Harrison was born in 1726 at his father's estate, Berkeley, in Charles City County, Va. He matriculated at the College of William and Mary, but left before graduating in 1745 upon the death of his father in order to assume management of the family plantation. Shortly thereafter he married; seven of his children were to survive infancy. In time, his landholdings grew to include eight plantations and other properties, and he also expanded into shipping and ship building. Following the precedent set by his forebears, about 1749 he gained admission to the House of Burgesses. He sat there, frequently as speaker, until 1774, when the Royal Governor disbanded the body.
Harrison's conservatism manifested itself early in the Revolutionary movement. In 1764 the burgesses, learning about the Stamp Act, impending in Parliament, named a committee to draw up a protest. As one of the committeemen, Harrison helped pen the document. The very next year, however, when the act went into effect, he refused to endorse Patrick Henry's resolutions urging civil disobedience as a countermeasure. Forced to take a stand as the rift with the Crown widened, Harrison cast his lot with the patriots. Between 1773 and 1776, he shared in the tasks of the Revolutionary conventions, the committee of correspondence, and the provincial congresses.
Meantime, in 1774, Harrison had been appointed to the First Continental Congress. Although usually silent on the floor, he made valuable contributions on the foreign affairs, marine, military, and financial committees. As chairman of the committee of the whole (1776-77), he chaired the deliberations leading up to the adoption of the Declaration and the early debates on the proposed Articles of Confederation.
In 1777, the same year Harrison withdrew from Congress, he entered the lower house of the Virginia legislature, where he presided as speaker in the years 1778-81. His three terms as Governor (1781-84) reflected the ascendancy in Virginia of the conservatives, who included in addition to Harrison and Braxton such former extremists as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee. Succeeded by Henry, Harrison rejoined the legislature (1784-91), holding the speakership part of the time. In 1788 at the Virginia ratifying convention he objected to the Federal Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights. Once ratification had occurred, however, he supported the new Government. Three years later, Harrison died in his mid-sixties at Berkeley and was buried there in the family cemetery.
Drawing: Oil, 1873, by James R. Lambdin, after John Trumbull, Independence National Historical Park.
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004