Thomas Nelson, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born December 26, 1738, at Yorktown in
, and was the first son of his parents. His father, William Nelson, emigrated from Virginia about the beginning of that century. He accumulated a large fortune and became head of one of the first families in England because of his prudence and industry. Virginia
At the age of fourteen, Thomas was sent to
England to be educated at a distinguished private school near . He completed a preparatory course of studies there and then went to London Cambridge where he was a member of . He studied under the direction of Dr. Proteus, who later became Bishop of London. Thomas was a diligent student until 1761 when he returned home. Trinity College
Thomas was very interested in George Grenville, the Prime Minister of England in 1765, and the workings of the British Parliament. Grenville was the author of the Stamp Act and was considered to be "an honest, but short-sighted politician. He apparently signed the Stamp Act because he envisioned the taxes on the Americans as a way to fill the empty treasury and to satisfy its many demands. Thomas' sympathies were very much in favor of the Americans' cause of liberty. He first appeared in public life in 1774 when he became a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia where he sided with the patriots. During Thomas' first session in the Burgesses that Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of
, chose to dissolve the Assembly. Virginia
The next day Thomas met with eighty-eight other members of the Burgesses at a neighboring tavern to form an association in support of freedom. Thomas was a member of the first
Virginia general convention that met in August 1774 in and there elected delegates to the first Continental Congress. Williamsburg
In the spring of 1775 Thomas was elected as a delegate to another general convention where he was looked upon as a leader in the cause of liberty because of the boldness of his spirit. He was so bold as to propose the subject of organizing the
militia to defend the rights of the people. This proposal could be almost treasonous, but it was "warmly seconded" by Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee and others and then adopted by the convention. Thomas, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee each held the rank of colonel and were appointed to lead three different regiments. Virginia
In language that could not be mistaken, this act convinced Governor Dunmore and the King that
was ready to exercise "with freedom all the privileges guarantied to her by the British Constitution." Not long after the convention voted to organize the militia, the wisdom of this act became clear. The royal Governor of Virginia - as well as other colonies - "attempted to secure the powder and other munitions of war in the public magazines, under a secret order from the British ministry" in a movement to disarm the people. Virginia
Thomas was appointed as a delegate from
to the General Congress in 1774, and was unanimously reelected in 1776. He did not often take part in the debates, but he was a diligent and efficient in committee duties. He "zealously supported" the proposition of independence; he later voted for the Declaration of Independence and signed it. Virginia
In the spring of 1777 Thomas became ill with a problem in his head that nearly destroyed his memory. He did not want to desert his post in Congress in order to regain his health, but he was urged to do so by his friends. He left
Philadelphia and returned to with plans to recruit and with the expectation that he would resume his seat in Congress. He was slow in recovering his health and resigned his seat when Congress met. Virginia
None long after he retired to private life, a British fleet was spotted off the coast of
and caused fear of an attack on this almost undefended seaboard. Thomas was called into service as the Brigadier General and Commander-in-Chief of the Virginia militia. This sudden call to arms left many families in difficult situations because they were in the midst of agricultural operations. General Nelson, with almost unlimited popularity, offered his own servants to till the land of those particular families. In addition, he "distributed his money liberally among them" and helped more than one hundred families. Virginia
Military action was avoided when the naval force of Lord Howe sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to attack
. About this same time, Congress asked the young men of wealth and character to help in the recruiting men for the army and otherwise assist their nation. Thomas eagerly entered into the plan and used his influence and money to raise a volunteer force. He then led his volunteers to join Philadelphia Washington at . They returned to Philadelphia Virginia because their services were not needed at ; they were honored with a vote of thanks from the Congress. Philadelphia
The military activity somehow helped General Nelson to regain his health. He was again elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1779. He took his seat in February but left for home in April because of illness. He resumed his military services in May because the British burned
Portsmouth and threatened and other places. He recruited a large force and proceeded to Yorktown, but the British soon returned to Norfolk . New York
Warlike operations came to Virginia in 1781 because the traitor Benedict "Arnold and General Phillips with a small flotilla ravaged the coasts and ascended the rivers on predatory excursions; and Cornwallis, from the southern fields of strife, marched victoriously over the lower counties of the State."
About this same time Governor Thomas Jefferson's official duties expired, and Thomas Nelson was elected as Governor. The fact that he became Governor did not cause him to relinquish his military post. As both governor and commander-in-chief, he led a large force and joined General La Fayette who had been sent to check Cornwallis' northward progress. Thomas was able to keep his force together until the capture of Cornwallis at
Yorktown because he used great person exertions as well as his own funds to do so.
Thomas led a body of military in the siege of
Yorktown where he owned a fine mansion. During the siege he noticed that "Americans poured their shot and shells thick and fast into every part of the town" except in the direction of the Nelson home. When he made inquiries as to why they were avoiding that area, he was told that it was "out of personal regard for him." He begged them to stop avoiding his home, and well directed shots were fired upon it. It so happened that a group of British officers were feasting and making merry there. The cannon shots killed two officers and ended the party. When General George Washington made his official account of the siege, he "made honorable mention of the great services of Governor Nelson and his militia."
Thomas Nelson made many sacrifices for the Americans' cause of liberty. When the French fleet was expected, Congress felt it necessary to make some arrangements for them. Congress, however, was out of funds. Its credit was bad, and its calls to the states were not answered rapidly.
decided to raise $2 million, and Thomas immediately began "a subscription list." He was told by "many wealthy men that they would not contribute a penny on the security of the Commonwealth, but they would lend him all he wanted. He at once added his personal security." Virginia
Governor Nelson's health began to decline within a month after the battle of
Yorktown, and he resigned his office. While he was trying to regain his health quietly at home, he was charged with malpractice as Governor. "A full investigation took place," and the legislature legalized his acts and acquitted him of all the charges.
Thomas spent the remainder of his days either at his mansion in
Yorktown or his estate at Offly. His health continued to decline until his death on January 4, 1789 at age 53.
Facts and quotes are from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, pp. 188-193.