Who Was Henry Laurens?
This early American merchant, planter, and statesman was born in 1724 in Charleston (Charles Town then), the capital of the British colony of South Carolina. His paternal grandfather, a Huguenot uprooted by religious unrest, moved the Laurens family from their home in Rochelle, France in the 1680s successively to England, Ireland, and New York (where they remained for about twenty years) before coming to rest in Charleston in 1715 or 1716. Henry Laurens's mother, also of Huguenot stock, came to Charleston by way of New York after her family fled France to avoid the anti-Protestant campaign of the late seventeenth century.
Henry's father John (d. 1747), a saddler, sent his son to England in 1744 to be trained as a merchant. By mid century HL (the editors of The Papers of Henry Laurens frequently employ this abbreviation) established himself in Charleston and during the next quarter century gained both a good reputation and great wealth as a merchant. He imported rum and tropical goods from the West Indies, manufactured goods from England, and slaves from Africa. He exported rice, indigo, deerskins, and naval stores. He invested his profits from commerce in land and owned eight plantations by the eve of the revolutionary war. After the 1760s he removed himself from the slave trade. HL is often cited as an early southern opponent of the institution. The fact that he offered freedom to only a few of the approximately 300 slaves that he held makes his antislavery statements appear insincere, even hypocritical, when viewed from a twentieth century vantage.
HL held several local offices before 1757 when he was elected to the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly. He served in the lower house frequently before 1771 when he sailed for England and the continent with his three sons in search of the best education for them. After his wife Eleanor's death in 1770, he retired from commerce and devoted much of the next four years to his children. While in England in 1774, he became active in rallying American residents there to petition the Commons, Lords, and the Crown concerning American grievances. Upon his return to South Carolina in December 1774, he took an active and central role in the province's opposition to British threats to American liberty.
Henry Laurens and the American Revolution
Charleston voters selected HL as a representative to the South Carolina Provincial Congress in January 1775. Both in and out of this assembly he asserted his moderate view that the liberties of individuals should be protected from overly zealous radical revolutionaries as well as from threats from English authorities. Selected president of the Provincial Congress in June 1775, HL presided over that body while it prepared South Carolina for war. This congress would function as the interim authority between the old royal government and the new autonomous state of South Carolina which would emerge in 1776. HL also held the high profile position of President of the twelve-member Council of Safety, an executive board that directed the day to day activities of the nascent Revolutionary government. Many of the documents in this electronic sample are to or from HL as President of the Council of Safety.
In March 1776, HL was elected vice president under South Carolina's first constitution. He helped direct the fortification of Charleston harbor and witnessed the repulsion of a British invasion in June. After being at the center of South Carolina's revolutionary activity for two years, in 1777 he was elected to the Continental Congress. Between 1777 and 1785 he returned to his native state only one time. During his service to the nation he held the position of President of Congress (November 1777-December 1778), was appointed to negotiate a loan from the Dutch, was captured on the high seas and spent fifteen months in the Tower of London, served as an American Peace Commissioner, and employed his skills and connections in trying to forge a commercial agreement with the British to compliment the peace settlement.
Because delays in the formalization of the peace treaty, his poor health, and crises in his family kept him from sailing from Europe, HL did not reach America until the summer of 1784 and did not return to Charleston until January 1785. Despite attempts to persuade him to accept various political offices, including that of delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, HL eschewed public life. He spent his final years attempting to rebuild his war-ravaged estate and died in late 1792.
Henry Laurens and South Carolina's Transition from Colony to State
The end of British colonial authority in South Carolina and the rapid evolution of the state of South Carolina occurred during the pivotal year 1775. Several critical events transpired within the brief five-week period (August 18 to September 22) represented in this selection. The changes created fear and anxiety among the citizens of the province. The papers of Henry Laurens offer an insight into the public and private concerns many South Carolinians expressed during this tumultuous time.
The first document, Commons House of Assembly to Royal Governor Lord William Campbell
, is a reply to Campbell's August 15
request that the Assembly take a more active role "in enforcing the laws and protecting his Majesty's servants." By this time the Royal Assembly had been supplanted in all but name by the revolutionary Provincial Congress and Council of Safety and the members sought a dissolution. They met regularly during this period but adjourned immediately each time without taking any action and never assembled after August 30
Laurens, who held the most prominent offices in the emerging revolutionary government as chairman of the Provincial Congress and President of the Council of Safety, found himself in the midst of a society fearful of both external and internal threats. British warships threatened Charleston harbor and necessitated that the provincial leaders urge military preparation and plans for defending the city. The reality of a potential British military action was heightened in mid August when evidence suggested that harbor pilot Thomas Jeremiah, a free black man known as "Jerry," was plotting a slave insurrection and would assist the Royal Navy in negotiating the bar at the entrance to Charleston harbor. HL related the terror, investigation, and quick execution of "Jerry" in an August 20 letter to his son John, a student in England at the time. This letter was part of the correspondence between HL and his eldest son that revealed many of the former's true sentiments and accurately demonstrated his moderate revolutionary position. At that time HL still sought reform without separation. The more radical revolutionaries, he lamented, "seem forced & impelled to do very improper acts to support a good cause." Enclosed with this August 20 letter were copies of letters exchanged between the Royal Governor and HL on the "Jerry" incident. These documents reveal the impotence of the Royal administration in South Carolina in the face of the rising revolutionary tide.
HL and other moderates believed that the disputes with the mother country could still be resolved and that a new more equitable and lasting relationship might emerge from the conflict. This hope was dashed when on the evening of September 15 Governor Campbell
and his family fled the city and took up residence on the warship Tamar
. That same day provincial troops captured the strategic Fort Johnson and the Royal Assembly was dissolved.
Long-standing sectional disputes between the under-represented and under-served South Carolina backcountry and the politically dominant lowcountry provided another source of anxiety for the emerging provincial government. Backcountry leaders, largely overlooked before the revolutionary crisis, were courted by an official mission sent from Charleston. Correspondence between members of that delegation, such as the aggressive and radical William Henry Drayton
, and HL reveal the tenuous influence the provincial government had beyond the lowcountry. Drayton wrote August 21
that he met several of the influential backcountry leaders but with little luck. Thomas Fletchall, among those whose support the patriots sought, conversed with Drayton for almost three hours. "We endeavoured to explain every thing to him. . . . We humoured him. We laughed with him. Then we recurred to argument, Remonstrance & entreaties to join his Countrymen & all America." But, while others may have been willing, Fletchall, like many frontier notables, could not be convinced and remained loyal to the King.
Despite being more popular closer to the coast, the patriot movement hardly received unanimous approval even there. Several prominent citizens, especially the ones whose careers and livelihoods depended upon a continued connection and good relationship with the Crown, refused to sign the "Association." This document, a loyalty oath to the state, dating from early June forced many citizens to declare their support for the revolution or retire from public life. William Wragg's September 5 note to HL illustrates the difficult choice he and others had to make.
Mixed among the many important public communications are several personal letters to family, especially brother James who had care of HL's two daughters in England and son John who continued his studies in England. The Revolution disrupted not only the relationship between Britain and America, and intensified the sectional conflict within South Carolina, it inflicted severe distress upon many families who like the Laurenses were separated in one way or another as a result of the political crisis.