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HONESTY is a virtue that commands universal respect. This term, like many others, has lost much of its original force and is too promiscuously used. When Pope proclaimed an honest man the noblest work of God, he included purpose, word and action in all things, under all circumstances and at all times. He alluded to a man whose purity of heart placed him above every temptation to violate the original laws of integrity which emanated from the High Chancery of Heaven. His imagination pictured a man whose every action through his whole life should
pass the moral scrutiny of omniscience unscathed, and stand approved at the dread tribunal of the great Jehovah. Such a man is a noble work indeed, worthy of the highest admiration and closest imitation.
The signers of the declaration of independence were remarkable for integrity, and none of them more so than THOMAS NELSON, who was born at York, Virginia, on the 26th of December, 1738. the son of William Nelson, whose father was a native of England and settled in York at an early period. The father of Thomas was an enterprising and successful merchant, and eventually became also a wealthy planter. He filled many public stations with great ability, and during the interval between the administration of Lord Bottetourt and Lord Dunmore, presided over the colony ex officio, being then president of the executive council.
At the age of fourteen years Thomas Nelson was placed under the instruction of Mr. Newcomb, whose school was near Hackney, Eng. land. When his preparatory studies were completed he was placed at Cambridge and entered of Trinity College, under the tuition of Dr. Beilby Porteus, who was one of the brightest literary ornaments of his age and ultimately became the bishop of London. Guided by the master-hand of this finished scholar, acccomplished gentleman and pious man, Mr. Nelson traced the fair lines of science and explored the avenues of literature. The principles of virtue and integrity were also deeply impressed upon his mind and governed his actions through life. After spending eight years at the classic fountain in England, he returned to Virginia, highly polished in mind and person. He entered into the enjoyment of a large landed estate, and over one hundred and thirty thousand dollars in cash. In August, 1762, he led to the hymeneal altar Miss Lucy, daughter of Philip Grymes, of Brandon, and settled permanently at his native place. His house became the seat of hospitality and domestic felicity. He assimilated his style of life, in some respects, to that of an English nobleman when at his country seat. He rode almost daily to his plantation, a few miles from York, and amused himself with his gun. He also kept a pack of hounds and in the winter often joined in the thrilling and bloodstirring sport of the fox-chase. No respectable stranger could visit the town without receiving an urgent invitation to partake of his hospitality. In this manner his time passed smoothly along until the public demanded his services.
For a long time a particular intimacy existed between the leading men of Virginia and those of England. This arose from consanguinity and wealth and was kept alive for a century by an interchange of good feelings and offices. The sons of the wealthy men of the Old Dominion were uniformly educated in Great Britain, and imbibed the same feelings of independence manifested by the noblemen of the mother country, and felt themselves, very properly, entitled to as much confidence from the king as a native and resident of Albion. Hence, when the car of oppression was mounted by the British ministry, the noblest sons of Virginia were the most vigorous opposers of royal power. They at once acted in concert with the patriots of New England and treated the insults offered at Boston as though they had been personally directed to them. The very fact of former intimacy made this opposition more bitter and pointed.
In 1774, Mr. Nelson was elected to the house of burgesses and took a bold stand in favour of liberal principles. He was one of the eightynine members who assembled at a tavern the day after Lord Dunmore dissolved the house and formed themselves into an association of nonintercourse with Great Britain. At the next election he was again returned to the house of burgesses. He was a member of the convention, held on the first of August of that year, to elect delegates to Congress, and of the one convened in March, 1775, for this and other purposes. He supported the boldest measures that were proposed by the daring Patrick Henry, from which many of the patriots at first recoiled with amazement. He had no ear for the syren song of peace when the shores of his country were darkened by foreign fleets and armies. From the following resolutions introduced in the last named convention by Patrick Henry, the reader can form an idea of the feelings that pervaded the minds of the leading patriots at that early period. One of the germs of our militia system will also be perceived.
«Resolved, that a well regulated militia, composed of gentlemen and yeomen, is the natural strength and only security of a free government; that such a militia in this colony would for ever render it unnecessary for the mother country to keep among us, for the purpose of our defence, any standing army of mercenary soldiers, always subversive of the quiet and dangerous to the liberties of the people, and would obviate the pretext of taxing for their support.
“That the establishment of such a militia is, at this time, peculiarly necessary by the state of our laws, some of which have already expired and others will shortly be so—and that the known remissness of gov ernment in calling us together in legislative capacity renders it too insecure, in this time of danger and distress, to rely that opportunity will be given of renewing them in general assembly, or making any
provision to secure our inestimable rights and liberties from those further violations with which they are threatened.
"Resolved, therefore, that this colony be immediately put in a state of defence, and that be a committee to prepare a plan for embodying, arming and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose.”
These resolutions were warmly supported by Mr. Nelson, whose property was exposed to the utmost danger in case of an open rupture with the royal authorities. The measure proposed was carried into effect, and from that time opposition to the pretensions of the crown assumed a bold front in Virginia. This convention assembled again in July, and divided the colony into sixteen military districts, the eastern district to raise forth with a regiment of six hundred and eighty men, rank and file, and each of the others to raise a battalion of five hundred, to be at once armed and held in readiness to march at any moment. The convention also directed the raising of two regiments of regulars of one thousand and twenty privates, and appointed Patrick Henry to command the first and Mr. Nelson to command the second. Thus Virginia assumed a determined and systematic attitude of defence at an early period.
On the 11th of August this convention met again and elected Mr. Nelson a delegate to the Continental Congress, in which he took his seat on the 13th of September following. Possessed of a strong mind and sound judgment, he became a useful member of committees, but seldom took part in debate. By the following letter from him to Governor Page, it seems he was one of those who agitated the question of independence as early as the 22nd of January, 1776. "I wish I knew the sentiments of our people upon the grand points of confederation and foreign alliance, or, in other words, of independence-for we cannot expect to form a connexion with any foreign power as long as we have a womanish hankering after Great Britainand, to be sure, there is not in nature a greater absurdity than to suppose we can have any affection for a people who are carrying on the most savage war against us.” On the 13th of February, he writes to the same gentleman again, as follows: "Independence, confederation and foreign alliance are as formidable to some members of Congress, I fear a majority, as an apparition to a weak enervated woman. Would
you think we have some among us who still expect honourable proposals from the administration! By heavens-I am an infidel politics, for I do not believe were you to bid a thousand pounds per scruple for honour at the court of Great Britain, that you would get as many as would amount to an ounce. We are now carrying on a war and no war. 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
By this language we can judge of the ardent feelings that actuated this friend of equal rights. It was the pure fire of patriotism, fanned by a just indignation against a tyrannical and insolent foe. It was a fire that reflected a powerful heat upon those around it, and gathered
fresh vigour daily. Like separate parcels of metal in a crucible, one member after another yielded to its power, until all were united in one liquid mass, and, on the fourth of July, 1776, the mould of liberty was filled, which, when opened to the gaze of the world, presented a new and purely original table of law and government, enriched by the embossment of freedom and equal rights. On this fair tablet, more beautiful than mosaic work, Mr. Nelson engraved his name in bold relievo. Here we might leave him, with glory enough for one man. But he had then just entered the portico of his useful career. He embarked heart and soul in the cause, and became one of the most industrious members of variðus committees that was in Congress. In forming the articles of confederation he was particularly active. The ensuing year he again took his seat in the national assembly, but was compelled to retire in May, soon after the commencement of the session, in consequence of a severe attack of disease in his head, which, for a time, threatened to impair his mental powers. He was obliged to return home, and for a short period refrain from business. His place was supplied by Mr. Mason.
In August following, the appearance of a British fleet that entered the capes caused a general rally of the military force of Virginia. Mr. Nelson, who had regained his health, was commissioned by the governor and council brigadier-general and commander-in-chief of the military forces of the state: The appointment was popular—the incumbent was competent. His appearance among them inspired confidence in the people. The troops rallied around him like affectionate children around a fond parent. The fleet, however, did not deign to give them a call at that time, and the soldiers again became citizens.
In October, General Nelson took his seat in the legislature of his state, and acted a conspicuous part in its deliberations. During the session a bill was brought before the house sequestrating British property, and authorizing those of the colonists who were indebted to subjects of Great Britain to pay the amount into the public treasury; and if the wives and children of such subjects remained in the state, portions of the said money, under the direction of the governor and council, were to be appropriated to their support. With all the ardour and vehemence of feeling that pervaded the bosom of Mr. Nelson against the mother country, his honesty and justice impelled him to oppose this bill as violating the sacredness of individual contracts. He became roused, and made an able and eloquent address against the proposed measure, and closed in the following emphatic language: For these reasons I hope the bill will be rejected; but whatever be its fate, so help me God, I will pay my debts like an honest man.”
On the second of March, 1778, Congress made an appeal to the patriotism of the wealthy young men of the several colonies, urging them to raise a troop of light cavalry at their own expense. Nor was the appeal in vain." As soon as the proposed plan of Congress was received in Virginia, General Nelson sent a circular gentlemen of fortune in the state, recommending them not only to
all the young
come to the rescue themselves, but to open their purses to other high minded and respectable young men, whose hearts were noble but whose means were limited. A company of seventy was speedily raised in Virginia, and elected general Nelson their commander. He proceeded with his new charge to Baltimore and reported his youthful band to the brave Pulaski, who received this accession of volunteers with delight and admiration. From that place the company proceeded to Philadelphia, where the general and his men received the praise and thanks of Congress; and as their services were not wanted at that time, they were permitted to return to their homes. The expenses of the company during their absence were principally borne by General Nelson without any subsequent remuneration; and for his own services in the field during the war he refused to receive any pay; and, in addition to this, he expended a great portion of his fortune in the cause of his country.
On the 18th of February, 1779, General Nelson again took his seat in Congress, and was immediately placed on several important committees. His severe labour caused a second attack similar to the former, and in April he was compelled to return home.
It was in May of that year that the British made a descent upon Virginia, and spread destruction far and wide. Exercise soon restored the health of General Nelson and he at once took the field. He assembled a body of troops near Yorktown, but the enemy chose not to interfere with him at that time. During that short campaign he took a parental care of the soldiers by providing for their wants from his own funds. He distributed his labourers and servants among the
poor families of the militia from his neighbourhood to labour during the absence of the men. He was as benevolent as he was patriotic and brave.
In June, 1780, the general assembly of Virginia passed a resolution to borrow two millions of dollars for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the war.
General Nelson entered into the collection of this money with great zeal. Public credit was prostrated and government paper was no longer considered security. Like Robert Morris, he at once pledged his own fortune and raised large sums upon his own credit, for which he was but in part remunerated by government.
In the spring of 1781, Virginia was again the scene of murder, rapine, and wide spread ruin. Judas, alias Arnold, and Lord Cornwallis were sweeping over the land like a tornado. General Nelson was constantly in the field, doing all in his power to arrest the bold and savage career of the invading foe. He became the hero of the Old Dominion. In June he was elected governor of the state. He immediately entered upon the discharge of this dignified station, and bent his whole energies in raising troops to resist the enemy.
About that time Lafayette arrived with a body of regulars. Governor Nelson joined him in the field, and, yielding his rank, placed himself and the militia under the command of the marquis. Every thing within his power he grasped to aid his bleeding country. He placed even his draught horses and negroes in the public service. In the midst of these distresses a circumstance occurred that was