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Thomas Nelson, Jr.


Thomas Nelson, Jr. was born at Yorktown on the twenty-sixth of December, 1738. He was the eldest son of William Nelson, a merchant of highly respectable character, who was descended from an English family, which settled at York, in the province of Virginia. By his prudence and industry, the latter acquired a large fortune. After the meridian of life, he held several offices of high distinction; and at his death, which occurred a few years before the revolution, left a character, not only sullied by no stain, but justly venerated for the many virtues which adorned it.
   At the age of fourteen, Thomas Nelson was sent to England, for the purpose of acquiring an education. He was for some time placed at a private school, in a village in the neighbourhood of London; whence he was removed to the university of Cambridge, where he enjoyed the instruction of that distinguished man, Doctor Beilby Porteus, afterwards bishop of London. Under the guidance of this excellent man and accomplished scholar, young Nelson became deeply imbued with a taste for literary pursuits.
   About the close of 1761, he returned to his native country, and in the following year became connected by marriage with a daughter of Philip Grymes, Esq. of Brandon, with whom he settled at York. The ample fortune given him by his father, at the time of his marriage, enabled him to maintain a style of no common elegance and hospitality.
   At what period Mr. Nelson commenced his political career, we have not been able to ascertain. He was, however, a member of the house of burgesses in 1774, and during the same year was appointed to the first general convention, which met at Williamsburg on the first of August. The next year, 1775, he was a second time returned a member to the general convention of the province, during the session of which, he introduced a resolution for organizing a military force in the province, a step which obviously placed the colony of Virginia in the attitude of opposition to the mother country. This plan was at first startling to some of the warmest friends of liberty; but in the issue, it proved a measure of high importance to the colonies.
   In July, 1775, the third convention of Virginia delegates assembled at Richmond, and in the following month Mr. Nelson was appointed a delegate to represent the colony in the continental congress, which was to assemble at Philadelphia. Agreeably to this appointment, he took his seat in that body on the thirteenth of September.
   From this time, until May, 1777, Mr. Nelson continued to represent the colony of Virginia in the national council, where he was frequently appointed on important committees, and was highly distinguished for his sound judgment and liberal sentiments. In the month of May, of the year mentioned above, while attending in his place in congress, he was suddenly attacked with a disease of the head, probably of a paralytic nature, which, for a time, greatly impaired his mental faculties, particularly his memory.
   He now returned to Virginia, soon after which he resigned his seat in congress. His health gradually returning, his services were again demanded by the public, and by the governor and council he was appointed brigadier general and commander in chief of the forces of the commonwealth. In this office he rendered, he most important services to his country in general, and to the colony of Virginia in particular. His ample fortune enabled him, in cases of emergency, to advance money to carry forward the military operations of the day, nor did the generosity of his nature allow him to withhold his hand whenever occasion demanded advancements.
   In 1779, the health of Mr. Nelson being, as it was thought, confirmed, he was induced again to accept a seat in congress. The arduous duties, however, to which he was called, connected with the long confinement which those duties required, induced a recurrence of his former complaint, which compelled him again to return home.
   Happily for his country, his health was again restored, and he entered with great animation into several military expeditions against the British, who, at that time, were making the southern states the chief theatre of war. In 1781, Mr. Jefferson, who had for three years filled the executive chair, left it, upon which General Nelson was called to succeed him. This was a gloomy period in the annals of Virginia. In repeated instances the state was invaded, and the path of the enemy marked by wanton and excessive barbarity. The legislature were several times interrupted in their deliberations, and repeatedly obliged to adjourn to a different and more retired place. Immediately following the accession of Mr. Nelson to the executive chair, they were driven, as was noticed in the life of Mr. Jefferson, by Tarleton, from Charlottesville to Staunton.
   At this time they passed a law, "by which the governor, with the advice of the council, was empowered to procure, by impress or otherwise, under such regulations as they should devise, provisions of every kind, all sorts of clothing, accoutrements and furniture proper for the use of the army, negroes as pioneers, horses both for draught and cavalry, wagons, boats, and other vessels, with their crews, and all other things which might be necessary for supplying the militia, or other troops, employed in the public service."
   According to this law, Mr. Nelson could not constitutionally act, except with the advice of his council. Owing to the capture of two of the council by Tarleton, and to the resignation of two others, that body was reduced to four members, the least number which agreeably to the constitution could act. Even this number, in the distracted state of the country, it was difficult and nearly impossible to keep together.
   Thus circumstanced, Governor Nelson determined, at the risk of public censure, to take those measures which the safety of the state and the good of the country demanded. These measures were taken; and though departing from the strict line of duty as defined by the laws of the commonwealth, it was owing to his prompt and independent course that the army was kept together until the battle of Yorktown gave the finishing stroke to the war.
   Soon after the occurrence of that memorable and glorious event, Governor Nelson had the pleasure of receiving a just expression of thanks from General Washington, who, in his general orders of the 20th of October, 1781, thus spoke of him: "The general would be guilty of the highest ingratitude, a crime of which he hopes he shall never be accused, if he forgot to return his sincere acknowledgments to his excellency Governor Nelson, for the succours which he received from him, and the militia under his command, to whose activity, emulation, and bravery, the highest praises are due. The magnitude of the acquisition will be ample compensation for the difficulties and dangers which they met with so much firmness and patriotism."
   At the expiration of a month, following the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, Governor Nelson finding his health impaired by the arduous duties to which he had been called, tendered his resignation as chief magistrate of Virginia.
   The many services which he had rendered, the great self denial which he had practised, the uncommon liberality which he had manifested, entitled him to the gratitude of the people, and to the unmolested enjoyment of the few years which remained to him. But scarcely had his resignation been accepted, when an accusation was laid before the legislature by his enemies, charging him with having transcended his powers in acting without the consent of his council.
   Soon after the presentment of this accusation, Governor Nelson addressed a letter to the legislature, requesting an investigation of his official conduct. In compliance with this request, a committee was appointed for that purpose, who, at length, having reported, the legislature, on the 31st of December, 1781, passed the following act:
   "An act to indemnify Thomas Nelson, Junior, Esquire. late governor of this commonwealth, and to legalise certain acts of his administration. Whereas, upon examination it appears that previous to, and during the seige of York, Thomas Nelson, Esquire, late governor of this commonwealth, was compelled by the peculiar circumstances of the state and army, to perform many acts of government without the advice of the council of state, for the purpose of procuring subsistence and other necessaries for the allied army under the command of his excellency General Washington: be it enacted, that all such acts of government, evidently productive of general good, and warranted by necessity, be judged and held of the same validity, and the like proceedings be had on them, as if they had been executed by and with the advice of the council, and with all the formalities prescribed by law. And be it further enacted, that the said Thomas Nelson, Jun. Esq. be, and hereby is, in the fullest manner, indemnified and exonerated from all penalties and dangers which might have accrued to him from the same."
   Having thus been honourably acquitted of charges from which his noble and patriotic conduct ought to have saved him, he now retired wholly from public life. His death occurred on the 4th of January, 1789, just after he had completed his fiftieth year. Few patriots of the revolution have descended to the grave more justly honoured and beloved. Few possessed a more ample fortune; few contributed more liberally to support the cause of liberty. It was the patriotism, the firmness, the generosity, the magnanimous sacrifices of such men, that conducted the colonies through a gloomy contest of seven years continuance, and gave them a rank among the independent nations of the earth.
   We shall conclude this notice of this illustrious man, by presenting to our readers the tribute, which was happily and affectionately paid to his memory by Colonel Innes:
   "The illustrious General Thomas Nelson is no more! He paid the last great debt to nature, on Sunday, the fourth of the present month, at his estate in Hanover. He who undertakes barely to recite the exalted virtues which adorned the life of this great and good man, will unavoidably pronounce a panegyric on human nature. As a man, a citizen, a legislator, and a patriot, he exhibited a conduct untarnished and undebased by sordid or selfish interest, and strongly marked with the genuine characteristics of true religion, sound benevolence, and liberal policy. Entertaining the most ardent love for civil and religious liberty, he was among the first of that glorious band of patriots whose exertions dashed and defeated the machinations of British tyranny, and gave United America freedom and independent empire. At a most important crisis, during the late struggle for American liberty, when this state appeared to be designated as the theatre of action for the contending armies, he was selected by the unanimous suffrage of the legislature to command the virtuous yeomanry of his country; in this honourable employment he remained until the end of the war; as a soldier, he was indefatigably active and coolly intepid; resolute and undejected in misfortunes, he towered above distress, and struggled with the manifold difficulties to which his situation exposed him, with constancy and courage. In the memorable year 1781, when the whole force of the southern British army was directed to the immediate subjugation of this state, he was called to the helm of government; this was a juncture which indeed 'tried men's souls.' He did not avail himself of this opportunity to retire in the rear of danger; but on the contrary, took the field at the head of his countrymen; and at the hazard of his life, his fame, and individual fortune, by his decision and magnanimity, he saved not only his country, but all America, from disgrace, if not from total ruin. Of this truly patriotic and heroic conduct, the renowned commander in chief, with all the gallant officers of the combined armies employed at the siege of York, will bear ample testimony; this part of his conduct even contemporary jealousy, envy, and malignity were forced to approve, and this, more impartial posterity, if it can believe, will almost adore. If, after contemplating the splendid and heroic parts of his character, we shall inquire for the milder virtues of humanity, and seek for the man, we shall find the refined, beneficent, and social qualities of private life, through all its forms and combinations, so happily modified and united in him, that in the words of the darling poet of nature, it may be said:

"His life was gentle: and the elements
So mixed in him, that nature might stand up
And say to all the world--this was a man."

Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 410-415. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)


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Last modified January 2, 2004