Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Early Life

In Capital Square in Richmond today stands an equestrian statue of George Washington.  A tourist would notice six figures mounted at the base of the statue.  Chances are he would recognize instantly the importance of three of the figures: Patrick Henry, the orator of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and John Marshall, the famous Supreme Court Justice.  But the other three figures about the statue – George Mason, Thomas Nelson, and Andrew Lewis – might mean nothing to him.  Seconds later he would probably walk away, intent upon seeing another historic monument in historic Richmond.

Mason, Nelson, and Lewis were important leaders.  To the general public, however, they are anonymous patriots, their significance overlooked or underemphasized by the biographers of the giants of American history.

Thomas Nelson is the subject of this new series of posts.  He can be taken as a test case of the importance of obscure Revolutionary War leaders.  If he had not died relatively early, he would probably have been an important national political figure.  Even so, his life was full and his contributions substantial.



In describing the seaport town of York to Sir Henry Clinton shortly before the beginning of the American Revolution, a British officer wrote: “The people in and about it, influenced by the family of Nelson, are all Rebellious” (Riley 22).  If the officer had remained in the town longer and inquired about the Nelson family, he might have left contemplating just how far beyond the boundaries of foolishness this rebellious family might go.  They were merchants, the first in York, one of the wealthiest families in the colony.  If the existing breach between the political and economic interests of Great Britain and her colonies should expand to the point where neither antagonist could reverse course, if the ultimate solution to this clash of interests could be none other than a clash of arms, the Nelsons stood to lose economically far more than most Americans.  Yet, from the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, the family’s history is one of consistent loyalty to colonial principles.  The British officer might have explained all of this with the thought that many men lose their senses in times of strife, but a crisis can also inspire the employment of rare qualities of character, one being courage.

Thomas Nelson, the founder of the wealthy Virginia family and the grandfather of the subject of this post, came to the colonies from Penriff, near the border of Scotland, shortly after the turn of the Seventeenth Century.  He established himself in York as a merchant, married a Miss Reid of the neighboring county, and had two sons and one daughter.

Thomas Nelson’s two sons, William and Thomas, upon reaching their adulthood, also settled in York.  Both men took an active role in Virginia politics.  Thomas -- Thomas Nelson Jr.’s uncle -- was secretary of the governor’s council for over twenty years.  William became a member of the House of Burgesses from York County in 1742.  In 1744 he joined his brother in the council and later became its president.  Due to the length of time both men held these positions in the council, they came to be called Secretary and President Nelson.

Importing goods from the merchants of Philadelphia and Baltimore, then in their commercial beginnings, William Nelson acquired a large fortune.  After the death of Governor Botetourt, Nelson was acting governor of the colony from October 1770 to August 1771.  While he was “the right hand of George III,” he remained loyal to colonial ideals.  His letters to merchants at this time reveal his indignant opposition to onerous acts passed by the British Parliament, unwarranted impositions, he believed, legislated upon colonial rights and privileges.  Bishop Meade wrote that he left “none to doubt where he would have been when the trumpet sounded to arms” (Meade 209).

William Nelson married a Miss Burnwell, a pious and conscientious woman.  All of their daughters died before they reached the age of twelve.  Of their six sons, one burned to death and another damaged his brain in a fall from an upper story of the Nelson house.  These tragedies turned Mrs. Nelson ever closer to her religion.

She was particularly attentive to the religious training of her children.  She taught them to be punctual and conscientious in their daily prayers, set for them an exemplary example, and prayed for them often.  Equally concerned with their children’s religious upbringing, William took the lead in affairs of the local parish.  On Sundays, generous as well as pious, he had a large dinner prepared to which both rich and poor were invited.

Thomas Nelson, Jr., the eldest son, born December 26, 1738, had the qualities of courage, generosity, honesty, and leadership – so apparent during the Revolution – instilled in him in the Nelson home. 



At the age of fourteen Thomas Nelson, Jr., was a rather high spirited boy, energetic enough to give his father uneasy moments.  The boy had become old enough for President Nelson to consider sending him to England for a formal education.  It was the custom of many wealthy seaboard Virginia families to send their eldest sons to London for that purpose.  In a year, or perhaps two, Thomas would be ready.  Then, one Sunday morning while strolling about the outskirts of York, father Nelson’s aristocratic soul was rudely shaken.  He had come upon his son playing in the streets with several of the little Negro boys of the village.  Realizing the delicacy of such an association and the difficulty of preventing future ones, Nelson decided quickly that it was time for Thomas to begin his English education.  A vessel stood anchored in the harbor ready to sail.  Thomas found himself aboard it the next day.  He would not return for nine years.

President Nelson placed Thomas under the care of two friends: a Mr. Hunt of London, and Neilby Porteus, then fellow of Cambridge University, later to become a bishop.  Nelson needed six years of preparation before he entered Christ’s College at Cambridge in 1758.  He was then placed under the care of a Dr. Newcome at the Hackney School, in the village of the same name near the outskirts of London.  He then entered Cambridge under the private tutorship of Mr. Porteus.  In letters to Hunt and Porteus, President Nelson shows his pious concern for the improvement of his son – “in all things, but especially in morals and religion.”  Thomas’s spirited nature yet troubled him.  He had exhibited behavior unbecoming a gentleman of his station by associating with Negroes.  What form might his behavior take now that he was older?  Nelson requested of his friends that during the vacation seasons Thomas be placed under the supervision of an eminent scientific agriculturalist, so that “the temptations incident to young men during the vacation” resulting from “a disposition to idleness and pleasure” be avoided.  Additionally, when Thomas returned to America, he would be able to make adequate use of the soils of Virginia (Meade 206).

Regardless of what President Nelson may have wished, Thomas’s activities were not devoted exclusively to the studying of books and soils.  Nelson saved a man from drowning.  Ironically, the man was a kinsman of Lord North, Prime Minister just prior to and during most of the Revolutionary War.  In appreciation of Nelson’s heroic deed, the Lord presented the young man a gold snuff box containing a fine miniature of himself (Davis III 119).

After three years of tutorship by Mr. Porteus, Thomas was ready to return to York.  However, due to his father’s great concern for his spiritual upbringing, Thomas’s departure was delayed several months.  The elder Nelson had learned that two young Virginians, whose habits he feared, though they were sons of the first families of the colony, would be aboard the ship that Thomas was scheduled to take.  Thomas, therefore, was ordered to remain in England until another ship sailed for Virginia.

A blue-eyed, light-haired youth of twenty-two, exhibiting a ruddy complexion, finally returned to Virginia at the close of 1761.  His father was happy to find a general improvement in his son, but regretted that he had adopted the bad practice of smoking tobacco – “filthy tobacco,” he wrote his friends in England.  The elder Nelson also complained that Thomas ate and drank “more than was conducive to health and long life, though not to inebriety” (Meade 217).  If the reunion of father and son had given the President some cause for feeling a bit surprised, it gave Thomas far greater cause.  While Thomas was still on his voyage home, his name had been entered, undoubtedly by his father, as a candidate to the House of Burgesses from York County.  Thomas was greeted at the dock with the news that he had been elected a burgess.

Sources Cited:

Davis III, Edward Morris.  “Historical Silver in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1941) XLIX.  Print.

Meade, Bishop.  Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia.  Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1891)Vol. I.  Print.

Riley, Edward M. “Yorktown/During the Revolution.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (January 1949), Vol. 57.  Print.