Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison, Virginia (1726 – 1781) Courtesy Virginia Historical Society

Benjamin Harrison devoted his most of his life to the cause of liberty, and was among the leaders of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary period.  Harrison, known for his steady hand and quick humor, was called to preside over many important, long and heated Congressional debates, including the decision to declare independence and the subsequent discussion that produced the final Declaration of Independence from the draft produced by Jefferson and the Committee of Five.

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.

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.

Harrison was also a workhorse, diligently remaining in Philadelphia at great cost to his family and business, serving on key Congressional committees where the work of government was done since there was no Executive branch.  A close friend and confidant of Gen George Washington, Harrison served on the Board of War with John Adams, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and Edward Rutledge, as well as the Committee of Secret Correspondence (the de facto State Department) with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Johnson, John Dickinson, John Jay, and Robert Morris, the “financier of the revolution,” Harrison’s long time business partner, and mentor to Harrison’s son Benjamin, Jr.

Peter Randolph Taylor, DSDI Member, 2012


Benjamin Harrison (V) was born on April 5, 1726 at Berkeley Plantation, the eldest son of Benjamin Harrison IV and Ann Carter. Berkeley Plantation occupies a beautifully landscaped hilltop site overlooking the historic James River. Benjamin’s father, Benjamin Harrison IV, was a member of the House of Burgesses from 1736 to 1744, and was Sheriff of Charles City. Harrison IV built Berkeley mansion in 1726 and his initials and those of his wife Ann appear in a datestone over a side door. It was built with brick fired on the plantation. 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.

Benjamin attended William and Mary College where he met Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. His classical studies education was cut short after a lightning strike killed his father and two of his sisters at Berkeley on July 12, 1745. The family tragedy happened to coincide with a disagreement he had with a college officer. At age 19 he returned home and took over managing Berkeley’s 1,000 acre operations including ship building and horse breeding.

In 1748 at the age of 22 Benjamin married his second cousin Elizabeth Bassett, the daughter of William Bassett, from neighboring New Kent County, and a niece of George Washington’s wife Martha. Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, William Bassett, came to America from Newport on the Isle of Wight and settled in Blissland in New Kent County, Virginia where he died in 1671.

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. 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.

Benjamin Harrison’s public service began in the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1749. He continued there for about 25 years, sometimes as Speaker, until royal governor Dunmore dissolved the House in 1774. During this time his power and influence caught the attention of the royal governor who tried unsuccessfully to recruit him for a seat on the executive council, a station corresponding to the Privy Council in England. Despite this prestigious opportunity Harrison identified more with the peoples’ rights. Most likely his siding with the colonists came from his experience on the Property and Grievances Committee and the Trade Committee.

Harrison vehemently opposed the Stamp Act and helped pen the Colony’s protest. But when the Stamp Act actually took effect he opposed Patrick Henry’s resolutions proposing civil disobedience as a countermeasure. By 1772 he was urging that the importation of slaves be curbed and heavily taxed.

After the dissolution of the Burgesses in 1774, the Virginia patriot was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress and was there on opening day, September 5, 1774. He chaired the early debates on the Articles of Association and signed them on October 20, 1774. When he first came to Philadelphia, Harrison roomed with his cousins Peyton Randolph and George Washington. 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.

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.

Harrison was well known for his sense of humor. 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.

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 as a member of the House of Delegates which chose him to be its Speaker. When his second cousin, Thomas Nelson, Jr., resigned from the governorship in 1781, Harrison was elected governor of Virginia and was re-elected twice. He was instrumental in shaping the U.S. Constitution as a member of the Virginia Ratification Convention in 1788 when he argued strenuously for a Bill of Rights prior to ratification, not after. Failing that he voted in favor and helped secure Virginia’s ratification in a close vote. He sat on the committee that recommended rights to be included in what became the Bill of Rights.

In 1791 Harrison returned to serve in the state legislature. 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 which is located between Richmond and Williamsburg on Rte 5. His wife died the following year and is buried beside him. In 1927 the Williamsburg Chapter of the DAR erected a bronze plaque in Harrison’s memory in the Berkeley Plantation Graveyard.

Benjamin Harrison was a very large man, standing six feet four inches tall and weighing about 250 pounds. Before suffering from gout he possessed a vigorous constitution, and in his manners was remarkably dignified. Because of his rotundity, joviality, love of good foods and wines, and fondness for luxury he acquired the nickname of the “Falstaff of Congress.” His bawdy humor was said to have broken the tension in committee rooms. John Adams wrote that Harrison had “contributed many pleasantries that steadied rough sessions.” According to the testimony of a gentleman who was contemporary with him in Congress, he was characterized for great firmness, good sense, and a peculiar sagacity in difficult and critical situations. In seasons of uncommon trial and anxiety, he was always steady, cheerful and undaunted.

Benjamin Harrison’s birthplace and lifelong home, Berkeley Plantation near Charles City, Virginia, has left its own mark on history. The grounds where the mansion stands hosted the first thanksgiving in America on December 4, 1619. In 1780 American traitor and British General Benedict Arnold, at the head of a British invasion force, landed on the shores of the James River and began ravaging the homes nearby. When they reached Berkeley Arnold ordered the ancestral portraits of the Harrisons thrown into a bonfire. Berkeley served as General George McClellan’s headquarters in his failed attempt to take Richmond for the Union during the Civil War. It was at this James River plantation where the musical score for “Taps” was written. The Plantation was sold to the Jamison family in the early 1900s, is still in operation and is open to the public. It is said to be the oldest 3-story brick house in Virginia.

Near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. is a memorial park dedicated to the signers of the Declaration. One of the 56 granite blocks there is engraved with the name of Benjamin Harrison. Nearby in the Rotunda of the National Archives, in the mural painting by Barry Faulkner, Benjamin Harrison is shown just to the right of John Hancock. In the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is the famous painting by John Trumbull “The Declaration of Independence.” Benjamin Harrison is shown prominently, seated in the left foreground wearing a rose colored coat.

Brooks McNamara, DSDI member, 2008


  • Barthelmas, Della Gray, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 1997.
  • Blatteau, John and Paul Hirshorn, “The Illuminated Declaration of Independence,” 1976
  • Collins, Gene, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 2000
  • Ferris, Robert G. and Richard E. Morris, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 1982
  • Fradin, Dennis B., “The Signers,” 2000
  • Goodrich, Charles A., “Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 1856 (Internet ref.: Colonial Hall, Biographies of the Founding Fathers.)
  • Gragg, Rod, “The Declaration of Independence,” 2005
  • Lockwood, Thornton C., DSDI member
  • Lossing, B.J., ”Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence,” 1848
  • Malone, Dumas, “The Story of the Declaration of Independence,” 1954
  • McNamara, Brooks, DSDI member
  • The Prudential Insurance Company of America, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” date NS

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21 Responses to Benjamin Harrison

  1. D. Peters says:

    Did Benjamin Harrison have a daughter named Fairleanah Eleanor Harrison? She is mentioned in some records, but not in others. One of my ancestors married her in 1792. It was always claimed that she was Harrison’s daughter. Is this a myth?

    • jim says:

      Benjamin Harrison had eight children, none of them are named Fairleanah Eleanor. When I search, I do find one reference to this name being a daughter of the Signer, but there is no documentation that supports this. A search on has lots of hits, but nothing that ties the name to the Signer. I would recommend that you contact the Virginia Historical Society to see if they can shed some light on this person.

  2. Schuylar Crist says:

    It is my understanding that Benjamin V’s daughter Elizabeth did in fact marry Arthur Johnson sometime between 1770 and 1775. If this union took place, I am a descendant of it.

    A previous post mentions records noting that Benjamin V’s daughter Elizabeth had no children. I would like to know what those records are as most family genealogies do connect the couple and therefore the families.

    • jim says:

      Schuylar, our records do show that Elizabeth was married twice; an unknown Edmonson, and William Rickman. The records also show that there were no children. The source of this information are the Leach Manuscripts. You can get a microfihce of the MMS at any LDS Family Center. The page reference numbers for Elizabeth are 4580 and 4832.

      My first suspicion is that the Elizabeth that married Arthur Johnson may not be the daughter of the Signer.

      But lets assume that she is. Then you will have to provide complete genealogical documentation from you back to her in order for us to change our records.

      There is a real caveat about any genealogical information on the internet, including trees on, and even at the Family History Centers. Many of the trees have never been vetted for accuracy. When I did a search for Elizabeth at Roots I got the following examples of the genealogical problems of information on the net. There were three public trees. The first has three husbands, William m. 1775, Edmonson, no marriage date, and Johnson, 1770. This tree has a post it note that states Elizabeth only married Rickman and Edmonson. It refutes the Johnson connection. The second tree had Elizabeth being married to Johnson in 1747, two years before her birth, and lists 11 children birth years 1776- 1788 (this tree and other data she was 15 when she had her first child). This tree does show her to being born in 1751. So this one does not pass muster. The third tree shows her being born in 17555, the same year as her sister Lucy, and shows that she marries four times. First Rickman, 1775 and three kids, then Edmonson, no marriage date or children, then Johnson in 1770, 13 children- birth years, 1776-1788. Other problems are the various places the kids are born
      Has No Children Margaret Johnson b: 1776 in VA, USA
      Has Children Reuben Johnson b: 1777 in Harrison, Charles, Virginia, United States
      Has No Children Mary Johnson b: 1778 in Augusta, VA, USA
      Has No Children William Dawson b: 20 JUL 1778 in Fayette, PA, USA
      Has No Children Col Aaron Johnson b: 1780 in Augusta, VA, USA
      Has No Children William Johnson b: 19 JAN 1780 in Lexington, Fayette, Kentucky, United States
      Has No Children Isaac Johnson b: 1782 in Augusta, VA, USA
      Has No Children David Johnson b: 30 MAY 1782 in Clarksburg, Monongalia, Virginia, United States
      Has No Children Mary Dawson b: 1783 in Harrison, KY, USA
      Has No Children John Johnson b: 1784 in Augusta, VA, USA
      Has No Children Benjamin Johnson b: 1784 in Shenandoah, West Virginia, United States
      Has No Children Samuel Johnson b: 1786 in Augusta, VA, USA
      Has No Children Mary Johnson b: 9 Apr 1788 in West Virginia, United States
      pretty sloppy in my opinion. Look at Benjamin Johnson for example. West Virginia did not exist until the mid 1800’s. Also look at Mary Dawson. She shows up at a child of the 4th marriage to John Dawson, m. 1780. So what do we make of all the kids above born after 1780? And why is Mary Dawson in the list of Johnson kids?

      I point these out to buttress my position that online research needs to be taken with a very healthy dose of skepticism. It is for these reasons that DSDI will change it records only after some pretty convincing documentation is presented.

      Leach did his work in the late 19th century and many of his sources would have been two or three generations removed from the Signers. We do consider him to be fairly reliable in these generations.

      I hope this assists you in understanding our position, and will tell you that if the proper documentation comes forward, we will absolutely change our records to reflect the latest genealogical research.

  3. James L. Harrison says:

    While doing a search of my family tree came across an article in a Grant Co. Ky newspaper on the old Harrison Homestead at Heekin. In the article, the builder, Perry Benjamin Harrison (1815-1884) is claming to be the son of Esquire William Harrison, and was the grandson of Benjamin Harrison, who was Clerk of council in 1633 and a signer of the Declaration Independence; and the newphew of William Henry Harrison. (How true is this??)

    • jim says:

      James, essentially this data does not ring true for the following genealogical reasons. First William Harrison, the reported father of Perry Benjamin, is the 7th President of the US. So how can a man be the son and nephew of the same person? Second, there are no records of a Benjamin Harrison V descendant names Perry Benjamin Harrison.

      I would rate this as a very shaky claim. I have notified the Kentucky Historical Society of these facts and asked that they vet the piece as it is attributed to them.

  4. Jayne Schriver says:

    I am trying to determine if Priscilla Harrison Daniel was the daughter of Benjamin Harrison, the signer of the Declaration of Independence. Can you answer that question for me or point me in the right direction.

    • jim says:

      Jayne, I can confirm that Priscilla Harrison is NOT a daughter of Benjamin Harrison, the Signer. There are no Priscilla Harrison’s in the known descendants of this Signer. You might try a search at or, or a Google search on this name to see if anything turns up. I can also confirm that the Daniel surname does not show up in the Signer’s genealogy.

  5. Gene McWhorter says:

    Nice article. If you ever revise it, you might want to mention that Benjamin Harrison’s first cousin Carter Braxton, ten years younger, was also a signer of the Declaration. His mother was another daughter of “King” Carter. (See the attached image of the signatures.) It looks like Carter signed right after Caesar Rodney of Delaware, then Benjamin who must have been standing in line right behind him, then George Walton of Georgia.

  6. jim says:

    Danny, there is not enough genealogical information here to establish a connection between Loy and the Signer.

  7. Steve Trumbull says:

    John Trumbull, was the painter. Not Trumball.

    I, too am a descendant of Benjamin Harrison, and also Wm. H. Harrison.

  8. MFoster says:

    My ggGrandpa was William Henry Harrison (not the Pres), born in IA (or maybe PA) in 1822. The story passed down through the family was that President Wm Henry Harrison was his second cousin (or some say it was an uncle).

    His father (my ggg-Grandpa) was Lewis Martin Harrison, b in 1822 in Ohio. We have quite a bit of info about him.

    We’re not sure of his father (my gggg-Grandpa), but found something on that said his father was Benjamin Harrison, born in 1796 in VA. We’ve found several Benjamin Harrisons born in VA, but none around 1796.

    Would you happen to have any information about Lewis Martin Harrison’s ancestry?

    Thank you.

    • MFoster says:

      We’ve always been told that we’re related to the Presidents, so we’re looking for the missing link(s) to know exactly how / if we’re related.

      Thank you for any help you can provide.

    • jim says:

      JM, the clue is that the family is related by the term, second cousin, or uncle of President Harrison. We do not track relatives of signers, which this connection would be.

      We also have not record of a Lewis Martin Harrison in our genealogy of the descendants of the Signer.

  9. Richard Harrison says:

    Hello,I am pretty sure many a Harrison sailed for the west indies before the Americas saw any Harrisons arriving there in the 1600,can you link any of the Harrisons in politics to their relatives who traveled to the island of Jamaica.We know members of the family sailed from England to Jamaica like Peter Harrison John Harrison and Richard Harrison to work for the crown prior to the war of independence,and i see Ann and Elizabeth mention as land owners in Jamaica coffee plantations period.

    • Randy Taylor says:

      Great question, Richard. Seems as though Benjamin Harrison I the emigrant and ancestor of the Signer may well have come to Virginia by way of the Indies, perhaps been established there, as he became clerk of the Council almost immediately upon his arrival in Virginia in 1633/4. That said, I was not aware of the presence of so many Harrisons in the Indies, let alone any source documenting the kinds of family connections to the Harrisons of Virginia you mention. There closest I can come is a series of articles that appeared in the VA Magazine of History and Biography during the early 30’s, where the author explored in some detail his researches in this regards, as well as back to England. He failed to penetrate the veil of history to make such a connection prior to the Emigrant’s arrival in Virginia, including a Harrison Governor of Bermuda. (email me and I can supply detail I would appreciate any further detail regarding the Indies Harrisons or for that matter their forbears in England, links/leads you can share.

  10. Richard Andrew Harrison says:

    Hello Peter, I have started to dig into this connection once again. In my latest attempt into the global Harrison family tree, possibly the wold’s greatest travelers. I will now focus on the sugar bowl, 1400 – 1600, because I do believe these where the Harrison ancestors who rule the clan. Harrison’s traveling on the kings orders to the West Indies, seems to have been more trail blazers than the later pioneers who took to the sea.

    If you could share with me the name of the magazine publication from the 30’s that you mentioned, I would be able to look into any leed I can get from it. Thanks again, I have a better understanding who went where now. I just need names of a few ships and ship records.

    But I’m open to any help I can get, there may even be other members who may have links or information on the 1400 – 1600 Harrison links.

  11. Karl B. says:

    Could you direct me to a good source document for the descendants of Benjamin Harrison V; the Signer? I believe I am descended from him.

    • Randy Taylor says:

      Dear Karl,
      Can you be any more specific about what you believe your descent to be…perhaps which of Benj V the Singer’s children you descend through? IF so we might be able to help you in some way.

      Otherwise, the best resources that I know of would be the Leach Manuscript or the seven volume series, The Genealogical Register of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, by The Rev. Frederick Wallace Pyne.

      For more info, please see this link:
      Randy Taylor

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