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This Day in History: Thomas Nelson, Jr., Signer of the Declaration

On this day in 1789, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. Thomas Nelson, Jr. was a prominent Virginian during his day, but perhaps modern Americans would never know it? He’s since been overshadowed by other Virginians.


Would we know more about Thomas Nelson if he’d come from a different state than George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson?

Nelson was born in Yorktown, Virginia in 1738, but his family sent him to England for his education. He finally returned home, got married, had children—and he became an early supporter of the Patriot cause.


Indeed, Nelson was a member of the House of Burgesses in the months after the Boston Tea Party rocked the political world. Virginia’s Royal Governor dissolved that assembly because Virginian legislators were too supportive of their fellow colonists in Massachusetts. But those legislators weren’t going to be silenced so easily. They met again anyway at a nearby tavern.


Ultimately, certain British goods were boycotted and a Continental Congress was convened. Nelson participated wholeheartedly in these events, even dumping tea into the harbor during a Yorktown Tea Party of 1774.


By the spring of 1776, Nelson was a member of the Continental Congress. He was among the first to speak out for independence. “We are now carrying on a war and no war,” he wrote in February 1776. “They seize our property wherever they find it, either by land or sea, and we hesitate to retaliate because we have a few friends in England who have ships. Away with such squeamishness, say I.”


Just a few months later, of course, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and Nelson signed. He continued to serve in Congress until the spring of 1777 when he suffered “an attack of the head.” (Possibly he had a stroke.) The incident impaired him for some time, and he was forced to leave Congress.


His health would continue to be a problem for the next several years, which left Nelson moving in and out of public service. But he never seemed to stay down long, jumping back into action whenever his health improved.


During those years, he raised and outfitted militia at his own expense. He encouraged other plantation owners to do the same, even pledging to repay loans if the state proved unable to do it later. He served as Governor for a few months.


By October 1781, Nelson was serving at the head of militia during the Siege of Yorktown. Legend has it that his fellow Americans were refusing to fire on Nelson’s home—which was in Yorktown—out of respect. Nelson would have none of it, though, instead urging that his own home be shelled.


After all, the British were using his home and they needed to be driven from it.


Either way, by the time the Revolution was over, Nelson’s fortune was largely gone, and he didn’t have enough money to repair his war-damaged home. When he passed away in January 1789, he was living with his son in Hanover County.


A friend eulogized him upon his death:


“The illustrious General Thomas Nelson is no more! . . . 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. . . . he was among the first of that glorious band of patriots whose exertions dashed and defeated the machination of British tyranny, and gave United America freedom and independent empire.”


Yet another (almost) forgotten Founder who deserves to be remembered.

Primary Sources:

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