Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Exceptional American of the Day: John Laurens, the Founding Son

John Laurens fought in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. He also helped Baron Von Steuben (the father of the Army) write his military manual, won a duel with an American general, served as an aide to Washington, befriended Lafayette, became a POW, got the Dutch to loan the colonies money, raised a brigade of black soldiers, and negotiated the surrender of Cornwallis. Laurens may be the most important Patriot who most people never heard of. But because his dad was a Founding Father -- and because he died so young -- John Laurens is a Founding Son of the United States. Had he lived, how different the course of the new nation might have been.
Born on his father's rice plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, on October 28, 1754, he was the oldest of the four children of Henry and Eleanor Ball Laurens who survived infancy. His father was the Laurens in Austin and Laurens, which auctioned off 8,000 slaves in the 1750s. Henry Laurens made his fortune, expanded his plantation, and entered colonial politics.

Rice grown in South Carolina fed the slaves in the West Indies who grew the sugar that became the rum sold in New England.

Upon the death of his wife in 1770, Henry Laurens sent his sons to Europe, where John Laurens received an education in Geneva, Switzerland. The rest of the family returned home, and when the American Revolutionary War broke out, John Laurens wanted to return home in 1776, but his father insisted he complete his training in the law.

In October 1776, Laurens married Martha Manning, the daughter of one of his father's London agents. It was an honor wedding as she was five months pregnant. Two months later, he set sail for home, never seeing his wife again, or his daughter who was born the next February.

Home, he became a volunteer aide to Washington, who was a dear family friend. Henry Laurens was president of the Continental Congress (succeeding John Hancock) when Horatio Gates made an ill-fated attempt to replace Washington as commander-in-chief. John Laurens was an ardent supporter and advocate of his general, and wrote his father to encourage efforts to rebuff and repudiate Gates.

He also wrote about slavery.

"We have sunk the Africans and their descendants below the Standard of Humanity, and almost render'd them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow'd upon us all," the son wrote.

The father agreed but was pragmatic. He argued what do you do with the slaves? The concern also was what do you do with slave-owners? All 13 colonies had legalized slavery, and the profits from slavery -- direct and indirect -- were disbursed up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.

As an aide to Washington, John Laurens became friends with another aide, Alexander Hamilton, as well as Lafayette. Washington brought in Baron Von Steuben to shape up the army at Valley Forge. But the Prussian spoke no English, but he spoke French, as did Laurens and Hamilton. The three of them wrote the Army manual that guided the military through the War of 1812.

The Battle of Monmouth led to the court martial of Major General Charles Lee. Both Hamilton and Laurens testified against him, signaling Washington's displeasure with the Lee, who later bad-mouthed Washington. Laurens challenged Lee to a duel on December 23, 1778. Hamilton was Laurens's second. Lauren grazed Lee and Lee missed Laurens. They made up afterward with a new respect for one another.

Laurens wanted to raise a brigade of slaves and black freemen. Washington was skeptical and Laurens's father while approving the plan asked him to delay it a year. This led to the capture of Laurens. When he went home to recruit black, the British took Charleston and Laurens became a POW. He fared better than his father who was captured at sea and sent to the Tower of London. The son fared better and was paroled, which meant he promised not to rejoin the battle when he was released. He kept his word and went to the Netherlands to borrow money from the Dutch. Despite a decided lack of tact, he secured 10 million livres and military supplies from the Dutch.

This mission may have been the most important assignment he had in the war. Money was a major problem for Washington. The rebels did not have money. The new nation was land rich but cash poor. Securing a loan enabled the battle to continue.

Laurens returned to America just in time for Yorktown. He rode with Hamilton when Hamilton led a night raid to take Redoubt No. 10. Cornwallis sent a message to Washington that he was willing to surrender. Washington sent Laurens to negotiate with the British on October 14, 1781.

He handed his terms to a British officer, resplendent in red coat, sash, gorget, and epaulets, who complained, "This is a harsh article."

"Yes, it is," Laurens replied.

The officer did not realize Laurens's father was at that moment, locked in the Tower of London.

The surrender effectively ended the war, except for minor skirmishes, mainly due to the British aiding 100,000 Loyalists who wanted to seek refuge in England.

On August 25, 1782, one such skirmish occurred at Chehaw Neck on the Combahee River in South Carolina. Three men died in the battle; John Laurens was one. He pursued the British fiercely and was killed in an ambush.

Washington, General Nathanael Greene, and Hamilton were crushed, but not surprised. Laurens was a reckless warrior. His friend, Lafayette, said three years earlier, "It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded; he did everything that was necessary to procure one or t'other."

But he was a true patriot. His death at 27 raises the question of what might have been had he lived. A southern abolitionist could have helped the nation rid itself of slavery without a civil war.

However, what may have been has infinite possibilities, which should not outshine the magnificence of what was. In his brief 27 years, John Laurens helped free his country from an empire, a victory that set in motion the creation of the greatest land of all.

1 comment:

  1. I love your exceptional Americans posts. They are always fascinating. I'll just add a bit to this one. After the battle of Eutaw Springs, when the Brits and loyalists had been driven back to Charleston and orders from new American Secretary had been issued to Clinton directing a cessation of all offensive operations, the Charlestown commander reached out to Gen. Greene to allow British foraging parties. The Brits still had to feed the people -- loyalists, British soldiers, and indeed, citizens and prisoners -- in the city. The war was essentially over but Greene refused, leading to meaningless clashes of the ilk that took the life of John Laurens. Interestingly, Marion refused to participate in these actions and stood down the men loyal to him. Greene was merely trying to keep the pressure up on the British, and perhaps it seemed justified at the time, but in retrospect it seems a terrible waste.

    It is fascinating that John Laurens was perhaps the colonies's most bitter opponent of slavery while his father was, as you note, partner in the largest slave trafficking firm in the colonies. One wonders what effect John Laurens may have had on the future of slavery in the colonies had he lived. In any event, it was John Laurens death that brought Henry Laurens back into public life. And while Henry never agreed with John about slavery, at some level he took on his son's arguments. At his death some years later, Henry freed the over 300 slaves he owned on his SC plantations.