Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Thomas Nelson -- The Final Years
 
Washington was most thankful for Nelson’s contributions.  In his general orders of October 20 the commanding general wrote: “The general would be guilty of the highest ingratitude 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” (Sanderson 69).
 
Nelson thought now that the war would soon end.  He could feel happy that he had played a necessary and important role in the battle that, he believed, had broken the back of the British.  Certain problems, nevertheless, abounded.  “The healthy British prisoners had to be moved to prison camps, the sick and wounded cared for, and all had to be fed.  Washington urged that the Virginia military establishment be kept on a firm footing, while the men themselves tended to go home.  The French, remaining in the state, created something of a problem, particularly in Yorktown, where they ousted some people from their homes to use them for winter quarters.  … Accounts had to be settled between the French and the state and between the state and the Continental Congress.  Large numbers of cattle which had been collected had to be disposed of and other provisions stored.  Still civil strife continued in the lower Tidewater.  These and many other problems weighed heavily on the governor” (Evans 120-121).
 
On November 20, 1781, Nelson handed to the speaker of the House of Delegates his letter of resignation.  “The very low state of health to which I am reduced, and from which I have little expectation of soon recovering, makes it my duty to resign the government, that the state may not suffer for want of an executive” (Sanderson 70).  His resignation was accepted.  On November 30 the Assembly elected Benjamin Harrison governor.  Nelson did not have many years left to live, and he probably knew it.  Illness had plagued him throughout the war.  The heavy responsibility he had carried as governor had had a final telling effect.  Nelson wished to retire from public life.  Difficulties, however, followed him.
 
Inhabitants from the County of Prince William sent to the legislature a petition and remonstrance protesting that Nelson had disregarded their “necessity and patriotic restraints” by authorizing “impress in a most unrestrained and arbitrary manner without the consent of the executive council.”  They also “condemned him for not allowing the French to purchase provisions on the open market, and for laying an embargo on the export of certain commodities” (Evans 121).  Nelson asked for an opportunity to defend himself.  His wish was granted and he forwarded to the legislature a letter with his reasons “for adopting the measures which have given so much offense.”  The legislature investigated the charges, found that he had been forced to impress without the council’s consent due to “peculiar circumstances” (Sanderson 70-72), and passed an act that legalized his activities.  Nelson was officially indemnified and exonerated from all blame.
 
He had assumed the office of governor at a very critical time.  Virginia had been without a governor for three weeks; large enemy forces had been moving for six months, virtually at will, within her borders; and the state’s resources had been strained for a much longer period of time as a result of British activity in the Carolinas.  At his disposal were powers greater than those of any governor preceding him, and, except for a few days in June, he did not have the restraining influence of a legislature to deal with.  A tremendous responsibility, which Nelson understood and accepted, thus rested with the executive.  Although a more politically minded person would have shown caution, he used the power to its fullest extent.  When it appeared necessary, in the six weeks before Yorktown, Nelson exceeded his authority.  He made the decision to do so without regard to the effect it would have on his own career” (Evans 122-123).
 
Nelson’s home in York had been destroyed.  Some of his landed estates had been and might be sold.  He moved temporarily to a little estate called Offley, in Hanover County.  He had built it during the war as a place of protection for his family.  It was not a very healthful area in which to live.  His son Robert used to sing these two lines about the place:
 
            “Send comfort down from thy right hand
            To cheer us in this barren land.”
 
R. C. M. Page wrote that the house was probably gone, but the Offley pond, “that well-known source of chills and fever for the whole neighborhood, yet stands” (Page 151)
 
The young aide-de-camp Baron Von Closen, accompanying General Rochambeau, visiting the Offley estate in January 1782, gives us an excellent description of Nelson, his wife, and the property.
 
“This worthy man gave us the most cordial reception possible; we were served an excellent supper, and immediately afterwards retired to our rooms … After an excellent lunch, we inspected the farm and the approaches to the house, which are rather pretty; there are two others near-by and many negro cabins.  General Nelson was one of the richest Personages in Virginia; he had 700 negroes before the war.  He has now only 80 to 100.
 
“He is a man of the greatest integrity, is devoted to the cause of his compatriots, and serves his fatherland with the zeal and disinterestedness characteristic of an upright man, even at the cost of his fortune, which had been considerably reduced.
 
“…  His family is one of the happiest with which I am acquainted; his wife, who is no longer young, has 13 living children and is respected for the upbringing that she gives them.  She is an excellent and thrifty housekeeper and provided very good meals for us” (Von Closen 216, 217).
 
Historian Emory G. Evans disagrees with assertions made by 19th and 20th Century historians that Nelson was reduced to poverty by the time of his death (1789).  He believes that the story of a very wealthy man losing his entire fortune in the valiant service of his country was too good a story to reduce to objective boundaries.  This myth lives today in respected historical publications.  “… the sketch of Nelson in the Dictionary of American Biography tells how he ‘sacrificed his private means to pay his public debts, accumulated for Virginia’s loan of 1780 and in fitting out and provisioning  troops.  This course … left him a poor man’” (Evans 139).  Nelson indeed had financial difficulties before his death, but he also was wealthy.
 
“… business had been virtually at a standstill since the outbreak of the war, and even at that time he had been deeply in debt.  In the meantime his family had continued to grow, placing further demands on his straitened finances—a situation not improved by his having pledged his own security for significant sums during the loan drives of 1780.  Some of his creditors were already pressing him for payments, and as early as August 1782 he was advertising the sale of twenty to thirty Virginia-born Negroes.  He sold more slaves in December and in January, and also delivered 184,000 pounds of tobacco to Benjamin Harrison and Company and David Ross and Company in payment of bonded debts” (Evans 126).
 
But Nelson “was far from destitute.  Substantial sums of money were owed him, and he still ranked among the ten largest property owners in Virginia.  Nelson possessed well over twenty thousand acres spread through five counties.  … In addition he owned approximately four hundred slaves, five hundred head of cattle and one hundred horses and mules as well as sheep and hogs.  … These were immense holdings, even for that time, but only the end of the war and the return of more normal business conditions could tell what he would be able to do with them” (Evans 126).
 
Nelson was not entirely inactive publicly following his resignation as governor.  He was returned to the York County Court in the fall of 1782.  In November he assumed his seat in the House of Delegates.  Not until May of 1783 did he begin to take on the duties of his office.  Peace with Great Britain was declared in the autumn of 1783.  Nelson spent a good amount of his time seeing to the repair of his house in Williamsburg, his house in Yorktown still in a state of disrepair.  After two weeks of service in the fall session of the Assembly, he fell ill. 
 
“For a week in early December he was under the intensive care of Williamsburg physician John M. Galt.  Dr. Galt prescribed a variety of medicines used at that time for the treatment of coughs and the removal of phlegm associated with ‘humoral asthmas.’  He also applied several plasters to Nelson’s chest, including one that used cantharides (dried blister beetles) as the main specific.  Nelson recovered from this attack, in spite of Dr. Galt’s medications, and over a year passed before this particular ailment again plagued him.  But his generally poor health seems to have convinced him that he should retire from public life, even though some of his friends were entreating him not to do so” (Evans 128).
 
Visitors came frequently to Williamsburg and Yorktown to visit him.  No man was more welcome than the Marquis de Lafayette in the fall of 1784.  His small house was crowded with many of the town’s notables, including James Madison.  Nelson “reportedly told his guests that they could blame their being over-crowded on the skill of the French artillery at the siege of Yorktown” (Evans 129). 
 
Pleased as he was with the respect accorded him by distinguished visitors, his financial difficulties increasingly unsettled him.  If he could only collect the money owed him, both by private individuals and the public!  “In June 1784 he petitioned the House of Delegates first to pay 91 pounds owed him for board while commander of the state militia, and, more important, to repay the loans he had obtained by pledging his own security during the loan drive of February 1780” (Evans 129).  Legislation was taken up to effect that, but Nelson was never reimbursed.  Perhaps this was because Nelson could not present clear documentation.  Perhaps crucial documentation had been lost.  Perhaps the House, due to uncertain documentation, “did not want to leave itself open to a host of claims that might be less just than Nelson’s” (Evans 131).
 
The failure to be reimbursed was a crushing blow.  He continued to attempt to clear his debts.  “… by August of 1786 he was advertising the sale of land in Hanover and Gloucester counties.  He also announced that he would have to sell about eighty of his Negroes unless persons indebted to him would ‘discharge their bonds, notes, and open accounts.’ Court action was promised against those who did not provide for payment.  … Nelson’s creditors were also taking him to court, and between the end of the war and his death in 1789 judgments against him amounted to” (Evans 132, 133) six thousand pounds. 
 
Nelson wrote to Edmund Berkeley in 1787: I know by my own feelings that nothing can be more disagreeable than to be dunn’d.  I am however unfortunately reduc’d to the necessity of dunning, or parting with more property than I can spare from my numerous family” (Evans 133). 
 
In the spring of 1786 Nelson’s younger brother Nathaniel, a York delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates, died.  Nelson decided to replace him.  The following year the Articles of Confederation Congress called for a convention composed of representatives of each state to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to consider revising the Articles of Confederation.  The Virginia legislature selected seven prominent Virginians.  When Patrick Henry declined to serve – smelling “a rat” – Governor Edmund Randolph appointed Nelson to replace him.  The state of his business affairs and his poor health forced Nelson to decline. 
 
In Philadelphia a new frame of government was being drafted.  “George Washington sent Nelson a copy of the completed document immediately on his return to Virginia.  In a covering letter he told his friend that the Constitution was the ‘best that could be obtained at this time….’  The ‘political concerns of this country,’ he continued, are ‘suspended by a thread,’ and he was convinced that if the convention had not agreed on a plan ‘anarchy would soon have ensured….’Under these circumstances Washington thought ‘the adoption of it … desirable.’  Nelson, and a number of other Virginias, did not agree” (Evans 135-136). 
 
Three parties had formed in Virginia: “those who would ratify without amendments; those who did not ‘object to the substance of the Government’ but favored ‘a few additional guards in favor of the Rights of the States and the people; and those who opposed the ‘essence of the System’ and preferred ‘an adherence to the principle of the existing Confederation.’  In light of Nelson’s career to this point it is reasonable to assume that he was one of the middle group” (Evans 136). 
 
In early June 1788 Nelson was very ill.  From then “his condition grew progressively worse.  Not only did recurrent attacks of what was probably asthma plague him, his whole physical condition seems to have deteriorated.  Furthermore, the serious state of his business affairs contributed to his depression.”  He was nearly thirteen thousand pounds in debt.  “The fear that he would not be able to straighten out his affairs, and therefore be unable to provide for his numerous family, weighed on Nelson’s mind.  Late in December his condition had become so bad that he took the step of drawing up his last will and testament.  … The will was signed on December 26.  Less than two weeks later, on January 4, 1789, Thomas Nelson, fifty years of age, died at his plantation Montclair in Hanover County” (Evans 138).
 
Newspapers carrying accounts of his death were edged in black.  “One stated that as ‘a citizen there is but one to whom his country [Virginia] is more indebted’” (Evans 138).  According to ancestor R. C. M. Page, Nelson’s widow would live to be 80, being blind her last 17 years.  She would leave twenty dollars to her minister and freedom to her only servant.
 
 
Works cited:
 
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  Williamsburg, Virginia: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1975.  Print. 
 
Page, R. C. M.  Genealogy of the Page Family in Virginia.  New York: Jenkins & Thomas, 1883.  Print.
 
Sanderson, John.  Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence
Second Edition.  Philadelphia: William Brown and Charles Peters, 1828.  V.  Print.
 
William and Mary Quarterly Historical Magazine.  “The Journal of Baron Von Closen.” Series 3.  X.  1953.  Print.