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John Laurens

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John Laurens
A 1780 miniature portrait of Laurens, by Charles Willson Peale
A 1780 miniature portrait of Laurens, by Charles Willson Peale
Nickname(s) Jack, Jacky (by family)
Born (1754-10-28)October 28, 1754
Charleston, Province of South Carolina, British North America
(now Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.)
Died August 27, 1782(1782-08-27) (aged 27)
Combahee River, South Carolina, U.S.
Buried at Laurens Family Cemetery, Mepkin Abbey
Moncks Corner, South Carolina, U.S.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch Continental Army
Years of service 1777–1782
Rank Union Army LTC rank insignia.png Lieutenant colonel
Battles/wars

American Revolutionary War

Spouse(s) Martha Manning Laurens (1757–1781)
Relations
  • Henry Laurens (father; 1724–1792)
  • Eleanor Ball (mother; 1731–1770)
  • Frances Eleanor Laurens (daughter; 1777–1860)
  • Martha Laurens Ramsay (sister; 1759–1811)
  • Henry Laurens, Jr. (brother; 1763–1821)
  • James Laurens (brother; 1765–1775)
  • Mary Eleanor Laurens Pinckney (sister; 1770–1794)
Signature John Laurens signature

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 criticism of slavery and efforts to help recruit slaves to fight for their freedom as U.S. soldiers.[1]

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. 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.

Career

1777–1780

Service as Washington's aide-de-camp

Laurens joined the Continental Army, and following the Battle of Brandywine, he was officially made 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.[2]

He became close friends with his fellow aides-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 everything that was necessary to procure one or t’other."[3]

On December 23, 1778, Laurens and General Charles Lee dueled just outside Philadelphia after Laurens took offense to Lee's slander of Washington's character. Lee was wounded in the side by Laurens' first shot and the affair was ended by the men's seconds, Alexander Hamilton and Evan Edwards, before they could fire a second time.[4]

Anti-slavery and recruitment of black soldiers

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 Laurens, now President of the Continental Congress, granted his wish, but his reservations made John postpone the project.

In March 1779, Congress approved the concept of a regiment of slaves, commissioned Laurens as lieutenant colonel, and sent him south to recruit a regiment of 3000 black soldiers.

Laurens 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 John Rutledge and General Christopher Gadsden opposed him. Laurens' belief that black and white people shared a similar nature and could aspire to freedom in a republican society set Laurens apart from other leaders in revolutionary South Carolina.[1]

Battles for Charleston and Savannah

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.

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, who would soon embark for the Netherlands in search of loans. (Henry Laurens' ship was seized by the British and he was imprisoned at the Tower of London.)

1781–1782

Mission to France

After being freed by a prisoner exchange in November 1780, Laurens was appointed by Congress in December as a special minister to France.

In 1781, Colonel John Laurens accompanied Thomas Paine on a mission to France initiated by Paine.[5] Meetings with the French king were most likely conducted in the company and under the influence of Benjamin Franklin.[citation needed]

The mission arrived in France in March 1781, and Laurens gained French assurances that their navy would support American operations that year. 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.

Laurens also arranged a loan and supplies from the Dutch before returning home. 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 had accused Morris of war profiteering in 1779, and Willing had voted against the Declaration of Independence.

The mission to France returned to America in August 1781 with 2.5 million livres in silver, as part of a "present" of 6 million and a loan of 10 million.

Yorktown

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 No. 10. Laurens was the principal spokesman for negotiating General Cornwallis's surrender.[citation needed]

Return to Charleston

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. He learned in August 1782 of a British force movement to gather supplies, and left his post to join Mordecai Gist in an attempt to intercept them.

Death

On August 27, 1782, Laurens was shot from the saddle during the Battle of the Combahee River. Gravely wounded, Laurens was succeeded in his command by his friend and fellow opponent of slavery, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish nobleman.[6] Laurens died at the age of 27, only a few weeks before the British finally withdrew from Charleston.

Laurens 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.[7] 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.[8][9]

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.[8]

In October 1782, Alexander Hamilton wrote of his death to Nathanael Greene:

I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received at the loss of our dear and inestimable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at end. How strangely are human affairs conducted, that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate! The world will feel the loss of a man who has left few like him behind; and America, of a citizen whose heart realized that patriotism of which others only talk. I feel the loss of a friend whom I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number.[8]

Personal life

Marriage and family

On October 26, 1776, 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 in London. Their daughter Frances-Eleanor (1777–1860) was likely born in January 1777 and was baptized on February 18, 1777.

Sexuality and relationship with Alexander Hamilton

From a young age, Laurens apparently exhibited a lack of interest in women. When Laurens was an adolescent, Henry Laurens wrote to his friend James Grant about John’s disinterest in girls, stating, "Master Jack is too closely wedded to his studies to think about any of the Miss Nanny’s I would not have such a sound in his Ear, for a Crown; why drive the poor Dog, to what Nature will irresistibly prompt him to be plagued with in all probability much too soon."[10] As Laurens matured, his closest relationships were formed with those of the same gender; Laurens biographer Gregory D. Massey states that he "reserved his primary emotional commitments for other men."[11] Though he eventually married, it was a union born out of regret. While in London for his studies, Laurens impregnated Martha Manning and married her to preserve the legitimacy of their child. Laurens wrote to this uncle, "Pity has obliged me to marry."[12]

While in Washington's camp, Laurens met and became extremely close friends with Alexander Hamilton. They exchanged several letters after their different assignments and Laurens' long captivity in British hands separated them. In one of his letters prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton wrote to Laurens to reassure him that their friendship would not be diminished. Hamilton then went on to invite Laurens to be present for "the final consummation" of his courtship, that is his wedding planned for the Fall on December 14, 1780, which Laurens could not attend since he had been appointed minister to France by Congress after being released from British captivity in November 1780.[13]

While emotional language was not uncommon among those of the same gender in this historical period,[14] Hamilton biographer James Thomas Flexner states that the intensely expressive language contained in the Hamilton-Laurens letters "raises questions concerning homosexuality" that "cannot be categorically answered".[15]

Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow notes that sodomy was a capital offense throughout the colonies at the time, so if they did have a relationship, they would have had to have exercised overwhelming caution; he concludes that while no relationship can be conclusively proven, he is led to believe that Hamilton had "at the very least" an "adolescent crush" on Laurens.[14] Chernow also states that "Hamilton did not form friendships easily and never again revealed his interior life to another man as he had to Laurens. [...] After the death of John Laurens, Hamilton shut off some compartment of his emotions and never reopened it."[16] Laurens' letters to Hamilton were noted to be less frequent and, in comparison to Hamilton's, less passionate, but some letters written by Laurens may have been lost or destroyed.[14]

On the other hand biographer Gregory D. Massey dismisses all speculations on John Laurens' supposed homosexual proclivities and on a Laurens-Hamilton relationship as unsubstantiated, describing their friendship as purely platonic cameraderie and placing their correspondence in the context of the flowery penmanship of the time.[17]

Legacy

In popular culture

Laurens is depicted heroically as a supporting character in the 2015 musical Hamilton. Anthony Ramos originated the role in both the Broadway and off-Broadway productions.[18]

Historical

Laurens County in the U.S. state of Georgia was named in honor of Laurens.[19]

In late 2003, Gregory D. Massey, a professor 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.[1]

References

  1. ^ a b c Massey, Gregory D. (2003). "Slavery and Liberty in the American Revolution". The Early America Review. Archiving Early America. Archived from the original on February 16, 2015. Retrieved February 16, 2015. 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. 
  2. ^ 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. 
  3. ^ U.S. National Park Service, Valley Forge National Historical Park. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  4. ^ "Founders Online: Account of a Duel between Major General Charles Lee and Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens". founders.archives.gov. Retrieved 2016-01-09. 
  5. ^ Wheeler, Daniel. Life and Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume 1. Vincent & Parke, 1908 pp. 26–27
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ John Laurens at Find a Grave
  8. ^ a b c "Lt Colonel John Laurens". Valley Forge National Historical Park. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: National Park Service. Retrieved April 30, 2013. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Laurens, Henry (1968). The Papers of Henry Laurens, Volume Five: Sept. 1, 1756-July 31, 1768. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. p. 359. 
  11. ^ Massey, Gregory D. (2000). John Laurens and the American Revolution. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina. p. 40. 
  12. ^ Massey, Gregory D. (2000). John Laurens and the American Revolution. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina. p. 68. 
  13. ^ Hamilton, Alexander. "From Alexander Hamilton to Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, [16 September 1780]". Founders Online. National Archives. 
  14. ^ a b c Chernow, Ron (2004). Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Group. p. 96. Retrieved February 16, 2015. 
  15. ^ Flexner, James Thomas (1997-01-01). The Young Hamilton: A Biography. Fordham Univ Press. p. 316. ISBN 9780823217908. 
  16. ^ Chernow, Ron (2004). Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Group. p. 173. 
  17. ^ Gregory D Massey, John Laurens and the American Revolution, University of South Carolina Press, 2000
  18. ^ Als, Hilton (2015-03-09). "Bromance at the Revolution". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-12-01. 
  19. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 182. 

Further reading

External links