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Henry Laurens

President of the Continental Congress
In office
1777 – 1778
Preceded by John Hancock
Succeeded by John Jay

Born March 6, 1724(1724-03-06)
Charleston, South Carolina
Died December 8, 1792 (aged 71)
Charleston, South Carolina

Henry Laurens (March 6, 1724 [O.S. February 24, 1723] – December 8, 1792) was an American merchant and rice planter from South Carolina who became a political leader during the Revolutionary War. A delegate to the Second Continental Congress Laurens succeeded John Hancock as President of the Second Continental Congress. Laurens ran the largest slave trading house in North America. In the 1750s alone, his Charleston firm oversaw the sale of more than 8,000 enslaved Africans.[1] He was for a time Vice-President of South Carolina and a diplomat.


Personal life

Henry was born to John and Esther Grasset Laurens in Charleston, South Carolina. According to the Julian calendar, Laurens was born on February 24, 1723/4; according to the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in Britain and its colonies during Laurens' lifetime, he was born on March 6, 1724.[2] His father was a saddler and his parents had come to Charles Town as part of the Huguenot immigration, drawn by the promise of religious liberty. His family prospered, and in 1744 Henry went to England where he learned the ways of commerce from a merchant who had formerly lived in Charleston.

Henry returned to Charleston in 1747. He entered the import and export business and became a prosperous merchant, slave trader, and planter. Laurens was the Charleston business agent for the London-based owners of Bunce Island, a British slave castle in the Sierra Leone River in West Africa. Laurens received slave ships arriving in Charleston, advertised the sale of slaves in the newspaper, organized the auctions, and took a 10% commission on each sale. He sold African slaves to local rice planters, but also purchased some for his own plantations. 1747 he opened an import and export business in Charles Town. Through his London contacts, Laurens entered into the slave trade with the Grant, Oswald & Company who controlled 18th century British slave castle in the Republic of Sierra Leone, West Africa known as Bunce Castle. Laurens contracted to receive slaves from Serra Leone, catalogue and marketed the human product conducting public auctions in Charles Town. Laurens also engaged in the import and export of many other products but his 10% commission from the slave auctions proved to be his major source of his income. By 1750, Laurens was wealthy enough to win the hand of Eleanor Ball, the daughter of a very wealthy rice plantation owner. Laurens, who was also a rice planter, used his auction profits to purchase exceptional South Carolina farmland and slaves to expand his agricultural pursuits. This strategy culminated in his assemblage of the Mepkin Plantation where along with his mercantile pursuits Laurens earned a fortune. [3]

On June 25, 1750 Laurens married Eleanor Ball, the daughter of another wealthy rice planter and slave owner. Of the couple's twelve children, eight died in infancy or childhood.

  • John Laurens served as a military aide to General Washington and was killed in the Revolutionary War. During the war, John proposed a plan under which a small number of slaves would be enlisted in the American forces and eventually granted their freedom. In a private letter, Henry gently sought to persuade John that this plan was impractical.[4]
  • Martha Laurens married David Ramsay, a physician, historian, and South Carolina Congressman.
  • Henry Jr. married Eliza, the daughter of John Rutledge, and inherited his father's estate.
  • Mary married Charles Pinckney and died in childbirth soon afterwards.

In 1772, Henry, like many successful American merchants, began to buy farmland. He purchased 3,000 acres (12 km²) at Mepkin. Although he later bought another 20,000 acres (81 km²) including new rice-growing lands opening up in coastal Georgia, Mepkin became the family seat. By 1776 he had given up his mercantile ventures, although he always ran his plantations in a very business-like way.

Political career

1. General George Washington 2. General Horatio Gates 3. Dr. Benjamin Franklin 4. Henry Laurens, as President of the Continental Congress. 5. John Paul Jones / D. Berger sculp. 1784.

Laurens served in the militia, as did most able-bodied men in his time. He rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel in the campaigns against the Cherokee Indians in 1757-1761. 1757 also marked the first year he was elected to the colonial assembly. He was elected again every year but one until the revolution replaced the assembly with a state Convention as an interim government. The year he missed was 1773 when he visited England to arrange for his children's education. He wascolony's Council in 1764 and 1768, but declined both times. In 1772 he joined the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and carried on some extensive correspondence with other members.

As the American Revolution neared, Laurens was at first inclined to support reconciliation with the British Crown. But as conditions deteriorated he came to fully support the American position. When Carolina began the creation of a revolutionary government, he was elected to the Provincial Congress which first met on January 9, 1775. He was president of the Committee of Safety, and presiding officer of that congress from June until March of 1776. When South Carolina installed a full independent government, he served as the Vice President of South Carolina from March of 1776 to June 27, 1777.

Henry Laurens was first named a delegate to the Continental Congress on January 10, 1777. He served in the Congress from then until 1780. He was the President of the Continental Congress from November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778.

In the fall of 1779 the Congress named Laurens their minister to Holland. In early 1780 he took up that post and successfully negotiated Dutch support for the war. But on his return voyage to Amsterdam that fall the British Navy intercepted his ship, the Continental packet Mercury, off the banks of Newfoundland. Although her dispatches were tossed in the water, they were retrieved by the British, who discovered the draft of a possible U.S.-Dutch treaty prepared by William Lee. This prompted Britain to declare war on the Netherlands, the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.

Laurens was charged with treason, transported to England, and imprisoned in the Tower of London, (the only American ever held prisoner in the Tower). This became another issue between the British and Americans. In the field, most captives were regarded as prisoners of war, and while conditions were frequently appalling, prisoner exchanges and mail privileges were accepted practice. During his imprisonment Laurens was assisted by Richard Oswald, his former business partner and the principal owner of Bunce Island. Oswald argued on Laurens' behalf to the British government. Finally, on December 31, 1781 he was released in exchange for General Lord Cornwallis and completed his voyage.

In 1783 Laurens was in Paris as one of the Peace Commissioners for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris. While he didn't sign the primary treaty, he was instrumental in reaching the secondary accords that resolved issues involving the Netherlands and Spain. Ironically, Richard Oswald, Laurens' old business partner in the slave trade, was the principal negotiator for the British during the Paris peace talks. Laurens generally retired from public life in 1784. He was sought for a return to the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the state assembly, but he declined all of these jobs. He did serve in the state convention of 1788 where he voted to ratify the United States Constitution.

Later events

The British forces from Charleston had burned the main home at Mepkin during the war. When Henry returned in 1784, the family lived in an outbuilding while the manor was rebuilt. He lived there the rest of his life, working to recover the estimated £40,000 that the revolution had cost him. (This would be equivalent to about $3,500,000 in 2000 values). He died at Mepkin, and afterward was cremated and his ashes were interred there. The estate at Mepkin passed through several hands, but large portions of the estate still exist, and are now a Trappist abbey.

The city of Laurens, South Carolina and its county are named for him. General Lachlan McIntosh, who worked for Laurens as a clerk and became close friends with him, named Fort Laurens, in Ohio, after him. Laurens County, Georgia is named for his son, who preceded him in death.

External links


  1. ^ Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice
  2. ^ See for example, here.
  3. ^ Biographical information about Henry Laurens
  4. ^ Henry Laurens to John Laurens, 6 February 1778, The Papers of Henry Laurens, XII: 412-413.

Additional reading

  • Laurens, Henry (1972). Papers of Henry Laurens. editors: Philip May Hamer, George C Rogers, David R Chesnutt. Columbia, S.C.: Univ. of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1570034656. OCLC 63771927.  
  • Wallace, David Duncan (1967 origyear=1915). The Life of Henry Laurens: With a Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens. New York: Russell & Russell Publishers. ISBN 0-8462-1015-0.  
Political offices
Preceded by
John Hancock
President of the Continental Congress
November 1, 1777 – December 9, 1778
Succeeded by
John Jay

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

HENRY LAURENS (1724-1792), American statesman, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on the 24th of February 1724, of Huguenot ancestry. When sixteen he became a clerk in a counting-house in London, and later engaged in commercial pursuits with great success at Charleston until 1771, when he retired from active business. He spent the next three years travelling in Europe and superintending the education of his sons in England. In spite of his strong attachment to England, and although he had defended the Stamp Act, in 1774, in the hope of averting war, he united with thirty-seven other Americans in a petition to parliament against the passing of the Boston Port Bill. Becoming convinced that a peaceful settlement was impracticable, he returned to Charleston at the close of 1774, and there allied himself with the conservative element of the Whig party. He was soon made president of the South Carolina council of safety, and in 1776 vice-president of the state; in the same year he was sent as a delegate from South Carolina to the general continental congress at Philadelphia, of which body he was president from November 1777 until December 1778. In August 1780 he started on a mission to negotiate on behalf of congress a loan of ten million dollars in Holland; but he was captured on the 3rd of September off the Banks of Newfoundland by the British frigate "Vestal," taken to London and closely imprisoned in the Tower. His papers were found to contain a sketch of a treaty between the United States and Holland projected by William Lee, in the service of Congress, and Jan de Neufville, acting on behalf of Mynheer Van Berckel, pensionary of Amsterdam, and this discovery eventually led to war between Great Britain and the United Provinces. During his imprisonment his health became greatly impaired. On the 31st of December 1781 he was released on parole, and he was finally exchanged for Cornwallis. In June 1782 he was appointed one of the American commissioners for negotiating peace with Great Britain, but he did not reach Paris until the 28th of November 1782, only two days before the preliminaries of peace were signed by himself, John Adams, Franklin and Jay. On the day of signing, however, he procured the insertion of a clause prohibiting the British from "carrying away any negroes or other property of American inhabitants"; and this subsequently led to considerable friction between the British and American governments. On account of failing health he did not remain for the signing of the definitive treaty, but returned to Charleston, where he died on the 8th of December 1792.

His son, John Laurens (1754-1782), American revolutionary officer, was born at Charleston, South Carolina, on the 28th of October 1754. He was educated in England, and on his return to America in 1777, in the height of the revolutionary struggle, he joined Washington's staff. He soon gained his commander's confidence, which he reciprocated with the most devoted attachment, and was entrusted with the delicate duties of a confidential secretary, which he performed with much tact and skill. He was present in all Washington's battles, from Brandywine to Yorktown, and his gallantry on every occasion has gained him the title of "the Bayard of the Revolution." Laurens displayed bravery even to rashness in the storming of the Chew mansion at Germantown; at Monmouth, where he saved Washington's life, and was himself severely wounded; and at Coosahatchie, where, with a handful of men, he defended a pass against a large English force under General Augustine Prevost, and was. again wounded. He fought a duel against General Charles Lee,. and wounded him, on account of that officer's disrespectful conduct towards Washington. Laurens distinguished himself further at Savannah, and at the siege of Charleston in 1780. After the capture of Charleston by the English, he rejoined Washington, and was selected by him as a special envoy to appeal to the king of France for supplies for the relief of the American armies, which had been brought by prolonged service and scanty pay to the verge of dissolution. The more active co-operation of the French fleets with the land forces in Virginia, which was one result of his mission, brought about the disaster of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Laurens lost no time in rejoining the army, and at Yorktown was at the head of an American storming party which captured an advanced redoubt. Laurens was designated with the vicomte de Noailles to arrange the terms of the surrender, which virtually ended the war, although desultory skirmishing, especially in the South, attended the months of delay before peace was formally concluded. In one of these trifling affairs on the 27th of August 1782, on the Combahee river, Laurens exposed himself needlessly and was killed. Washington lamented deeply the death of Laurens, saying of him, "He had not a fault that I could discover, unless it were intrepidity bordering upon rashness." The most valuable of Henry Laurens's papers and pamphlets including the important "Narrative of the Capture of Henry Laurens, of his Confinement in the Tower of London, &c., 1780, 1781, 1782," -in vol. i. (Charleston, 1857) of the Society's Collections, have been published by the South Carolina Historical Society. John Laurens's military correspondence, with a brief memoir by W. G. Simms, was privately printed by the Bradford Club, New York, in 1867.

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