|"Glorious Death, or the Triumph of the Cause in which I am engaged." |
~ John Laurens, January 1778
Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1780
John's great-grandfather, Andre Laurens, left France in 1682. Along with other Hugenots, the family settled first in New York City, where John's grandfather, Jean Samuel, was born. Andre Laurens took his family settled to Charleston in 1715, where the family became very wealthy. Jean, who later changed his name to John, became a prosperous and respected saddler. Henry Laurens was his eldest son, born in 1724. Henry Laurens became a merchant and planter; he married Eleanor Ball, who was a member of a prestigious low-country family. John was the fourth of twelve brothers and sisters born to Henry and Eleantor, and the eldest of the five children who survived infancy. Only John ("Jack"), Martha ("Patsy"), Henry ("Harry"), and Mary Eleanor ("Polly") lived to adulthood.
In 1748, Henry Laurens formed a partnership with George Austin, an Englishman. Austin & Laurens became one of the leading firms in Charleston, trading in rice, indigo, deerskins, and slaves. Henry Laurens had a reputation for being fair, hard-working and religious.
|Austin, Laurens & Appleby advertisement|
are quite out of repute from numbers in every cargo that have been sold with us destroying themselves.In Low-country areas of rice plantations, slaves outnumbered whites by as much as 7 to 1, and the fear of slave insurrections was constant. Their safety, as well as their wealth, was dependent on maintaining the institution of slavery.
In 1762, Henry Laurens purchased the Mepkin plantation, about 30 miles from Charleston, and land just outside of Charleston: he built houses and gardens on both sites as his two primary homes. After 1764 he began acquiring and managing more rice and indigo plantations, including Mt. Tacitus and Wambaw, and several plantations on the Georgia coast. In total, Laurens acquired some twenty thousand acres.
Henry Laurens wrote to a friend in 1763:
|Austin & Laurens advertisement|
Your observations upon the influence & effect of the negro slavery upon the morals & practices of young people are but too justly founded & I have often reflected with much concern on the same subject & wished that our economy & government differ'd from the present system; but alas! since our constitution is as it is, what can individuals do?Although the Laurens family had a wealthy lifestyle, they were threatened by the same diseases that infected and killed other Charleston residents: malaria, yellow fever, and smallpox. Henry Laurens once said, "our little spot is a paradise, but we the inhabitants are Mortals." Their first three children died in early childhood. In 1759, their daughter Patsy, less than a year old, became ill during a smallpox epidemic. Believing that she had died, they prepared her for burial, but a doctor examined her and found that she was still alive. When confront with tragedy and difficulty, Henry repeated his motto:
Optimum quod evenit
"Whatever happens, happens for the best."John, known as "Jack" to his family, and his two younger brothers were tutored at home. Because of the lack of colleges in the colonies, their father always planned to take them to Europe for their education, but the trip was delayed due to the illnesses and yearly pregnancies of their mother, as well as the increasing controversies and conflicts between the American Colonies and the British Government.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was an act of Parliament on the colonies that required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. These printed materials were legal documents, magazines, playing cards, newspapers and many other types of paper used throughout the colonies. Like previous taxes, the stamp tax had to be paid in valid British currency, not in colonial paper money.
The Stamp Act was very unpopular among colonists, considering it a violation of their rights as Englishmen to be taxed without their consent - consent that only the colonial legislatures could grant. Colonial assemblies sent petitions and protests. Local protest groups, led by colonial merchants and landowners, created a loose coalition. Protests and demonstrations initiated by the Sons of Liberty often turned violent and destructive. Very soon all stamp tax distributors were intimidated into resigning their commissions, and the tax was never effectively collected. The issue played a major role in defining the grievances and enabling the organized colonial resistance that led to the Revolution in 1775.
I had intended to have set out upon my journey (to Florida) on Friday last, but an unlucky circumstance that occurred on Wednesday night the 23d has so affected Mrs. Laurens's bodily health as well as her spirits
that my presence and attention at home are become absolutely necessary.
At midnight of the said Wednesday I heard a most violent thumping and confused noise at my western door and chamber window, and soon distinguished the sounds of Liberty Liberty and stamped paper, Open your doors and let us search your house and cellars. I opened the window, saw a crowd of men chiefly in disguise and heard the voices and thumping of many more on the other side, assured them that I had no stamped paper nor any connection with stamps.
When I found that no fair words would pacify them I accused them with cruelty to a poor sick woman far gone with child, and produced Mrs. Laurens shrieking and wringing her hands, adding that if there was any one man amongst them who owed me a spite and would turn out I had a brace of pistols at his service and would settle the dispute immediately but that it was base in such a multitude to attack a single man — to this they replied in general that they loved and respected me — would not hurt me nor my property but that they were sent by some of my seemingly best friends to search for stamped paper which they were certain was in my custody advised me to open the door to prevent worse consequences. Conscious of my innocence, I was pausing whether to refuse every one of their demands or barely to open the door, at which they still continued knocking as if they would have beat down the house, and to let them proceed as their rage and madness should impel them — but Mrs. Laurens's condition and her cries prompted me to open the door which in two minutes more they would have beat thro: — a brace of cutlasses across my breast was the salutation and Lights Lights and Search — was the cry.
I presently knew several of them under their thickest disguises of soot, sailors habits, slouch hats &ca and to their great surprise called no less than nine of them by name and fixed my eyes so attentively upon other faces as to discover at least the same number since. They made a very superficial search indeed, or rather no search at all in my house, counting house, cellar and stable. After that farce was over they insisted on my taking what they called "A Bible Oath" that I knew not where the stamped paper was, which I absolutely refused, not failing to confirm my denials with Damns of equal weight with their own — a language which I only had learned from them — they threatened then to carry me away to some unknown place and punish me. I replied they might if they would — they had strength enough, but I would be glad to have it attempted by any man alone either among them or those who they said had sent them.
When they found this attempt fruitless a softer oath, as they thought, was propounded — I must say "May God disinherit me from the Kingdom of Heaven" if I knew where the stamped papers were. This I likewise refused and added that I would not have one word extorted from my mouth — that I had voluntarily given my word and honor but would not suffer even that to pass my lips by compulsion — further that if I had once accepted a trust they might stamp me to powder but should not make me betray it — that my sentiments of the Stamp Act was well known I had openly declared myself an enemy to it and would give and do a great deal to procure its annihilation but that I could not think that they pursued a right method to obtain a repeal &ca &ca. Sometimes they applauded, sometimes cursed me. At length one of them holding my shoulders said they loved me and everybody would love me if I did not hold way with one Govr. Grant. . . . I answered that if he meant that I corresponded with Govr. Grant and esteemed him as a gentleman I acknowledged with pleasure that I did 'hold way' as he called it, with him — that I knew nothing in Govr. Grant's conduct or principles as a gentleman that could shame my acquaintance with him; that if Govr. Grant had any criminal schemes or projects he was too prudent to trust me with his secrets — but in one word for all, gentlemen, I am in your power, you are very strong and may if you please barbicu me — I can but die — but you shall not by any force or means whatsoever compel me to renounce my friendships or to speak ill of men that I think well of or to say or do a mean thing.
This was their last effort, they praised me highly and insisted upon giving me three cheers and then retired with "God bless your Honor," "Good night, Colonel, — we hope the poor lady will do well," &ca &ca. A thousand other things were said and done in an hour and a quarter, the time of this visit, but the above is a fair abstract of all that is important.
Is it not amazing that such a number of men many of them heated with liquor and all armed with cutlasses and clubs did not do one penny damage to my garden not even to walk over a bed and not 1 5/ damage to my fence, gate or house.
Mrs. Laurens has been very ill indeed, but today I have great hopes that she will go out her expected time of four or five weeks longer.
. . . You'll hear a million of reports; don't believe all, or rather believe none but what is authenticated.
On April 27, 1770, Eleanor Laurens gave birth to a daughter, who was named Mary Eleanor after her mother. Eleanor died on May 22, 1770, four weeks after the birth of her last child. Henry Laurens was grief-stricken; in a letter of October 1770, he wrote to his friend James Habersham of Savannah:
Jacky, Patsy, Harry, & Jemmy [the son born after the October 23, 1765 home invasion] are well. Your Godson will be no disgrace to You. Patsy is forward in her learning, she reads well & begins to write prettily, is not dull in the french Grammar, & plays a little on the Harpsichord, but better than all, she handles her needles in all the useful branches & some of the most
Martha "Patsy" Laurens
refined parts of Womens work & promises me to learn to make minced Pies & to dress a Beef Steak. Harry is a little thick Headed, loves Marbles, Tops, and Tumbling much more than his Books and in time may make a driving Shipper or a tolerable Will Wimble. Jamie is healthy and clever & seems to be a duplicate of his Elder Brother.
I may make a beginning, but a strange and unaccountable languor will often cause me to drop the pen before I have finished my design. I have not yet got quite out of that dejected state in which from the death of my dear wife and for a long time after I was overwhelmed and which I need not attempt to describe to you whose heart has been wrung, and whose days and nights have been embittered by similar distress, whose soul is ever sympathizing with the afflicted, who know too well from past experience what I must have suffered from two months painful anxiety, now hoping, now desponding, and at length from the fatal blow which took from me a faithful bosom friend, a friend and dear companion full of sincerity, free from every degree of guile, ever ardently striving to keep me happy, studying every moment for means to soften the cares of my more rugged path, who in sickness and in health was ever loving, cherishing and ready to obey — who never once — no, not once — during the course of twenty years most intimate connection threw the stumbling block of opposition or controversy in my way; to whom in that great part of our short span of existence I never had cause to impute any other fault than that of an excess of goodness, condescension and charity — which took from my children a mother indeed! from the poor a cheerful and liberal benefactress and from virtue a friend — a blow which staggered me almost to the gates of death, the weight of which still lays heavy upon me.
In Geneva and later in London, Jack encountered and embraced the culture of sensibility, which was immensely popular among the Anglo-American middle class. Sensibility entailed passionate friendships, emotional responses to literature and the beauty of nature, and recognition of a common humanity that connected people from different cultures. An English man of sensibility demonstrated his virtue through acts of charity and attempts to reform social ills such as rampant poverty, overcrowded prisons, and, above all, the slave trade. In England Jack formed a close friendship
Henry left England in November 1774 and returned to South Carolina, but refused permission to let Jack return until he had completed his legal studies.
|John Faucheraud Grimké|
After fighting broke out in 1775, Jack, who had turned 21, pressed his father for permission to return home and serve his country. Again telling his son that he needed to finish his legal studies, Henry flatly refused to let his children travel from England. He had earlier decided to move his younger children there for the relative safety of that country, and he wanted Jack to remain as their guardian. Henry Laurens had sent his two daughters to Europe in the care of his brother, James, and his wife. Henry wrote to his brother James in October:
If it pleases God to permit them [his children] to participate in that estate, which a few months ago everybody called large, but which in our present circumstances is of very little value to them and which stands upon
the very brink of annihilation with respect to them and me — for although I will not join in every mad scheme of my brethren here, yet I am resolved to hazard all that estate rather than submit to the tyranny of those brethren who are on your side of the water. . .
We might have acted with more wisdom than we have discovered in South Carolina. I have been uniformly of one opinion from the hour in which I dared to plead against taking the reins of government into our hands; and every hour since has verified and confirmed my declaration of what would naturally follow from that injurious determination. At length we have driven ourselves into a labyrinth; rash men have devised means of affronting the King's government in many instances too grossly to be borne. Ignorant and timid men have been persuaded to join them to make up a majority, and they have gone too far to retreat. . .
God deliver us from Kingly, ministerial and popular tyranny! But the honest heart will go free amidst all these raging powers.In October, Jack wrote about the coming conflict to his father:
Let us not look with fond regret upon what we were, or what we expected to have been, but act with Courage the most laudable part that can be taken in present Circumstances.Jack wrote in a letter to a classmate early in 1776:
I think that we Americans at least in the Southern cols. cannot contend with a good grace for liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our slaves.
How can we whose jealousy has been alarm'd more in the name of oppression than at the reality reconcile to our spirited assertion of the rights of mankind the galling abject slavery of our negroes?In an August 1776 letter to his son, Henry Laurens privately acknowledged that slavery violated the Golden Rule:
I told you in my last that I was going to Georgia. I began my journey the 1st May, and at Wright's, Savannah, Broton Island, and New Hope, found crops of rice amounting to about thirteen hundred barrels, which I caused to be removed to places less exposed to the threatened depredations . . . The best crop, they say, that ever was borne at Broton Island — but what of that? The whole will either be destroyed, stolen, or lie with the farmer to perish by time and vermin — no small sacrifice at the shrine of liberty, and yet very small compared with that which I am willing to make; not only crop,land, life and all must follow in preference to sacrificing liberty to mammon.
. . . My negroes there [Georgia], are all to a man, are strongly attached to me — so are all of mine in this country [South Carolina]; hitherto not one of them has attempted to desert; on the contrary, those who are more exposed hold themselves always ready to fly from the enemy in case of a sudden descent. Many hundreds of that colour have been stolen and decoyed by the servants of King George the Third. Captains of British ships of war and noble lords have busied themselves in such inglorious pilferage to the disgrace of their master and disgrace of their cause.
These negroes were first enslaved by the English; acts of parliament have established the slave trade in favour of the home-residing English, and almost totally prohibited the Americans from reaping any share of it. Men of war, forts, castles, governors, companies and committees are employed and authorized by the English parliament to protect, regulate, and extend the slave trade. Negroes are brought by Englishmen and sold as slaves to Americans. Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, &c., &c., live upon the slave trade. The British parliament now employ their men-of-war to steal those negroes from the Americans to whom they had sold them, pretending to set the retches free, but basely trepan and sell them into tenfold worse slavery in the West Indies, where probably they will become the property of Englishmen again, and of some who sit in parliament.
What meanness! what complicated wickedness appears in this scene! O England, how changed! how fallen!
You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British kings and parliaments, as well as by the laws of that country ages before my existence. I found the Christian religion and slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation. I nevertheless disliked it. In former days there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by interest; the day I hope is approaching when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the golden rule. Not less than twenty thousand pounds sterling would all my negroes produce if sold at public auction to-morrow. I am not the man who enslaved them; they are indebted to English for that favour; nevertheless I am devising means for manumitting many of them, and for cutting off the entail of slavery. Great powers oppose me — the laws and customs of my country, my own and the avarice of my countrymen. What will my children say if I deprive them of so much estate? These are difficulties, but not insuperable. I will do as much as I can in my time, and leave the rest to a better hand. I am not one of those who arrogate the peculiar care of Providence in each fortunate event, nor one of those who dare trust in Providence for defence and security of their own liberty while they enslave and wish to continue in slavery thousands who are as well entitled to freedom as themselves. I perceive the work before me is great. I shall appear to many as a promoter not only of strange, but of dangerous doctrines; it will therefore be necessary to proceed with caution. You are apparently deeply interested in this affair, but as I have no doubts concerning your concurrence and approbation, I most sincerely wish for your advice and assistance, and hope to receive both in good time.Henry Laurens, whose devout Christian faith set him apart from most other American political leaders, said that he hoped one day to free his own slaves and convince his contemporaries to follow suit. Despite this pledge, he never made a public attack on slavery. Jack wrote back to his father:
. . . I am now more than ever anxious to see you; to see my dear Harry and your sisters ; to see your uncle and aunt — but when and where? God direct you for the best; but pay particular attention to those friends, especially to your eldest sister and to Harry. Your other sister is at an age and has qualities to make her foster-mother happy. I could add very much on this head, but clouds and darkness are before me.
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.In London, Jack had often spent time with the family of William Manning, a prominent English merchant and friend of Henry Laurens. Sometime in 1776, he married Manning's daughter, Martha after their relations led to her pregnancy. Jack wrote to his uncle, James Laurens, on October 25, 1776:
I should inform you of an important change in my circumstances - Pity has obliged me to marry - but a consideration of the duty which I owe to my Country made me choose a Clandestine Celebration lest the Father should insist upon my Stay in this Country [England] as a Condition of the Marriage. The Matter has proceeded too far to be longer concealed and I have this morning disclosed the Affair to Mr. Manning in plain terms, reserv[ing] to myself a Right of fulfilling the more important Engagements to my Country. It may be convenient on some accounts that the matter should be kept secret till you hear next from me, & you will oblige me by keeping it so.Henry Laurens was shocked when he learned in a letter from his son that Jack had not only married without consulting his father, but that a grandchild was on the way. Jack had written on October 26, 1776:
Will you forgive me Sir for adding a Daughter In Law to your Family without first asking your Consent - I must reserve particulars till I have the pleasure of seeing you - my Wife Mr Manning's youngest Daughter promises soon to give you a Grand Child -In the same letter, Henry learned that his son intended to return to America to fight for the independence of the colonies. Jack left Martha Manning Laurens in England and traveled to France to find transport to the colonies. He wrote a letter to his uncle, James Laurens, from Paris on January 11th, 1777:
My Dear Uncle : I arrived here the 7th inst,, and have since had the pleasure of conversing, at three different times, with Doctor Franklin. His
accounts of America are, that she will be much better provided for, the ensuing campaign, than she was for the last; that the members of the congress are as unanimous, as the members of popular assemblies generally are; and that the spirit of the people does not, by any means, flag. It is a secret yet whether France will assist America or not. The fact, as it appears to me, is, that France does not choose to involve herself in a war by declaring herself openly, when she can give special succors without any risk. There are more French officers in America than can find employment; the French ports are daily receiving American vessels. Some time ago, two armed vessels, one of which was loaded with military stores, were cleared out for St. Domingo, and a number of French officers took their passages in them. By some means or other, Lord Stormont discovered that these vessels were employed by Silas Deane, and the cargoes intended for America. He went immediately, at an unusual hour for business, to Versailles, and represented the matter to M. de Vergennes, minister and secretary for the foreign department; he had obtained an exact list of every thing on board ; said he had sufficient proof that the whole was designed for the rebellious English colonies; and demanded that these vessels should be stopped. The answer was that a courier should be dispatched; a courier was dispatched, but the bird had flown.
To-night, I take place in the diligence for Bordeaux, from whence I hope soon to embark for my own country. Cochran has sailed, which I am very sorry for, as my acquaintance with him, and the good character of his vessel, made me wish to be his passenger.
Present my tenderest love to my dear aunt and sisters. I am afraid I shall not be able to write to my dear Patty. That God may grant you all his blessing, is the constant prayer of your most affectionate JOHN LAURENS.
I feel a strong affection for South Carolina for several reasons. 1. I think them as stanch patriots as any in America. 2. I think them as brave. 3. They are the only people in America, who have maintained a post and defended a fort. 4. They have sent us a new delegate whom I greatly admire, Mr. Laurens, their Lieutenant Governor, a gentleman of great fortune, great abilities, modesty and integrity, and great experience too. If all the States would send us such men, it would be a pleasure to be here.
HEADQUARTERS, 21st August, 1777.
My Dear Father: As we shall probably move to-morrow, I write to inform you that I must be obliged to use your horses and servant farther on there having been no possibility of supplying myself with these articles here. Shrewsberry says his hat was violently taken from him by some soldiers, as he was carrying his horses to water. If James will be so good as to send him his old laced hat by the bearer, I hope he will take better care of it. If the enemy have a design upon Charles Town which does not so clearly appear to me as it does to most people, I hope we shall ruin the northern branch of their army, and that however they may for a while distress an individual state, their efforts against the general confederacy will be less likely to succeed than ever. I commend myself to your love and remain Your ever affectionate JOHN LAURENS.Shrewsberry was an enslaved man owned by Henry Laurens; he had been assigned to be John's personal servant.
joining Washington’s military family, Laurens met two other men who would become friends: Alexander Hamilton and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
|Gilbert du Motier, |
the Marquis de Lafayette
The campaign for Philadelphia was under way, and Laurens got his first taste of battle at Brandywine, on September 11, 1777. Lafayette saw Laurens that day and wrote about him,
It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded[,] he did everything that was necessary to procure one or t’other.
My old Sash rather disfigur’d by the heavy Rain which half drown’d us on our march (and which spoilt me a waistcoat and breeches and my uniform coat, clouding them with the dye wash’d out of my hat).
|The Battle of Germantown|
He rushed up to the door of Chew’s House, which he forced partly open, and fighting with his sword with one hand, with the other he applied the wood work a flaming brand, and what is very remarkable, retired from under the tremendous fire of the house, with but a very slight wound.Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was the site of the winter camp of the Continental over the winter of 1777–1778. In December 1777, when Washington's poorly fed, ill-equipped army arrived at Valley Forge, only about one in three of them had shoes, and many of their feet had left bloody footprints from the marching. Starvation, disease and exposure killed nearly 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.
Soldiers received inadequate supplies of meat and bread, some getting their only nourishment from "firecake," a tasteless mixture of flour and water. Occasionally, there would be "pepper hot soup," a black-pepper flavored tripe broth. The layer of snow was often too thin to be collected and melted into drinking water. Alternating freezing and melting of snow and ice made it impossible to keep dry and allowed for disease to fester.
|Winter, Valley Forge|
that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place...this Army must inevitably...starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.
During the 1778 winter in Valley Forge, John sent frequent requests to his father for appropriate clothing for himself as an officer but when Henry sent a checked shirt and hunting shirt for their slave, Shrewsberry, John’s response was “if there be any difficulty in getting him Winter Cloths, I believe he can do without.”
As the British increased their operations in the South, John Laurens promoted the idea of arming slaves and granting them freedom in return for their service. He wrote to his father:
January 14, 1778
Headquarters, Valley Forge,
I barely hinted to you my dearest Father my desire to augment the Continental Forces from an untried Source—I wish I had any foundation to ask for an extraordinary addition to those favors which I have already received from you I would solicit you to cede me a number of your able bodied men Slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune—I would bring about a twofold good, first I would advance those who are unjustly deprived of the Rights of Mankind to a State which would be a proper Gradation between abject Slavery and perfect Liberty—and besides I would reinforce the Defenders of Liberty with a number of gallant Soldiers—Men who have the habit of Subordination almost indelibly impress’d on them, would have one very essential qualification of Soldiers—I am persuaded that if I could obtain authority for the purpose I would have a Corps of such men trained, uniformly clad, equip’d and ready in every respect to act at the opening of the next Campaign—The Ridicule that may be thrown on the Colour I despise, because I am sure of rendering essential Service to my Country—I am tired of the Languor with which so sacred a War as this, is carried on—my circumstances prevent me from writing so long a Letter as I expected and wish’d to have done on a subject which I have much at heart—I entreat you to give a favorable Answer to Your most affectionate son
HEADQUARTERS, 23d Jan., 1778
. . . .You asked me, my dear father, what bounds I have set to my desire of serving my country in the military line? I answer glorious death, or the triumph of the cause in which we are engaged.
HEADQUARTERS, 2d Feb., 1778.
The more I reflect upon the difficulties and delays which are likely to attend the completing our Continental regiments, the more anxiously is my mind bent upon the scheme, which I lately communicated to you.
The obstacles to the execution of it had presented themselves to me, but by no means appeared insurmountable. I was aware of having that monstrous popular prejudice, open-mouthed against me, of under taking to transform beings almost irrational, into well disciplined soldiers, of being obliged to combat the arguments, and perhaps the intrigues, of interested persons. But zeal for the public service, and an ardent desire to assert the rights of humanity, determined me to engage in this arduous business, with the sanction of your consent. My own perseverance, aided by the countenance of a few virtuous men, will, I hope, enable me to accomplish it.
You seem to think, my dear father, that men reconciled by long habit to the miseries of their condition, would prefer their ignominious bonds to the untasted sweets of liberty, especially when offer'd upon the terms which I propose. I confess, indeed, that the minds of this unhappy species must be debased by a servitude, from which they can hope for no relief but death, and that every motive to action but fear, must be nearly extinguished in them.
But do you think they are so perfectly moulded to their state as to be insensible that a better exists? Will the galling comparison between them selves and their masters leave them unenlightened in this respect? Can their self love be so totally annihilated as not frequently to induce ardent wishes for a change?
You will accuse me, perhaps, my dearest friend, of consulting my own feelings too much; but I am tempted to believe that this trampled people have so much human left in them, as to be capable of aspiring to the rights of men by noble exertions, if some friend to mankind would point the road, and give them a prospect of success.
. . .Like other men, they are the creatures of habit. Their cowardly ideas will be gradually effaced, and they will be modified anew. Their being rescued from a state of perpetual humiliation, and being advanced, as it were, in the scale of being, will compensate the dangers incident to their new state. The hope that will spring in each man's mind, respecting his own escape, will prevent his being miserable. Those who fall in battle will not lose much; those who survive will obtain their reward. Habits of subordination, patience under fatigues, sufferings and privations of every kind, are soldierly qualifications, which these men possess in an eminent degree. . .
Upon the whole, my dearest friend and father, I hope that my plan for serving my country and the oppressed negro race will not appear to you the chimera of a young mind, deceived by a false appearance of moral beauty, but a laudable sacrifice of private interest, to justice and the public good. You say, that my resources would be small, on account of the proportion of women and children. I do not know whether I am right, for I speak from impulse, and have not reasoned upon the matter. I say, altho my plan is at once to give freedom to the negroes, and gain soldiers to the states; in case of concurrence, I sh'd sacrifice the former interest, and therefore w'd change the women and children for able-bodied men. The more of these I could obtain, the better; but forty might be a good foundation to begin upon.
It is a pity that some such plan as I propose could not be more extensively executed by public authority. A well chosen body of 5,000 black men, properly officer'd, to act as light troops, in addition to our present establishment, might give us decisive success in the next campaign. I have long deplored the wretched state of these men, and considered in their history, the bloody wars excited in Africa, to furnish America with slaves the groans of despairing multitudes, toiling for the luxuries of merciless tyrants. I have had the pleasure of conversing with you, sometimes, upon the means of restoring them to their rights. When can it be better done, than when their enfranchisement may be made conducive to the public good, and be modified, as not to overpower their weak minds?
You ask, what is the general's opinion, upon this subject? He is convinced, that the numerous tribes of blacks in the southern parts of the continent, offer a resource to us that should not be neglected.
Have you considered that your kind intentions towards your Negroes would be deemed by them the highest cruelty, & that to escape from it they would flee into the Woods, that they would interpret your humanity to be an Exchange of Slavery a State & circumstances not only tolerable bur comfortable from habit, for an intolerable. Taken from their Wives 7 Children & their little Plantations to the Field of Battle where Loss of Life & Loss of Limbs must be expected by every one every day.
When John announced that he had designed a uniform for his soldiers, white with red facing, that was coordinated with their skin color, Henry wrote a sharp reply, telling John that nobody in Congress supported his idea. He said John's reputation would suffer irreparable harm, leading to the humiliation of his wife and child, whom he seemingly did not consider at all. At this point, John agreed to drop the matter for a time. He admitted, however, that he desperately wanted an independent command. Writing about the soldiers around him at Valley Forge, he said, "I would cherish those dear ragged Continentals whose patience will be the admiration of future ages, and glory in bleeding with them."
|Friederich Wilhelm von Steuben|
Increasing military efficiency, morale, and discipline were as vital to the army's well-being as its supply of food and arms. The army had been handicapped in battle because the soldiers were trained, but not uniformly. The task of developing and carrying out an effective training program fell to the baron, who arrived at Valley Forge on February 23, 1778. Washington saw great promise in the Prussian and almost immediately assigned him the duties of Acting Inspector General with the task of developing and carrying out an effective training program. Von Steuben taught the soldiers how to aim muskets accurately, charge with bayonets, and maneuver together in compact ranks.
Von Steuben himself spoke little English; he trained the soldiers using German and French, using translators for English instructions. The translations were copied and passed to the individual regiments and companies that carried out the prescribed drill. Von Steuben shocked many American officers by breaking tradition to work directly with the men. One officer wrote of von Steuben's "peculiar grace" as he took "under his direction a squad of men in the capacity of drill sergeant." From dawn to dusk his familiar voice was heard in camp above the sounds of marching men and shouted commands. When the Continental Army paraded on May 6, 1778, to celebrate the French alliance with America, von Steuben received the honor of organizing the day's activities.
Von Steuben had arrived at Valley Forge with two young French assistants, one of whom was presumed to be his lover. Von Steuben is perhaps the best-known gay man in American military history; although his sexual orientation is rarely mentioned, Benjamin Franklin, who provided the letters of recommendation to Washington, was aware that von Steuben had been implicated in relationships with boys and young men. The baron had been expelled from the court of Frederick the Great for homosexual behavior and was on the verge of being prosecuted when he left Germany for France. During the interview process, Franklin discovered von Steuben’s reputation for having “affections” with males; the issue became pressing as members of the French clergy demanded that the French court take action against a man they considered to be a sodomite. Franklin decided von Steuben’s expertise was more important to the colonies than his sexuality.
HEADQUARTERS, 4th May, 1778.
I thank you my dear father for your kind favour of yesterday, and again congratulate you upon the important intelligence from France. It seems to me to have been her interest to offer such generous terms to America, as to ensure her prompt acceptance, and to avoid every thing which might give room for deliberation and delay. If our ambassadors in France were plenipotentiaries, the ratification comes of course. If they were not, I think it is as little politic as generous to refuse an alliance with France in order to accept one upon equal terms with Great Britain. There is still a prejudice in the minds of many people in favour of the latter, which should be wisely counteracted, or that power will gain by artful policy what she has lost in the field of battle. The intelligence seems to diffuse sincere joy. We only wait for leave from Congress to signify that of the army, by sounds which will reach the ears of the enemy.
My wife writes that my uncle is at Marseilles; his stay there depends entirely on my aunt. Harry at Richmond wrote letters which I have never received. . . . Your grand-daughter and Mr. Manning's family were well, and desired their love. It has been my ill fortune to write all my letters for some time past in very great haste, and this is the case at present, when I would particularly have wished to write deliberately. Your most affectionate JOHN LAURENS.
In September he wrote:
HEADQUARTERS, 24th September, 1778.
My Dear Father: I have received your kind favour of the 17th inst. The information which you give me relative to my hospitable acquaintance, gives me great pain. I had conceived an esteem for him, and it afflicts me to find a new instance of the depravity of my species.
. . . The approach of the period which you allude to, occasions the greatest anxiety in my mind. The public interest and my own lead me to wish that you may continue in the august assembly of the states. I dread your being so remote from where my duty places me, and see collected in one view all the painful consequences of it. It was my intention at all events to have paid you the homage of my love in Philadelphia, at the close of the present campaign.
We are at present in a disagreeable state of suspense. Continued preparations in New York announce a very considerable embarkation. Our spies inform us that a council of war had been held, and continued for three days. Lord Howe has certainly arrived. Gen Grays troops had returned by way of the sound and been relanded. . .
Anticipating the happiness which I shall enjoy in embracing you, I commend myself to your love, and my dear father to God s protection. JOHN LAURENS.
On February 17, 1779, Laurens wrote that, "It will be my duty and my pride to transform the timid slave into a firm defender of liberty, and render him worthy to enjoy it himself."
Henry Laurens was serving on a committee charged with forming a plan of defense for the south. On March 20, George Washington responded to Henry Laurens's March 16th letter on the possibility of raising a black regiment for the defense of the south:
Middle brook March 20, 1779
Dear Sir: I have to thank you, and I do it very sincerely, for your obliging favors of the 2d. and 16th Inst.; and for their several inclosures, containing articles of intelligence.
I congratulate you most cordially on Campbells precipitate retreat from Fort Augusta. What was this owing to? it seems to have been a surprize even upon Williamson. but I rejoice much more on acct. of his disappointed application to the Creek Indians; this I think, is to be considered as a very important event, and may it not be the conjectural cause of his (Campbells) hasty return; this latter circumstance cannot but be a fresh proof to the disaffected (in that Country) that they are leaning upon a broken reed; severe examples should, in my judgment, be made of those who were forgiven former offences and again in Arms against us.
The policy of our arming Slaves is, in my opinion, a moot point, unless the enemy set the example; for should we begin to form Battalions of them, I have not the smallest doubt (if the War is to be prosecuted) of their following us in it, and justifying the measure upon our own ground; the upshot then must be, who can arm fastest, and where are our Arms? besides, I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it; most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude; but as this is a subject that has never employed much of my thoughts, these are no more than the first crude Ideas that have struck me upon the occasion.
I had not the smallest intimation of Monsr. Gerards passing through Jersey till I was favoured with your Letter, and am now ignorant of the cause, otherwise than by conjecture. The inclosed I return, as Mr. Laurens left this some days ago for Philadelphia, on his way to the Southward. Mrs. Washington joins me in respectful compliments to you, and with every sentiment of regard and attachment. I am etc.
It will produce the Emancipation of a number of those wretches and lay a foundation for the Abolition of Slavery in America.
Lieutenant Colonel Laurens, who will have the honor of delivering you this, has served two Campaigns in my Family in quality of aide De camp … Though unwilling to part with him, I could not oppose his going to a place where he is called by such powerful motives, and where I am persuaded he will be extremely useful. I have therefore given him leave of absence ‘till a change of affairs will permit his return, when I shall be happy to see him resume his place in my family.
Cold in my professions – warm in my friendships – I wish, my Dear Laurens, it were in my power, by actions rather than words, to convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that 'till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent of the caprice of others. You should not have taken advantage of my sensibility, to steal into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it, and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on one condition; that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into me. . .
And Now my Dear as we are upon the subject of wife, I empower and command you to get me one in Carolina. Such a wife as I want will, I know, be difficult to be found, but if you succeed, it will be the stronger proof of your zeal and dexterity. . . .
If you should not readily meet with a lady that you think answers my description you can only advertise in the public papers and doubtless you will hear of many . . . who will be glad to become candidates for such a prize as I am. To excite their emulation, it will be necessary for you to give an account of the lover – his size, make, quality of mind and body, achievements, expectations, fortune, &c. In drawing my picture, you will no doubt be civil to your friend; mind you do justice to the length of my nose and don't forget, that I [about five words here have been mutilated in the manuscript].
After reviewing what I have written, I am ready to ask myself what could have put it into my head to hazard this Jeu de follie. Do I want a wife? No – I have plagues enough without desiring to add to the number that greatest of all; and if I were silly enough to do it, I should take care how I employ a proxy. Did I mean to show my wit? If I did, I am sure I have missed my aim. Did I only intend to [frisk]? In this I have succeeded, but I have done more. I have gratified my feelings, by lengthening out the only kind of intercourse now in my power with my friend. Adieu
Laurens verbally presented his plan for a black regiment to Governor John Rutledge and the
We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves . . . It was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic Step.Christopher Gadsen was the designer of what came to be known as "the Gadsden flag," with a yellow field depicting a rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike. Positioned below the rattlesnake are the words "Dont tread on me". Gadsen designed it in 1775. In modern times, the Gadsden flag is a libertarian symbol, and has been associated with the Tea Party
|"Dont Tread on Me"|
That summer, Laurens presented his plan formally to the House of Representatives; his written proposal emphasized the military expediency while downplaying the social ramifications. But the idea of large numbers of armed black men appalled the white legislators, and the plan was overwhelmingly rejected. Only a small group of the delegates gave him support; one of those supporters, Dr. David Ramsay, wrote that
The measure for embodying the negroes had about twelve votes; it was received with horror by the planters, who figured to themselves terrible consequences. . . . White Pride & Avarice are great obstacles in the way of Black Liberty.John Laurens wrote Alexander Hamilton in July:
Ternant will relate to you how many violent struggles I have had between duty and inclination—how much my heart was with you, while I appeared to be most actively employed here—but it appears to me that I shd be inexcusable in the light of a Citizen if I did not continue my utmost efforts for carrying the plan of black levies into execution, while there remains the smallest hope of success.
Our army is reduced to nothing almost by the departure of the Virginians; Scots arrival will scarcely restore us to our ancient number; if the Enemy destine the Reinforcements from G. B. for this quarter, as in policy they ought to do, that number will be insufficient for the security of our country. The Governor among other matters to be laid before the House of Assembly under the head of preparations for the ensuing Campaign, intends to propose the completing our Continental batts. by drafts from the militia; this measure I am told is so exceedingly unpopular that there is no hope of succeeding in it—either this must be adopted, or the black levies, or the state may fall a victim to the supineness and improvidence of its inhabitants. The house of Representatives have had a longer recess than usual occasioned by the number of members in the field—it will be convened however in a few days—I intend to qualify—and make a final effort.
Oh that I were a Demosthenes—the Athenians never deserved more bitter exprobration than my Countrymen.
Genl. Moultrie who commands our Remains of an army at Stono and has aHamilton wrote to Laurens in September:
Corps of observation at Beaufort ferry informs us in his last letter, that the Enemy are preparing the Court House and Gaol at Beaufort for the reception of their sick—which indicates a design to establish themselves in quarters of refreshment there. Clinton’s movement and your march in consequence, made me wish to be with you; if any thing important shd. be done in your quarter while I am doing daily penance here, and making successless harangues, I shall execrate my Stars—& be out of humour with the world. I entreat you my dear friend write me as frequently as circumstances will permit, and enlighten me upon what is going forward—adieu—my love to our dear Colleagues. I am afraid I was so thoughtless as to omit my remembrances to Gibbes in the last Letter Tell him that I am always his sincere well wisher and hope to laugh with him again before long. adieu again—yours ever
You know my opinion of Ternants value—his health and affairs call him to the North—if you can render him any services—they will be worthily bestowed—we have not hitherto availed ourselves of his zeal and talents.Colonel Hamilton
September 11, 1779
I acknowledge but one letter from you, since you left us, of the 14th of July which just arrived in time to appease a violent conflict between my friendship and my pride. I have written you five or six letters since you left Philadelphia and I should have written you more had you made proper return. But like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued. I had almost resolved to lavish no more of them upon you and to reject you as an inconstant and an ungrateful — But you have now disarmed my resentment and by a single mark of attention made up the quarrel. You must at least allow me a large stock of good nature. . . .
Have you not heard that I am on the point of becoming a benedict? I confess my
sins. I am guilty. Next fall completes my doom. I give up my liberty to Miss Schuyler. She is a good hearted girl who I am sure will never play the termagant; though not a genius she has good sense enough to be agreeable, and though not a beauty, she has fine black eyes – is rather handsome and has every other requisite of the exterior to make a lover happy. And believe me, I am lover in earnest, though I do not speak of the perfections of my Mistress in the enthusiasm of Chivalry.
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
. . . Cannot you pay us a visit? If you can, hasten to give us a pleasure which we shall relish with the sensibility of the sincerest friendship.
Adieu God bless you. . . .
The lads all sympathize with you and send you the assurances of their love.
In August 1780, Henry Laurens sailed for Europe; his ship was captured on September 3 by a British vessel near Newfoundland. Laurens threw his papers overboard, but the British succeeded in fishing out a draft of the treaty. He wrote to his son that he had been captured, but not to worry:
Through all the changing scenes of Life, you know my mind.
|The Tower of London|
This is the most extraordinary act I ever heard of. 'Tis enough to provoke me to change my lodging . . . I would not pay the warders, whom I never employed, and whose attendance I shall be glad to dispense with. Attempts, sir, to tax men without their own consent, have involved this kingdom in a bloody seven years war.Laurens was allowed occasional visits from his youngest son, Harry, and his daughter-in-law, Martha Manning Laurens. Henry Laurens resisted the efforts of his British friends to bring him to their side, but at the same time he felt neglected by Congress. While in the tower he wrote two petitions to the English authorities that were considered too submissive by some Americans back home, including James Madison, who called for an annulment of Laurens’s diplomatic commission. Benjamin Franklin and the British statesman Edmund Burke fought to secure his release. John Adams was appointed in his place to carry on the negotiation with the United Provinces.
Meanwhile, John Laurens was freed from parole in a prisoner exchange in November 1780. The following month he was appointed by Congress as a special envoy to France to assist Benjamin Franklin in procuring supplies and money. He received a letter with instructions from George Washington in January 1781:
Dear Sir: In compliance with your request I shall commit to writing the result of our conferences on the present state of American affairs; in which I have given you my ideas, with that freedom and explicitness, which the objects of your commission, my intire confidence in you, and the exigency demand.
To me it appears evident:
1st. That, considering the diffused population of these states, the consequent difficulty of drawing together its resources; the composition and temper of a part of its inhabitants; the want of a sufficient stock of national wealth as a foundation for Revenue and the almost total extinction of commerce; the efforts we have been compelled to make for carrying on the war, have exceeded the natural abilities of this country and by degrees brought it to a crisis, which renders immediate and efficacious succours from abroad indispensable to its safety.
2dly. That, notwithstanding from the confusion, always attendant on a revolution, from our having had governments to frame, and every species of civil and military institution to create; from that inexperience in affairs, necessarily incident to a nation in its commencement, some errors may have been committed in the administration of our finances, to which a part of our embarrassments are to be attributed, yet they are principally to be ascribed to an essential defect of means, to the want of a sufficient stock of wealth, as mentioned in the first article; which, continuing to operate, will make it impossible, by any merely interior exertions, to extricate ourselves from those embarrassments, restore public credit, and furnish the funds requisite for the support of the war.
3dly. That experience has demonstrated the impracticability, long to maintain a paper credit without funds for its redemption. The depreciation of our currency was, in the main, a necessary effect of the want of those funds; and its restoration is impossible for the same reason; to which the general diffidence, that has taken place among the people, is an additional, and in the present state of things, an insuperable obstacle.
4thly. That the mode, which for want of money has been substituted for supplying the army; by assessing a proportion of the productions of the earth, has hitherto been found ineffectual, has frequently exposed the army to the most calamitous distress, and from its novelty and incompatibility with ancient habits, is regarded by the people as burthensome and oppressive; has excited serious discontents, and, in some places, alarming symptoms of opposition. This mode has besides many particular inconveniences which contribute to make it inadequate to our wants, and ineligible, but as an auxiliary.
5thly. That from the best estimates of the annual expence of the war, and the annual revenues which these states are capable of affording, there is a large balance to be supplied by public credit. The resource of domestic loans is inconsiderable because there are properly speaking few monied men, and the few there are can employ their money more profitably otherwise; added to which, the instability of the currency and the deficiency of funds have impaired the public credit.
6thly. That the patience of the army from an almost uninterrupted series of complicated distress is now nearly exhausted; their discontents matured to an extremity, which has recently had very disagreeable consequences, and which demonstrates the absolute necessity of speedy relief, a relief not within the compass of our means. You are too well acquainted with all their sufferings, for want of clothing, for want of provisions, for want of pay.
7thly. That the people being dissatisfied with the mode of supporting the war, there is cause to apprehend, evils actually felt in the prosecution, may weaken those sentiments which begun it; founded not on immediate sufferings, but in a speculative apprehension of future sufferings from the loss of their liberties. There is danger that a commercial and free people, little accustomed to heavy burthens, pressed by impositions of a new and odious kind, may not make a proper allowance for the necessity of the conjuncture, and may imagine, they have only exchanged one tyranny for another.
8thly. That from all the foregoing considerations result: 1st. The absolute necessity of an immediate, ample and efficacious succour of money; large enough to be a foundation for substantial arrangements of finance, to revive public credit and give vigor to future operations. 2dly. The vast importance of a decided effort of the allied arms on this Continent, the ensuing campaign, to effectuate once for all the great objects of the alliance; the liberty and independence of these states. Without the first, we may make a feeble and expiring effort the next campaign, in all probability the period to our opposition. With it, we should be in a condition to continue the war, as long as the obstinacy of the enemy might require. The first is essential to the last; both combined would bring the contest to a glorious issue, crown, the obligations, which America already feels to the magnanimity and generosity of her ally, and perpetuate the union, by all the ties of gratitude and affection, as well as mutual advantage, which alone can render it solid and indissoluble.
9thly. That next to a loan of money a constant naval superiority on these coasts is the object most interesting. This would instantly reduce the enemy to a difficult defensive, and by removing all prospect of extending their acquisitions, would take away the motives for prosecuting the war. Indeed it is not to be conceived, how they could subsist a large force in this country, if we had the command of the seas, to interrupt the regular transmission of supplies from Europe. This superiority (with an aid of money) would enable us to convert the war into a vigorous offensive. I say nothing of the advantages to the trade of both nations, nor how infinitely it would facilitate our supplies. With respect to us, it seems to be one of two deciding points; and it appears too, to be the interest of our allies, abstracted from the immediate benefits to this country, to transfer the naval war to America. The number of ports friendly to them, hostile to the British; the materials for repairing their disabled ships; the extensive supplies towards the subsistence of their fleet, are circumstances which would give them a palpable advantage in the contest of these seas.
10thly. That an additional succour of troops would be extremely desirable. Besides a reinforcement of numbers, the excellence of the French troops, that perfect discipline and order in the corps already sent, which have so happily tended to improve the respect and confidence of the people for our allies; the conciliating disposition and the zeal for the service, which distinguish every rank, sure indications of lasting harmony, all these considerations evince the immense utility of an accession of force to the corps now here. Correspondent with these motives, the inclosed minutes of a conference between Their Excellencies The Count De Rochambeau, The Chevalier De Ternay and myself will inform you that an augmentation to fifteen thousand men was judged expedient for the next campaign; and it has been signified to me, that an application has been made to the Court of France to this effect. But if the sending so large a succour of troops, should necessarily diminish the pecuniary aid, which our allies may be disposed to grant, it were preferable to diminish tile aid in men; for the same sum of money, which would transport from France and maintain here a body of troops with all the necessary apparatus, being put into our hands to be employed by us would serve to give activity to a larger force within ourselves, and its influence would pervade the whole administration.
11thly. That no nation will have it more in its power to repay what it borrows than this. Our debts are hitherto small. The vast and valuable tracts of unlocated lands, the variety and fertility of climates and soils; the advantages of every kind, which we possess for commerce, insure to this country a rapid advancement in population and prosperity and a certainty, its independence being established, of redeeming in a short term of years, the comparatively inconsiderable debts it may have occasion to contract.
That notwithstanding the difficulties under which we labour and the inquietudes prevailing among the people, there is still a fund of inclination and resource in the country equal to great and continued exertions, provided we have it in our power to stop the progress of disgust, by changing the present system and adopting another more consonant with the spirit of the nation, and more capable of activity and energy in public measures; of which a powerful succour of money must be the basis. The people are discontented, but it is with the feeble and oppressive mode of conducting the war, not with the war itself. They are not unwilling to contribute to its support, but they are unwilling to do it in a way that renders private property precarious, a necessary consequence of the fluctuation of the national currency, and of the inability of government to perform its engagements, oftentimes coercively made. A large majority are still firmly attached to the independence of these states, abhor a reunion with great Britain, and are affectionate to the alliance with France, but this disposition cannot supply the place of means customary and essential in war, nor can we rely on its duration amidst the perplexities, oppressions and misfortunes, that attend the want of them.
If the foregoing observations are of any use to you I shall be happy. I wish you a safe and pleasant voyage, the full accomplishment of your mission and a speedy return; being with sentiments of perfect friendship etc.Alexander Hamilton, knowing his friend's impulsiveness, wrote him with advice for the diplomatic mission:
To Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens
New Windsor, New York, February 4, 1781
I had finished my letter when I received a respite of another quarter of an hour which I shall improve in writing you another letter.
The Marquis thinks the Generals letter will have more weight if the Ministry see it, as it were undesignedly by you, than if you formally communicate it to them; and with a view to this he has mentioned the letter to them and advised them to ask for a sight of it. He observes that in this way we shall avoid the suspicion of letters having been calculated for their inspection and of course they will have less reserve in giving faith to its contents. There is weight in this observation and it is worthy to be considered by you. At all events however, The Ministry ought to see the letter.
I have sincerely told you My Dear Laurens that I was happy the commission has been entrusted to you. I have implicit confidence in your talents and integrity; but in the frankness of friendship allow me to suggest to you one apprehension. It is of the honest warmth of your temper. A politician My Dear friend must be at all times supple—he must often dissemble . . I suspect the Ministry will try your temper; but you must not suffer them to provoke it.
When Congress is spoken of, you must justify and extenuate with the dignity and coolness of a politician, not with the susceptibility of a republican —sometimes even you must acknowledge errors and ascribe them to inexperience. . .
When you wish to show the deficiency of the French Administration, do it indirectly by exposing the advantages of measures not taken rather than by a direct criticism of those taken. When you express your fears of consequences have the tone of lamentation rather than of menace.
In the nature of things, the French Court must consider us as the obliged party, and I do not see the policy of rejecting this idea, though I would take every proper occasion of showing the advantages of the revolution to France without however seeming to insist upon them. One good way of doing this will be by showing the immense advantages which England would have derived from a continuance of the union.
. . . My friend the French Court is jealous and susceptible. You will not give food to this disposition. These cautions I am sure you will receive as proofs of My friendship & confidence. Betsy sends her love and best wishesJohn Laurens sailed from Boston in February, 1781, accompanied by Thomas Paine, the
The pleasure occasioned by his escape made us for a while the less attentive to the general danger.They arrived in France on March 9, and headed for Paris to carry out the task of assisting Benjamin Franklin in obtaining loans. After six weeks elapsed with no results, the restless Laurens called on the French minister of foreign affairs, the Comte de Vergennes. He made demands for money, weapons, uniforms, and ammunition for the American cause. Vergennes replied, “Colonel Laurens, you are so recently from the Head Quarters of the American Army, that you forget that you are no longer delivering the order of the Commander-in-Chief, but that you are addressing the minister of a monarch.” Laurens' impatience was expressed in a letter to George Washington in April:
Passy near Paris 11th April 1781.
My dear General
Not to trouble Your Excellency with a detail of writings, conferences, attendances and importunities, I pass at once to the result as communicated to me by the Count de Vergennes—It is His most Christian Majestys
determination, to guarantee a loan of ten millions of livres to be opened in Holland in favour of the United States—in addition to the gratuitous gift of six millions granted before my arrival—and four millions appropriated for the payment of bills of exchange drawn by Congress—The Value of Clothing, Ordnance, and military stores, of which articles I have delivered an estimate reduced in proportion to the quantities already obtained and forwarded by Doctor Franklin—is to be deducted from the six millions.
The Comte de Vergennes
. . . I am using my utmost efforts to prevail upon the Ministers, to advance the ten millions from the treasury of France, and avail themselves of the proposed loan in Holland for replacing the sum—this arrangement it appears to me can be attended with no possible inconvenience to the finances of France, and I need not add to Your Excellency how invaluable this gain of time will be to America—I shall likewise endeavour to negotiate the Ordnance and other military effects, that may be supplied from the Kings Arsenal on credit, to economise as much as possible of the six millions. The Marquis de Castries has promised to make immediate arrangements for forwarding the supplies—and has renewed his assurances that a naval Superiority will exist on the American Coast, the ensuing Campaign—but there are not those dispo[sitions] made for maintaining it that the success of the common cause demands—and I am sorry to inform Your Excellency that the Ministry do not seem to approve of the siege of New York as an operation for the ensuing Campaign—What may be the effect of farther and more particular conferences on the subject I cannot determine. . .
It mortifies me much not to be able to announce to your Excellency the day of my departure from this Country. It is impossible to express the impatience which I feel to return to my military function—and to have opportunities of proving to Your Excellency that I am unalterably with the profoundest veneration and most tender attachment Your Excellency’s faithful AidMeetings with the French king, Louis XVI, were most likely conducted in the company and under the influence of Franklin. At a reception, where individuals were briefly brought before the king to merely bow and pay their respects, Laurens apparently directly approached the king. Despite ruffling some feathers, he was eventually able to secure a ten million livre loan from the Dutch, underwritten by the French, and additional military supplies.
I must trouble Your Excellency to present my Respects to Mrs Washington—my love to the Marquis de la Fayette Col. Hamilton and the rest of the family.
John Laurens was unable to travel to London where his father was still imprisoned in the Tower of London, but received letters from family members and friends about his father's condition. Although he pleaded with French and Spanish ministers to intervene for his father, he was able to do little more than deposit money in his father's account.
In the portrait painted by Abbott, the letter that Laurens holds in his hand contains these words:
I have acted the part of a fait[hful] subject. I now go resolved still to labour for peace at the same time determined in the last event to stand or fall with my country. I have the honour to be
Henry LaurensIn May 171, John Laurens began his trip back to America. Difficulties with the money and materials delayed his departure until the first of June. He wrote to his sister, Martha, who was living in France with their uncle James, Aunt Mary, and sister Polly, that he regretted "quitting France without having the happiness of passing a moment with you, except in imagination. Devoted to the service of my Country I submit to this sacrifice."
John Laurens arrived in Boston in late August 1781, with money and two ships loaded with military supplies. He made a report to Congress and rushed to join Washington's army at the siege of Yorktown.
painting of Hamilton
& Laurens at
Cornwallis refused to meet formally with Washington and also refused to come to the ceremony of surrender, claiming illness. Instead, Brigadier General Charles O'Hara presented the sword of surrender to Jean Baptiste de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau. Rochambeau shook his head and pointed to Washington; O'Hara offered it to Washington, but he refused to accept it, and motioned to his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln, who had been humiliated by the British at Charleston, to accept it.
Washington reported the victory to Congress. in Philadelphia, which celebrated for several days. When told of the defeat, the British Prime Minister, Frederick Lord North, is reported to have exclaimed "Oh God, it's all over!"
As the war came to a close, it seemed Laurens was certain to be one of the predominant leaders of the new nation. Alexander Hamilton, who had resigned from the army after Yorktown and was appointed to the Continental Congress in 1782, wrote to Laurens:
Peace made, My Dear friend, a new scene opens. The object then will be to make our independence a blessing. To do this we must secure our union on solid foundations; a Herculean task and to effect which mountains of prejudice must be leveled! Quit your sword my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress. We know each others sentiments, our views are the same; we have fought side by side to make America free, let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.Sometime in the spring of 1782, John Laurens learned that his wife, Martha Manning Laurens, had died the previous year in Lisle, France, shortly after traveling there in the hopes of reuniting with him.
Though Nathanael Greene endorsed arming slaves, Laurens again met an overwhelming defeat when the South Carolina legislature met in early 1782. Laurens had demonstrated more political maturity and acumen: he proposed that the slaves from confiscated loyalist estates be used to form a black regiment. Unlike his previous attempts, this plan did not threaten the property of any revolutionary slave holders. The distinction, however, won him few votes.
Edward Rutledge, a younger brother of Governor John Rutledge, found Laurens’s proposal deeply upsetting. He wrote to Arthur Middleton, a Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress,
We have had another hard Battle on the Subject of arming the Blacks….about 12 or 15 were for it & about 100 against it - I now hope it will rest for ever & a day. But I do assure you I was very much alarmed on the Occasion.
The northern people I have observed, regard the condition in which we hold our slaves in a light different from us . . I am much deceived indeed, if they do not secretly wish for a general Emancipation, if the present struggle was over - A very sensible m[a]n whom you well know in Philadel[phi]a once mentioned seriously to me, that our Country w[oul]d be a fine one, if our whites & blacks inter-married - the breed w[oul]d be a hardy excellent race, he said, fit to bear our climate.
Burke’s juxtaposition of miscegenation with the black regiment plan speaks volumes on the fears that Laurens’ proposal aroused. It mattered little that Laurens offered to draw his regiment from confiscated Loyalists estates, thereby depriving no revolutionary of his property. For all the talk of the sanity of property and the inability to work low county swamps without slave labor, what frightened many white males was an alarming and irrational image of a lower South without slavery, of unrestrained sexual relations between blacks and whites tainting the blood of the master race.
Head Quarters Ponpon March 9th 1782
Sir - I wrote your Excellency the 8th of February since which I am without your favor. In my last I informed you that I had written to Count Rochambeau for reinforcements. Inclosed is his answer. I am persuaded he must have mistaken your intentions. I find nothing is to be expected from that quarter.
I am sorry the Legion was put in motion as it may raise the enemy’s apprehensions, and bring upon us reinforcements which might not have been otherwise sent, at least so soon.Your Excellency will see by the Kings speech, and other measures taking in Great Britain, the enemy are determined to prosecute the war; and from the Dean of Gloucesters’ Plan of pacification, and other Parliamentary debates, there can hardly be a doubt of the operations being principally to the southward. You will also see by the Returns inclosed you, how incompetent our force is to any great operation. The Country is naturally weak and greatly reduced by the ravages of intestine disputes between the Whigs and Tories.
We are remote from support and supplies of every kind. No large bodies of militia can be hastily called together here, nor can supplies of any kind be had, but with the greatest difficulty. We have 300 men now without Arms. And twice that number so naked as to be unfit for any duty but in cases of desparation. Not a rag of clothing has arrived to us this winter. Indeed our Prospects are really deplorable. It is true we get meat and rice, but no rum or spirits.
Men and officers without pay in this situation cannot be kept in temper long. I will not trouble you with a detail of all our difficulties. They would be too troublesome to enumerate; but I cannot but apprehend for a Country so badly supported, and naturally so weak and helpless.
I persuaded the Legislature to raise black Regiments but could not prevail: not because they objected to the expence (for they give a most enormous bounty for white men, and pay in Slaves) but from an apprehension of the consequences.
. . . All the southern States look to you for support. I will do all I can and you know me too well to suppose I shall shrink at small difficulties; but how feeble are the best intentions, and how vain and obstinate perseverance against a very unequal force.The enemy have been out lately in considerable force in St Thomas’s. They routed General Marion’s commune, and killed took & wounded upwards of twenty men. They have not ventured out on our side altho the Assembly have been sitting within Thirty miles of Town, and the enemy a much greater force than we have, which induces me to believe they have orders not to risque a general action. General Wayne has burnt all the enemy forage close under their noses at Savannah. I am improving every moment in discipl[ining] and arranging the troops. That they may be in the best condition for whatever may happen.
But alas! We no sooner get our men tollerably well acquainted with their duty, than their term of Service expires, and they leave us, and often without others to supply their place. I am with great respect Your Excellency’s Most Obedient Humble ServantIn his letter to John Laurens, dated July 10, 1782, Washington expressed his lack of surprise at Georgia's and South Carolina's refusal to allow slaves to become soldiers following the Continental Congress's 1779 resolution. This resolution offered to compensate slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina up to $1,000 for each slave enlisted, and also stated that slaves who served until the end of the war would be emancipated.
My Dr Sir
Head Qrs 10 July 82
The last Post brought me your Letter of the 19 May. I must confess that I am not at all astonished at the failure of your Plans. That Spirit of Freedom which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed every thing to the attainment of its object has long since subsided, and every selfish Passion has taken its place—it is not the public but the private Interest which influences the generality of Mankind nor can the Americans any longer boast an exception—under these circumstances it would rather have been surprizing if you had succeeded nor will you I fear succeed better in Georgia.
In the present moment there is very little prospect of the Campaign being much more Active in this quarter than in yours—however little can be positively determined on, till we have some advices from Europe—which I am anxiously waiting for—when they arrive I shall be better able to tell you what we may expect.
Sir Guy Carlton is using every art to sooth & lull our people into a state of security—Adml Digby is Capturing all our Vessels, & suffocating all our Seamen who will not enlist into the Service of His Britanic Majesty as fast as possible in Prison Ships. And Haldiman (with his Savage Allies) is scalping & burning the Frontiers—Such is the line of Conduct pursued by the different Commanders—and such—their politics. You have my best wishes always, being sincerely Yrs
The bearer, ‘Le Bresseur,’ wishes to have ‘the Linen and Clothg belong[ing] to
[the] late L[ieutenant] Co[lonel] Laurence [John Laurens;] it is a Custom in Europe and he expect it as his due, but he may take more Liberty’ than ‘would [be] necessary.’ Kosciuszko thinks ‘some body ought to inspect when the [Laurens’s] Bagage Come to your Quarters’ and recommends that two ‘negroes’ belonging to Laurens receive some of the belongings. These men ‘are nacked[;] they want Shorts, jackets, Breeches and their Skin can bear as well as ours good things—The men propose to make a bargain with you to sale nine muskets, four Brander bousses [i.e., blunderbusses?], one Spy Glass and one Sword for Rum they Leave intirely to your Generosity, as the time is sickly it would be of great Service to them.’”
Greene wrote to another general:
Poor Laurens is fallen in a paltry little skirmish. You knew his temper, and I predicted his fate. I wish his fall had been as glorious as his fate is much to be lamented. The love of military glory made him seek it upon occasions unworthy his rank. This state will feel his loss; and his father will hardly survive it.
By accounts from the country we learn, that Mr. John Laurens, a Lieutenant colonel in the rebel army, and son of Mr. Henry Laurens, now in London; was lately killed near Combahee river, in attempting to impede the operations of a detachment of his Majesty’s troops.
When we contemplate the character of this young gentleman, we have only to lament his great error on his outset in life, in espousing a public cause which was to be sustained by taking up arms against his Sovereign. Setting aside this single deviation from the path of rectitude, we know no one trait of his history which can tarnish his reputation as a man of honor, or affect his character as a gentleman. … While we were thus marking the death of an enemy who was dangerous to our Cause from his abilities, we hope we shall stand excused for paying tribute at the same time to the moral excellencies of his character – Happy would it be for the distressed facilities of those persons who are to leave this garrison with his Majesty’s troops that another Laurens could be found.
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.
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.
I know not how to mention the melancholy intelligence by this vessel which affects you so tenderly. I feel for you more than I can or ought to express. Our country has lost its most promising character in a manner, however, that was worthy of her cause. I can say nothing more to you, but that you have much greater reason to say in this case, as a Duke of Ormond said of an Earl of Ossory, " I would not exchange my son for any living son in the world."
My dear son was far off; he is placed at a little further distance from me. . . . He loved his country; he bled and died for it. I shall soon quit this globe and meet him beyond it, happy nevermore to separate.John Laurens had been viewed as one of the brightest stars among the younger revolutionaries, with a great future in government. Some historians think that slavery might have been abolished earlier if Laurens had lived.
|The American Commissioners"|
John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin,
William Templeton Franklin (grandson of Benjamin)
and Henry Laurens
Laurens was also acting as an unofficial minister to England, so he was not present when the final peace treaty was signed on September 3, 1783.
In June 1784, Henry and his last living son, Harry, departed for America. William Manning had given him permission to raise their orphaned granddaughter, Fanny, in America. Henry's two daughters, Martha and Polly, stayed in England with their niece, Fanny and their Aunt Mary until arrangements could be made for them to travel back to their home.
I must not add the loss of happiness to that of money. . . .As to my health 'tis precarious, I am very infirm, but this poor body has been greatly exercised and 'tis not very young, in this I am also Content, the man is a fool, for the time being, who makes himself miserable for any thing that befalls him in this waning life. . . .
Our Nation is in a state of Infancy, and sorry I am to repeat, that from the moment Peace was announced, our Citizens throughout the Union have acted like Infants in Politics and Prodigals in Life and manners, the Evil I know will purge itself but we shall receive and have already received many a woeful pang in the operation, you know my sentiments fully on these subjects . . .
The end of all "disagreeable disappointments" can only be, My dear friend, at the end of Life, pray rather that we may have reason and fortitude to encounter and bear with becoming submission every accident and disappointment that shall in the mean time befall us.In April 1785, Henry received a letter from Alexander Hamilton about one of his slaves, Frederic, who had joined the British forces after they captured Charleston. Frederick was in a New York City jail, claiming that he was a free man, emancipated by John Laurens. Henry Laurens wrote back to Hamilton:
Charleston S. Carolina
19. April 1785
I was yesterday honored by receipt of your very obliging Letter of the 6th.
inclosing Mr. Frederic’s Narrative. A tissue of Lies. During the Siege of Charleston, when he pretends he carried arms & to have acted in the Trenches, he was at my Mepkin Plantation, whence some time after the Town fell, he joined the temporary Conquerors; he also seduced his Wife, she thro’ the persuasion of faithful Scaramouch returned, he was afterward captured by an American Cruizer, carried into George Town & claimed by one of my Attornies, he broke thro’ & escaped and had not been heard of till now We learn he is in the Jail of New York.
Scaramouch, Berry & others who know the whole history of my Negroes aver, he never was about the person of our dear departed friend; Our dear friend was too tenacious of propriety to have manumitted a Slave not his own; this is evinced by his conduct to the black Man who was actually with him and who continues with me.
Our dear friend and his father entertained but one opinion respecting Slavery, excepting that his generous Soul would have precipitated a Work, which to make it glorious his father thought he saw could only be accomplished by gradual Steps. Haste would make havoc. Could I but prevail upon my fellow Citizens to prohibit further importations, I should deem it progress equal to carrying all the outworks; my attempts hitherto have been fruitless, I have some ground for beleiving offensive; speaking generally a whole Country is opposed to me, pressing the Business which We had in view would not forward it, nor afford happiness even to the Negroes, witness Frederick’s Case. I am acting therefore agreeable to the dictates of my Conscience and the best lights of my understanding.
Some of my Negroes to whom I have offered freedom have declined the Bounty, they will live with me, to some of them I already allow Wages, to all of them every proper indulgence, I will venture to say the whole are in more comfortable circumstances than any equal number of Peasantry in Europe, there is not a Beggar among them nor one unprovided with food, raiment & good Lodging, they also enjoy property; the Lash is forbidden; they all understand this declaration as a Substitute—“If you deserve whipping I shall conclude you don’t love me & will sell you, otherwise I will never sell one of you, nor will I ever buy another Negro, unless it shall be to gratify a good Man who may want a Wife.”
You may remember George in Philadelphia, I had given him absolute freedom before I went last to Europe, he embarked with me, but returned long before I came home, is now about my house and says he does not want to be more free than he is. Yet I believe no man gets more work from his Negroes than I do, at the same time they are my Watchmen and my friends; never was an absolute Monarch more happy in his Subjects than at the present time I am, how long this will continue is uncertain, but I will endeavor to do right to day.
I think I see the rising gradations to unlimited freedom and view the prospect with pleasure. When We shall be wise enough to stop importation, such happy Families will become more general and time will work manumission or a state equal to it. Policy and Decency will dictate proper reservation; We shall then insure good Servants, good Soldiers, our Strength in time of Need; at present the Number of wretched Slaves, precarious Riches, is our greatest Weakness—but alas! these Southern States are not at this moment in a disposition to be persuaded tho’ one should rise from the dead—God forbid our conversion by too long a Delay, shall be the Effect of a direful Struggle.
But to return to Frederic, he was always a very good Lad before the War, contaminated no doubt by bad Examples in that dreadful Scene. He is according to the Law of the Land my property, I paid a valuable consideration for him to those, meaning the British, who debauched and carried him off. If he is to be freed from my claim, let him be a Slave to no other Man, Your Corporation I should think will interpose, If you my dear Sir can prevail upon him to return, I will receive and put him upon a footing with his fellow Servants, without resenting his past Errors, his future Welfare will depend upon his own Behaviour. Whatever Expences may attend I will repay as soon as I am informed, and shall ever thank you for this friendly interference on my Behalf.
Could Frederic read all this he would perceive his Master is not very anxious to remand him to good Quarters, there was a time when he would have been valued at £100. or £150 Sterling—the time is when I only wish to collect my Family. It would grieve me to hear he was enslaved by any one, who has a shorter claim of property in him than I have. I wish to give him a chance of being rescued from Slavery.
My health is somewhat mended since my arrival in Carolina, but a constitution broken down by Long & close confinement of an aged Man, cannot be recovered by increasing Age—for happiness, since receiving the Wound to which We have alluded, ever green, I have learned to be at least half happy by a quiet submission in every Event; comparatively I am very happy, my landed property remains & I am not in debt.
I beg my dear Sir you will do me the honor to present my respectful Compliments to Mrs. Hamilton and to be assured that with great Respect & Esteem I am, your obliged and obedt ServantBy September Frederic was back in the Laurens home in Charleston; Henry Laurens wrote:
There he goes carrying a little dirt out of the Garden, not earning his Victuals.
You will have seen the system produced by the late convention of the States. It is infinitely better than our present Confederation . . . but it has to pass through the ordeal of thirteen Assemblies, and I am very sure some of them will not like it, because it is calculated to make them honest.
Henry's last surviving son, Harry, was married in 1792 to Eliza Rutledge, a daughter of Governor John Rutledge.
The Mepkin plantation went to his son Henry. His grandaughter, Fanny, who was nearly 17 years old, continued to live with David and Martha Ramsay as her guardians. In 1795, she eloped with Francis Henderson, a Scottish merchant. They separated in 1801, one year after Fanny had given birth to a son, Francis Henderson, Jr. She lived the rest of her life in England. Francis Jr. lived in Abbeville, South Carolina, on land his mother had inherited from her grandfather. He never married, and died in 1847. His mother, Fanny, died in 1860.
Harry Laurens died in 1821, leaving an estate valued at $142,510, including 459 slaves. His will stipulated that John Lauren's body, which had been buried at a plantation near the place where he did, be reburied in the Mepkin cemetery, next to his father's ashes. John Laurens’s gravestone is inscribed:
|John Laurens Gravestone|
|William Gilmore Simms|
Simms is also remembered today for his strong support of slavery; he was part of a "sacred circle" of southern intellectuals including Edmund Ruffin and James Henry Hammond; together they published numerous articles calling for moral reform of the South, including a stewardship role of masters in relation to slavery. Simms strongly protested Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in response to which he wrote reviews and a book. His Anti-Tom novel was The Sword and the Distaff. The novel focuses on the Revolutionary War and its aftermath through the lives of Captain Porgy and one of his slaves. Simms' book was one of between twenty and thirty Anti-Tom novels written after Stowe's book. These novels tended to feature a benign white patriarchal master and pure wife, both of whom presided over childlike slaves in a benevolent extended-family-style plantation.
In 1936 the American publisher Henry Luce bought the Mepkin plantation property. His wife, Clare Boothe Luce, commissioned and built an extensive landscape garden known as the Mepkin Garden. In 1949 the Luces donated a large part of the property including the
|Mepkin Abbey Sign|
Lafayette Square is a seven-acre public park in Washinton, D.C., located directly north of the White House. Planned as part of the pleasure grounds surrounding the Executive Mansion, the square was originally called "President's Park."; it was separated from the White House grounds in 1804, when President thomas Jefferson had Pennsylvania Avenue cut through.
|Statues of John Laurens |
and Alexander Hamilton
The plan of the current park, with its five large statues, dates from the 1930s. In the center stands an equestrian statue of President Andrew Jackson, erected in 1853. The four corners of the park contain statues to European military heros in the American Revolution: Marquis de Lafayette, Comte Jean de Rochambeau, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and Friedrick von Steuben. Statues of John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton stand below the statue of Lafayette.
|DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI|
“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s Country”
Your name will be honorably written & transmitted to posterity, but even the attempt without perfect success, will I now, afford you unspeakable self satisfaction. The work will at a future day be efficaciously taken up & then it will be remembered who began it in South Carolina.
Letter from Henry Laurens to John Laurens, September 1779