Laurens was born on March 6, 1724, to descendants of French Huguenots -- Calvinist Protestants -- who fled to the colonies after the Edict of Nantes, which protected Huguenots, was revoked in 1685. As many as one-tenth of the U.S. population has French ancestry, in large part due to the emigration of Huguenots to North America.
Despite this background of past oppression, Laurens was a principal in the slave auctioning house of Austin and Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina. In the 1850s alone, they sold more than 8,000 African slaves. From his commissions, Laurens built and expanded a rice plantation, as he too owned slaves.
As his position in Carolingian society rose, he served as a served as lieutenant colonel in a campaign against the Cherokee Indians from 1757 to 1761. He was a member of the commons house of assembly in 1757 and reelected to every session, with one exception, until the revolution. However, twice he turned down appointments to the King’s Council in Carolina. British confiscation of three of hiss vessels pushed him into the Patriot camp. When South Carolina installed a fully independent government, he served as vice president of South Carolina from March 1776 to June 27, 1777, when he joined the Continental Congress a year after the colonies declared their independence.
The British invaded Philadelphia shortly after his arrival, and the Continental Congress was forced to evacuate to Lancaster and then York, Pennsylvania. Eventually the British left and the delegates returned. He made quite an impression on his fellow delegate as he worked on the Articles of Confederation, as the fledgling nation sought a balance between colony rights and those of a central government. His votes consistently were independent of the Southern bloc as it began to dawn on him that black people are entitled to the same rights that white people enjoy. The same leadership skills that he exhibited in South Carolina were revealed in York as well, as he gained the respect of his colleagues. When John Hancock resigned as president of the Continental Congress when he came down with gout, delegates elected Laurens to succeed him on November 1, 1777.
Early on, he had to fend off a move to replace George Washington with Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief. The delegates were not pleased with having been driven out of Philadelphia and believed Washington should have done more to retake Philadelphia. But unable to get the votes to replace him, his critics withheld funding for provisions for Valley Forge. We like to think of our Founding Fathers as saints, not fools, but they were both. Laurens continued to preside over the Congress for a year before returning to South Carolina.
In the fall of 1779, Congress sent Laurens to Amsterdam to negotiate Dutch support for the war, and he succeeded, but the British frigate Vestal intercepted his ship, the continental packet Mercury, off the banks of Newfoundland. He wisely threw his correspondence into the sea, but the British fished them out of water. This was a draft of a possible U.S.-Dutch treaty. This prompted the British to declare war on the Netherlands for the fourth time (they were the original targets of the “frogs” epithet).
Off to the Tower of London went Laurens. He was a traitor in the eyes of the Crown. He stayed there until Cornwallis surrendered. On December 31, 1781, he actually was traded for Cornwallis. He then went to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams.
Nevertheless, Laurens was deeply troubled by slavery, having seen it first hand as a seller of slaves. In a letter to his son, John, dated August 14, 1776, Laurens flatly declared, “I abhor slavery."
In another letter to his son, he wrote, “I think we Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves. How can we whose Jealousy has been alarm’d more at the Name of Oppression sometimes than at the Reality, reconcile to our spirited Assertions of the Rights of Mankind, the galling abject Slavery of our negroes. If as some pretend, but I am persuaded more thro’ interest, than from Conviction, the Culture of the Ground with us cannot be carried on without African Slaves, Let us fly it as a hateful Country, and say ubi Libertas ibi Patria [where Liberty is, there is my Country]."
The problem with abolition was practical. Whilst Laurens liked to blame the British Crown for the situation, the fact was Americans bought and sold slaves through men like Henry Laurens. His son tried to convince Americans to end slavery. He put together a brigade of 3,000 slaves who would serve as soldiers for the Americans. Instead, the South Carolina legislature sold the slaves and used the money to pay white soldiers. John was killed in a skirmish in 1782 while his father negotiated the peace treaty. His father came home, buried him and freed his 260 slaves. Then he went back to Paris to finish the treaty.
Home for good in 1784, Henry Laurens had a mess. The British had destroyed his mansion. He rebuilt it. His final public task was casting a vote in the first Electoral College for George Washington as president. That meeting must have been a time to reminisce for him and his fellow continental congressman. He died at age 71 on December 8, 1792. As per his wishes, he was cremated in the first cremation in the United States. Seventy years later, the nation would be embroiled in a civil war not over who should be king or what religion the nation should have, but rather a civil war based on the age old question of whether all men are created equal. In 1776, Henry Laurens believed that. Less than 100 years later, the nation lived that.