Monday, February 16, 2015

Thomas Nelson -- Observing, Learning

Less than a year after his return from England, Thomas Nelson married Miss Lucy Grymes, a daughter of Philip Grymes of Brandom, in the neighboring county of Middlesex.  They settled permanently in a commodious house built for them by Nelson’s father, the new house nearly opposite his own.  In between his yearly trips to Williamsburg as a burgess representing his county, York, Thomas lived in a style of great elegance and hospitality.  Upon Thomas’s marriage his father had been given him an independent fortune and taken him into the family business.  From his long resident in England, Thomas had acquired some of the manners and pursuits of its country gentlemen.  He would ride out daily to his plantation, a few miles from York, with his fowling piece and an attending servant.  He kept a pack of hounds at a small farm near the village, and in the winter his friends and neighbors would join him once or twice a week to participate in a fox hunt.  Young Nelson’s home became the center of genteel hospitality.  It was said that no gentleman ever stopped an hour in York without receiving an invitation to it.

Nelson found time during his residence in Williamsburg as a burgess to further his education.  For a short time he attended William and Mary College.  It was here that he met a young law student from Albemarle County, Thomas Jefferson.  In 1763 Thomas’s father took under his care his orphaned niece, Rebecca Burwell.  The twenty-year-old Jefferson, four years older than Rebecca, fell in love with the girl, and during their rather sporadic courtship became quite intimate with the Nelson family.  This relationship was to be maintained through the Revolutionary War.

As a burgess, Thomas Nelson served his country from 1761 to his appointment to the Continental Congress in 1775.  He did not take an active part in the debates of the Assembly during the stormy years prior to the American Revolution.  There were many gentlemen in the Assembly who were older than he and who possessed greater political experience.  Better that he receive his training and acquire political wisdom by observing others and working quietly in various committees of the Assembly.

At the end of May 1765, following the passage of the Stamp Act, Patrick Henry managed to push through the Assembly several resolutions that, in essence, denied the right of Great Britain to tax the colonies.  There is no record of how Nelson voted on the resolutions; but, considering his political feeling and actions following the Stamp Act, we can assume that he supported them.  Following the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766 the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts.  The new measures were designed to raise a revenue by taxing common articles used by the colonies: glass, lead, paper, and tea.  The House of Burgesses rose again in opposition, sending to the king in 1768 a petition and to Parliament a memorial and remonstrance.  In 1769 it passed resolutions claiming the sole right to tax the colony's inhabitants.  The governor dissolved the Assembly following each action taken.  In 1769, the members met in The Apollo Tavern, where they signed a non-importation association written by George Mason and presented by George Washington.  They pledged not to import or have imported any of the Townshend goods until the duties were repealed.  A merchant, standing to lose more in material gain than most of the Burgesses, Nelson signed the agreement. 

Following the repeal of all of the Townshend duties (except that on tea) in April 1770, the colonies and the British government enjoyed a brief period of relative peace.  However, the winter of 1772-1773 was not a good time for Nelson.  His father died November 19.  Thomas’s religious upbringing is reflected in a letter he wrote soon afterward to his father's friend, Samuel Martin.  “It falls to my lot to acquaint you with the death of my father …  His death was such as became a true Christian, hoping through the mediation of our blessed Savior to meet with the reward promised to the righteous” (Meade 210).  The funeral sermon delivered by a Mr. Camm, the president of William and Mary College and minister of York, summarized the qualities of the elder Nelson.  “… his own gain by trade was not more sweet to him than the help which he hereby received toward becoming a general benefactor.  He is an instance of what abundance of good may be done by a prudent and conscientious man without impoverishing himself or his connections, nay, while his fortunes are improving” (Meade 209).

President Nelson left to each of his five sons – Thomas, Hugh, William, Nat, and Robert – landed estates and servants.  But to his eldest son, Thomas, he left 40,000 pounds, equivalent to $133,000 at that time.[1]

Work Cited:

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

[1]  Ibid., 208.  Page, Genealogy, 152