John Laurens met an ignominious end on August 17, 1882 in a minor skirmish against British forces who were foraging for rice outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The Revolution was all but over, and only six months before John Laurens had the honor of representing the American forces when he accepted Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. But his death, caused by foolhardily charging a much larger force, was one that was not a surprise to those who knew him. General Nathaniel Greene, his commanding officer in South Carolina, summed up his death with, “The love of military glory made him seek it upon occasions unworthy his rank.”
I was very eager to read Gregory D. Massey’s biography of Colonel John Laurens, John Laurens and the American Revolution, when I learned that Barton College carried it in their collection. Luckily for us, the Wilson County Public Library has a partnership with Barton that allows holders of Wilson County library cards to check out books at their library. I was always interested in what life events and philosophic influences created this scion of South Carolina who found contradictions in the revolutionary cause he championed in that it was for the rights of humanity yet allowed slavery to exist. And what caused him to repeatedly seek his own death in battle through reckless behavior. Massey’s book was a succinct but erudite account of the life and the creation of the sometimes overlooked Revolutionary War hero and strong opponent of slavery.
The French Huguenot Laurens family settled in Charleston in 1715 and by the time John was born in 1754 the family was very wealthy. John’s father, Henry, was a rice planter, a successful merchant and had married Eleanor Ball, who was of a prestigious low-country dynasty. John and his siblings were tutored at home and when he came of age he travelled to Geneva, Switzerland to study medicine and then to London to study law. While in London, Laurens married Martha Manning (he had gotten her pregnant), a daughter of a business associate of his father’s. But the war intervened and without seeking permission from his father (nor for his marriage) he returned to America, leaving his new wife and unborn daughter in order to join the war effort. He would never see his wife again and showed very little concern for her or his daughter in his correspondence with his father. When Laurens returned from Europe he became one of General Washington’s aid-de-camps alongside Alexander Hamilton. They both became fast friends and some scholars have even suggested it was a homosexual relationship and Laurens’ reckless behavior was a result of unobtainable happiness. Some of the passages in their letters are very suggestive “I wish my dear Laurens…to convince you that I love you.” But the author dismisses that notion saying “In an age of sensibility, men typically expressed themselves with affection and effusiveness.” Modeling their bearing after figures from the classical world they valued their male relationships far above their ones with the fairer sex and this was certainly manifest in Laurens lack of communication with his wife and daughter.
As Washington’s aid-de-camp he first expressed his want to lead a regiment of his father’s slaves, which he viewed as his inheritance, against the British. There was a real need for manpower and Laurens felt that getting slaves under arms and fighting for America’s freedom would be the first step toward their own freedom and eventually the abolishment of slavery. In Europe John was exposed to the anti-slavery ideas of the Enlightenment, which complemented his grandfather and father’s beliefs that slavery was ultimately immoral and was destined to be abolished. This is where the seeds were planted for his later ideas of forming an African regiment. There was precedence in South Carolina for arming slaves such as during the Yamassee War in 1715 where slave militias were created to fight the uprising tribes of the Carolinas. However, his father was at most luke-warm about the prospect at first saying that “It is certainly a great task effectually to persuade Rich Men to part willingly with the very source of their wealth, &, as they suppose, tranquility.” But he later tried vigorously to convince his colleagues to allow his son to raise a regiment. But no matter how hard both Laurens fought to raise the African levies, the South Carolina coalition of slave owners, who thought the vision of armed slaves was their worst nightmare, fought it to a standstill.
Although on the face of it, Laurens creates the impression of being genuinely concerned about the inhumanity of the institution of slavery and expresses the desire for any slave that fights for the Americans and any slave owned by the Laurens family would be freed. Many saw his fight for a regiment as merely a selfish want of a field command where he could pursue is obsession with glory. And this was probably partly true but Massey writes that it does not diminish the importance of his humanistic beliefs in a time when slave-owners found many spurious arguments to justify their right to owning slaves. Nonetheless, Laurens was possessed with inherent contradictions in his public face of a Lockean liberal that believed in incompatibility of slavery with the Revolution’s belief in the rights of humanity and in his insensitive treatment of his personal slave, John Shrewsbury. During the infamous winter in Valley Forge of 1778 John sent frequent requests to his father for posh officer clothing but when Henry sent a checked shirt and hunting shirt for Shrewsbury, John’s response was “if there be any difficulty in getting him Winter Cloths, I believe he can do without.” John certainly believed in his idealism in theory but in day to day reality he had internalized the culture of the slave society elite of South Carolina.
The more Lauren’s ideas for a slave regiment was thwarted by the congress, the more reckless in battle he becomes, a recklessness that was also fueled by the romantic idealism of the age, especially in regards to the ideas of honor and of a glorious death being a noble gesture. European youth at the time lionized a character from Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, an unappreciated, talented poet who took poison when he could not make a living from his writings. The fact that John Laurens was routinely reckless on the battlefield to the point of being suicidal could be evidence of the effect that the
idealism of the age had on him. At the Battle of Brandywine the wounded Marquis de Lafayette was quoted as saying, “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded, he did everything to procure one or t’other.” After a failed assault on Savannah Alexander Hamilton stated that Laurens stood facing the British fire “with his arms wide extended,” as if inviting death. And when he was criticized for his behavior he replied, “My honor does not permit me to survive the disgrace of this day.” But it could also be a consequence of held over guilt from the death of his young brother, Jemmy, who died from a fall in London while John was acting as guardian. This death was the last in a string of deaths of Laurens sibling’s and of John’s mother, Eleanor that certainly had a strong effect upon his psyche.
But whatever the reason behind his blasé attitude toward his personal safety it eventually led to his death, while finally leading men in the field as a lieutenant colonel and replacement for Henry ‘Lighthorse’ Lee in a war where any ‘glory’ that could be obtained had already passed. Massey has written a detailed, concise, well-balanced biography that really captures the life and times of an important and almost forgotten figure of the American Revolution. A man that I wish more of his South Carolina and Southern contemporaries and heirs had emulated in his desire for the abolition of slavery instead of continuing with their pathological institution, that although brought the elite wealth and tranquility, the fallout from its deleterious effect on the culture and economic structure of the region is still being felt almost two and a half centuries later.