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Henry Laurens

1724-1792

Henry Laurens by Charles Willson Peale, from life, c. 1784.  Used by permission of Independence National Historic Park.
Henry Laurens by Charles Willson Peale, from life, c. 1784. Used by permission of Independence National Historic Park.
 
Henry Laurens was born in Charleston, 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 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 general Congress, after the resignation of 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, on the 5th of October, as a state prisoner, on a charge of high-treason. Here he was confined more than a year, and was treated with great severity, being denied, for the most part, all intercourse 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 with 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 after, 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 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 Dr. Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, he signed the preliminaries of peace on the 30th of November, 1782, by which the independence of the United States was unequivocally acknowledged. Soon after this, Mr. Laurens returned to 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 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 expired on the 8th of December, 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 Mr. Laurens in public and private life. He had almost the austerity of Cato. 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 may have been made.)


 
 

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Last modified January 2, 2004