5–7.
  5. ^ Dowdey, pp. 4–5.
  6. ^ Dowdey, pp.157–58.
  7. ^ Dowdey, p.163.
  8. ^ Dowdey, pp. 164—165.
  9. ^ Smith, p. 21.
  10. ^ a b Smith, pp. 24–25, 30.
  11. ^ Smith, pp. 26–28.
  12. ^ Smith, p. 28.
  13. ^ Smith, p. 39.
  14. ^ Smith, pp. 26–27.
  15. ^ Smith, p. 42.
  16. ^ Smith, p. 33.
  17. ^ Smith, p. 35.
  18. ^ Smith, pp. 43, 46.
  19. ^ Smith, pp. 45–50.
  20. ^ Dowdey, pp. 262–64
  21. ^ Smith, pp. 55–57.
  22. ^ Smith, pp. 59–65.
  23. ^ Smith, pp. 80–81.
  24. ^ Smith, p. 83.
  25. ^ "William & Mary- Harrison & Page Halls". Retrieved July 2, 2016.


  • Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Ed. Lyman H. Butterfied (4 vols, Cambridge, Mass., 1961)
  • Journals of the Continental Congress,1774–1789, Vol. 5, pp. 504–16 ( Library of Congress, 1904–1937)
  • Harrison, J. Houston, Settlers by the Long Grey Trail, Genealogical Publ. Co., 1975
  • Smith, Howard W., Benjamin Harrison and the American Revolution. Edward M. Riley, editor. Williamsburg, Va.: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1978.
  • Dowdey, Clifford, The Great Plantation, Rinehart & Co., 1957
  • Hooker, Mary G., "All Our Yesterdays", 1998
  •   Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Harrison, Benjamin (patriot)" . New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.

External linksEdit

Archival Records
Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas Nelson Jr.
Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by
Patrick Henry