John Laurens is remembered today, if at all, for two things. One is his advocacy of freeing enslaved blacks to fight against the British during the War for Independence. The other is his tragic, senseless death in one of the last skirmishes of that war. To be sure, he is now remembered for something else. Some historians argue that he had a homosexual relationship with his undoubtedly close friend, Alexander Hamilton. But I'll leave that to others, and focus on the first two.
John Laurens (1754-1782) was the eldest son of planter Henry Laurens of Charleston (then Charlestown), South Carolina. (For more on Henry, see my previous post, The Tower of London's Only American Prisoner: Henry Laurens
Henry Laurens had made a huge fortune in the slave trade and as a rice planter. During the dispute with Britain that led to the American Revolution, he became a major Patriot leader, serving as president of the Continental Congress.
Following the example of many of South Carolina's elite, Henry had sent John to Europe for education. The War for Independence began while John was finishing legal studies at Lincoln's Inn in London. Against his father's wishes, he returned to America and joined the Continental Army. Also against his father's wishes, he left behind his heavily pregnant wife, Martha Manning, daughter of one of Henry's British business associates. John confessed that he had carelessly gotten Martha pregnant and married her not for love, but out of pity. He never saw Martha again, nor did he ever see the daughter she gave birth to a few months later.
Once in the Patriot army, John rose quickly to the rank of colonel -- too quickly in the view of some fellow officers. He fought bravely at Brandywine and other battles, and earned a reputation for courage bordering on recklessness. He became an aide de camp to George Washington and formed close friendships with two other aides, Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette.
In 1779 Laurens returned to South Carolina. The British army had captured Savannah, Georgia and were threatening Charleston. He fought bravely in several actions, but his return is best remembered for the proposal he brought before the South Carolina General Assembly. With the blessing of Congress and Washington, Laurens moved that South Carolina, which had a black majority, enlist blacks in the Patriot army in return for their freedom.
He enlisted the support of his father, who had publicly claimed in 1776 that he favored the abolition of slavery. Henry promised to give John forty of his enslaved blacks to form a nucleus of a unit of free black soldiers. When John formally proposed the creation of a black regiment in South Carolina, however, Henry got cold feet. He tried to convince John that the idea could never win a majority in the state assembly.
Henry proved correct. John moved the proposal before the assembly three times between 1779 and 1782. Much to his distress and disgust, the delegates repeatedly rejected it by large majorities. The most vocal of Laurens' opponents were John and Edward Rutledge and Christopher Gadsden, designer of the famous "Don't Tread on Me" flag. (Images: John Rutledge and Christopher Gadsden)
The second rejection took place as the British were advancing on Charleston with a large army under Sir Henry Clinton. They took the city after several weeks' siege, the worst Patriot defeat of the war to date. The entire defending army was made prisoner, including Laurens, who was convinced that the enlistment of black soldiers could have saved Charleston from capture. (Image: The Siege of Charleston, 1780, from the British lines)
Laurens was soon exchanged for a British prisoner, and resumed his crusade against slavery. On one occasion he wrote that if South Carolina could not be cultivated without slaves, "we should flee from it as a hateful country." This quotation may hold the key to his ultimate fate.
A few months after the last rejection of his proposal, in August 1782, Laurens was killed leading his men against a British foraging expedition against orders to wait for reinforcements. The Battle of the Combahee, a minor skirmish in fact, was one of the last actions of the war. The British evacuated Charleston in December. Laurens was 28.
One must wonder if John Laurens was seeking death in battle, having despaired that his new country would eliminate the institution that mocked its call for liberty.
John Laurens is buried at his father's favorite plantation, Mepkin, now a Catholic monastery, near Moncks Corner, South Carolina. The epitaph which Henry chose for his son's grave marker, is a famous line from the Roman poet Horace: "Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori." (It is sweet and proper to die for one's country.") An odd choice, given that Henry had tried to keep John out of the army.
Was John Laurens sincere in his advocacy of abolition? It seems that he was, whether out of a sense of guilt or conviction. He adopted an abolitionist viewpoint in Britain while being educated. He became friends with British opponents of slavery, including Thomas Day and John Bicknell, who had written an abolitionist poem, "The Dying Negro."
Laurens was influenced as well by British claims that the American demand for liberty was hypocritical, given the large number of African slaves in the colonies.
When opponents of his proposals claimed that the enslaved blacks were incapable of appreciating and handling liberty, Laurens countered that blacks and whites shared the same humanity, abilities, and desires. It was slavery itself that had debased a people who, under better circumstances, would prove to be excellent citizens of the republic:
"We have sunk the Africans and their descendants below the Standard of Humanity, and almost render'd them incapable of that Blessing [Liberty] which equal Heaven bestowed upon us all."
During the early nineteenth century, southern writers extolled John Laurens as a chivalric model for the region's youth, but ignored or suppressed his views on slavery. Many of those young men went on to die for a cause far less worthy than his.
Gregory Massey, John Laurens and the American Revolution. Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 2000.