Sarah Harrison Blair offers a tantalizing glimpse of unlikely female agency in colonial Virginia. She was the daughter of wealthy Surry County tobacco planter, trader, and land speculator Benjamin Harrison II. By the time of Sarah’s birth in 1670, the Harrisons were already a political dynasty in the making. Her father served in the House of Burgesses and on the governor’s Council; her brother Benjamin Harrison III would go on to be the Speaker of the House of Burgesses and the great-grandfather of the country’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison, who in turn was the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president of the United States.
Women of course couldn’t hold elected office in seventeenth-century Virginia. Like children, indentured servants, and enslaved laborers, they fell under the patriarchal authority of the male head of household in a hierarchy that was held to be divinely ordained. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. An advantageous marriage, especially into an already-established Tidewater family, was essential to the economic and political calculations of any ambitious white man in colonial Virginia. As Kathleen M. Brown noted in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, by the late 1700s most of the 100 wealthiest families in the commonwealth “could boast a dense web of inter- and intrafamilial marital connections that dated back to the 1690s.” Of these 100 super-families, nearly a quarter “bore the last name Armistead, Berkeley, Beverley, Burwell, Carter, Custis, Fitzhugh, Harrison, or Lee.”
Sarah Harrison came of marriageable age—bearing a prized surname—right at the peak of an incredibly competitive elite marriage market. And in that she found power. First, she contracted to marry William Roscow on April 28, 1687, swearing it out in the customary form “that I, Sarah Harrison, Daughter of Mr. Benja. Harrison, do & am fully resolved & by these presents do oblige myself (& cordially promise) to Wm. Roscow never to marry or to contract Marriage with any Man (during his life) only himself to confirm these presents.”
Such promises of marriage, which coincided with familial negotiations about dowries and other financial obligations, carried the weight of a binding contract and were subject to breach of promise suits should they be violated. Yet violate it Harrison did. She broke her engagement to Roscow and just over a month later, on June 2, married James Blair, a Scottish-born Anglican minister who served the Henrico Parish.
In doing so, Harrison ignored a law passed by the Virginia Council that stated that anyone who entered into a second engagement without release from the first, which was considered “marriage to several persons,” would be “whipped or fined according to the quality of the persons offending.”
Yet even then Harrison displayed a steadfast sense of independence. When it came time to take her vows during her wedding ceremony to Blair and the presiding minister asked her to repeat the vow to “obey” she replied, “No obey.” This was a complete negation of the widely accepted duty of wives to obey their husbands—not only as a fundamental component of marriage as it was understood at the time, but of the correct ordering of society. There’s no record of how those in attendance at the ceremony reacted, but to be a fly on the wall in that spring of 1687!
The minister, who is recorded only as Mr. Smith, refused to proceed without Sarah’s avowal to “obey.” He tried twice more to get her to repeat the vow. Twice more she refused. “No obey,” she insisted. Mr. Smith finally relented, and the ceremony was concluded without Harrison pledging obedience to her husband.
Harrison’s insistence on carving out a little sliver of independence is surprising but understandable in the context of the time. Blair was a newcomer to the colony and a cleric who likely coveted the connections of an established Tidewater family. Harrison was a member of the landed elite, a power differential that she apparently understood well. And Blair did get what he wanted from the marriage: he would go on to become one of the most powerful men in Virginia.
Sarah Harrison Blair didn’t fare as well, however, although we know far less about her than her husband. We know she attended to Blair’s business when he was in London fighting his many political battles and that she was once dragged from a pew at Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church by one of her husband’s enemies. She appears to have developed a drinking problem by mid-life, perhaps due to a not particularly happy marriage with her fractious husband. She died at the age of forty-two, “exceeding beloved and lamented.” But for a little while, Virginia’s colonial marriage market provided Sarah Harrison Blair with a modicum of power. And she used it.