Not many people know much about Benjamin Harrison (c1726-1791), one of the patriots’ “principal & most violent Leaders” (according to an anonymous loyalist observer), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a governor of Virginia. According to Edmund Randolph, writing long after the American Revolution, Harrison was a “favorite of the day” and “scrupled not to utter any untruth,” although his frankness was “sometimes tinctured with bitterness.” Not that you’ll get much reliable information about him if you visit the impressive but poorly interpreted Berkeley Plantation, his home on the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond, he did lead an interesting life, that bespeaks, as my grandmother used to say, “something rustling behind the curtain.” His father and two sisters were killed by lightning strikes in 1745; his mother died the same year, leaving him, at about 19 years old, and fresh from the College of William & Mary, in charge of his surviving family and hundreds of enslaved men and women. Even in those circumstances he was a complicated figure: Benjamin Rush reported that pleasure was his ultimate goal, so it makes sense that his favorite book seems to have been Fanny Hill, yet he was also responsible for what might have been the first and largest mass inoculation against smallpox, including his enslaved families, in early American history, when the pestilence threatened his own daughters.
And he was also a smuggler. Like John Hancock, he was one of those patriots who inveighed against the tightening of the Navigation Acts because it meant more British warships patrolling the Chesapeake Bay and, consequently, threatened his own bottom line. How do we know this? Well, we could just say that the apple fell not far from the tree and leave it at that. Both his father and grandfather were accused of, and investigated for, smuggling dating back to the late 1600s. But Harrison made it easy for historians by simply telling us. Hardly an Israelite without guile, documents now at the Houghton Library of Harvard University spell out his schemes in letters with his primary accomplice, a Boston merchant and Son of Liberty. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, they kept their eyes peeled for any opportunity at all to skirt import restrictions, especially when it came to illicit cargoes of dried fish and wheat from New England. In 1772, for example, he wrote a letter to his Boston accomplice, complaining about the effectiveness of the officer in command of the British warship then on the Virginia station–the crew of which could have also included Francis Otway Byrd, a Royal Navy Midshipman and son of Harrison’s neighbor, William Byrd III. Any illegal effort, Harrison wrote in January, “will Depend on the lookout that is kept here by the Men of War,” but “at present there is no doing any thing in the smugling [sic] way.” But if they were to find their way to rid themselves of the troublesome naval captain, “I shall carry my former Scheme into Execution.” “[T]wo or three successful Voyages of this sort,” Harrison observed, “would make a fortune.”
I write this not to besmirch the memory of a celebrated American “founding father” (a rather meaningless label that I try, and often fail, to avoid). After all, passing judgment on people of the past–even of the present, for that matter–isn’t my job as a historian (although I will confess to a sincere hatred of Alexander Hamilton and William Byrd II). Instead, the point is a useful reminder that these people were, like all people, hopeless flawed and very messy, which is what makes studying and reading about their real lives and experiences so terribly interesting. Getting them right is especially important now, with shows like “Sons of Liberty” and “Turn” taking our Revolutionary history and throwing it into a multimedia grinder on a weekly basis. Yes, Benjamin Harrison was a smuggler, which almost certainly influenced his political behavior on behalf of the patriots. Political economics had an enormous and complicated influence on the course of the American Revolution, which is the subject of my next book. But, like it or not, those are the kind of persons who made America, men and women with feet of clay whom, in the end, created an extraordinary work of art.