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Signers of the Declaration
Biographical Sketches

Carter Braxton
Carter Braxton

Carter Braxton, an aristocratic planter and probably the most conservative of the seven Virginia signers, originally opposed independence but later changed his mind and signed the Declaration. His tour in the Continental Congress lasted less than a year, but he held State office for most of his life. His two wives bore him 18 children, more than any other signer fathered.

Braxton was born in 1736 at Newington Plantation, on the Mattaponi River, in King and Queen County, Va. His father was a wealthy and politically influential planter. His mother, who died at his birth, was the daughter of Robert "King" Carter, a prominent landowner and politician.

In 1755, the same year Braxton graduated from the College of William and Mary, he married. His bride died in childbirth 2 years later. The following year, he left for an extended visit to England. He returned to Virginia in 1760 and moved into Elsing Green, an estate overlooking the Pamunkey River, in King William County, that his brother George had apparently built for him in 1758 during his absence. At the age of 25, in 1761, Carter remarried and entered the House of Burgesses. He served there, except for a term as county sheriff in 1772-73, until 1775. Meantime, in 1767, he had erected a new home, Chericoke, a couple of miles northwest of Elsing Green.

When the trouble with Great Britain erupted, Braxton, like many other conservatives, sided with the patriots, though he did not condone violence. In 1769 he signed the Virginia Resolves, a document protesting parliamentary regulation of the colony's affairs, and the Virginia Association, a nonimportation agreement. During the period 1774-76, he attended various Revolutionary conventions. In 1775, upon dissolution of the royal government, he accepted a position on the council of safety, the temporary governing body.

In the spring of that year, Braxton was instrumental in preventing the outbreak of war in Virginia. On April 20, the day after the clashes at Lexington and Concord, Royal Governor Lord John M. Dunmore seized the gunpowder in the Williamsburg magazine. Several colonial militia units prepared to retaliate, but moderate leaders such as George Washington and Peyton Randolph restrained them. Patrick Henry, however, refusing to be pacified, led a group of the Hanover County militia into Williamsburg and demanded the return of the gunpowder or payment for it. Before any hostilities occurred, Braxton, as spokesman for Henry, met with crown official Richard Corbin, his father-in-law, and convinced him to pay for the powder.

In the fall of 1775 Braxton was selected to fill a vacancy in Congress caused by the death of Peyton Randolph. Arriving at Philadelphia early in 1776, he at first sharply criticized the independence movement, but eventually yielded to the majority and backed the Declaration. That same year, apparently both in writing and in a speech at a Virginia convention, he urged adoption of a conservative form of State government and expressed such a mistrust of popular government that he lost his congressional appointment. The conservatives, however, elected him to the new State legislature, in which he sat for the rest of his life. For many years, he was also a member of the Governor's executive council.

The War for Independence brought financial hardships to Braxton. At its beginning, he had invested heavily in shipping, but the British captured most of his vessels and ravaged some of his plantations and extensive landholdings. Commercial setbacks in later years ruined him. In 1786, though he retained Chericoke, he moved to Richmond, where he died in 1797 at the age of 61. He was buried in the family cemetery adjacent to Chericoke.

Drawing: Oil, 1901, by Albert Rosenthal, after a miniature by an unknown artist, Independence National Historical Park. In 1913 Charles H. Hart, an authority on historical portraits, maintained that this likeness was not Carter Braxton but was that of his brother George.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004