This Day in History: A Signer of the Declaration with a lot to lose
On this day in 1736, a signer of the Declaration of Independence is born in Virginia. Carter Braxton was a wealthy and influential man with a lot to lose! His family had received large land grants from King George II. He had a thriving tobacco business. He held many public offices.
It would have been easy for him to hold on to his position, power, and money. Instead, he supported the Patriot cause.
Braxton was never quite as radical as some of his fellow Patriots, but his moderation carried some benefits early in the war. One of these occurred shortly after the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington Green. In the wake of that event, you can imagine that Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, was a bit worried. Would Virginians follow in the footsteps of the revolutionaries near Boston? Dunmore didn’t want to take any chances. He decided to empty a gunpowder magazine in Williamsburg.
Perhaps he should have considered that patriots such as Patrick Henry weren’t going to allow the local supply of ammunition to be confiscated like that? Locals were furious, and they wanted some sort of violent reprisal.
Fortunately, others had a calmer approach. In concert with the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Braxton helped to avert the violence. Braxton’s father-in-law was a crown official, and they ensured that locals were reimbursed for the gunpowder taken. [See April 20 history post.]
At this juncture, of course, Braxton still hoped for reconciliation with Great Britain. Indeed, as late as April 1776, he wrote that independence was “a delusive Bait which men inconsiderately catch at, without knowing the hook to which it is affixed.” His view? He didn’t think America could win a war against Great Britain. If things changed, later, he could potentially support a move for “an independent State and all its Consequences, as then I think they will produce Happiness to America.”
Just a few short months later, he’d apparently changed his mind. Virginia cast its vote for a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in July 1776, and Braxton would join those signing the document in August.
Braxton was active in other ways during those years, too. He was a member of the Committee on Safety, and he helped to organize local militia. He donated £10,000 sterling to the war effort! And, he personally funded privateers to harass the British navy. He served in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Braxton may not have been one of the most radical of Patriots, but he suffered financially nonetheless. During the war, many of his properties were destroyed, and he lost ships and goods at sea. By 1786, he was in financial distress. He abandoned his larger properties and set up a much smaller household in Richmond.
Braxton spent the final years of his life in service to the State of Virginia. He passed away of a stroke on October 10, 1797.
He’d kept his vow: “[F]or the support of this Declaration [of Independence], with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Benson John Lossing, Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence (1866)
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1832)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
Letter from Carter Braxton to Landon Carter (April 14, 1776)
Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (Robert T. Conrad ed. 1865)
Stella Pickett Hardy, Colonial Families of the Southern States of America: A History and Genealogy of Colonial Families who Settled in the Colonies Prior to the Revolution (1911)