About John Laurens
John Laurens (October 28, 1754 – August 27, 1782) was an American soldier and statesman from South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. He gained approval by the Continental Congress in 1779 to recruit a regiment of 3000 slaves by promising them freedom in return for fighting. He died in 1782, but his father manumitted their slaves as he had intended.
Early life and education
John was born in 1754 to Henry Laurens and Eleanor Ball in Charleston, South Carolina; both their families were planters who had grown wealthy through cultivation of rice based on slave labor. Henry Laurens also ran one of the largest slave trading houses in the country. John was the eldest of their five children who survived infancy. After tutoring at home and the death of his mother in 1770, John and his two younger brothers were taken by their father to England for education. John completed his studies in Europe, first in London in 1771, then in Geneva, Switzerland in 1772. As a youth, John expressed considerable interest in science and medicine, but he yielded to his father's wish that he study law. In August of 1774 he returned to London to do so.
His father returned to South Carolina but refused to let John return until completing his legal studies two years later. In the summer of 1777, after the Revolutionary War had started, Laurens accompanied his father to Philadelphia, where the senior man was to serve in the Continental Congress. Despite the father's objections, the younger Laurens continued on to General George Washington's camp as a volunteer at the age of 23.
Marriage and family
In late 1776 in London, Laurens married Martha Manning, the daughter of one of his father's London agents. In December he sailed for Charleston, leaving Martha behind and pregnant. Their daughter was born in February 1777, but he did not live to see her.
Military career: 1777–1780
Laurens joined the Continental Army and following the Battle of Brandywine, was made officially an aide-de-camp to General Washington with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He also served with the Baron von Steuben, doing reconnaissance at the outset of the Battle of Monmouth. He became close friends with his fellow aides, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. He showed reckless courage at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown in which he was wounded, and Monmouth, where his horse was shot out from under him. After the battle of Brandywine, Lafayette observed that, "It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded . . . he did every thing that was necessary to procure one or the other."
As the British stepped up operations in the South, Laurens promoted the idea of arming slaves and granting them freedom in return for their service. He had said, "We Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves." In early 1778 he requested 40 slaves from his father for this purpose, which Henry, now President of the Continental Congress, granted, but his reservations made John postpone the project. In March 1779 Congress approved the concept, commissioned John Laurens as Lieutenant Colonel, and sent him south to recruit a regiment of 3000 blacks. He won election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and introduced his black regiment plan in 1779 and 1780 (and again in 1782), meeting overwhelming rejection each time. Governor Rutledge and Christopher Gadsden particularly opposed him. His belief that blacks shared a similar nature with whites and could aspire to freedom in a republican society set Laurens apart from other leaders in revolutionary South Carolina. Early America, Winter-Spring 2003
In 1779, when the British threatened Charleston, Governor Rutledge proposed to surrender the city with the condition that Carolina become neutral in the war. Laurens strongly opposed the idea, and Continental forces repulsed the British. That fall he commanded an infantry regiment in General Benjamin Lincoln's failed assault on Savannah, Georgia. Laurens became a prisoner in May of 1780 with the fall of Charleston and was shipped to Philadelphia. As he was on "parole", he was able to see his father before Henry Laurens embarked for the Netherlands in search of loans. His ship was seized by the British and he was imprisoned at the Tower of London.
Exchanged in November, John Laurens was appointed by Congress in December as a special minister to France.
In March 1781 Laurens gained French assurances that their navy would support American operations in that year. He also arranged a loan and supplies from the Dutch before returning home in May. Laurens was reported to have told the French that without aid for the Revolution, the Americans might be forced by the British to fight against France. He returned home in time to see the French fleet arrive and to join Washington at the siege of Yorktown. He was given command of a battalion of light infantry on October 1 when its commander was killed. He led the battalion under Lt-Col. Alexander Hamilton in the storming of redoubt redoubt No. 10. Young Laurens was the principal spokesman for negotiating General Cornwallis's surrender.
Laurens returned to South Carolina and served General Nathanael Greene by creating and operating a network of spies that tracked British operations in and around Charleston. In August 1782, he learned of a British force movement to gather supplies and left his post to join Mordecai Gist in an attempt to intercept them. He was killed in the skirmish, the Battle of the Combahee River, which did nothing to alter the course of the war. He was shot from the saddle. Gravely wounded, Laurens was succeeded in his command by his friend and fellow opponent of slavery, Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
Laurens died on August 27, 1782, only a few weeks before the British finally withdrew from Charleston. He was buried on the Stock plantation. After his father Henry Laurens returned from his long imprisonment, he had his son's remains moved to his plantation, called Mepkin, near Moncks Corner.
Connection to Thomas Paine
According to Daniel Wheeler's Life and Writings of Thomas Paine, Volume 1 (of 10, Vincent & Parke, 1908) p. 26–27: Thomas Paine accompanied Col. John Laurens to France and is credited with initiating the mission. It landed in France in March 1781 and returned to America in August with 2.5 livres in silver, as part of a "present" of 6 million and a loan of 10 million. The meetings with the French king were most likely conducted in the company and under the influence of Benjamin Franklin. Upon return to the United States with this highly welcomed cargo, Thomas Paine and probably Col Laurens, "positively objected" that General Washington should propose that Congress remunerate him for his services, for fear of setting "a bad precedent and an improper mode." According to an account by Elbert Hubbard in the same volume (p. 314), Paine organized "the Bank of North America to raise money to feed and clothe the army, and performed sundry and various services for the colonies."
Henry Laurens (father of Col. John Laurens) had been the ambassador to the Netherlands but was captured by the British on his return trip there. When exchanged for General Cornwallis in late 1781, the senior Laurens proceeded to the Netherlands to continue loan negotiations. Historians have questioned the relationship of Henry Laurens and Thomas Paine to Robert Morris as Superintendent of Finance and his business associate Thomas Willing. The latter became the first president of the Bank of North America in January 1782. Laurens and Paine accused Morris of profiteering in 1779, and Willing had voted against the Declaration of Independence. The credit for obtaining the critical loans in 1781 and 1782 and first "organizing" the Bank of North America for approval by Congress in December 1781 should certainly include Henry or John Laurens and Thomas Paine.
In popular culture
Laurens's proposal for black troops in Carolina was portrayed in the fictional movie The Patriot (2000). Some of Laurens' words and actions were reflected in the character of Benjamin Martin in the film.
Legacy and honors
As he wished, his father freed their slaves after his death. He had supported enlisting and freeing slaves for the war effort and intended to free his own. After the war, Henry Laurens manumitted their slaves.
Places, institutions, etc. named for Laurens
Laurens County, Georgia