Robert H. Harrison

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Robert Harrison
Robert Hanson Harrison (cropped).jpg
Personal details
Charles County, Maryland,
British America
DiedApril 2, 1790 (aged 44–45)
Charles County, Maryland,
Political partyFederalist
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Branch/serviceVirginia Militia
Continental Army
Years of service1774-1775 (Militia)
1775-1781 (Army)
RankLieutenant Colonel
UnitFairfax Independent Company (Militia)
Staff of General George Washington (Army)
Battles/warsAmerican Revolution

Robert Hanson Harrison (1745 – April 2, 1790) was an American Army officer, attorney, and judge. He was a Continental Army veteran of the American Revolution and is most notable for his service as George Washington's military secretary, the de facto chief of staff of Washington's headquarters for most of the war.

Early life[edit]

Born in Charles County, Maryland, Robert Hanson Harrison was the son of Dorothy (Hanson) Harrison and Colonel Richard Harrison, who served in offices including justice of the peace and member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Little is known of the younger Harrison's early life and education, but he settled in Fairfax County in 1765 and was admitted to the bar.

Early career[edit]

By 1768, Harrison had a steady practice; after meeting Washington, Harrison represented him on several legal matters .[1] In the years prior to the American Revolution, Harrison became identified with the Patriot cause in Virginia; he supported the Virginia Nonimportation Resolves in 1770, and served as the clerk for the Fairfax Resolves in 1774. Harrison was also a member of Alexandria's Committee of Correspondence. Additionally, he joined the militia and served as an officer in the Fairfax Independent Company in 1774 and 1775.[2] In September 1775, Harrison was commissioned as a major in the Fairfax County Militia.[3]

American Revolution[edit]

On November 6, 1775, Robert Hanson Harrison was appointed an aide-de-camp to General Washington.[4] The following May, Harrison was appointed military secretary to General Washington in lieu of Joseph Reed.[5] The Continental Congress approved his commission as a lieutenant colonel on June 5, 1776.[6] In this capacity, he assisted with the drafting, writing and organization of the Commander-in-Chief's voluminous correspondence for almost five years. Moreover, President James Monroe testified that "in all the actions in which General Washington commanded, Colonel Harrison was present, near the person of the General."[7] Along with Alexander Hamilton, Robert Hanson Harrison negotiated for the exchange of prisoners of war. The death of his father, Richard Harrison, in 1780 began a chain of events that led to Robert Hanson Harrison's resignation from the Continental Army in the spring of 1781. George Washington attested that Robert Hanson Harrison discharged his duty "with conspicuous abilities – That his whole conduct during all the interesting periods of the war has been distinguished marked by the strictest integrity and the most attentive & faithful services while by personal bravery he has marked his conduct upon many occasions been distinguished on sev[era]l occasions" [8]

Later career[edit]

Returning to Maryland, Robert Hanson Harrison was appointed Chief Justice of the General Court of Maryland on March 12, 1781.[9] During the war, Harrison's court considered property confiscation cases for individuals accused of disloyalty to the United States. Despite being considered a highly capable judge, he declined appointments to higher courts because of failing health, including Chancellor of Maryland.

September 24, 1789, President George Washington nominated Harrison as an associate justice on the newly established United States Supreme Court. The United States Senate confirmed his appointment two days later.[10][11] Harrison declined the appointment, citing familial responsibilities and his health as two prime reasons.[12]

Washington and Hamilton urged Harrison to reconsider. Washington's friend Dr. James Craik urged him to send Harrison a personal appeal[clarification needed], believing "A Letter from you…would I am convinced act more powerfully upon him than all the Anodynes in an Apothecarys Shop".[13] Harrison agreed to accept, and began the trip to New York City, then the temporary national capital. His health worsened, and he returned home to Bladensburg, Maryland. In a January 21, 1790 letter to Washington, Harrison informed Washington that he was unable to make the trip and again declined the appointment.

Personal life[edit]

Harrison's first wife was Sarah Johnston, a daughter of George Johnston Sr. (d. 1766), a prominent Virginia attorney and political leader. After her death, he married Grace Dent of Charles County, Maryland.

Harrison died at his home in Charles County on April 2, 1790.[14] His burial location is not known.


  1. ^ See, for example, George Washington, Mount Vernon, October 7, 1769, to Robert Hanson Harrison [1]
  2. ^ His signature can be found in Fairfax Independent Company, Alexandria, October 19, 1774, to George Washington [2]
  3. ^ Lund Washington, Mount Vernon, September 25, 1775, to George Washington [3]
  4. ^ General Orders, November 6, 1775
  5. ^ General Orders, May 16, 1775
  6. ^ Ford, Worthington C., ed. The Journals of the Continental Congress: Vol. V, 5 June-8 Oct. 1776. (Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O, 1906), p. 418.
  7. ^ [Revolutionary War Bounty Warrants of Robert Hanson Harrison, Records of the Executive Branch. Office of the Governor (Record Group 3), Library of Virginia]
  8. ^ Certificate of Service for Robert Hanson Harrison, signed by George Washington, 25 March 1781 [4]
  9. ^ Steiner, Bernard C., ed. Archives of Maryland: Vol. XLV. Journal & Correspondence of the Council of Maryland: Vol. V, November 13, 1780–November 13, 1781. (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1927), p. 349.
  10. ^ McMillion, Barry J. (January 28, 2022). Supreme Court Nominations, 1789 to 2020: Actions by the Senate, the Judiciary Committee, and the President (PDF) (Report). Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved February 16, 2022.
  11. ^ Marcus, Maeva, et al, eds. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States. Vol. One, Part 1, Appointments & Proceedings. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 9-10.
  12. ^ George Washington to Robert Hanson Harrison, 28 September 1789. Twohig, Dorothy, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. IV, 8 September 1789–15 January 1790. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), pp. 98-102. [5]
  13. ^ James Craik to George Washington, 3 February 1790. Twohig, Dorothy, et al, eds. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. V, 16 January-30 June 1790. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), pp. 95-98. [6]
  14. ^ Maryland Gazette, Thursday, April 8, 1790.

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