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Henry Laurens

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Henry Laurens
Henry laurens.jpg
5th President of the Continental Congress
In office
November 1, 1777 – December 9, 1778
Preceded byJohn Hancock
Succeeded byJohn Jay
Vice President of South Carolina
In office
March 26, 1776 – June 27, 1777
PresidentJohn Rutledge
Preceded byOffice Established
Succeeded byJames Parsons
President of the
South Carolina Committee on Safety
In office
January 9, 1775 – March 26, 1776
MonarchGeorge III
Preceded byWilliam Campbell
As governor of South Carolina
Succeeded byJohn Rutledge
As president of South Carolina
Personal details
Born(1724-03-06)March 6, 1724
Charleston, Province of South Carolina
DiedDecember 8, 1792(1792-12-08) (aged 68)
Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.
Spouse(s)Eleanor Ball (m. 1750; b. 1731 – d. 1770)
ChildrenJohn Laurens
Martha Laurens Ramsay
Henry Laurens, Jr.
James Laurens
Mary Eleanor Laurens Pinckney

Henry Laurens (March 6, 1724 [O.S. February 24, 1723] – December 8, 1792) was an American merchant, slave trader, and rice planter from South Carolina who became a political leader during the Revolutionary War. A delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Laurens succeeded John Hancock as President of the Congress. He was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation and President of the Continental Congress when the Articles were passed on November 15, 1777.

Laurens had earned great wealth as a partner in the largest slave-trading house in North America, Austin and Laurens. In the 1750s alone, this Charleston firm oversaw the sale of more than 8,000 enslaved Africans.[1]

Laurens served for a time as Vice-President of South Carolina, and as the United States Minister to the Netherlands during the Revolutionary War. He was captured at sea by the British, and imprisoned for several years in the Tower of London.

His oldest son, John Laurens, was an aide-de-camp to George Washington and a colonel in the Continental Army.

Early life and education

Henry Laurens' forebears were Huguenots who fled France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. Henry's grandfather Andre Laurens left earlier, in 1682, and eventually made his way to America, settling first in New York City and then Charleston, South Carolina. Andre's son John married Hester (or Esther) Grasset, also a Huguenot refugee. Henry was their third child and eldest son. John Laurens became a saddler, and his business eventually grew to be the largest of its kind in the colonies.[2]

In 1744 John Laurens sent Henry to London to augment the young man's business training.[2] This took place in the company of Richard Oswald.[3] John Laurens died in 1747, bequeathing a considerable estate to 23-year-old Henry.[2]

Marriage and family

He married Eleanor Ball, also of a South Carolina rice planter family, on June 25, 1750. They had thirteen children, many of whom died in infancy or childhood.[4] Eleanor died in 1770, one month after giving birth to their last child. Laurens took their three sons to England for their education, encouraging their oldest, John Laurens, to study law. Instead of completing his studies, John Laurens returned to the United States in 1776, to serve in the American Revolutionary War.

Political career

1784 engraving of Laurens as President of the Continental Congress

Henry Laurens served in the militia, as did most able-bodied men in his time. He rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel in the campaigns against the Cherokee Indians in 1757–1761, during the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years' War).

Austin, Laurens & Appleby : Advertisement for the Sale of Slaves

1757 also marked the first year he was elected to the colonial assembly. Laurens was elected again every year but one until the Revolution replaced the assembly with a state Convention as an interim government. The year he missed was 1773, when he visited England to arrange for his sons' educations. He was named to the colony's Council in 1764 and 1768, but declined both times. In 1772 he joined the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and carried on extensive correspondence with other members.[5]

As the American Revolution neared, Laurens was at first inclined to support reconciliation with the British Crown. But as conditions deteriorated, he came to fully support the American position. When Carolina began to create a revolutionary government, Laurens was elected to the Provincial Congress, which first met on January 9, 1775. He was president of the Committee of Safety, and presiding officer of that congress from June until March 1776. When South Carolina installed a fully independent government, he served as the Vice President of South Carolina from March 1776 to June 27, 1777.

Henry Laurens was first named a delegate to the Continental Congress on January 10, 1777. He served in the Congress from until 1780. He was the President of the Continental Congress from November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778.

In the fall of 1779, the Congress named Laurens their minister to the Netherlands. In early 1780 he took up that post and successfully negotiated Dutch support for the war. But on his return voyage to Amsterdam that fall, the British frigate Vestal intercepted his ship, the continental packet Mercury,[6] off the banks of Newfoundland. Although his dispatches were tossed in the water, they were retrieved by the British, who discovered the draft of a possible U.S.-Dutch treaty prepared in Aix-la-Chapelle in 1778 by William Lee and the Amsterdam banker Jean de Neufville.[7] This prompted Britain to declare war on the Dutch Republic, it becoming known as the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.

The British charged Laurens with treason, transported him to England, and imprisoned him in the Tower of London (he is the only American to have been held prisoner in the Tower). His imprisonment was protested by the Americans. In the field, most captives were regarded as prisoners of war, and while conditions were frequently appalling, prisoner exchanges and mail privileges were accepted practice. During his imprisonment, Laurens was assisted by Richard Oswald, his former business partner and the principal owner of Bunce Island, a slave-trading island base in the Sierra Leone River. Oswald argued on Laurens' behalf to the British government. Finally, on December 31, 1781 he was released in exchange for General Lord Cornwallis and completed his voyage to Amsterdam. He helped raise funds for the American effort.

Laurens' oldest son, Colonel John Laurens, was killed in 1782 in the Battle of the Combahee River, as one of the last casualties of the Revolutionary War. He had supported enlisting and freeing slaves for the war effort, and suggested to his father that he begin with the 40 he stood to inherit.[8] He had urged his father to free the family's slaves, but although conflicted, Henry Laurens never manumitted his 260 slaves.[8][9]

In 1783 Laurens was sent to Paris as one of the Peace Commissioners for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris. While he was not a signatory of the primary treaty, he was instrumental in reaching the secondary accords that resolved issues related to the Netherlands and Spain. Richard Oswald, a former partner of Laurens in the slave trade, was the principal negotiator for the British during the Paris peace talks.

Laurens generally retired from public life in 1784. He was sought for a return to the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the state assembly, but he declined all of these positions. He did serve in the state convention of 1788, where he voted to ratify the United States Constitution.

Portrait of Laurens, Boston Magazine, 1784; engraving by John Norman

Later events

British forces, during their occupation of Charleston, had burned the Laurens home at Mepkin during the war. When Laurens and his family returned in 1784, they lived in an outbuilding while the great house was rebuilt. He lived on the estate the rest of his life, working to recover the estimated £40,000 that the revolution had cost him (equivalent to about $6.15 million in 2019).[10]

Death and cremation

Laurens died on December 8, 1792, at his estate, Mepkin, in South Carolina. In his will he stated he wished to be cremated, and his ashes be interred at his estate.[11] It is reported that he was the first Caucasian cremation in the United States which he choose due to a fear of being buried alive.[12] Afterward, the estate passed through several hands. Large portions of the estate still exist and are used today as a Trappist abbey.

Legacy and honors


  1. ^ "Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice" (PDF). Brown University. October 2006.
  2. ^ a b c "Laurens, Henry (1724–1792)". American Eras. Archived from the original on 2018-04-22.
  3. ^ Gillespie, Joanna Bowen (2001). The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay, 1759–1811. Univ. of South Carolina Press. p. 20. ISBN 9781570033735. Retrieved 2017-07-20.
  4. ^ Wallace, David Duncan (1915). The Life of Henry Laurens: With a Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens. G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 180.
  5. ^ "APS Member History".
  6. ^ Tuchman, Barbara (1988). First Salute: A View of the American Revolution. Random House.
  7. ^ "From George Washington to Leonard de Neufville, June 29, 1789". Founders Online. National Archives.
  8. ^ a b Massey, Gregory D. (Winter–Spring 2003). "Slavery and Liberty in the American Revolution: John Laurens's Black Regiment Proposal". Early America. Retrieved 2012-05-31.
  9. ^ Finkelman, Paul (April 1994). "Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On" (PDF). The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 102 (2): 211. Retrieved 2011-03-14.
  10. ^ United Kingdom Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the Measuring Worth "consistent series" supplied in Thomas, Ryland; Williamson, Samuel H. (2018). "What Was the U.K. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved February 2, 2020.
  11. ^ Laurens cenotaph at Mepkin
  12. ^ Prothero, Stephen R. (2001). Purified by fire : a history of cremation in America. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-520-92974-6. OCLC 49570142.
  13. ^ "Comprehensive Plan for the Town of Laurens" (PDF). Otsego County. Cooperstown, New York: Otsego County Planning Department. October 1998. p. 4. Retrieved 2012-11-18. The town of Laurens ... was formed in 1811 ... and named after Henry Laurens, a hero of the Revolutionary War

Further reading

  • Wallace, David Duncan (1915). The Life of Henry Laurens: With a Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens. G.P. Putnam's Sons.
  • Kelly, Joseph P. "Henry Laurens: The Southern Man of Conscience in History." South Carolina Historical Magazine (2006): 82-123. in JSTOR
  • Kirschke, James J., and Victor J. Sensenig. "Steps toward nationhood: Henry Laurens (1724–92) and the American Revolution in the South" Historical Research 78.200 (2005): 180-192.
  • McDonough, Daniel J. Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots (Susquehanna University Press, 2001)

Primary sources

  • Laurens, Henry (1972). Papers of Henry Laurens. editors: Philip May Hamer, George C Rogers, David R. Chesnutt. Columbia, S.C.: Univ. of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1-57003-465-6. OCLC 63771927.; 16 vols.
  • McDonough, Daniel J. Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots (Susquehanna University Press, 2001)

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
John Hancock
President of the Continental Congress
November 1, 1777 – December 9, 1778
Succeeded by
John Jay