Presidential Mothers: Elizabeth Harrison only mother, grandmother of a president

Published 11:20 am Friday, January 20, 2023

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By Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

When William Henry Harrison ran for President, the symbols for his campaign were a log cabin and a jug of hard liquor. It seemed to have been believed at that time that there was an advantage to having been born in a log cabin.

Actually, those symbols certainly did not represent William Henry Harrison well. He was not born in a log cabin—far from it.  He was born in a mansion which sat and still sits near the bank of the beautiful James River in Charles City County, Va.  That mansion, Berkeley, is still there and is open to visitors.

William Henry Harrison’s mother was Elizabeth Bassett Harrison, who was born at the Elthem Estate in Kent County, Va. She was born on Dec. 13, 1730, to Col. William Bassett and Elizabeth Churchill Bassett. She was a relative of most of the best-known families in Virginia, a niece of Martha Washington, according to one source.

Little is known about her early childhood or her education but she was probably tutored at home as were the daughters of most of the wealthy families of that day.

In 1748, Elizabeth Bassett married Benjamin Harrison, who was one of the signors of the Declaration of Independence.  Elizabeth and Benjamin Harrison were the parents of seven children who survived infancy—three boys and four girls. William Henry was the youngest of those seven children and he was born in that mansion called Berkeley.

Not only was Elizabeth Bassett Harrison the mother of the ninth President of the United States, she is also the grandmother of a President of this great country, Benjamin Harrison, who was the 23rd President. She is the only woman who was the mother and the grandmother of a President. That puts Elizabeth Bassett Harrison into a class by herself.

Elizabeth Bassett Harrison was known as a gracious hostess. A guest at Berkeley Plantation today can almost see Elizabeth welcoming guests at the door of the large entrance hall, which has doors at both ends so the cool breezes from the river can flow though. Guests may have arrived at Berkeley mansion via the James River. Some of the history of the family was destroyed during the Revolutionary War by the British led by Benedict Arnold, who burned valuable items from the mansion, but luckily the mansion was not destroyed.

Even though William Henry Harrison spent years away from his home in Virginia, it was there that he returned to write his inaugural address in his mother’s bedroom where he was born—that room no doubt had special meaning.

There is very little information available about the mother of John Tyler, the man who was vice president and became president when William Henry Harrison died after serving as president for only 41 days.   John Tyler’s mother was Mary Marot Armistead, who was born in York County, Va. on July 31, 1761. Mary’s parents were Judge Robert Booth Armstead, (1737-1766) a prominent Kent County plantation owner, and Christine Anne Shields Armistead (1742-1797). The Armisteads were descended from the first families of Virginia. Mary Marot Armistead married Capt. John Tyler III, a Revolutionary War soldier and Virginia Governor in 1776.  John and Mary Armistead Tyler had eight children.  Their son, John, was born in 1790. John’s mother, Mary, died of a stroke in 1797 when she was t35 years old. John was only 7.  John Tyler, like Andrew Jackson, was deprived of a mother’s love from a young age.  John’s father hired tutors to teach his children.  When he was 12, John Tyler mentered the preparatory department of William and Mary College. Tyler went on to graduate from that college in 1807. In 1842, John Tyler, who lost his mother when he was young became the Presidents.

The 11th President, James K. Polk, is one of the few presidents with North Carolina roots. Both of Polk’s parents were born in North Carolina as was their son, James, who became president in 1844.  Jane Gracy Knox was born in Iredell County on Nov. 15, 1776. She married Samuel Polk in Mecklenburg Count on Dec. 25, 1794.  Mrs. Polk was a staunch Presbyterian, and she ran her home in accordance with the precepts of that religion. The Polk home was said to be tidy and well-organized which would seem have been almost impossible because Jane Gracy Knox Polk and her husband, Samuel, were the parents of 10 children.   James was the oldest of the Knox children and he was a sickly child, which must have troubled his mother.

James Knox Polk lived with his parents at their Pineville, North Carolina, home for the first 10 years of his life. His family then moved to Tennessee where the members of his family lived the rest of their lives. The 500-mile move to Tennessee from their Mecklenburg County home was a hard one, especially for James who was not well, but his mother cared for him as best she could under the circumstances.

James K. Polk came back to North Carolina to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for his education. James married Sarah Childress, who was always his greatest supporter.

After holding a number of positions in Tennessee government, being a member of the U.. Congress, and being the Governor of Tennessee, James K. Polk, became President of the United States in 1844.

Sarah Knox Polk lived to see her son become the President.  After completing his term as president during which he followed the precept of hard work which he gained from the teaching of his mother, President Polk returned to his home in Tennessee.  Three months later on June 15, 1849, James K. Polk was dead.

Jane Gracy Knox Polk lived about two years after the death of her oldest son. Seventy-five year old Jane died on Jan. 11, 1852.

The mother of the 11th President is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery in Columbia, Maury County, Tenn.  Her grave is about 50 miles from that of her son.

James K. Polk and his wife Sarah are buried at the Tennessee state capitol in Nashville.