Assumed portrait of Braxton
September 16, 1736|
King and Queen County, Virginia
|Died||October 10, 1797
|Known for||signer of the United States Declaration of Independence|
Carter Braxton (September 10, 1736 – October 10, 1797)  was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, as well as a merchant, planter, and Virginia politician. A grandson of Robert “King” Carter, one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners and slaveholders in the Old Dominion, Carter Braxton was active in Virginia's legislature for more than 25 years, generally allied with Landon Carter, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton and other conservative slaveholders.
Carter Braxton was born on Newington Plantation in King and Queen County, Virginia on September 16, 1736, but wrongly reported as dead along with his mother, Mary Carter Braxton, who "unhappily catching Cold," died shortly after his birth. His maternal grandfather, King Carter, possibly the wealthiest man as well as the largest landowner in Virginia at the time of his death, had bequeathed ₤2,000 to his youngest daughter, who became bethrothed to George Braxon Jr. five months after her father's death (although her brother had not paid that full amount to her new husband by the time of her death). His paternal grandfather, George Braxton, Sr. by 1704 (before western lands were opened to European settlement) had also become one of the 100 largest landowners in Virginia's Northern Neck. George Braxton Sr. had been elected for the first time to the House of Burgesses in 1718, and was reelected nine years later with John Robinson, Jr., who would become the powerful Speaker of the House of Burgesses and benefactor of the Braxton family. The elder Braxton owned at least one ship, the 'Braxton' that traded with the West Indies and elsewhere, and was commission agent for cargoes of enslaved blacks sold to Virginia planters. He died, aged 71, when Carter was twelve; his eldest son (Carter's father) George Jr. had succeeded him as delegate for King and Queen County in 1742, but himself died not long thereafter (in 1749). Speaker Robinson and neighbor Humphrey Hill served as guardians for Carter and his slightly (3 year) elder brother George (who inherited Newington and various land in King and Queen and Essex County).
Educated at the College of William and Mary like his father and brother, Braxton followed family tradition at age 19 by marrying Judith Robinson, a wealthy heiress and the Speaker's niece. However, she died two years later (like Carter's mother shortly after childbirth), leaving Braxton two daughters, Mary and Judith. The young widower soon journeyed to England for two years.
Upon returning to the colonies in 1760, Braxton sold Elsing Green, where he had lived with Judith, and married again, this time to Elizabeth Corbin, eldest daughter of Richard Corbin, Deputy Receiver General for his Majesty's Revenues in Virginia, who brought a ₤1000 dowry.
Career as merchant and plantation owner
Carter Braxton purchased a small schooner shortly after his second marriage, and turned his energies to trade. Braxton traded between the West Indies and American colonies, establishing relationships with Bayard & Son of New York and Willing & Morris of Philadelphia. He also urged the Brown brothers of Providence, Rhode Island, who had abandoned the slave trade during the French and Indian War to sell him African people, but such transactions may not have completed. Whether or not Braxton's mercantile enterprises included slave trading, he and his brother were accompanied by a black slave at the College of William and Mary.
Braxton later owned many more slaves on his various plantations, and there are no records of manumissions or a will. His biographer notes that at the end of the Revolutionary War, despite selling off some properties after his father's and brother's deaths and for his own debts, Braxton owned at least 12,000 acres and 165 slaves. Six years later, despite the financial problems discussed below, Braxton still owned 8,500 acres, which still made him one of the 100 largest landowners in the new state. The biographer also states that before his death, Braxton sold off or gave to his kinsmen all but forty-two of his blacks and probably could only have farmed fewer than half of the remaining 3,900 acres. Braxton's racial attitudes, while common to his class, contrasted with those of another of King Carter's grandsons, Robert Carter III, and of George Mason IV, who fought against the slave trade during their legislative careers.
Early Political Career
Braxton began his long career representing King William County in the Virginia House of Burgesses, taking his seat in 1761. However, his brother George died on October 3 of that year, leaving an insolvent estate, so the family lost Newington (which burned down, under other owners, in 1800). Although both high-living Braxtons had been considered wealthy, as well as political allies of Speaker John Robinson, when the John Robinson Estate Scandal broke in 1766, they turned out to be among the largest beneficiaries of the late speaker's interest-free loans of redeemed paper money supposed to have been burned.
In addition to his duties as a burgess, Braxton served as sheriff of King William County (a lucrative position for which he briefly resigned his position as burgess), colonel of its militia, and vestryman of the troubled St. John's Church about ten miles east of his Chericoke plantation. Factional disputes within the parish (which assessed members to support not only the rector but the parish poor) grew so severe that the House of Burgesses held hearings and ultimately passed a special bill dissolving the vestry, as Braxton had wished.
Although always considered a moderate or conservative politician, Braxton signed the First Virginia Association intended to protest the Townshend duties on tea and other products, but like his ally Landon Carter, not the Second Association which set up boycott compliance mechanism, nor the Third Virginia Association pledging not to purchase various East Indian commodities. However, in 1774 Braxton returned to Williamsburg as King William County's delegate (with William Aylett ), and joined 108 others in the Fourth Virginia Association, which authorized local committees of safety as well as volunteer militia. When Lord Dunmore seized the colony's gunpowder and flintlocks for their rifles, Braxton helped negotiate a compromise between fellow legislator Patrick Henry and his own father-in-law Corbin that averted a crisis.
Reluctant Revolutionary and Virginia Conservative
Braxton was "a moderate politician during the Revolution—often viewed as sympathetic to the British (but not a Loyalist)." Although absent at some sessions, he had represented his county sixteen times between 1761 and Lord Dunmore's dissolution of the House of Burgesses; Braxton also served as the county delegate to all five sessions of the Virginia Convention. In 1774, Braxton joined the patriots' Committee of Safety in Virginia, as well as chaired the legislative committee considering legal penalties for Tories.
When Peyton Randolph died unexpectedly in Philadelphia in October, 1775, fellow Virginia legislators elected Braxton to take his place in the Continental Congress. He served in the Congress from February 1776 until August, when Virginia reduced its delegation to five members. In that capacity Braxton signed the Declaration of Independence, although he had previously opposed it as premature in Committee of the Whole, and explained his stance in several letters to his uncle Landon Carter. Braxton also drew revolutionaries' criticism for his pamphlet, Address to the Convention, which he had printed in reply to the proposals of John Adams's Thoughts on Government.
Afterwards Braxton returned to the House of Burgesses, which thanked him and Thomas Jefferson for their service, although King William voters failed to reelect the absent Braxton as one of their delegates (so he missed the two sessions in 1778). Moreover, his house at Chericoke burned down shortly before Christmas, 1776, so Braxton moved his family to Grove House near West Point, Virginia (which itself burned down in 1903). Through most of his legislative career, Braxton was a political opponent of the Lee family (since its involvement in the Robinson Estate scandal), and he also became involved in a press quarrel with anti-slavery activist and diplomat Arthur Lee, supposedly concerning Silas Deane's mercantile and diplomatic activities. Between 1776 and 1785, Braxton served in 8 of the 11 legislative assemblies, and attended 14 of 21 sessions, with a special concern for debt and tax moratoriums or other relief.
Financial Speculation and Troubles
Braxton invested a great deal of his wealth in the American Revolution. Like Robert Morris, Braxton loaned money to the cause, as well as funded shipping and privateering (and lost about half of the 14 ships in which he held interests). Braxton (with fellow businessmen including Morris and Benjamin Harrison) sold Virginia and Carolina tobacco and corned meat abroad, and secured arms and ammunition (unsuccessfully, most colonies preferring arms supplied by foreign governments on favorable terms), as well as wheat and salt, and cloth and other trade goods. In 1780 the Continental Congress censured Braxton for his role in the Phoenix affair of 1777, in which his privateer seized a neutral Portuguese vessel from Brazil, prompting diplomatic protests. The British also destroyed some of Braxton's plantations during the war.
In addition to the indebtedness incurred after the deaths of his father and brother, and through his own relatively poor agricultural business practices, Braxton accumulated war debts of the Continental Congress and also of Robert Morris, both of which proved slow to repay. In 1786 Braxton sold a plantation and rented a smaller residence ("row-house") in Richmond, which (with the depreciated paper currency) allowed him to repay his own indebtedness to the Robinson estate in 1787.
Braxton also sued Robert Morris in Henrico County court for ₤28,257 in that year, but the lawsuit continued for eight years before commissioners were appointed, then Morris appealed. Finally Virginia's Court of Appeals led by Edmund Pendleton decided mostly in favor of Braxton before Morris was forced into bankruptcy by his own continued land speculations (although Morris as late as 1800 believed he should have won ₤20,000). In 1791, Braxton also purchased Strawberry Hill outside Richmond for his wife (who had received nothing upon her father's death, all his property being given to his sons), and conveyed it to his sons Carter Jr. and Corbin to hold for their mother's benefit. Braxton's biographer does not believe that Braxton hid assets from his creditors by placing them in relatives' names, although his widow later attempted to recover dower rights in land and slaves that he husband sold in his last years. His sons in law, Robert Page and John White (husbands of Molly and Judith, his daughters by his first wife) paid creditors more than ₤2000 on Braxton's behalf.
On November 15, 1785, fellow delegates elected Braxton to the Council of State (which handled the executive functions formerly performed by the Privy Council). Receiving the paid position vacated by William Nelson, Jr., Braxton moved to Richmond, which had become the capital in 1780. Ineligible for re-election for three years, Braxton was elected a second time in 1794.
Braxton died, aged 61, in his Richmond home on October 10, 1797. Family tradition maintains Henrico County sheriff Samuel Mosby at Braxton's door attempting to collect debts lest he have to pay them himself. His widow survived until July 5, 1814, and was praised in an obituary for the assistance and comfort she had offered Braxton during his final years (suffering two or more strokes during Council meetings).
A biographer speculated that Braxton may be the founding father with the most descendants, since he and his second wife may have had as many as sixteen children, in addition to his two daughters with his first wife. Although none of Braxton's sons (George, Corbin, Carter Jr., John Tayloe, William) lived as long as their father, they and their sisters had numerous children, many of whom fought in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, including grandsons (all achieving the rank of Major) Carter Moore Braxton of the Fredericksburg Artillery, Tomlinson Braxton, M.D. and Elliott Muse Braxton (who was later elected to the Forty-second Congress and served from March 4, 1871 – March 3, 1873). Confederate General Braxton Bragg was named for the signer, but not apparently a descendent. Another great-grandson, John W. Stevenson of Kentucky, served two terms as U.S. Representative before the Civil War, and later won election as Governor in 1868 and U.S. Senator in 1871, before retiring to his law practice and becoming president of the American Bar Association. Virginia lawyer Allen Caperton Braxton, who led efforts to limit blacks' access to education and voting, particularly during Virginia's Constitutional Convention in 1902, proclaimed his descent from Carter Braxton. Kate Horsley, writer of historical novels, is a noteworthy contemporary descendant.
Carter Braxton may have been buried at Chericoke, which remains in the family's possession today. Although it burned in 1776, Braxton rebuilt it and gave to his eldest son George on his marriage to Mary Walker Carter (daughter of Charles Carter of Shirley) in 1781 (which transfer survived despite legal attacks by his creditors). However, when the family graves there were moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond in 1910, his could not be located; a monument was erected for him nonetheless. Nearby Elsing Green also survives and is available for tourism.
Braxton County, West Virginia was formed in 1836 and named in Braxton's honor. For a brief time during the 1960s to the early 1980s the Waterman Steamship Company owned a break bulk freighter, the S.S. Carter Braxton, which was named in his honor.
- Alonzo Dill, Carter Braxton: Last Virginia Signer (Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1976) at p. 2
- Dill, p. 4.
- Dill, p. 3
- Dill p. 3.
- Dill, p. 10
- Dill at p. 10
- Carter Braxton's letters to the Brown brothers of Providence asking to enter into a joint shipping venture to bring Africans to Virginia for use as slave labor.
- Dill, Carter Braxton, Virginia Signer: Conservative in Revolt at p. 183 citing levies against Carter Braxton in King William, York, Halifax, Hanover and Henrico counties, 1782-83, 1787-88 and 1794-95 in Land and Personal Property Tax Records, Virginia State Libary.
- Dill, p.9
- Dill at pp. 14-15 (jointly third from the top of the list of largest debtors)
- David J. Mayes, Edmund Pendleton, Vol. I, pp. 181-184.
- Dill, pp. 13-14
- Dill, pp. 17-19.
- Dill, pp. 19-20.
- Dill, pp. 20-22.
- Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice
- Dill, p. 50
- Dill, at pp. 26-34
- Dill, pp. 35-39.
- Dill, pp. 42, 50.
- Dill, pp. 49-50
- Dill, pp. 50-52.
- Dill pp. 43-48.
- Dill at pp. 56-57.
- Dill pp. 54-55
- Dill, Carter Braxton, Virginia Signer: A Conservative in Revolt, p. 184 citing two June 26, 1797 letters in private collection of Edward Huntington Cox of Washington, D.C. as well as annotation in what served as the family Bible, subsequently held by descendant Ms. Andrea Johanna Bielenstein of New York.
- Dill pp. 57-58.
- some sources list the couple as having eight children, but indicate that many more may have existed
- Dill at pp. 55, 61
- Dill, Carter Braxton, Virginia Signer: A Conservative in Revolt (University Press of America, 1982) at p. 187
- Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006)
- National Park Service biographical sketch.