The biggest and heaviest delegate at the Convention, Benjamin Harrison, quipped to his diminutive colleague Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, on the consequences of signing the Declaration of Independence, referring to the potential threat of hanging by the British, “It will be over with me in a minute, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.” –a big man with gallows humor.
Born into a James River plantation family of Virginia and receiving a good part of his education at the College of William and Mary, Benjamin Harrison was well on his way to becoming a notable mover and shaker in colonial politics. At the tender age of twenty, he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and was regarded as a supporter of independence for the colonies. However, because he appeared to some as a moderate conservative, he was pressured by the royal government to chair the executive council at the capitol in Williamsburg. The refusal of this position, and at such a young age, could have ended all his political aspirations, but instead distinguished him as a dedicated and immovable patriot for the cause of liberty.
In 1774 he was elected as a delegate to the first Continental Congress where he was often called upon to preside as chairman of the whole house under John Hancock, who served as president of the assembly. He was purposely kept off the committee that drafted the Declaration because he was considered that “ponderous arch-conservative” (along with Carter Braxton), and replaced with the quiet and more radical Thomas Jefferson, an inspired decision. Still in the position of leadership, however, Harrison chaired two famous debates: the July 2nd debate on independence from Great Britain, and the July 4th adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Later, on August 2nd he joined his fellow Virginians by affixing his signature to the document, whether he would “hang for it” or not.
Despite the fact he towered over his colleagues at six foot four height and 240-pounds, Harrison led by strong character and clear argument rather than force. When occasion required it, he spoke with great passion, persuasion, and a “peculiar sagacity.”
Two years after independence Harrison returned home to serve as speaker in the Virginia legislature. During that period of his political life the British army swept through Richmond and supposedly burned parts of Berkley Plantation, his birthplace and home. It was all restored after the war and remains an historic attraction today along the James River in Charles City County. Harrison was forced to flee from town to town ahead of the British dragoons.
While serving in one of his three terms as the fifth Governor of Virginia, Harrison returned to the Convention for the ratification of the Constitution, where he argued in favor of a Bill of Rights. In 1788 he was appointed chairman of a committee to debate, discuss and form amendments which were later adopted to the foundational document.
In the spring of 1791 the weighty Harrison was attacked by the gout, from which he recovered just enough to be elected again to the Virginia legislature. Unfortunately, the day after his re-election to the legislature the gout seized him once again and this time claimed his life.
Benjamin Harrison had married Elizabeth Bassett and together they raised seven children, some of whom gained places of distinction. His last son, William Henry Harrison served as governor of the Indian Territory, was a delegate to Congress from the state of Ohio, and later ascended to the Presidency, only to die one month after election.
Although faced with hardship, war, and threats of hanging, Benjamin Harrison faced it all with strength of character and a jolly attitude. He went so far as to jest about it! The life of Benjamin Harrison is yet another great example of the heroes America produced in its pursuit of independence and growth.