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Thomas Nelson Jr.

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Thomas Nelson Jr.
4th Governor of Virginia
In office
June 12, 1781 – November 22, 1781
Preceded byWilliam Fleming (acting)
Succeeded byBenjamin Harrison V
Virginia House of Burgesses representing York County
In office
Serving with Dudley Digges
Preceded byRobert Carter Nicholas
Succeeded byposition abolished
Virginia Ratification Conventions representing York County
In office
Serving with Dudley Digges
Virginia Representative to the Continental Congress
In office
Serving with Carter Braxton, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, George Wythe
Preceded byPatrick Henry
Succeeded byJohn Banister
Virginia Representative to the Continental Congress
In office
Serving with William Fitzhugh, Thomas Adams, Cyrus Griffin, John Harvie, Arthur Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Richard Henry Lee, James Mercer, Edmund Jennings Randolph, Meriwether Smith
Preceded byJohn Banister
Succeeded byJames Henry
Virginia House of Delegates representing York County
In office
May 5, 1777 – June 1781
Serving with Joseph Prentis, William Reynolds
Preceded byWilliam Digges
Succeeded byunclear
Virginia House of Delegates representing York County
In office
May 1782 – May 2, 1784
Serving with Joseph Prentis
Preceded byunclear
Succeeded byNathaniel Nelson
Virginia House of Delegates representing York County
In office
October 16, 1786 – June 22, 1788
Serving with Joseph Prentis
Preceded byNathaniel Nelson
Succeeded byWilliam Nelson
Personal details
BornDecember 26, 1738
Yorktown, Colony of Virginia, British America
DiedJanuary 4, 1789(1789-01-04) (aged 50)
Hanover County, Virginia, United States
Resting placeGrace Episcopal Churchyard, Yorktown
SpouseLucy Grymes
RelationsThomas "Scotch Tom" Nelson (grandfather)
Robert Carter I (great-grandfather)
George Reade (great-great-grandfather)
Nicolas Martiau (third great-grandfather)
George Washington (third cousin)
ChildrenHugh Nelson
Parent(s)William Nelson
Elizabeth Burwell
Alma materUniversity of Cambridge
ProfessionPlanter, soldier, statesman

Thomas Nelson Jr. (December 26, 1738 – January 4, 1789) was a Founding Father of the United States, general in the Revolutionary War, member of the Continental Congress, and a Virginia planter. In addition to serving many terms in the Virginia General Assembly, he twice represented Virginia in the Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Fellow Virginia legislators elected him to serve as the commonwealth's governor in 1781, the same year he fought as a brigadier general in the siege of Yorktown, the final battle of the war.

Early and family life[edit]

Engraving by Henry Bryan Hall

Nelson was the grandson of Thomas "Scotch Tom" Nelson, an immigrant from Cumberland, England, who was an early pioneer at Yorktown. Nelson Jr. was born in 1738 in Yorktown; his parents were Elizabeth Carter Burwell (daughter of Robert "King" Carter and widow of Nathaniel Burwell) and William Nelson, who was a leader of the colony and briefly served as governor. Through his paternal great-great-grandfather, George Reade, Nelson was a third cousin of first U.S. President and fellow Founding Father George Washington, though it is unknown if either of them knew they were related.

Like many Virginians of the planter class, Nelson was sent to England for his education. He attended Newcome's School before entering Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1758.[1][2][3] He graduated in 1760 and returned to Virginia the following year. Nelson was an ancestor of Thomas Nelson Page and William Nelson Page.


Upon returning to Virginia, Nelson assisted his father in the operation of his several plantations, which depended on the labor of enslaved African Americans. Following his marriage to young widow Lucy Grymes Burwell, he also managed the estates left to her sons from her first marriage. These included Carter's Grove left to her son Nathaniel Burwell.

During the American Revolutionary War, Nelson bought 5,400 acres of land and 400 enslaved people in Prince William County from financially strapped Lewis Burwell (who died in 1779).[4]

Political career[edit]

York County voters elected Nelson to the Virginia House of Burgesses as a young man in 1761; he succeeded Robert Carter Nicholas in this part-time position. He served his first six terms alongside veteran delegate Dudley Digges.[5]

As Virginians became dissatisfied with colonial governance, Digges and Nelson were elected to represent York County during the five Virginia conventions that preceded statehood: the First Virginia Convention (which met in Williamsburg in 1774), the Second Virginia Convention (which met at St. John's Church in Richmond in March 1775), the Third Virginia Convention (which met in Richmond in the summer of 1775), the Fourth Virginia Convention (which met in the winter of 1775–1776 in Richmond and Williamsburg, which Nelson was unable to attend), and the Fifth Virginia Convention, which met in Williamsburg in the summer of 1776 (Nelson left this convention in May to attend the Continental Congress).[6]

William Digges (who had represented York County during the last Virginia Revolutionary Convention) also represented York County alongside Corbin Griffin at the first non-colonial session of the Virginia House of Delegates in the fall of 1776. But Nelson won the 1777 and 1778 elections to represent York County in the House of Delegates, where he served alongside Joseph Prentis. Prentis relinquished his seat in 1778 to serve on the Council of State and was replaced by Nelson on September 21, 1778.[7] In 1779, 1780, and 1781, Nelson served alongside William Reynolds and relinquished his legislative seat upon being elected governor of Virginia in June 1781.[8]

Nelson's first term in Congress continued until 1776 when a bout of illness forced his resignation for the 1778–1779 term. After his recovery, he was again elected and served another year.[9] During his first stint as a member of Congress, Nelson also returned to Virginia to play a key role in its Constitutional Convention in the spring of 1776. He returned to Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence that summer.

Thomas Nelson was one of the thirteen committee members appointed in the Continental Congress on June 12, 1776, to "prepare and digest the form of confederation" they drafted the Articles of Confederation.[10]

He was a brigadier general[11] of the Lower Virginia Militia and succeeded Thomas Jefferson as governor of Virginia (after William Fleming's nine days as acting governor). Nelson was engaged in the final siege of Yorktown.

According to legend,[12][13] he urged General George Washington (or, in some versions, Marquis de Lafayette) to fire on his own home, the Nelson House, where General Cornwallis had his headquarters, offering five guineas to the first man to hit his house.

Following his term as Virginia's governor, Nelson again won election to the Virginia House of Delegates. He represented York County alongside Joseph Prentis in the assemblies of 1782 and 1783 but was replaced by Nathaniel Nelson in the assembly of 1784–1785.[14] He and Prentis won the next election and again served in the sessions of 1786–1787 and 1787–1788. Robert Shield and William Nelson replaced them in the assembly of 1788.[15]

Death and remembrance[edit]

Coat of Arms of Thomas Nelson Jr.

Nelson died at his son's home in Hanover County, Virginia, nine days after his fiftieth birthday. He is buried in the Grace Churchyard at Yorktown. Nelson was a member of Grace Church.

Colonel Innes made this tribute:

The illustrious General Thomas Nelson is no more! He paid the last great debt to nature, on Sunday, the fourth of the present month, at his estate in Hanover. He who undertakes barely to recite the exalted virtues which adorned the life of this great and good man, will unavoidably pronounce a panegyric on human nature. As a man, a citizen, a legislator, and a patriot, he exhibited a conduct untarnished and undebased by sordid or selfish interest, and strongly marked with the genuine characteristics of true religion, sound benevolence, and liberal policy. Entertaining the most ardent love for civil and religious liberty, he was among the first of that glorious band of patriots whose exertions dashed and defeated the machinations of British tyranny, and gave United America freedom and independent empire. At a most important crisis, during the late struggle for American liberty, when this state appeared to be designated as the theatre of action for the contending armies, he was selected by the unanimous suffrage of the legislature to command the virtuous yeomanry of his country; in this honourable employment he remained until the end of the war; as a soldier, he was indefatigably active and coolly intrepid; resolute and undejected in misfortunes, he towered above distress, and struggled with the manifold difficulties to which his situation exposed him, with constancy and courage. In the memorable year 1781, when the whole force of the southern British army was directed to the immediate subjugation of this state, he was called to the helm of government; this was a juncture which indeed 'tried men's souls.' He did not avail himself of this opportunity to retire in the rear of danger; but on the contrary, took the field at the head of his countrymen; and at the hazard of his life, his fame, and individual fortune, by his decision and magnanimity, he saved not only his country, but all America, from disgrace, if not from total ruin. Of this truly patriotic and heroic conduct, the renowned commander in chief, with all the gallant officers of the combined armies employed at the siege of York, will bear ample testimony; this part of his conduct even contemporary jealousy, envy, and malignity were forced to approve, and this, more impartial posterity, if it can believe, will almost adore. If, after contemplating the splendid and heroic parts of his character, we shall inquire for the milder virtues of humanity, and seek for the man, we shall find the refined, beneficent, and social qualities of private life, through all its forms and combinations, so happily modified and united in him, that in the words of the darling poet of nature, it may be said: His life was gentle: and the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand up And say to all the world—this was a man.[16]

Legacy and honors[edit]

"York Hall," Captain George Preston Blow House, 1914, the home of Thomas Nelson Jr., 1738–1739.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brydon, G. Maclaren (1943). "English Education of Thomas Nelson, Jr., of Yorktown". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 51 (4): 347–350. JSTOR 4245255.
  2. ^ Campbell, Charles (1860). History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion. p. 653. Retrieved May 13, 2013.
  3. ^ "Nelson, Thomas (NL758T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. ^ Walsh, p. 214.
  5. ^ Leonard, pp. 93, 96, 98, 101, 104, 107.
  6. ^ Leonard, pp. 111, 113, 116, 118, 121.
  7. ^ Leonard, pp. 127, 131.
  8. ^ Leonard, pp. 135, 139, 143.
  9. ^ Leonard, p. xxiii.
  10. ^ "Articles of Confederation Archived 2014-10-26 at the Wayback Machine", History, Park Net, National Park Service, viewed April 20, 2014.
  11. ^ Smith, John L. (Jr.) (October 21, 2016). "How Yorktown Almost Couldn't Afford To Happen". Journal of the American Revolution. Retrieved June 22, 2020.
  12. ^ snopes (December 9, 2015). "The Price They Paid". snopes.
  13. ^ "U.S. National Park Service page on the Nelson House". Retrieved November 21, 2018.
  14. ^ Leonard, pp. 147, 151.
  15. ^ Leonard, pp. 162, 166.
  16. ^ Charles Augustus Goodrich (1837). Lives of the signers to the Declaration of independence. T. Mather. pp. 410–414.
  17. ^ The Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, Volume 1. Kentucky State Historical Society. 1903. p. 36.
  18. ^ "Our Schools: Thomas Nelson High School". Nelson County School District. Archived from the original on April 25, 2012. Retrieved October 9, 2011.


  • Leonard, Cynthia Miller, Virginia General Assembly 1619-1978 (Richmond: Virginia State Library 1978).
  • Walsh, Lorena S., From Calabar to Carter's Grove: the History of a Virginia Slave Community (University Press of Virginia, 1997).

Further reading[edit]

  • Evans, Emory, Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian; 1975, University of Virginia; ISBN 0-87935-024-5.

External links[edit]

Archival Records

Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by