Laurens, Henry (1724-1792)
Henry Laurens (1724-1792)
Merchant, planter, and statesman
Early Career. Henry Laurens’s forebears were Huguenots, Protestants who fled France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. Henry’s grandfather Andre Laurens left earlier, in 1682, and eventually made his way to America, settling first in New York City and then Charleston, South Carolina. Andre’s son John married Hester (or Esther) Grasset, also a Huguenot refugee. Henry was their third child and eldest son. John Laurens became a saddler, and his business eventually grew to be the largest of its kind in the colonies. In 1744 he sent Henry to London to augment the young man’s 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 firm’s trade was with England, but it also dealt with firms in Glasgow, Rotterdam, Oporto, Lisbon, Madrid, and the West Indies. The firm’s most common—and most profitable—transaction 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 Charleston’s 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 province’s 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 Carolina’s 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 Laurens’s 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 Carolina’s 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 Laurens’s 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.
David D. Wallace, Life of Henry Laurens (New York: Putnam, 1915).
LAURENS, HENRY. (1724–1792). Continental Congress president. South Carolina. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on 24 February 1724, Laurens was clerk first in a Charleston counting house and then in London. Returning to South Carolina, he became a wealthy man, acting as an agent for English land investors. In 1763 Laurens became disgusted that his fortune came from selling and exploiting the labor of slaves, and he quit the slave trade entirely, often expressing his repugnance for the institution. His son John Laurens became an advocate for manumission during the Revolution, but Henry Laurens continued to own slaves the rest of his life, holding title to some 300 people at the time of his death. The popular Memoirs of Lauren's daughter Martha (1759–1811), wife of the historian David Ramsay, recorded the family's struggle with the guilt of the slave trade. The Stamp Act made him an avid although not radical agitator; he wrote several pamphlets against the customs service. Retiring from business, he returned to England in 1771, after the death of his wife, to supervise his sons' education and to travel. In 1774 he was one of thirty-eight Americans in England signing a petition to Parliament against the Boston Port Bill, and he returned to America the same year.
Sent to the Provincial Congress in 1775, he was president of both it and the Council of Safety. The following year he helped draft the state's constitution and became vice president of South Carolina. He was active in the defense of Charleston in June 1776 and worked to prevent civil war in the Carolinas. In 1777 he was sent to the Continental Congress and was elected its president on 1 November 1777, succeeding John Hancock. During his term, Congress was split by bitterness and factions, and Laurens was not always nonpartisan, siding occasionally with the Adams-Lee group. He helped suspend the Saratoga Convention on 8 January 1778 and exposed part of the so-called Conway Cabal, strongly supporting Washington. In the Lee-Deane dispute, he was extremely unfair toward Silas Deane, which led to the failure of his motion to suspend hearings until Congress could hold an investigation. Insulted, Laurens resigned the presidency on 9 December 1778, though he stayed in Congress until November 1779. Selected to negotiate a treaty of friendship and commerce with Holland and to arrange for a ten-million-dollar loan, Laurens left Philadelphia on 13 August 1780 on the brig Mercury. The vessel was captured by the British off Newfoundland on 3 September. Laurens threw his official papers overboard, but the British recovered them. One of the captured documents was used by the British as a pretext for declaring war on the Dutch.
After being examined by the Privy Council, Laurens was confined in the Tower of London on 6 October "on suspicion of high treason." Held almost fifteen months, under conditions so severe at times that his health was seriously impaired, he twice refused a pardon in return for serving the British. In two petitions to British authorities, however, he justified his own role in the American Revolution in terms that some patriots considered unduly subservient. On 31 December 1781 he was finally released on heavy bail (put up by Richard Oswald), thanks to the efforts of Franklin and Edmund Burke, and exchanged for Cornwallis in April 1782. Named one of the commissioners to handle peace negotiations, Laurens reached Paris only two days before the preliminary peace articles were signed. Despite his eleventh-hour arrival, Laurens was useful to the peace commissioners on several points of the treaty. He immediately returned to England to discuss commercial matters with government officials. On 3 August 1784 he was back in New York, and shortly thereafter he reported to Congress on his mission. His final years in public life had not been happy: his health had been broken; his son had been killed in action in the closing phase of the war; and he had suffered enormous property losses. He returned to Charleston early in 1785 and retired to his plantation, Mepkin, on the Cooper River some thirty miles above the city. He died on 8 December 1792 and, as stipulated in his will, was cremated, in what was one of the first instances of this practice in America outside of some Indian cultures.
Hamer, Philip M., et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 14 vols. to date. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1968–.
Wallace, David Duncan. The Life of Henry Laurens. New York: Putnam, 1915.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
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.
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). □