Lucy Nelson

Wife of Signer Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Engraved by H.B. Hall

Lucy Grymes was born on August 24, 1743, in Middlesex County, Virginia, the daughter of Philip and Mary Randolph Grymes. Through her mother’s family, Lucy was the cousin of many of the Founding Fathers who served with her husband, including Virginia patriots Peyton Randolph, Carter Braxton, and Thomas Jefferson. Her first cousin once removed, also named Lucy Grymes, married Henry Lee II, and was the mother of Henry ” Light Horse Harry” Lee, who was the father of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee.

Thomas Nelson, Jr. was born at Yorktown, Virginia, on December 26, 1738, the son of William and Elizabeth Burwell Nelson. (He was given the title “Junior” to distinguish himself from his uncle, who was also named Thomas). He was the grandson of Thomas Nelson, known as “Scotch Tom,” a merchant-planter who was the family’s founder, one of the wealthiest in the colony. His father was William Nelson, long a member of the Council and at one time acting Governor, who was generally known as “President Nelson.”

Thomas was the oldest son, and as was the fashion at the time, his father sent him to England at the age of fourteen to be educated. He attended Eaton, a distinguished private school not far from London, and after completing a preparatory course of studies there, he went to Cambridge and entered Trinity College.

In 1761, after graduating from Cambridge University, Nelson sailed for America to help his father manage his plantation and mercantile business. While still at sea on his way home, he was elected by York County to the Virginia House of Burgesses, at the age of twenty-two. He served there until May 1774.

On July 29, 1762, Thomas Nelson married Lucy Grymes, who was a talented harpsichord player. At the time of his marriage, his father gave him a large landed estate of 20,000 acres, 400 slaves, and £30,000, which enabled him to maintain an elegant lifestyle as a country gentleman. The couple eventually had eleven children.

Thomas Nelson became one of Virginia’s most active patriots. In 1773, the House of Burgesses met to consider a committee of correspondence through which Virginia could communicate with and offer aid to Patriots in the other colonies. In early 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party, Nelson and others boarded the ship Virginia at Yorktown, and he personally dumped two chests of tea into the York River to protest the British Tea Tax. This was an action that could have cost him prison or death.

In May 1774, Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses because of the passage of a resolution protesting the British closing of the Port of Boston. Thomas Nelson was one of the eighty-nine men who responded by meeting the next day at the Raleigh Tavern, where he was appointed to the first Virginia general convention to meet at Williamsburg on August 1.

In 1774 and 1775, Nelson attended three of the Virginia general conventions, where he worked closely with Patrick Henry; he introduced a resolution for organizing a military force. When the Convention of Virginia delegates gathered in July 1775, they decided to raise three regiments for home defense, Patrick Henry was named as commander of the first, while Nelson was put in charge of the second. Nelson was an active voice in reorganizing the militia, away from royal control and loyalist influences.

In a letter to a relative, John Page, dated Philadelphia, February 13, 1776, Nelson wrote:

We are carrying on a war and no war; they seize our property on land and sea, and we hesitate to retaliate because we have a few friends in England. Away with such squeamishness, say I! One of our reverend fathers in God refused to ordain a young gentleman who went from this country because he was a “rebellious American,” so that unless we submit to parliamentary oppression, we shall not have the gospel of Christ preached among us. But let every man worship under his own vine and fig-tree.

At the third general convention at Richmond, Nelson was appointed a delegate to represent the colony in the Continental Congress, which was to assemble at Philadelphia. For the next two years, Nelson continued to represent Virginia in the Congress, where he was frequently appointed on important committees, and was highly distinguished for his sound judgment and liberal sentiments. He was also very outspoken in his desire to sever the bonds with England.

Nelson journeyed to Virginia in the spring of 1776, and at a convention held in Williamsburg, he introduced and won approval for a resolution recommending national independence, drafted by Edmund Pendleton. Nelson carried it to Philadelphia and presented it to Richard Henry Lee, who redrafted and condensed it into his June 7 resolution.

Thomas Nelson, Jr. voted for independence and signed the Declaration of Independence. He admitted proudly that he was the only one of nine or ten Virginians that were sent with him to England to be educated who had taken part in the American Revolution. All the rest were Tories.

Not long afterward, Nelson’s health began to decline; subsequently, he divided his time between Philadelphia and Virginia. In May 1777, he suffered the first of many strokes, which greatly impaired his memory. Returning home, he seemed to recover, but would have additional strokes as well as periodic bouts of asthma. His convalescence was slow, and when the convention met, he resigned from Congress and returned to private life.

His health gradually improved, and his services were again demanded by the public, and by the governor and council, he was appointed brigadier general and commander in chief of the forces of the commonwealth. In this office, he rendered his most important service to his country and to Virginia. His ample fortune enabled him, in cases of emergency, to advance money to support the military.

Nelson served in Congress again for a short time in 1779, but poor health forced him to retire again.

Patriot's signature
Thomas Nelson Jr.’s Signature
On the Declaration of Independence

The British invaded Virginia in 1780, and in June, the state of Virginia called for $2,000,000 to be placed in the Continental treasury to help subsidize the war. Nelson tried to raise the money on his own, but no one wanted to lend money to the government; however, many would pledge all they could to Thomas Nelson, so he promised to repay the loans personally if the State should fail to do so. He was particularly effective in soliciting funds from wealthy plantation owners.

Despite his health problems, Nelson remained active in politics, and on June 12, 1781, he was elected the third Governor of Virginia, succeeding Thomas Jefferson. This was a gloomy period in the annals of Virginia. The state was repeatedly invaded by the British, and the path of the enemy was marked by destruction. The Virginia Legislature was on the run at the time, pursued by the British cavalry commander Banastre Tarleton into Albemarle County.

Nelson was granted almost dictatorial powers because of the invasion, and he used those powers to coordinate Virginia’s defense against Cornwallis. As Governor, he kept the government intact and strengthened defenses. He obtained munitions and supplies for the war, commanded the Virginia Militia with the rank of General, and attended the legislature.

By early September 1781, the American and French armies were closing in on Cornwallis. During the Siege and Battle of Yorktown, Nelson joined General George Washington to besiege the British in his hometown. As commander of 3000 Virginia militiamen, whom he had personally organized and supplied with his own funds, Nelson was in charge of one-third of the American troops during the battle.

When Cornwallis took refuge in Nelson’s home, American artillerymen refused to fire on the house. According to legend, Nelson ordered his artillery to shell his own mansion, offering five guineas to the first man who hit it. There are three cannon balls still lodged on the outer wall of the house.

The British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the end of the major fighting in the American Revolution.

Signer's statue
Thomas Nelson, Jr. Monument
On the base of the George Washington Monument
Capitol Square, Richmond, VA
Monument honoring Washington and Virginia’s role in the Revolution, which is depicted by six of her sons surrounding Washington. Smaller allegorical figures below the six statues are inscribed with themes reflecting each patriot’s contribution: Andrew Lewis, Colonial Times; Patrick Henry, Revolution; George Mason, Bill of Rights; Thomas Jefferson, Independence; Thomas Nelson, Jr., with seated female figure representing Finance; and John Marshall, Justice. American sculptor Thomas Crawford designed the monument, but died in 1857 after completing the statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Henry. His colleague Randolph Rogers executed the statues of Mason, Marshall, Nelson, and Lewis, as well as the allegorical figures, the last of which was put into place in 1869.

Thomas Nelson had sacrificed his health, his home, and his fortune to help win independence. Soon after the victory at Yorktown, overwhelmed by the burdens of office and still in poor physical condition, he resigned as governor in November 1781.

When the $2 million in loans he had raised for the war by pledging his own estates came due, a newer peacetime Congress refused to honor them, and Nelson’s property was forfeited. He was never reimbursed by the state, and he lacked money to renovate his Yorktown home, where he had lived since 1767, and was forced to move to his son’s home Mont Air a modest estate in Hanover County, Virginia.

But Nelson was not permitted to rest. Attacks were made on him for certain courses taken during his term as Governor, and a full investigation took place. When he asked and was given permission to defend himself before the State delegates, he was triumphantly acquitted of all the charges. Nelson lived more than seven years after this act approving his emergency actions, but they were spent in comparative poverty. The inattention to his personal affairs during the war, coupled with his ill health, made it impossible for him to reestablish the family wealth.

When asked if he felt embittered about his treatment, Nelson stated “I would do it all over again.” A true patriot, willing to sacrifice his home, livelihood, and life, Nelson personified the closing words of the Declaration of Independence:

And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

Thomas Nelson, Jr. died during an asthma attack at his son’s home on January 4, 1789, at the age of fifty, and was buried in the Grace Churchyard at Yorktown, just one block from his former home. Resting in the shadow of the historic marl (mud) wall at Grace Church are men who shaped the future of our colony, commonwealth, and country. Governor Nelson lies at the foot of his father, who also lies at the foot of his father.

Lucy Grymes Nelson died on September 14, 1830, at Springfield, Hanover County, VA, and was buried at Fork Church.

Thomas Nelson
The Nelson House
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Who Was Thomas Nelson?
Descendants of the Signers
Wikipedia: Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Brigadier General Thomas Nelson Jr.
Signer of the Declaration Independence

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