Thursday, June 13, 2013

Founding Fathers Part Two  - Another Palmetto Duo

Father:  Slave Trader and Political Leader

Henry Laurens
Henry Laurens was one of the wealthiest and influential of the South Carolina planter class.  Laurens became a political leader during the Revolutionary War. He also happened to be the largest slave trader in the colonies too.  In the 1750s alone, his Charleston firm oversaw the sale of more than 8,000 African slaves. When Laurens succeeded John Hancock as President of the Congress he became an important political ally of George Washington and the two maintained a close correspondence throughout some of the darkest days of the war. The elder Laurens was someone who Washington could trust would work the sometimes feckless and indecisive Congress.  His support for the Indispensable Man is a little noted but critical sidebar that led to Washington's continued leadership of a Cause often thought lost, but never forsaken.

An Idealistic Son

His son John Laurens was born in Charleston on October 28, 1754. The younger Laurens traveled to London in 1771 for schooling before moving to Geneva, Switzerland, in May 1772. Laurens returned to London to study law in the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court. He returned to an America at war with its motherland and was appointed to the staff of George Washington. Laurens was perhaps the most idealistic and forward thinking of the First Patriots. While on Washington’s staff he became very close friends with Alexander Hamilton and (along with his father in Congress) played a key role in countering a movement against the commander in chief, which included his winning a duel with one of Washington’s adversaries. 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. Lafayette praised his courage and marveled that he had not fallen in the battle. Laurens was an idealist who believed that the republican principals the Americans were fighting for were hypocritical if they continued to utilize slave labor. Strongly influenced by the growing abolitionist literature that circulated in England while he was studying, Laurens encouraged those around him, including Washington, to consider freeing their slaves. The responses that Laurens received were mixed. Some, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, eventually came to the same conclusion. Others, such as Washington, remained hesitant, fearing the economic and social upheaval such a measure would cause.

After the British shifted military operations to the South, Laurens proposed that South Carolina arm slaves and grant them freedom in return for their military service. In March 1779 Congress approved his idea and commissioned him lieutenant colonel. Elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, Laurens introduced his black regiment plan but met overwhelming defeat. His belief that blacks shared a similar nature with whites and could aspire to freedom in a republican society would set Laurens apart from most prominent southerners in the Revolutionary period. When the British threatened Charleston in May 1779, Laurens opposed Governor John Rutledge’s plan to surrender the city. Later that year he commanded an infantry column in the failed assault on Savannah. Laurens was captured when Charleston finally surrendered to the British in May 1780,  but was soon exchanged.

Siege of Charleston

A Youthful Diplomat

Because of his integrity and devotion to duty (and his French fluency) Congress appointed Laurens special minister to France. He arrived in France in March 1781 and quickly obtained a loan from the Netherlands to buy more military supplies, and French assurances of active military support. Laurens served once more under Washington at Yorktown where the young  prodigy represented the American army in negotiating the British surrender.

Clandestine Warfare and an Untimely Death

Returning south (and losing a final plea for a black regiment) Laurens served under General Nathaniel Greene in the always vicious southern theater. He operated a local spy network that gathered intelligence on British activities around Charleston. To the everlasting loss of his country and his state, Laurens was killed August 27, 1782 during a meaningless skirmish on the Combahee River.

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