Robert Hanson Harrison: lost hero of the Revolutionary era

On Maryland History

December 31, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

IT WASN'T until 1840 that Maryland closed the books officially on the case of Robert Hanson Harrison. He was an important though largely forgotten figure in the Revolution as well as the state's early history. In that year, the General Assembly authorized the payment to Sarah Easton and Dorothy Storer of a sum of money equal to three year's half pay of an aide-de-camp to the commander-in-chief of all American military forces.

The payment was like a pension, a belated recognition of Harrison's service during the war. The two women were Harrison's daughters. Two years earlier, Virginia granted those heirs a land bounty for Harrison's war years.

Harrison's name doesn't come to mind quickly when Maryland's leaders in the Revolutionary era are listed. Perhaps it was because he declined too often.

Harrison, for example, was one of the first five delegates elected by the General Assembly for the Constitutional Convention in 1787, along with Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Thomas Stone, James McHenry and Thomas Sim Lee. Harrison declined the opportunity.

When President Washington selected Harrison to be one of the first justices of the newly established Supreme Court, Harrison again declined.

The state tried to honor him by appointing him chancellor of Maryland, an important judicial post at the time. But the position would have required his presence in Annapolis. "I must be leave to decline the appointment," he replied to Gov. John Eager Howard.

Harrison had also resigned from the military. He served as as a key military aide to General Washington from 1775 to 1781. His father had died that year. He had been widowed earlier, so there was no one to care for his two young daughters, Sarah and Dorothy. Washington was disappointed to lose him. He once described Harrison as, "the only gentleman of my family that can offer me the least assistance in writing," and added that he would be "distressed beyond measure" to lose him.

When Maryland offered him the post of chief judge of the general court, he did accept. But the duties were not onerous. He would have considerable time on his own.

Harrison simply wasn't a man of burning ambition. He preferred a simple home life by the banks of the Potomac in Charles County where he was born. And his hard years at war had left him with serious physical problems. His letters tell of his "indisposition" to travel and carry on arduous tasks.

Maryland honored Harrison with more than a judicial appointment. In the country's first election in 1789, all the state's presidential electors cast all their votes for Washington as president and Harrison as vice president. That put him third in the balloting behind John Adams and John Jay.

A sketch of Harrison in the Maryland Historical Magazine describes him as, "a lost man of Maryland." The reason for the title, in part, is that Harrison left no deeds or monuments in his life. The author, George T. Ness, Jr., found that no one was sure exactly where he lived. And there is no certainty as to where he is buried.

He probably lived at Walnut Landing, his father's estate and his mother's burial site. He may have been buried there as well. But a brother was rector of the church of Durham Parish. Maybe his grave is there. Or as a good churchgoer, he may have been laid to rest at the old Episcopal church cemetery at Port Tobacco, but that burial ground was silted over long ago and all burial markers destroyed.

Harrison was born in Charles County in 1745. His family was long established; it had been in Maryland for a century or more. One of three sons, he was related to other prominent men from southern Maryland like John Hanson, the first president of the Congress of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, and Thomas Stone, one of the state's four signers of the Declaration of Independence.

A lawyer, Harrison practiced across the Potomac in Alexandria. By 1769, he was well established, and among his clients were George Mason of Gunston Hall and George Washington of Mount Vernon. Washington's diaries record legal payments to Harrison. They also had a close social relationship; Harrison a frequent visitor to Mount Vernon. The two men also hunted together.

Harrison served on Alexandria's Committee of Correspondence before the war. Soon after Washington was named commander-in-chief of the American forces, Harrison, already a lieutenant in the 3rd Virginia Regiment, was named an aide. An military note from November 1775 commands that "all orders, whether written or verbal, coming from the general through Mr. Harrison are to be punctually obeyed."

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