Henry Laurens
Laurens depicted by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1781 or 1784
5th President of the Continental Congress
In office
November 1, 1777 – December 9, 1778
Preceded byJohn Hancock
Succeeded byJohn Jay
Vice President of South Carolina
In office
March 26, 1776 – June 27, 1777
PresidentJohn Rutledge
Preceded byOffice Established
Succeeded byJames Parsons
President of the
South Carolina Committee on Safety
In office
January 9, 1775 – March 26, 1776
MonarchGeorge III
Preceded byWilliam Campbell
As governor of South Carolina
Succeeded byJohn Rutledge
As president of South Carolina
Personal details
Born(1724-03-06)March 6, 1724
Charleston, Province of South Carolina
DiedDecember 8, 1792(1792-12-08) (aged 68)
Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.
SpouseEleanor Ball (m. 1750; b. 1731 – d. 1770)
ChildrenJohn Laurens
Martha Laurens Ramsay
Henry Laurens, Jr.
James Laurens
Mary Eleanor Laurens Pinckney
Portrait of Laurens by John Singleton Copley (U.S. National Portrait Gallery NPG.65.45)

Henry Laurens (March 6, 1724 [O.S. February 24, 1723] – December 8, 1792) was an American Founding Father,[1][2][3] merchant, slave trader, and rice planter from South Carolina who became a political leader during the Revolutionary War. A delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Laurens succeeded John Hancock as its president. He was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation and, as president, presided over its passage.

Laurens had earned great wealth as a partner in the largest slave-trading house in North America, Austin and Laurens. In the 1750s alone, this Charleston firm oversaw the sale of more than 8,000 enslaved Africans.[4] Laurens served for a time as vice president of South Carolina and as the United States minister to the Netherlands during the Revolutionary War. He was captured at sea by the British and imprisoned for a little more than a year in the Tower of London. His oldest son, John Laurens, was an aide-de-camp to George Washington and a colonel in the Continental Army.

Early life and education

Laurens' forebears were Huguenots who fled France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. His grandfather Andre Laurens left earlier, in 1682, and eventually made his way to America, settling first in New York City and then Charleston, South Carolina. Andre's son John married Hester (or Esther) Grasset, also a Huguenot refugee. Henry was their third child and eldest son. John Laurens became a saddler, and his business eventually grew to be the largest of its kind in the colonies.[5]

In 1744, Laurens was sent to London to augment his business training.[5] This took place in the company of Richard Oswald.[6] His father died in 1747, bequeathing a considerable estate to 23-year-old Henry.[5]

Marriage and family

Laurens married Eleanor Ball, also of a South Carolina rice planter family, on June 25, 1750. They had thirteen children, many of whom died in infancy or childhood.[7] Eleanor died in 1770, one month after giving birth to their last child. Laurens took their three sons to England for their education, encouraging their oldest, John Laurens, to study law. Instead of completing his studies, John Laurens returned to the United States in 1776 to serve in the American Revolutionary War.

Political career

1784 engraving of Laurens as President of the Continental Congress

Laurens served in the militia, as did most able-bodied men in his time. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the campaigns against the Cherokee Indians in 1757–1761, during the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years' War).

Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West, 1783 (left to right: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin)
Austin, Laurens & Appleby : Advertisement for the Sale of Slaves

In 1757, he was elected to South Carolina's colonial assembly. Laurens was elected again every year but one until the Revolution replaced the assembly with a state convention as an interim government. The year he missed was 1773, when he visited England to arrange for his sons' educations. He was named to the colony's council in 1764 and 1768 but declined both times. In 1772, he joined the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia and carried on extensive correspondence with other members.[8]

As the American Revolution neared, Laurens was at first inclined to support reconciliation with the British Crown. But as conditions deteriorated, he came to fully support the American position. When Carolina began to create a revolutionary government, Laurens was elected to the Provincial Congress, which first met on January 9, 1775. He was president of the Committee of Safety and presiding officer of that congress from June until March 1776.[9] When South Carolina installed a fully independent government, he served as the vice president of South Carolina from March 1776 to June 27, 1777. Laurens was first named a delegate to the Continental Congress on January 10, 1777. He served in the Congress until 1780. He was the president of the Continental Congress from November 1, 1777, to December 9, 1778.

In the fall of 1779, the Congress named Laurens their minister to the Netherlands. In early 1780, he took up that post and successfully negotiated Dutch support for the war. But on his return voyage to Amsterdam that fall, the British frigate Vestal intercepted his ship, the continental packet Mercury,[10] off the banks of Newfoundland. Although his dispatches were tossed in the water, they were retrieved by the British, who discovered the draft of a possible U.S.-Dutch treaty prepared in Aix-la-Chapelle in 1778 by William Lee and the Amsterdam banker Jean de Neufville.[11] This prompted Britain to declare war on the Dutch Republic, becoming known as the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.

The British charged Laurens with treason, transported him to England, and imprisoned him in the Tower of London (he is the only American to have been held prisoner in the tower). His imprisonment was protested by the Americans. In the field, most captives were regarded as prisoners of war, and while conditions were frequently appalling, prisoner exchanges and mail privileges were accepted practice. During his imprisonment, Laurens was assisted by Richard Oswald, his former business partner and the principal owner of Bunce Island, a slave-trading island base in the Sierra Leone River. Oswald argued on Laurens' behalf to the British government. Finally, on December 31, 1781, he was released in exchange for General Lord Cornwallis and completed his voyage to Amsterdam. He helped raise funds for the American effort.

Laurens' oldest son, Colonel John Laurens, was killed in 1782 in the Battle of the Combahee River, as one of the last casualties of the Revolutionary War. He had supported enlisting and freeing slaves for the war effort and suggested to his father that he begin with the 40 he stood to inherit.[12] He had urged his father to free the family's slaves, but although conflicted, Henry Laurens never manumitted his 260 slaves.[12][13]

In 1783, Laurens was sent to Paris as one of the peace commissioners for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris. While he was not a signatory of the primary treaty, he was instrumental in reaching the secondary accords that resolved issues related to the Netherlands and Spain. Richard Oswald, a former partner of Laurens in the slave trade, was the principal negotiator for the British during the Paris peace talks.

Laurens generally retired from public life in 1784. He was sought for a return to the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the state assembly, but he declined all of these positions. He did serve in the state convention of 1788, where he voted to ratify the United States Constitution.

Portrait of Laurens, Boston Magazine, 1784; engraving by John Norman

British forces, during their occupation of Charleston, had burned the Laurens home at Mepkin during the war. When Laurens and his family returned in 1784, they lived in an outbuilding while the great house was rebuilt. He lived on the estate the rest of his life, working to recover the estimated £40,000 that the revolution had cost him[citation needed] (equivalent to about $6.15 million in 2019).[14]

Death and legacy

Laurens suffered from gout starting in his 40s and the affliction plagued him throughout the rest of his life.[15] Laurens died on December 8, 1792, at his estate, Mepkin, in South Carolina. In his will he stated he wished to be cremated and his ashes be interred at his estate.[16] It is reported that he was the first Caucasian cremation in the United States, which he chose because of a fear of being buried alive.[17] Afterward, the estate passed through several hands. Large portions of the estate still exist. Part of the original estate was donated to the Roman Catholic Church in 1949 and is now the location of Mepkin Abbey, a monastery of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappist monks).[18]

The city of Laurens, South Carolina, and its county are named for him. The town and the village of Laurens, New York, are named for him.[19] Laurens County, Georgia, is named for his son John. General Lachlan McIntosh, who worked for Laurens as a clerk and became close friends with him, named Fort Laurens in Ohio after him.


  1. ^ Kelly, Joseph P. (April 2006). "Henry Laurens: The Southern Man of Conscience in History". The South Carolina Historical Magazine. 107 (2): 82–123. JSTOR 27570804. Retrieved 25 April 2022.
  2. ^ Brammer, Robert (13 May 2020). "Henry Laurens, the Founding Father Who Was Imprisoned in the Tower of London". loc.gov. Library of Congress. Retrieved 25 April 2022.
  3. ^ Neville, Gabriel (1 August 2019). "The Tragedy of Henry Laurens". allthingsliberty.com. Journal of the American Revolution. Retrieved 25 April 2022.
  4. ^ "Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice" (PDF). Brown University. October 2006.
  5. ^ a b c "Laurens, Henry (1724–1792)". American Eras. Encyclopedia.com. Archived from the original on 22 April 2018.
  6. ^ Gillespie, p.20
  7. ^ Wallace, p.180
  8. ^ "APS Member History".
  9. ^ Force, 1837, Vol II, pp. 1723-1724
  10. ^ Tuchman
  11. ^ "From George Washington to Leonard de Neufville, June 29, 1789". Founders Online. National Archives.
  12. ^ a b Massey, Gregory D. (Winter–Spring 2003). "Slavery and Liberty in the American Revolution: John Laurens's Black Regiment Proposal". Early America. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  13. ^ Finkelman, Paul (April 1994). "Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On" (PDF). The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 102 (2): 211. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
  14. ^ United Kingdom Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the MeasuringWorth "consistent series" supplied in Thomas, Ryland; Williamson, Samuel H. (2018). "What Was the U.K. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  15. ^ Martin Duke MD (Spring 2007). "Gout, an American Revolutionary War Statesman, and the Tower of London" (PDF). The Pharos. Retrieved 9 March 2022.
  16. ^ Laurens cenotaph at Mepkin
  17. ^ Prothero, Stephen R. (2001). Purified by fire : a history of cremation in America. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-520-92974-6. OCLC 49570142.
  18. ^ "Mepkin Plantation, Moncks Corner, Berkeley County". south-carolina-plantations.com. South Carolina Plantations. Retrieved 25 April 2022.
  19. ^ "Comprehensive Plan for the Town of Laurens" (PDF). Otsego County. Cooperstown, New York: Otsego County Planning Department. October 1998. p. 4. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 July 2015. Retrieved 18 November 2012. The town of Laurens ... was formed in 1811 ... and named after Henry Laurens, a hero of the Revolutionary War



Political offices Preceded byJohn Hancock President of the Continental Congress November 1, 1777 – December 9, 1778 Succeeded byJohn Jay