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Laurens, Henry (1724-1792)

Henry Laurens (1724-1792)

Merchant, planter, and statesman

Source

Early Career. Henry Laurenss forebears were Huguenots, Protestants who fled France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. Henrys grandfather Andre Laurens left earlier, in 1682, and eventually made his way to America, settling first in New York City and then Charleston, South Carolina. Andres son John married Hester (or Esther) Grasset, also a Huguenot refugee. Henry was their third child and eldest son. John Laurens became a saddler, and his business eventually grew to be the largest of its kind in the colonies. In 1744 he sent Henry to London to augment the young mans business training. John Laurens died in 1747, bequeathing twenty-three-year-old Henry a considerable estate. In July 1750 Henry married Eleanor Ball; they eventually had at least a dozen children, but only four survived into adulthood. Laurens became a partner of Charleston merchant George Austin and for the next several decades developed a reputation for scrupulous honesty, industry, and business sagacity. Most of his firms trade was with England, but it also dealt with firms in Glasgow, Rotterdam, Oporto, Lisbon, Madrid, and the West Indies. The firms most commonand most profitabletransaction was exchanging rice for slaves. Because the slave trade was considered risky, it paid a 10 percent commission versus only 5 percent for other goods. Laurens later lamented that abandoning the trade cost him many Thousands of pounds. In 1762 he continued the firm alone, and it was among Charlestons leading establishments when Laurens withdrew from active participation in 1764.

Planter and Politician. Planters were the most respected men in the Southern social hierarchy. Like many of his cohorts, Laurens aspired to owning plantations rather than simply being a merchant. After 1764 he began acquiring and managing a collection of rice and indigo plantations. These eventually included a three-thousand-acre estate near Charleston called Mepkin, two others called Mt. Tacitus and Wambaw, and several plantations on the Georgia coast. In total, Laurens acquired some twenty thousand acres. At the outbreak of the Revolution his plantations were becoming profitable, and he was one of the provinces wealthiest men. Laurens was reputed to be a humane creditor and slaveholder. In 1757 he was elected to the South Carolina assembly and was regularly reelected to that post until the Revolution.

Revolutionary Statesman. Laurens participated in the events of the Revolution from an early date. He generally took a middle course, fearing the colonial mob element but also resenting the new regulations imposed by what he regarded as a corrupt British administration. In 1764 he refused a seat in the provincial council as a protest against the inclusion of royal placemen. Laurens supported South Carolinas nonimportation agreements of 1769 and published several pamphlets decrying parliamentary measures. Extremely sensitive to slights, he became involved in several duels, once even challenging a vice-admiralty court judge when Laurenss ships were seized on suspicion of smuggling. His wife, Eleanor, died in 1770, and the following year Laurens went to London to supervise the education of their sons, John and Henry. He became so disturbed by the corruption of the English ruling classes that he transferred his sons to schools in Geneva, Switzerland. While in England he joined a group of thirty-eight Americans who petitioned Parliament not to pass the Boston Port Bill, a measure designed to punish the town by closing its harbor following the Boston Tea Party. Various business opportunities were offered to him in England, but Laurens opted to return to America, stating that although he was resolved still to labor for peace, he was determined in the last event to stand or fall with my country. Shortly after returning to Charleston in December 1774, Laurens was elected to the new Congress of South Carolina. He became president of that body and of the Council of Safety. In February 1776 Laurens helped draft South Carolinas temporary constitution. In January 1777 he was elected to the Continental Congress and participated in several committees, becoming president of Congress when John Hancock resigned later that year. Laurens was intolerant of what he considered the corrupt practices of some congressional delegates. In December 1778 he resigned in protest and was succeeded by John Jay. Laurens remained in Congress through most of 1779, when he called for an investigation of Robert Morris, the acting banker and financier of Congress.

Diplomatic Missions. In 1779 Congress sent Laurens to negotiate a treaty with the Dutch. He left Philadelphia in August 1780 and was captured by the British off of Newfoundland. Laurens threw his papers overboard, but the British succeeded in fishing out a draft of the treaty. They charged Laurens with high treason and took him to England, where he was confined in the Tower of London from October 1780 until December 1781. Although the fiftysix-year-old Laurens was ill, the English officials gave him no medical attention. They charged him for all of his upkeep at the tower, even including the salaries of his warders (a common practice at the time). Laurens was placed in solitary confinement and was not allowed writing materials. Even so, he frequently managed to smuggle out letters to the American press. 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 Laurenss diplomatic commission. Benjamin Franklin and the British statesman Edmund Burke fought to secure his release, and in December 1781 Laurens was freed in exchange for Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who had surrendered to George Washington at York-town, Virginia. In November 1782 Laurens received instructions from Congress to join Franklin, Jay, and John Adams in Paris to negotiate a peace treaty with the British. Laurens was also acting as an unofficial minister to England, so he was not present when the final peace treaty was signed on 3 September 1783.

Later Years. Henry Laurens arrived back in New York in 1784, four years after leaving the United States. He reached Charleston in early 1785 and retired to his plantation Mepkin for the remaining seven years of his life. The war had cost him dearly: he estimated his losses at around 40,000 guineas. His time in the Tower of London ruined his health, and he remained a semi-invalid the rest of his life. Ill and saddened by the death of his son John, who was killed in action in August 1782, Laurens refused all political posts offered to him. He was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 but declined to go. In his will he stipulated that his body be cremated, an unusual practice at the time. His wishes were carried out upon his death in 1792.

Source

David D. Wallace, Life of Henry Laurens (New York: Putnam, 1915).

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Henry Laurens

Henry Laurens

Henry Laurens (1724-1792), wealthy South Carolina merchant and planter, was a leading American Revolutionary and a member of the Continental Congress.

Henry Laurens, a descendant of Huguenot immigrants, was born in Charleston on March 6, 1724. Henry's father had risen from a simple saddler to the owner of a prosperous merchant firm, well connected in England. Henry also entered trade, quickly becoming equally at home in London and Charleston. By the time imperial relations began to deteriorate in the early 1760s, Henry Laurens had become the leading merchant in South Carolina. After greatly extending his father's fortune, Laurens turned from trade to planting. The unfair seizure of one of his vessels by English customs men provided the overt cause for his departure from commerce in the 1760s. This episode also changed Laurens from a vigorous supporter of British authority to a Revolutionary.

Laurens became increasingly involved in the events leading to the American Revolution. Although a conservative by nature, he was personally affected by the inequities of the Stamp Act and the restrictions on trade. By 1774 he had moved into the mainstream of Revolutionary activity in South Carolina. Early in 1777 he was elected to the Continental Congress and was soon deeply immersed in its deliberations and committee operations. Although wholly committed by this time to the cause of independence, and despite the fact that he himself had been a merchant, he was shocked by the activities of other merchants, both in and out of Congress, whom he felt were capitalizing on the war.

Through most of 1778 Laurens served as president of Congress. At the end of 1779 he accepted a diplomatic mission to Holland. However, he never arrived in Holland, for the vessel on which he was sailing was captured by the English, and Laurens, despite protests of diplomatic immunity, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He remained there for more than a year and was treated most harshly; his health was broken and, to a degree, his spirit too. He was freed in exchange for the British general Cornwallis, Laurens made an attempt in 1783 to aid the peace negotiations in Paris, but his contribution was minimal.

Laurens retired to his South Carolina plantation after the war. He was honored by his native state on several occasions. His last public recognition came in 1787, when he was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. His health was so poor, however, that he never attended. He died on Dec. 8, 1792, having lived just long enough to see the creation of the American Republic.

Further Reading

The Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 1: Sept. 11, 1746-Oct. 31, 1755, edited by Philip M. Hamer and others, was published in 1968. The only biography of Laurens is David Duncan Wallace, The Life of Henry Laurens (1915). □

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"Henry Laurens." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/henry-laurens

Laurens, Henry

Henry Laurens (lôr´ənz, lär´–), 1724–92, political leader in the American Revolution, b. Charleston, S.C. A wealthy merchant and planter, he was, in the years preceding the Revolution, an opponent of British colonial policy, although he disapproved of the radical policies of some colonists. Late in 1774 he was elected to the first provincial congress of South Carolina and was an active advocate of independence. He was later a member of the Continental Congress (1777–80) and its president (1777–78). In 1780, while en route to the Netherlands with the draft of a possible U.S.-Dutch treaty prepared by William Lee, Laurens was captured by the British and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and later exchanged (1782) for General Cornwallis; the treaty was used as a reason for war between Great Britain and the Netherlands. Laurens was a commissioner to negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1783) but arrived too late to take much part in the negotiations. Publication of his papers was begun in 1968.

See biography by D. D. Wallace (1915, repr. 1967).

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"Laurens, Henry." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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