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Henry Laurens

The first eternal settlement in South Carolina was in 1670. Two hundred years previously, the French had made a settlement on the Island of St. Helena, under the patronage of Admiral Caligney, who wanted in Carolina an asylum for the oppressed Protestants of France. This little colony was captured by the Spaniards, who hung the prisoners and left a label stating that they were not put to death as Frenchmen, however as heretics. The French returned and re-captured the fort. They after that hung all the Spaniards, and stated that they were not put to death as Catholics however as murderers and robbers.

The settlement was abandoned by the French. Governor Sayle landed at Port Royal with some followers in 1670, and the next year becoming displeased with the place, moved to the western banks of the Ashley River, and there laid the establishment of “old Charlestown. ” These circumstances did not please the settlers, and they removed a second time to “Oyster Point” and there started the present city of Charleston. Fifteen or twenty years after the planting of this English colony in South Carolina, there was a large migration from France of Huguenots who wanted religious liberty in the new world, and landed in Charleston.

Amongst them were numerous ancestors of the most eminent families of South Carolina, viz. : the Hugers, Gaillards, Marions, Laurens, Legares, Mazycks, Manigaults, Prioleaus, Postells, Porchers, Simons, Ravenels, Trezevants, and all that. They settled mostly on the Santee River, and were looked upon with jealousy by the English. For some years they were not permitted to vote or sit in the Colonial Legislature. (Marc W. Kruman, pp 65-69) The family of Henry Laurens’s ancestors was amongst those French refugees above named.

They did not go to the Santee however remained in Charleston, as did numerous others who were artisans and traders. It is stated in Ramsay’s History of South Carolina, that they first settled in New York. The weather of South Carolina was thought to be more enviable and more like that of the home from which they had been exiled. Nothing further is known of the Laurens family.

Dr. Ramsay has given a sketch of Henry Laurens and as well of his gallant son John Laurens, in his History of South Carolina, however says not one word of Henry’s father. Inasmuch as Dr. Ramsay married a daughter of Henry Laurens he could have given some description of his parents. Henry Laurens was born in 1724 in the city of Charleston. He was destined to be a merchant; also his education was completed at private schools. Early in life he was placed in the counting-house of Thomas Smith, a merchant of Charleston, and after that under the superintendence of Mr. Crahatt, a merchant of London, who had done business in Charleston. Under these gentlemen he learned to be a merchant. He was outstanding through life for order, system and method, which were taught him by these merchants.

When he returned from London he entered into business with a well-known merchant of Charleston, and by his attention to business, realistic good sense, promptness, watchfulness and wisdom, he built up a very large fortune. He worked hard himself and made every one else about him work as well. Like Mr. Jefferson, who said the sun never caught him in bed summer or winter, Laurens was an early riser. It is said he needed less sleep than most persons, and transacted the majority of his mercantile business after night.

He was a model merchant for the young business men of the city to study and imitate. (Jack P. Greene, pp 8-11) His awareness of human nature was said to be ideal, and he was proficient to estimate every man who dealt with him at his par value. He did a large credit business however made no bad debts. At the end of his partnership, which had sustained twenty-three years, and embraced transactions amounting to numerous millions of dollars, he offered to take all the debts due the firm as cash at a discount of five per cent.

His manner of writing was very superior, and he always expressed himself in strong and effective language, which would never admit of any doubt as to his meaning. His conversational powers were very great and always motivating and adapted to the company in which he was, whether young or old, grave or gay, men of pleasure or men of business. (Kathryn E. Holland Braund, pp 99-101) In the character of Henry Laurens there was much of the old Roman. His love of justice was ultimate, and he was bold, intrepid and unbiased through a long and eminently useful life.

He was dedicated to the cause of his country, and nothing could veer off him from her interest. Having had the calamity to lose his wife in 1771, who was the sister of Chief Justice Rutledge, he carried his two sons to Europe to be educated, and at the same time as there he joined in a petition of the Americans in London addressed to the British Ministry against the Boston Port Bill. He did all he could to make sure the arbitrary measures of Great Britain towards the Colonies and all in vain.

Becoming contented it was the purpose of the English government to force the colonies into submission, he returned home in 1774, and so proclaimed to his friends in Charleston. The people had great assurance in his judgment, and began accordingly to make preparations to defend themselves. His leaving England at this period plus coming to share the fate of his country endeared him to his fellow-citizens, and they selected him President of the Committee of Safety, which exercised all power in the State, from the suspension of the Royal government to the formation of a State government.

(Marc W. Kruman, pp 101-105) In 1776, when the Constitution of the State was adopted and a regular government organized under it, Henry Laurens was elected a delegate to the old Continental Congress. His talents, worth as well as abilities were soon discovered and valued by that noble band of patriots, and he was elected President of the Congress. Having been the first and most triumphant of merchants, he was now ranked among the most renowned of statesmen and patriots.

His correspondence whilst President of Congress fills two large folio volumes-still in manuscript in the records of the Federal Government. In 1778 Mr. Laurens resigned his seat in Congress and was selected Minister to Holland. He was captured by a British vessel on his way to Holland. He threw his papers overboard; however they were recovered by a sailor, and produced a declaration of war on the part of England against Holland. Laurens was committed a prisoner to the Tower of London, charged with high sedition as a British subject.

He was closely confined and not permitted to see any of his friends. The use of pen, ink and paper was denied him. Congress offered to exchange General Burgoyne for him, although the proposition was rejected. He remained in prison 15 months, and until the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. (James A. Rawley, pp 213-218) At the same time as a prisoner in the Tower of London he had the pleasure of hearing that the sword of Lord Cornwallis was surrendered to his son, John Laurens, who was selected by Washington to receive the same.

He went to Paris after his release, and there, with Dr. Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, signed the treaty of peace with the commissioners of France and England. He right away returned to Carolina, and all honors were tendered him. The Legislature proposed to elect him Governor, which he declined, and he as well declined a seat in Congress. Without his knowledge he was elected a member of the State Convention to consider the adoption of the Federal Constitution, however he refused to take his seat in the Convention.

His long confinement in prison had weakened his health; and the death of his brave and distinguished son, John Laurens, had broken his spirits, and he ceased to take any active part in public affairs. There was something charming, magnificent and mesmerizing in the character of Henry Laurens’s eldest son, John Laurens, “the Bayard of the South. ” He was killed in a little battle at the close of the war near Charleston, in the 27th year of his age. He had been educated in Europe, and left there at the age of 19 to support the cause of his country.

He volunteered his services in the Continental army, and was soon taken by Washington into his military family as one of his aids. Congress directed Washington to give him the commission of a colonel in the line, which he declined to accept, as it would be doing unfairness to older officers to have himself placed over them. (James A. Rawley, pp 220-225) Henry Laurens himself was a true chevalier, as well as responded to several calls to the field of honor, and always received the fire of his adversary without returning it. He once induced a Negro man to be inoculated for the small-pox and he died. On his death-bed Mr.

Laurens told him that he would give his children their liberty because of his compliance with the unfortunate directions of his master. This promise Mr. Laurens devotedly executed after the death of the unfortunate man. Mr. Laurens’s treatment of his slaves was extremely praiseworthy. He made them work properly, and enforced amongst them decency, order and morality; he fed and clothed well, and freely contributed to their comforts. Nor did he abandon their religious instruction. He was strictly a religious man himself–a constant attendant at church on the Sabbath, both morning and evening, and a regular communicant.

Mr. Laurens left one son living at his death, and two daughters–one married Doctor Ramsay, the historian, as well as the other Governor Charles Pinckney, who was Minister at the Court of Madrid, and contributed mainly to the formation of the Constitution of the United States in the Federal Convention. Governor Pinckney left one son, Henry Laurens Pinckney, who was a member of Congress and Speaker of the House of Representatives of South Carolina. This son bore an outstanding likeness to his grandfather, Henry Laurens, in his face, as the grandfather is represented in his like-nesses.

Governor Robert Y. Hayne’s first wife was a granddaughter of Henry Laurens and the daughter of Governor Charles Pinckney. (James Haw, pp 25-27) Mr. Laurens died in his 69 year, on December 8, 1792. He lived to see his country free and independent, the implementation of the Constitution of the United States, and the wise administration of the Government for three years, under the administration of Washington as President of the Republic. Well may South Carolina be proud of Henry Laurens as one of her sons, well-known as a patriot and statesman, gifted with Roman virtue and Christian piety.

In his will he imperatively directs his son to wrap his body in 12 yards of tow cloth and burn it till it is completely consumed, and after that to collect his bones and ashes and bury them where he saw proper. This request was loyally executed by his merely surviving son, who married a Miss Rutledge, and had a large family of children. (Kathryn E. Holland Braund, pp 45-48)


Jack P. Greene. “The Papers of Henry Laurens. Vol. XVI: September 1, 1782-December 17, 1792”; Journal of Southern History, Vol. 72, 2006

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