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Harrison, Benjamin (1726-1791) Virginia planter, legislator, governor, and signer of the Declaration of Independence,
Autograph Letter Signed, Williamsburg. January 2, 1775 [sic i.e.1776], to an unidentified recipient, possibly William Woodford

small quarto, two pages, a damp-stain has faded several words in the text, some archival tissue repairs, else in good legible condition. Very likely a retained copy. The intended recipient may well have been William Woodford (1734-1780) American revolutionary war general from Virginia.

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The letter reads:


      “My dear Sir


            I am just inform’d that a letter was yesterday read in Convention from T. Hepburn to you, mentioning amongst other matters his having left in Norfolk some articles of my property, which from your usual goodness I must request the favor of you to secure for me. A conveyance by water will be I suppose impracticable, but as the Flour Waggons are frequently returning one of them possibly may be spar’d for that purpose, or perhaps they may be got part of the way to some pace of safety. As I now am asking favors, I will venture another which, as it will prove a mean[s?] [two unintelligible words] …ing that humanity which has [rendered yo?]ur name dear to your Country-men will I flatter myself meet with success. Matt Phripp before this late unhappy affair was deservedly esteemed by most people in this country, his affairs he informs me his affairs upon a better footing. Be pleased to excuse the liberty I have taken & accept my sincere congratulations upon your late victories, & the honorable testimonies your conduct has justly merited from our country.

            May you be happy & continue to conquer is the sincere wish of Dear Sir

                                                                                                           yr most obedient

                                                                                                           Ben Harrison

     Wms burg 2d January 1775” [i.e.1776]


       An intriguing letter for many reasons. The letter is evidently mis-dated, Harrison dated it January 2, 1775, instead of 1776, a common enough mistake early in January. The only Convention to meet in January was the one that met in Williamsburg from December 1, 1775 to January 20, 1776. Matthew Phripp, mentioned by Harrison, was a prominent merchant of Norfolk, who was charged with disloyalty to Virginia in December, 1775. After weighing the evidence, the Convention on January 4, 1776 adopted a resolution exonerating him.


      The identity of the recipient, who was in or near Norfolk, can probably be deduced as William Woodford. Harrison congratulates his correspondent upon his “late victories”. Woodford was a delegate to the Third Virginia Convention, and there was appointed colonel, in command of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, of the Virginia provisional forces. He had just driven the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, and British forces from the Norfolk peninsula, after the Battle of Great Bridge on December 9, 1775, the first significant battle of the Revolution, on Virginia soil.


          Benjamin Harrison (1726-1791) Virginia planter, legislator, governor, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born on his family’s estate in Virginia, the fifth in line to bear the name and the scion of one of the most prominent planter families in the colony. He attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, but when his father died, Harrison left before graduating to assume management of his family’s estates. He was one of the more conservative patriots in Virginia and had been only lukewarm in supporting the more vigorous rebels such as Patrick Henry during the Stamp Act crisis. However, as the time of decision drew closer, Harrison threw his considerable weight to the side of the patriots.

          He was one of the most powerful members of the House of Burgesses, serving frequently as speaker, and when he began to take part in committees of correspondence and provincial congresses in 1774, the anti-crown forces in Virginia gained strength. He was selected as one of Virginia’s delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, and continued to represent the state until 1777. In November 1775 he was named chair of a committee to correspond “with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland and other parts of the world,” Congress’s first venture into foreign affairs. The following year Harrison’s committee sent Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin to France as its diplomatic agents. His prestige in the House was such that he consistently was placed in the chair when Congress went into committee of the whole to debate the question of independence in June 1776. As committee chair, he had the honor of reporting the approved Declaration of Independence to the Congress on the Fourth of July. Afterward he signed along with the other members of the Virginia delegation. He served in Congress until 1777 and then took a seat in Virginia’s newly constituted House of Delegates. He served as speaker from 1781 to 1784. In 1781, when Banastre Tarleton, General Charles Cornwallis’s hard-riding lieutenant, descended on Charlottesville in an effort to capture the Virginia Legislature, Speaker Harrison fled across the Blue Ridge Mountains with Patrick Henry and John Tyler, encountering difficulties that have long enriched Virginia folklore.

           Harrison objected to the new federal constitution on account of the lack of a bill of rights, but he proved a supporter of the new government when it was approved. His son William Henry Harrison and his great-grandson Benjamin Harrison became presidents of the United States.


      See Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XV (1908), 148; XCIII (1910), 402-408.

      American National Biography, volume 10, pp., 197-198