The Harrisons of Berkeley


In 1691, Berkeley was purchased by Benjamin Harrison III, who established the first successful shipyard on the James River. Tobacco was shipped from the plantation to England and 18-gun battleships were built there for the Revolutionary Navy.

It was Benjamin III’s son, Benjamin IV, who built the three-story Georgian brick mansion at Berkeley, said to be one of the oldest three-story brick houses in Virginia that can prove its date. A round date stone carved above a side door leaves no doubt about the date the house was completed. The initials for Benjamin and his wife Anne Carter, daughter of the famed tobacco planter Robert “King” Carter, are etched above a heart and the date 1726.

Benjamin Harrison V, the eldest son of Benjamin Harrison IV and Ann Carter, was the first to be born in Berkeley’s mansion. Benjamin attended William and Mary College. His classical studies education was cut short after a lightning strike killed his father and one of his sisters at Berkeley on July 12, 1745. At age 19, he returned home and took over managing the plantation. Benjamin Harrison’s public service began in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He continued there for about 25 years. After the dissolution of the Burgesses in 1774, the Virginia patriot was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. Benjamin Harrison was highly regarded in Congress and was frequently appointed Chairman of the Whole House from March 1776 to August 1777. He remained in Congress until 1778. On 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 House during the debate over independence on July 2. Benjamin Harrison V was one of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. During the war he also took care of matters at home by serving as a senior member 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. There he was elected to be Speaker. In 1781, Harrison became governor of Virginia, a position he held two more times. Soon after his 65th birthday he suffered from a severe case of gout and on April 24, 1791 complications from the disease took his life. He is buried at his beloved Berkeley Plantation.

In 1791, Benjamin Harrison VI took over the ownership of Berkeley and began a large-scale renovation, adding the handsome Adam woodwork and the double arches of the “Great Rooms” inside the mansion. As a young adult, his father sent him to the Philadelphia-based firm Willing and Morris, where he earned an exceptional mercantile education. After his education concluded, Harrison traveled to Europe and began building mercantile connections, as well as his fortune. However, the American Revolution prompted him to return home to Virginia, as he strongly wanted to aid his father and the Patriot cause. From 1774 to 1775, he was a member of the Charles City County Committee, as well as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. During the war, he became the Deputy Paymaster General of the Continental Army. In 1799, after years of hard work and success, Benjamin Harrison VI died at the age of 44.

By the time Benjamin Harrison VII inherited Berkeley, the plantation was drifting towards financial ruins.

After over 150 years of Harrison ownership, Benjamin Harrison VIII was the last Harrison to own Berkeley Plantation.

William Henry Harrison, youngest son of Benjamin Harrison V was born at Berkeley on February 9, 1773. In 1787, at the age of 14, Harrison attended Hampden-Sydney College until 1790. He then briefly attended an academy in Southampton County before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he began the study of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1791 his father died, leaving him without funds for further schooling. At the age of 18, Harrison was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Army, 11th U.S. Regt. of Infantry. He was first assigned to Cincinnati in the Northwest Territory where the army was engaged in the ongoing Northwest Indian War.

William Henry Harrison became the ninth President of the United States, an American military officer and politician, and the first president to die in office. The oldest president elected until Ronald Reagan and the last President to be born before the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, Harrison died on his 32nd day in office of complications from pneumonia-the shortest tenure in the United States presidential history.

Before election as president, Harrison served as the first territorial congressional delegate from the Northwest Territory, governor of the Indiana Territory and gained national fame for leading U.S. forces against American Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe, where he earned the nickname “Tippecanoe”. As a general in the subsequent War of 1812, his most notable contribution was a victory at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, which brought an end to hostilities in his region. After the war, Harrison was elected to the United States Congress, and in 1824 he becomes a member of the Senate. There he served a truncated term before being appointed as Minister to Colombia in May 1828.

Harrison was the Whig candidate in the 1840 election, basing his campaign on his heroic military record and the weak U.S. economy. He ran against Martin Van Buren. In a ploy to blame Van Buren for the depressed economy, the Whigs nicknamed him “Van Ruin”. The Democrats ridiculed Harrison by calling him “Granny Harrison”. Democrats cast Harrison as a provincial, out-of-touch old man who would rather “sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider” than address the administration of the country. This strategy backfired by Harrison and his vice-presidential running mate, John Tyler’s adopting the log cabin and hard cider as campaign symbols. They used the images in banners and posters, and created bottles of hard cider that were shaped like log cabins, all to connect to the “common man”. Although Harrison had come from a wealthy Virginia family, in this campaign he was promoted as a humble frontiersman. The Whigs boasted of Harrison’s military record and reputation as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. Their campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”, became among the most famous in American politics. On Election Day, Harrison won a landslide electoral college victory, though the popular vote was much closer, at 53% to 47%.

When Harrison came to Washington, he wanted to show that he was still the steadfast hero of Tippecanoe. He took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, a cold and wet day. He wore neither an overcoat nor hat, and delivered the longest inaugural address in American history, nearly two hours. William Henry Harrison died April 4, 1841. His last words were to his doctor, but assumed to be directed at John Tyler,
“Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of the government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”

The Harrison Family’s claim to the White House did not die with William Henry Harrison. He was followed by his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, twenty-third U.S. President.


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