Henry Laurens

President of the Committee of Safety - South Carolina Province - 1775 to 1776

Vice President of South Carolina - 1776 to 1777

President of the United States Continental Congress - 1777 to 1778

 

1724-1792 
 

Henry Laurens was born in Charles Town, South Carolina, in the year 1724. He took an early part in opposing the arbitrary claims of Great Britain, at the commencement of the American Revolution. When the provincial Congress of South Carolina met in June, 1775, he was appointed its President; in which capacity he drew up a form of association, to be signed by all the friends of liberty, which indicated a most determined spirit.

Being a member of the Continental Congress, after the resignation of John Hancock, he was appointed President of that illustrious body in November, 1777. In 1780, he was deputed to solicit a loan from Holland, and to negotiate a treaty with the United Netherlands; but on his passage, he was captured by a British vessel on the Banks of Newfoundland. He threw his papers overboard, but they were recovered by a sailor. Being sent to England, he was committed to the Tower of London, on October 5, as a state prisoner, on a charge of high treason.

One of the many documents that he signed as President of the U.S. Continental Congress

Here Henry Laurens was confined more than a year, and was treated with great severity, being denied, for the most part, all communication with his friends, and forbidden the use of pen, ink, and paper. His capture occasioned no small embarrassment to the ministry. They dared not condemn him as a rebel, through fear of retaliation; and they were unwilling to release him, lest he should accomplish the object of his mission. The discoveries found in his papers led to a war between Great Britain and Holland, and Mr. Adams was appointed in his place to carry on the negotiation with the United Provinces.

Many propositions were then made to Mr. Laurens, which were repelled with indignation. At length, news being received that his eldest son, a youth of such uncommon talents, exalted sentiments, and prepossessing manners and appearance, that a romantic interest is still attached to his name, had been appointed the special minister of Congress to the French court, and was there urging the suit of his country, with winning eloquence, the father was requested to write to his son, and urge his return to America; it being further hinted, that, as he was held a prisoner in the light of a rebel, his life should depend upon compliance.

"My son is of age," replied the heroic father of an heroic son, "and has a will of his own. I know him to be a man of honor. He loves me dearly, and would lay down his life to save mine; but I am sure that he would not sacrifice his honor to save my life, and I applaud him." This veteran was, not many months afterwards, released, with a request from Lord Shelburne that he would pass to the continent, and assist in negotiating a peace between Great Britain and the free United States of America, and France their ally.

Toward the close of the year 1781, his sufferings, which had, by that time become well known, excited the utmost sympathy for himself, but kindled the warmest indignation against the authors of his cruel confinement. Every attempt to draw concessions from this inflexible Patriot having proved more than useless, his enlargement was resolved upon, but difficulties arose as to the mode of effecting it. Pursuing the same high-minded course which he had at first adopted, and influenced by the noblest feelings of the heart, he obstinately refused his consent to any act which might imply a confession that he was a British subject, for as such he had been committed on a charge of high treason.

It was finally proposed to take bail for his appearance at the Court of King's Bench, and when the words of the recognizance, "our sovereign lord the King," were read to Mr. Laurens, he distinctly replied in open court, "Not my sovereign!" With this declaration, he, with Messrs. Oswald and Anderson as his securities, were bound for his appearance at the next Court of King's Bench for Easter term, and for not departing without leave of the court, upon which he was immediately discharged. When the time appointed for his trial approached, he was not only exonerated from obligation to attend, but solicited by Lord Shelburne to depart for the continent to assist in a scheme for a pacification with America.

The idea of being released, gratuitously, by the British government, sensibly moved him, for he had invariably considered himself as a prisoner of war. Possessed of a lofty sense of personal independence, and unwilling to be brought under the slightest obligation, he thus expressed himself: "I must not accept myself as a gift; and as Congress once offered General Burgoyne for me, I have no doubt of their being now willing to offer Earl Cornwallis for the same purpose."

Close confinement in the Tower of London for more than fourteen months had shattered his constitution, and he was ever afterward a stranger to good health.

As soon as his discharge was promulgated, he received from Congress a commission, appointing him one of their ministers for negotiating a peace with Great Britain. Arriving at Paris, in conjunction with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, he signed the preliminaries of peace on November 30, 1782, by which the independence of the United States was unequivocally acknowledged. Soon after this, Mr. Laurens returned to South Carolina.

Entirely satisfied with the whole course of his conduct while abroad, it will readily be imagined that his countrymen refused him no distinctions within their power to bestow; but every solicitation to suffer himself to be elected governor, member of Congress, or of the legislature of the State, he positively withstood. When the project of a general convention for revising the federal bond of union was under consideration, he was chosen without his knowledge as one of its members, but he refused to serve.

Retired from the world and its concerns, he found delight in agricultural experiments, in advancing the welfare of his children and dependants, and in attentions to the interests of his friends and fellow citizens.

He died on December 8, 1792, in the sixty-ninth year of his age. He directed his son to burn his body on the third day, as the sole condition of his inheriting an estate of £60,000.

Rigid virtue was characteristic of Henry Laurens in public and private life. His patriotism was as devoid of the alloy of ambition as that of any man who ever lived.

Source: Marshall, James V. The United States Manual of Biography and History. Philadelphia: James B. Smith & Co., 1856. Pages 145-147. (Some minor spelling changes and a few edits have been made.)


Henry Laurens, statesman, was born in Charles Town, South Carolina, in 1724 and he died there on December 8, 1792. His ancestors were Huguenots, who had left France at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. He was educated in Charles Town and became clerk in a counting-house there, from which he was transferred to a similar house in London in order to acquire a thorough business education. Upon his return he engaged in mercantile pursuits and acquired a fortune, he was conspicuous in his opposition of British aggression, and had frequent contests with the crown judges, especially in respect to their decisions in marine law and in the courts of admiralty, and the pamphlets that he published against these measures gave evidence of great legal ability.

Laurens also served in a military campaign against the Cherokees, of which he left a diary in manuscript. Retiring from business, he want to England in 1771 to superintend the education of his sons, and traveled through Great Britain and on the continent. While in London he was one of the thirty-eight Americans who signed a petition in 1774 to dissuade Parliament from passing the Boston port bill. He returned to Charlestown in that year, was a number of the first Provincial Congress there in 1775, and drew up a form of association to be signed by all the friends of liberty. He also became President of the Council of Safety, roughly equivalent to governor.

In 1776 , he was made Vice President of South Carolina under the new constitution and elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Upon the resignation of John Hancock he was elected President of Congress on November 1, 1777. His tenure as President of the Continental Congress was during one of most stormy periods in the Revolutionary War.

In 1779, he was appointed minister to Holland to negotiate a treaty that had been unofficially proposed to William Lee by Van Berckel, pensionary of Amsterdam. He sailed on the packet Mercury, which was captured by the British frigate Vestal, of twenty-eight guns, off Newfoundland. Mr. Laurens threw his papers overboard; but they were recovered, and gave evidence of his mission. The refusal of Holland to punish Van Berckel, at the dictation of Lord North's ministry, was instantly followed by war between Great Britain and that country.

Mr. Laurens was taken to London, examined before the Privy Council, and imprisoned in the Tower of London, on October 6, 1780, on "suspicion of high treason" for nearly fifteen months, during which his health was greatly impaired. He was ill when he entered, but no medical attendance was provided, and it was more than a year before he was granted pen and ink to draw a bill of exchange to provide for himself. But he obtained a pencil, and frequent communications were carried by a trusty person to the outside world, and he even corresponded with American newspapers.

When his son John appeared in Paris in 1781 to negotiate a loan with France, Mr. Laurens was informed that his confinement would be the more rigorous because the young man had openly declared himself an enemy to the king and his country. It was suggested that if Mr. Laurens would advise his son to withdraw from his commission, such action would be received with favor at the British court; but he replied that his son was a man who would never sacrifice honor, even to save his father's life. Laurens received attention from many friends, among whom was Edmund Burke. Twice he refused offers of pardon if he would serve the British ministry. While a prisoner he learned of his son John's death in a skirmish in South Carolina, and on December 1, 1781, he addressed a petition to the House of Commons, in which he said that he had striven to prevent a rupture between the crown and colonies, and asked for more liberty.

He was soon afterward exchanged for Lord Cornwallis and commissioned by the Continental Congress as one of the ministers to negotiate peace. He then went to Paris, where, with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin, he signed the preliminaries of the treaty on November 30, 1782, and was instrumental in the insertion of a clause prohibiting, on the British evacuation, the "carrying away any negroes or other property of the inhabitants."

On his return to Charlestown he was welcomed with enthusiasm and offered many offices, which his impaired health forced him to decline. He retired to his plantation near Charlestown and devoted his life to agriculture. His will concluded with this request: " I solemnly enjoin it on my son, as an indispensable duty, that, as soon as he conveniently can, after my decease, he cause my body to be wrapped in twelve yards of tow-cloth and burned until it be entirely consumed, and then, collecting my bones, deposit them wherever he may think proper." This was the first known cremation in this country.


As the American Revolution neared, Henry Laurens' first inclination was to support reconciliation with the British Crown. But as conditions deteriorated he came to fully support the American position. When South Carolina began the creation of a revolutionary government, he was elected to the Provincial Congress which first met on January 9, 1775. He was President of the Committee of Safety, and presiding officer of that congress from June until March of 1776. When South Carolina installed a full independent government, he served as the Vice President of South Carolina from March of 1776 to June 27, 1777.
As a result of Montgomery's return to New York, the upcountry was still not safe. So, a temporary regiment was raised of Carolina men and the command of this regiment was given to Colonel Middleton. The field officers under Colonel Middleton were Henry Laurens, William Moultrie, Francis Marion, Isaac Huger, and Andrew Pickens [all noted names in South Carolina history]. This Carolina regiment joined a regiment of British regulars who were headed by a Colonel Grant, which had landed in Charleston in 1761. A total of 2,600 men were assembled and an expediton was begun to place the indians in check. This became known as Grant's Indian War.
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