Thursday, September 11, 2014

William Grayson, One of Virginia’s First Senators

By Frank N. Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator

The August 29, 2014, edition of the Washington Post contained an article about the restoration of the tomb of William Grayson, who was born and was buried in 1790 at Belle Air plantation, in what is now Woodbridge, VA.

The article states that Grayson was the only U.S. Senator from Prince William County and died after only one year in office. What the article doesn’t mention is that George Mason of Gunston Hall was appointed to succeed him.

Senator William Grayson was described 
as one of the most handsome of the 
founding fathers. He was six feet tall 
and weighed 250 pounds. Photo from
 Biographical Directory of the United 
States Congress.
William Grayson was born in 1736 to Benjamin Grayson, an immigrant from Dumfries, Scotland, and Susannah Monroe, first cousin twice removed to James Monroe. Before he was 30, Grayson had become a very successful lawyer in Dumfries, Virginia. Part of his social circle and legal clients included neighbors from Fairfax County, George Washington and George Mason. According to one writer, he was “a member of the old Pohick Church as well as their chosen attorney.”

During the American Revolution, Grayson served as an aide-de-camp to his neighbor and former legal client George Washington. As a colonel in the Continental Army, Grayson later commanded an infantry regiment at the Battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. After his regiment was incorporated into another, Col. Grayson became a member of the Congressional Board of War

After the war, Grayson returned to his law practice and served Virginia in the House of Delegates from 1784 to 1785, then was a member of the Confederation Congress from 1785 to 1787. He was elected as a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention of June 1788 during which, along with Patrick Henry and George Mason, he opposed the adoption of the new Constitution. He felt the Constitution favored the northern states and that a bill of rights was needed.

Despite the objections of these Anti-Federalists, the Constitution was ratified. In November, the Virginia Legislature elected the first U.S. Senators from the Old Dominion. William Grayson, Richard Henry Lee, and James Madison were the three candidates. Through the political dealings of Patrick Henry, including warning the House of Delegates that Madison was untrustworthy and would be certain to betray the Anti-Federalists should he be elected, Grayson and Lee were selected.

Grayson and Lee thus became Virginia’s first Senators. They traveled to the capital in New York City where they were the only Anti-Federalists serving in the Senate. Grayson served throughout the first session until adjournment in September 1789. Before he could return for the next session in the spring of 1790, he died, probably from complications of the gout which had afflicted him for years. He was buried at the plantation where he was born, which had been inherited by his older brother, Rev. Spence Grayson.

Upon Sen. Grayson’s death, Governor Beverly Randolph offered the Senate seat to George Mason. In his letter of March 25, 1790, to Col. Mason, Randolph wrote: “The very important subjects now before congress so interesting to America in general and more especially to your native State call for the counsels of the wisest of her citizens.”

Mason received the letter two days later and immediately responded to turn down the appointment citing his “present State of Health…I have been confined by a severe Fit of the Gout, ever since the Second Week in January….I have little Hopes of being able to go abroad, for a considerable Time to come.”

He went on to write, “…even if I was now in New York it wou’d not be in my Power to render our Country any essential Service, and I can’t reconcile myself to the Idea of receiving the Publick’s Money for Nothing.” He said he was “sensible” of the honor of the appointment and thanked the Governor and his council for their favorable opinion “of which I shall ever retain the most grateful Remembrance.

Grayson’s Senate seat was then given to John Walker, another former colonel and aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington. He served until November of 1790, when the Senate elected James Monroe to the post. He served until March 1794 when President Washington appointed him Minister of France.

Monroe was then succeeded in the Senate by a Mason. Two years after George Mason’s death, his nephew Stevens Thomson Mason was elected. He was twice reelected to the office, and died in Philadelphia in 1803 during his third term.

Lawson, Terry. "Prince William County, VAGenealogy Research, Resources, and Records." Prince William Co VA Genealogy: Belle Aire Plantation. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2014.
Nehring, Marilyn, et al. "William Grayson." William Grayson. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Sept. 2014.
Rutland, Robert Allen, ed. The Papers of George Mason 1787-1792. Vol. III. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1970. Print.
Ward, Harry M. For Virginia and for Independence: Twenty-Eight Revolutionary War Soldiers from the Old Dominion. McFarland & Co. North Carolina. 2011. Google Books. Web. 09 Sept. 2014.
Zauzmer, Julie. "In 224 Years, Va. Tomb Has Seen War, Hippies. And Now Public-private Partnership." The Washington Post, Aug. 29, 2014. Web. 09 Sept. 2014.

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