Carter Braxton was born on September 10, 1736 at Newington Plantation in Livingston, Virginia. He was the son of George Braxton, Jr. and of Mary Carter, who died just seven days after giving birth. Carter’s father died when he was in his teens, and he was raised by family friends.
Carter Braxton was a descendant of some of the most distinguished families in Virginia in terms of wealth and influence. His grandfather, George Braxton, Sr., emigrated to Virginia from London about 1690 and lived in an estate called Mantua on the Mattaponi River. The Braxton family in England was of ancient origin and resided in Lancaster County. George Braxton married Elizabeth Paulin and in his will of 1725 left a tract of 578 acres to his daughter. Elizabeth Paulin’s father, Thomas Paulin, was a justice of Old Rappahannock in 1688 and was one of the county officers in King and Queen County.
Carter Braxton’s father, George Braxton, Jr., received large land grants from King George II. He was a frequent member of the House of Burgesses from 1718 to 1734, and held lands in common with William Brooke, his son George Braxton, Humphrey Brooke, Sr. (his son in law) and Ambrose Madison (the grandfather of President James Madison).
Carter Braxton’s mother, Mary Carter, was the daughter of Robert “King” Carter and his third wife, Elizabeth Landon Willis. Robert was called “King” because of his great wealth and prominence. He was born at his father’s estate, Corotoman, served in the House of Burgesses, was Speaker of the House, was Treasurer of the Colony, was an influential member on the King’s Council, was President of the King’s Council, and was Acting Governor for one year. His estate consisted of 300,000 acres of land and 1,000 slaves. Robert Carter built Christ Church in Lancaster County and served as vestryman of the church.
“King” Carter’s father (and Carter Braxton’s great grandfather) was Colonel John Carter of England. John Carter was the son of William Carter of Casstown, Hereford County, England and was born in 1620. The Colonel came to the Virginia colony in 1649 and built the ancestral home of Corotoman in Lancaster County. He served in the House of Burgesses, was an influential member of the King’s Council, and was a commander against the Rappahannock Indians in 1654. His descendants included three signers of the Declaration of Independenceâ€”Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison and Thomas Nelson.
Carter Braxton was educated at the College of William and Mary, and later became a member of its board of visitors. Shortly after graduating, his father died, leaving him the family estate of Newington.
In 1753, Braxton came into possession of the impressive manor house and plantation of Elsing Green.
Two years later, in 1755, Braxton married the wealthy, beautiful and amiable Judith Robinson, the daughter of Christopher and Judith Robinson of Hewick, Middlesex County, Virginia. Judith died shortly after the birth of their second child in 1757 leaving Braxton devastated with grief.
Following the death of his first wife, Braxton moved to England in 1757 where he remained for three years. During this time he became familiar with the feelings and designs of the English government. His rank and fortune gave him access to nobility from whom he obtained much valuable information relative to the plans of Great Britain to support the exchequer by extracting money from the hardy pioneers of American in the form of new taxes. In 1760 Carter Braxton returned from Europe and was elected to the House of Burgesses where he became an active and prominent member. He was to continue in the House until 1775.
In 1761 he married Elizabeth Corbin, the daughter of Colonel Richard Corbin and Elizabeth Tayloe.
Elizabeth’s father, Colonel Corbin, was educated in England, and later served in the House of Burgesses, as President of the King’s Council, and receiver general of the colony for nearly 20 years. Elizabeth’s grandfather was Gawin Corbin who came to the Virginia colony in 1650. She was the great granddaughter of the Honorable Henry Corbin of Hall End, Warwick County, England who was born in 1594. His wife was a descendant of Sir Gilbert Grosvenor who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066.
In the 1760s Braxton considered investing in the slave trade, exchanging letters with the Brown brothers in Providence, but the Browns proceeded on their own.
In the growing dispute with Great Britain Carter Braxton was loyal to Virginia, but held the more conservative views of the Tidewater leaders. He was present in the House of Burgesses when Patrick Henry’s resolutions condemned the Stamp Act.
In 1769, along with Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Peyton Randolph, and others he signed the Virginia Resolves, which declared that the House of Burgesses had the sole right to tax the inhabitants of the colony. Braxton also signed the Virginia Association, a non-importation agreement.
The day after the first hostilities at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Braxton became a member of the Virginia Colonial Convention. He then played a key role in the confrontation with Royal Governor Lord Dunmore.
Lord Dunmore confiscated the gunpowder stored in the Williamsburg magazine and placed it on a British warship. Militia units were eager to retaliate, but they were calmed by Peyton Randolph and George Washington. Patrick Henry, however, refused to be pacified, and led a militia unit into Williamsburg to demand the return of the gunpowder. Before hostilities broke out, Carter Braxton, speaking for Patrick Henry, convinced his father-in-law, Richard Corbin, who was receiver general of the Colony, to pay for the gunpowder, thus averting an open conflict.
When Peyton Randolph died suddenly in October 1775, Carter Braxton was chosen to replace him in the Continental Congress.
Braxton was hesitant at first to support the growing sentiment for independence, and argued strongly against it.. In April, 1776, he wrote, “Independence is in truth an elusive bait which men inconsiderably catch at, without knowing the hook to which it is affixed.”
Braxton pointed out that one republic after another had come to an unhappy ending. The Netherlands, he claimed, became “as unhappy and despotick as the one of which we complain,” and Venice “is now governed by one of the worst of despotisms.” He concluded that “the principle contended for is ideal, and a mere creature of a warm imagination.” The advantages of republics “existed only in theory and were never confirmed by the experience, even of those who recommend them.”
During the debate following Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence on June 7, Braxton continued to argue against separation. But by early July he had changed his mind, voting for independence on July 2, the Declaration on July 4, and signing the Declaration on August 2. At the first meeting that fall of the General Assembly of Virginia, Braxton and Jefferson received a vote of thanks ‘for the diligence, ability and integrity with which they executed the important trust repose in them as two of the delegates of the County in the General Congress.”
Braxton, however, was not reappointed to the Continental Congress, when he opposed a more democratic form of government desired by the delegates in the Virginia convention.
He was active and influential in the Virginia Legislature from 1777 to 1785, and from 1786 to 1797 he was elected, and re-elected, a member of the Council of State. He died of a stroke on October 10, 1797 at Elsing Green, and was buried in a family plot near Chericoke.
Braxton invested a great deal of his wealth in the American Revolution. He loaned money to the cause and funded shipping and privateering. Unfortunately the British destroyed many of his ships, and ravaged several of his plantations and land holdings. He accumulated a great deal of debt and was forced to leave his estate at Chericoke in 1786 and move to a smaller residence in Richmond.
A fellow signer of the Declaration, Dr. Benjamin Rush, described Carter Braxton as agreeable, a sensible speaker, and an accomplished gentleman, but someone strongly prejudiced against New Englanders. Others described him as a gentleman of cultivated mind and respectable talents. Although not possessed of the impressive eloquence of colleagues such as Patrick Henry (who was?), his oratory was described as easy and flowing. In his manners he was peculiarly agreeable and the language of his conversation was smooth. In spite of his financial adversities and trying circumstances his reputation did not suffer. He maintained his well-earned fame as an able and faithful public servant, a worthy upright man. He was a faithful sentinel in the cause of freedom.
Chericoke, in King WilliamCounty, Virginia was home to Carter Braxton from 1767 to 1786. The estate is located on the Pamunkey River, about 20 miles by land from the junction of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers. At a large horseshoe bend in the river, the farm is located with the house on a hill a little way back from the river on the upper edge of the bend. The land of Chericoke was rich, not having been worn out by tobacco. The family graveyard was on the side of a hill. Wooden grave markers disappeared over the years, making it difficult to locate the gravesites.
Caperton B. Horsley, a descendant of Carter Braxton, wrote in 1933 about his experiences related to Chericoke in reminiscences he titled “In Quiet Places”. This is what he wrote about the history of the house and estate itself:
“It was more than a hundred years ago that the old Chericoke house burned. They say that the curtains caught fire from a candle at night. It was winter with snow on the ground. The house was large and built of wood. It burned to the ground. Rushing through the halls in candlelight, they fought the growing fire with buckets of water, the men shouting, the women crying. The slaves’ faces: dark against the night with the light of the fire shining on the snow, staring at the burning symbol of authority and permanence; dark with the morning sun shining on black smoking timbers surrounded by snow.
“The new house was built of bricks so it would not burn. While it was being built, some of the family went to visit relatives; some moved into the slaves’ quarters. They floated barges loaded with bricks up the river with the incoming tide, anchoring the barges to the banks whenever the tide turned. They built a large square brick house, set on top of a hillâ€¦â€¦After the house was completed there was time for dancing and singing. The white walls of the large rooms reflected the candlelight over many lighthearted gatherings. From outside the negroes watched the silhouettes of figures moving past the lighted windows. The people were gay with dancing and drinking, with laughter and singing. Granted, life was not perfect but living was less pinched. Let us sing in praise of a little grandeur and much generosity, and hammocks in the shade. Let us sing in praise of a slow life and fresh cut flowers in every room.
“The land of Chericoke Farm was rich, not having been worn out by tobacco. The wind blew flurries of waves over the green wheatfields, thick tall wheat in the wind. The cattle and hogs were fat, and fat sheep lay in the shade of the osage orange trees. The magnolia tress blossom in the spring, and the locust and catalpa. Early in the morning dew lies on the pink and white blossoms of the fruit trees, at night the sound of insects and the frogs comes from the marsh far off. The firelight shines in the eyes of the negroes and their voices ring through the night’s soft airâ€¦â€¦â€¦.
“If you have loved a place, you make of it in your imagination a place of beauty. To some the country near the river seems desolate now, but the silhouette of the leaves and the blooms of the locust trees against the blue sky are still beautiful. In early summer, tiger lilies and marsh grass line the shore of the river and red-winged blackbirds rock on the swaying reeds in the marsh. Sitting in a boat, rocking on the waves of the river, you can watch thousands of gnats dance in the air over one spot. Each gnat moves violently, but the group moves hardly at all, just gently shifting up and down over the same spot. You can still go down the winding river to West Point where the white sea gulls sit close together on the old timbers of the broken wharves, where the sea gulls sit an watch the rocking of the boats, to and fro in the waves.”
Horsley also wrote about the meaning of the Civil War, and his experiences and stories of his ancestors, relatives, friends and acquaintances over the years.
The manor house of Carter Braxton’s estate of Elsing Green is now a National Historic Landmark and wildlife refuge. It is built of Flemish-bond brickwork, and construction began around 1715. It is currently furnished with 18th century American and English furniture, and includes the “Surrender Table” on which the terms were worked out for the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.
A large granite monument in the Hollywood Cemetery at Richmond, Virginia, honors many of Braxton’s descendants and ancestors, including George Braxton, Sr., the emigrant. In Washington, D.C., near the Washington Monument, there is a small park and lagoon dedicated to the signers of the Declaration, and one of the 56 granite markers there bears the name of Carter Braxton.
Shelley Cruz, descendant, DSDI, 2011