Benjamin Harrison V (not to be confused with the future US President of the same name) was born on April 5, 1726, in Charles City County, Virginia. The eldest of ten children, his parents were Benjamin Harrison IV and Anne Carter. Four generations prior, Benjamin Harrison, Sr. came to the colonies from England, in about 1630, and started a career in politics. His son, grandson, and great-grandson did the same, as did his great-great-grandson, Benjamin Harrison V.
Benjamin grew up in his parents’ manor house at Berkeley Plantation, while his father served as a Justice of the Peace and as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. As a young boy, Benjamin was described by contemporaries as “tall and powerfully built,” with “features that were clearly defined, and a well-shaped mouth above a strong pointed chin.” He attended and graduated from the College of William and Mary. Several of his younger brothers became politicians and military leaders during the French and Indian War, following the Harrison family tradition of leadership.
When Benjamin was 19, his father was struck by lightning when he was closing an upstairs window during a storm. He had one of his younger children, a daughter named Hannah, by the hand at the time. Both father and child were killed. As a result of this, Benjamin V inherited most of his father’s estate, because he was the eldest child as well as the eldest son. The family’s land holdings were huge, and though Benjamin inherited the primary manor house, thousands of acres in Virginia, a waterfall on the James River, a fishery, a grist mill, and several slaves, there was enough property left for his younger siblings to also inherit plantations and substantial amounts of land.
In 1748, Benjamin married Elizabeth Basset from New Kent County, a daughter of Colonel William Bassett and Elizabeth Churchill. Together, Benjamin and Elizabeth had eight children during their forty-year marriage. His daughters made good marriages to powerful and wealthy men in the region, and his sons became merchants and politicians, according to the family tradition.
Benjamin and Elizabeth’s youngest child was William Henry Harrison, who became the 9th president of the United States, and also the shortest serving one, after becoming ill while giving the longest inaugural address in presidential history in the freezing January Washington D.C. weather, and passed away a month into his presidency. William Henry Harrison’s grandson—and Benjamin V’s great-grandson—also became president of the United States, serving a full term in office forty-eight years after his grandfather’s shortened time in the role.
Benjamin V began his career in politics the year after getting married and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Benjamin immediately became an active and important member of this elected body, even intervening directly with the King of England a couple of times early in his career there. Like his male ancestors before him, he was a natural politician.
When revolutionary sentiments began running high in the colonies in the early 1770s, the colonies convened a Continental Congress to discuss colonial matters, which eventually included declaring independence from Great Britain. Benjamin was one of seven delegates elected from Virginia to attend the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he went to Philadelphia, it was the first time he had ever left his home colony of Virginia. He brought with him an excellent reputation garnered in the Virginia House of Burgesses.
In fact, his reputation was so impeccable that fellow Congressional member Edmund Randolph said this about him when he arrived to the Congress:
“A favorite of the day was Benjamin Harrison. With strong sense and a temper not disposed to compromise with ministerial power, he scruples not to utter any untruth. During a long service in the House of Burgesses, his frankness, though sometimes tinctured with bitterness, has been the source of considerable attachment.”
Benjamin Harrison gave admirable service to the first Continental Congress, and was appointed to the second one. The second Continental Congress is the one where the Declaration of Independence was written, voted on, and signed. Benjamin became one of the signers at this second Congress.
After completing his service at the Continental Congress in 1777, Benjamin returned to Virginia, and was elected to the House of Burgesses, which was then known as the House of Delegates, and even beat out fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson in an election to be Speaker of the House. Benjamin continued his political career by later becoming governor of Virginia, which he served as from 1781 to 1784. By 1786, he was back as a member of the House of Delegates, which was by then the Virginia State Legislature. In 1788, while in the state legislature, he was part of the ratifying committee for the new US Constitution. He, along with fellow members Patrick Henry and George Mason, opposed the Constitution, because they were against the large central government it created, as well as its lack of a Bill of Rights (one would be added later). Though Benjamin was in the minority of opposing the Constitution, he had sufficient clout with others who had issues with it to convince them to seek redress through legal channels, such as amendments.
Because of Benjamin’s level head about the Constitution issue, George Washington, who supported it, spoke highly of Benjamin, saying,
“Your individual endeavors to prevent inflammatory measures from being adopted redound greatly to your credit.”
Benjamin suffered chronic gout but loved his work, so continued with it nonetheless. After celebrating another re-election to the state legislature in 1791, Benjamin died on April 24, 1791, at his home. Though his cause of death was not known, it was noted that his decades of being overweight may have played a role. Benjamin’s youngest son and future President, William Henry Harrison, was 18 at the time, and just beginning studies in Philadelphia to be a doctor. With not enough funds after Benjamin passed away, he abandoned that career path for the military.
Two monuments exist to Benjamin today. These are a residence hall at the College of William and Mary that bears his name. There is also a bridge across the James River near Benjamin’s former lands that is named after him.