A 1780 miniature portrait of Laurens, by Charles Willson Peale.
October 28, 1754|
Charleston, Province of South Carolina
(now Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.)
|Died||August 27, 1782
Combahee River, South Carolina, U.S.
|Buried at||Laurens Family Cemetery, Mepkin Abbey
Moncks Corner, South Carolina, U.S.
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Years of service||1777-1782|
|Spouse(s)||Martha Manning (m. 1776)|
|Relations||Henry Laurens (father; b. 1724 - d. 1792)
Eleanor Ball (mother; d. 1776)
1 daughter (b. February 1777)
John Laurens (October 28, 1754 – August 27, 1782) was an American soldier and statesman from South Carolina during the American Revolutionary War, best known for his efforts to help recruit slaves to fight for their freedom as soldiers, in addition to his critical views against slavery, which set Laurens apart from many of his compatriots of the time.
Although Laurens gained approval from the Continental Congress in 1779 to recruit a brigade of 3,000 slaves by promising them freedom in return for fighting, he was killed in the Battle of the Combahee River in August 1782.
Early life and education
Laurens was born in 1754 to Henry Laurens and Eleanor Ball in Charleston, South Carolina; both their families were planters who had grown wealthy through cultivation of rice based on slave labor. Henry Laurens ran one of the largest slave trading houses in the country with his partner Richard Oswald.
John was the eldest of the five children who survived infancy. John and his two brothers were tutored at home, but after the death of their mother, their father took them to England for their education. John completed his studies in Europe, first in London in 1771, then in Geneva, Switzerland in 1772. As a youth, John expressed considerable interest in science and medicine, but he yielded to his father's wish that he study law. In August 1774 he returned to London to do so.
His father returned to South Carolina but refused to let John return until completing his legal studies two years later. In the summer of 1777, after the Revolutionary War had started, Laurens accompanied his father to Philadelphia, where the senior man was to serve in the Continental Congress. Despite the father's objections, the younger Laurens continued on to General George Washington's camp as a volunteer at the age of 23.
|“||We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity, and almost render'd them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow'd upon us all.||”|
—Laurens, on slavery, 
Laurens joined the Continental Army and following the Battle of Brandywine, was made officially an aide-de-camp to General Washington with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He served with the Baron von Steuben, doing reconnaissance at the outset of the Battle of Monmouth.
He became close friends with his fellow aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton and the General Marquis de Lafayette. He showed reckless courage at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown in which he was wounded, and Monmouth, where his horse was shot out from under him. After the battle of Brandywine, Lafayette observed that, "It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded ... he did every thing that was necessary to procure one or the other."
As the British stepped up operations in the South, Laurens promoted the idea of arming slaves and granting them freedom in return for their service. He had said, "We Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves." In early 1778 he proposed to his father to use the 40 slaves he stood to inherit as part of a brigade. Henry, now President of the Continental Congress, granted his wish, but his reservations made John postpone the project.
In March 1779 Congress approved the concept, commissioned John Laurens as Lieutenant Colonel, and sent him south to recruit a regiment of 3000 blacks. He won election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and introduced his black regiment plan in 1779 and 1780 (and again in 1782), meeting overwhelming rejection each time. Governor Rutledge and Christopher Gadsden[who?] opposed him. Laurens' belief that blacks shared a similar nature with whites and could aspire to freedom in a republican society set Laurens apart from other leaders in revolutionary South Carolina.
In 1779, when the British threatened Charleston, Governor Rutledge proposed to surrender the city with the condition that Carolina become neutral in the war. Laurens strongly opposed the idea, and Continental forces repulsed the British. That fall he commanded an infantry regiment in General Benjamin Lincoln's failed assault on Savannah, Georgia. John Laurens became a prisoner in May 1780 after the fall of Charleston and was shipped to Philadelphia. As he was on "parole", he was able to see his father before the elder embarked for the Netherlands in search of loans. (Henry Laurens' ship was seized by the British and he was imprisoned at the Tower of London.) Exchanged in November, John Laurens was appointed by Congress in December as a special minister to France.
In March 1781, Laurens gained French assurances that their navy would support American operations that year. He also arranged a loan and supplies from the Dutch before returning home in May. Laurens was reported to have told the French that without aid for the Revolution, the Americans might be forced by the British to fight against France. He returned home in time to see the French fleet arrive and to join Washington at the siege of Yorktown. He was given command of a battalion of light infantry on October 1, 1781, when its commander was killed. He led the battalion under Lt-Col. Alexander Hamilton in the storming of redoubt redoubt No. 10. Young Laurens was the principal spokesman for negotiating General Cornwallis's surrender.
Laurens returned to South Carolina and served General Nathanael Greene by creating and operating a network of spies that tracked British operations in and around Charleston. In August 1782, he learned of a British force movement to gather supplies and left his post to join Mordecai Gist in an attempt to intercept them. He was killed in the Battle of the Combahee River when he was shot from the saddle. Gravely wounded, Laurens was succeeded in his command by his friend and fellow opponent of slavery, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish nobleman.
Laurens was killed in battle on August 27, 1782, at the age of 27, only a few weeks before the British finally withdrew from Charleston. He was buried on the Stock plantation. After his father Henry Laurens returned from his own imprisonment in London, he had his son's remains moved to his plantation, called Mepkin, near Moncks Corner. During the mid 20th century Mepkin Plantation was owned by Henry Luce and Clare Boothe Luce. It was later adapted as a Trappist monastery, Mepkin Abbey.
George Washington, in particular, was saddened upon learning of the death of Laurens, stating fondly:
|“||In a word, he had not a fault that I ever could discover, unless intrepidity bordering upon rashness could come under that denomination; and to this he was excited by the purest motives.||”|
In his general orders, Nathanael Greene, in announcing the death of Laurens, said:
|“||The army has lost a brave officer and the public a worthy citizen.||”|
Alexander Hamilton, a friend of Laurens, said of his death:
|“||His career of virtue is at an end. How strangely are human affairs conducted that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate? … I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved.||”|
Marriage and family
In late 1776, in London, Laurens married Martha Manning, the daughter of one of his father's London agents. In December he sailed for Charleston, leaving Martha behind and pregnant. Their daughter was born in February 1777.
Connection to Thomas Paine
According to Daniel Wheeler's Life and Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume 1 (of 10, Vincent & Parke, 1908) pp. 26–27: Thomas Paine accompanied Colonel John Laurens to France and is credited with initiating the mission. It landed in France in March 1781 and returned to America in August with 2.5 livres in silver, as part of a "present" of 6 million and a loan of 10 million. The meetings with the French king were most likely conducted in the company and under the influence of Benjamin Franklin. Upon return to the United States with this highly welcomed cargo, Thomas Paine "positively objected" that Washington should propose that Congress remunerate him for his services for fear of setting "a bad precedent and an improper mode". According to an account by Elbert Hubbard in the same volume (p. 314), Paine organized "the Bank of North America to raise money to feed and clothe the army, and performed sundry and various services for the colonies."
Henry Laurens (John Laurens' father) had been ambassador to the Netherlands but was captured by the British on his return trip there. When exchanged for General Cornwallis in late 1781, the senior Laurens proceeded to the Netherlands to continue loan negotiations. Historians have questioned the relationship of Henry Laurens and Thomas Paine to Robert Morris as Superintendent of Finance and his business associate Thomas Willing. The latter became the first president of the Bank of North America in January 1782. Laurens and Paine accused Morris of war profiteering in 1779, and Willing had voted against the Declaration of Independence. The credit for obtaining the critical loans in 1781 and 1782, and first "organizing" the Bank of North America for approval by Congress in December 1781 should certainly include Henry or John Laurens and Thomas Paine.
Relationship with Alexander Hamilton
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (May 2013)|
There are also modern reports circulated that John Laurens had a homosexual relationship with Alexander Hamilton. These reports are based upon letters Hamilton wrote Laurens during a period in which Laurens was absent from the camp. In preparing a biography, Hamilton's family actually crossed out parts of letters they each sent one another. Whether their relationship was sexual or not is unknown—sodomy was a punishable offence in all thirteen colonies at the time. It is likely that the truth will never be known. It is important to understand that the language in the letters was not uncommon among those of the same sex in this historical period. However, Hamilton was never as emotionally open with any other man in his lifetime, and the depths of sentiment are equalled only in letters he wrote to his wife Eliza. On the other hand, Hamilton knew no other peer in similar rank, age, and war experience with which to share a deep platonic relationship. Additionally, whether Laurens reciprocated these feelings is unknown, but it is unlikely, given not only the lack of any letters confirming it, but also Laurens' strong relationship with his father. Washington's comment that during their many months together he had found Laurens "without flaw," and Hamilton's apparent surprise to learn, after John resigned from Washington's staff, that John had a daughter.
Laurens County, Georgia is named after Laurens, in his honor. In late 2003, Gregory D. Massey, from the University of South Carolina, wrote about Laurens for Archiving Early America:
|“||Laurens speaks more clearly to us today than other men of the American Revolution whose names are far more familiar. Unlike all other southern political leaders of the time, he believed that blacks shared a similar nature with whites, which included a natural right to liberty. "We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity," he wrote, "and almost render'd them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow'd upon us all." Whereas other men considered property the basis of liberty, Laurens believed liberty that rested on the sweat of slaves was not deserving of the name. To that extent, at least, his beliefs make him our contemporary, a man worthy of more attention than the footnote he has been in most accounts of the American Revolution.||”|
In popular culture
- Laurens's proposal for using slaves as troops in the Carolinas was portrayed in the 2000 film The Patriot. Some of Laurens' words and actions were reflected in the character of Benjamin Martin in the film.
- Massey, Gregory D. (2000). John Laurens and the American Revolution. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1-57003-330-7. OCLC 43703113. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
- Wallace, David Duncan (1967). The Life of Henry Laurens: With a Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens. New York: Russell & Russell Publishers. ISBN 0-8462-1015-0. OCLC 492796507. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
- Wiencek, Henry (2003). "6". An Imperfect God: George Washington, his slaves, and the creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-52951-2. OCLC 56495892. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
- Massey, Gregory D. (2003). "Slavery and Liberty in the American Revolution". The Early America Review. Archiving Early America. Retrieved April 29, 2013. "Laurens speaks more clearly to us today than other men of the American Revolution whose names are far more familiar. Unlike all other southern political leaders of the time, he believed that blacks shared a similar nature with whites, which included a natural right to liberty. "We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity," he wrote, "and almost render'd them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow'd upon us all." Whereas other men considered property the basis of liberty, Laurens believed liberty that rested on the sweat of slaves was not deserving of the name. To that extent, at least, his beliefs make him our contemporary, a man worthy of more attention than the footnote he has been in most accounts of the American Revolution."
- Lockhart, Paul Douglas (2008). The Drillmaster of Valley Forge, the Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army. Smithsonian Books: Washington, D.C. p. 155. ISBN 9780061451638. OCLC 219568652. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
- Storozynski, Alex (2009). The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312388020. OCLC 259266769. Retrieved April 29, 2013.
- "Lt Colonel John Laurens". Valley Forge National Historical Park. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: National Park Service. Retrieved April 30, 2013. "in a word, he had not a fault that I ever could discover, unless intrepidity bordering upon rashness could come under that denomination; and to this he was excited by the purest motives."
- Lewis, J.D. (2007). "Lt. Colonel John Laurens". The American Revolution in South Carolina. Little River, South Carolina: Carolana. Retrieved April 30, 2013. "He had not a fault that I could discover, unless it were intrepidity bordering upon rashness."
- "Lt Colonel John Laurens". Valley Forge National Historical Park. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: National Park Service. Retrieved April 30, 2013. "The army has lost a brave officer and the public a worthy citizen."
- "Lt Colonel John Laurens". Valley Forge National Historical Park. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: National Park Service. Retrieved April 30, 2013. "His career of virtue is at an end. How strangely are human affairs conducted that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate? … I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved."
- John Laurens' papers
- “…YOUR DUTIFUL SON, JOHN LAURENS” - excerpts from his correspondence with his father