Gessner Harrison was born on June 26, 1807, in Harrisonburg, the second of seven children of Peachy Harrison and Mary Stuart Harrison. His father was a prominent physician and politician who served in the House of Delegates (1816–1817) and the Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830. Peachy Harrison loved literature, and he named his son after Salomon Gessner, a popular eighteenth-century Swiss poet. As a child Gessner Harrison read voraciously and spent his spare time in his father’s extensive library. He was an intelligent, studious child who began attending school at the age of four and studying Latin at the age of eight. Religious instruction infused Harrison’s early education. His father was a devout Methodist, and three of his teachers were prominent Presbyterian ministers.
Harrison was the fifth student to register for the opening session of the University of Virginia in 1825. His older brother Edward Harrison joined him at the university, as did his childhood friend Henry Tutwiler. Harrison’s intellect and religious convictions immediately made an impression. Each Sunday, Thomas Jefferson invited small groups of students to dine with him at Monticello. When the Harrison brothers’ turn came, however, they politely declined. Like their father, the boys were devout Christians, and they refused to break the Sabbath. Jefferson was so impressed by their convictions that he invited them to dine with him privately the following week. Among his fellow students, who were loud, mischievous, and sometimes even violent, Harrison earned a reputation as something of an outsider who blanched even at swearing. Some students resented Harrison’s behavior, but he assured his father that “their enmity is better infinitely than their friendship purchased at the high price of virtue.”
Harrison he found the university’s medical courses difficult and demanding. He worked tirelessly, however, and in 1828 became one of the first three students to receive a medical degree from the school. He also studied ancient languages under the English-born professor George Long, excelling in Latin and Greek. When Long returned to England in 1828, he recommended that Harrison replace him on the University of Virginia faculty.
Surprised by the recommendation of a twenty-one-year-old, the board of visitors nonetheless granted Harrison a one-year appointment as professor of ancient languages. In his first year, Harrison struggled with self-doubt. In a letter to George Long in August 1829, he admitted that he felt unprepared for the task of “converting my stock of information, which is not the greatest, into a useful instruction to my class.” He felt inferior to the older and more accomplished professors and lamented his “many deficiencies” as a professor. By the end of the year he had succeeded well enough to receive a renewal of his appointment. He remained with the university for another thirty years.
As a young professor, Harrison struggled to assert his authority over his riotous and fiercely independent students—many of whom were only a few years younger than himself. On the night of May 20, 1830, several students were shouting on the Lawn just outside Harrison’s home in Pavilion VI. According to the faculty minutes, Harrison stepped outside to quiet the students and discovered that at least one student—John Willis, of Orange County—was drunk. Harrison chastised Willis and accused him of using “improper language,” and eventually the students dispersed. The next day, however, Willis confronted Harrison outside his classroom. He declared that Harrison had disrespected him, and he demanded an apology. When Harrison replied that professors had the right to reprimand their students, Willis yelled, “You had not and I’ll be damned if you shall,” and he assaulted Harrison. The faculty expelled Willis, but tensions remained. In 1833, several students set off a firecracker outside Harrison’s door. In 1836, a drunk student accosted him with what the faculty minutes describe as “disrespectful and profane” language.
In 1839, Thomas Russell and William Binford confronted Harrison as he was leaving a lecture. They had recently been suspended for “gross violations” of university rules, and they blamed Harrison—who was then serving as faculty chairman—for their dismissal. Binford held Harrison while Russell struck him several times with a horsewhip. A crowd gathered, and another student eventually intervened to stop the attack. Harrison rebuked Russell and Binford for their disgraceful attack—prompting them to renew the assault before fleeing on horseback toward Lynchburg.
Over time, however, Harrison became an esteemed and well-respected professor. He taught both Latin and Greek until 1856, when the board of visitors divided the School of Ancient Languages and hired Basil L. Gildersleeve to take over the Greek courses. Harrison continued teaching Latin for another three years. In his thirty years as a professor, Harrison served as secretary of the faculty (1831–1832) and faculty chairman (1837–1839, 1840–1842, 1847–1854), and became known as a gifted classical scholar. He published three well-respected works: The Geography of Ancient Italy and Southern Greece (1834), Exposition of Some of the Laws of the Latin Grammar (1852), and Treatise on the Greek Prepositions and the Nouns with Which These are Used (1858).
December 15, 1830, Harrison married Eliza Lewis Carter Tucker, the daughter of George Tucker, one of the university’s original faculty members. They had at least ten children, of whom four boys and three girls survived to maturity. In many ways, Harrison did not conform to the model of aggressive, honor-bound masculinity prevalent in the antebellum South, preferring a quiet, earnest life of study. He worked himself to exhaustion and loved nature and music. In other ways, however, Harrison was a typical member of the southern elite. He owned as many as nine slaves as well as substantial property. In 1860, he owned $42,000 in real estate and $25,842 in personal property.
Despite this substantial wealth, Harrison found it difficult to support his large family on the university’s $3,000-per-year salary. His lifelong friend Henry Tutwiler had recently resigned from the University of Alabama to found a boarding school, and Harrison decided to do the same. He resigned from the University of Virginia in 1859, and established the Locust Grove Academy, a school for boys in northern Albemarle County. In 1860 he purchased land in Nelson County and enrolled 100 boys, several of them the sons of Harrison’s former students. The Civil War, however, interrupted his plans. By the end of 1861, half of his charges had left to enlist in the Confederate army, and the school was forced to close upon Harrison’s death. Harrison himself remained deeply loyal to slavery and the South. When Virginia seceded in April 1861, Harrison’s four sons enlisted in the Confederate army.
Late in 1861, one of Harrison’s sons returned home from the war to recover from a severe case of camp fever. The illness persisted for several months, and Harrison insisted on nursing his son himself. Years of overwork had worn down Harrison’s health, and while his son slowly recovered, Harrison himself contracted the disease. He died on April 7, 1862, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.
- The Geography of Ancient Italy and Southern Greece (1834)
- Exposition of Some of the Laws of the Latin Grammar (1852)
- Treatise on the Greek Prepositions and the Nouns with Which These are Used (1858)