Henry Laurens’ 15 Months in the Tower


September 23, 2015
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Henry Laurens was a plantation owner and wealthy merchant in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1776, he was sent as a delegate of the colony to Philadelphia. In 1777, he was elected President of the Continental Congress and remained in the position to almost the end of 1778. One year later he was appointed Ambassador to Holland; his task was to secure a loan from the United Provinces.

On August 13, 1780, he set sail on board the brigantine Mercury, a packet ship (that is, a fast vessel charged with carrying messages) belonging to the Continental Congress. The vessel was escorted as far as the Grand Banks of Newfoundland by the sloop-of-war Saratoga. Because the Saratoga was a slow vessel, it was sent back to Philadelphia by Laurens. On September 3, the Mercury was attacked by the British frigate Vestal. “Such papers as were thought to be of importance … were thrown over board or burned, but the Trunk of useless Papers remained.”1 When it was clear that the Mercury was going to be captured by the Vestal, he chose to throw the trunk overboard. Unfortunately, it did not sink before it was rescued by a British sailor. In the trunk was a sketch of a treaty between the United States and the United Provinces. Laurens had asked for a copy of the treaty from the American Committee of Foreign Affairs before he left Philadelphia. The response he was given was “You may take the original. It has never been read in Congress, and is a paper of no authority.” Little did Henry Laurens realize that England would use it as the basis for their war with the United Provinces as well as for his incarceration for the next year and a half.

He was transported to Newfoundland where he changed ships and then was sent to England. “In ten days we landed at Dartmouth. I was put under the charge of Lieutenant Norris who in post Chaises and four Horses drove rapidly towards London.”2 On October 5, he arrived in London, was taken to the Messengers House at Scotland Yard where he was met by William Knox, the Undersecretary of State for the American Colonies, and William Addington, the Chief Magistrate of the Police of London. He was then placed under guard until the next day. On October 6, Laurens was taken to Lord Hillsborough’s office at Whitehall. Also present in the office were Lord Stormont, the Secretary-of-State for the Northern Department, and Lord Germain, the Secretary-of-State for the American Colonies. After confirming Laurens’s identity, Lord Stormont said, “We have a paper here … purporting to be a Commission from Congress to you to borrow Money in Europe for the use of Congress, ‘tis signed Samuel Harrington president & attested by Charles Thomson Secretary … I replied My Lords, Your Lordships are in possession of the Paper & will make such use of it as Your Lordships shall judge proper.” Lord Stormont then informed Laurens that he “was to be Committed to the Tower of London on suspicion of high Treason.”3 The action was in accordance with the Act of 17 George III which empowered the King “to secure and detain Persons charged with, or suspected of, the Crime of High Treason committed in North America, or on the High Seas, or the Crime of Piracy.”4 Justice Addington completed the committal papers and their Lordships the warrant to the Lieutenant of the Tower.

Laurens was escorted to the Tower by Lt. Col. Mark Rowarth and Lt. Col. David Lozune and delivered over to Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower, John Gore. The warrant he was handed read: “These [signatures] are in His Majesty’s Name to Authorize and require You to receive into your Custody the Body of Henry Laurens herewith sent You, charged before Us upon Oath with High treason, committed at Philadelphia in the Colony of Pennsylvania in America and on the High seas; And You are to keep him Safe and Close, until he shall be delivered by due Course of Law; And for so doing this shall be your Warrant. Given at Whitehall the Sixth day of October 1780.”5 The receipt he gave to Rowarth and Lozune read, “Received from Mark Rowarth & David Lozune two of His Majesty’s Messengers in ordinary the Body of Henry Laurens committed a Close Prisoner to the Tower for High Treason, by Warrant from Lord Viscount Storm[ant] and the Earl of Hillsborough His Majesty’s Principle Secretaries of State. Tower October 6 1780.”6 The orders for the Tower guards were explicit, “The Warders are appointed to keep a close prisoner … not presume him for a Moment alone, night or day … no pen Ink or paper brought in to the prisoner nor he suffered to use any, or to receive any papers or Books of any kind, until they are examined by some one of the officers … [no person] to have Admittance into the Room … or to speak to him but by particular Order, nor any Cloths, Linnen or Wollen, or any thing whatsoever, to be carried out or brought in to the prisoner, until they are examined … [and] the warders must not suffer the prisoner to walk in any room of the House.” 7

Laurens was quartered with Yeoman Warder James Futterell. Whenever he became ill during his imprisonment, Catherine Futterell would serve as his nurse. On October 13, Henry Laurens received his first visitors; they were his son Henry Laurens, Jr., his daughter-in-law Martha Manning Laurens, William Manning, and his granddaughter, Frances Eleanor Laurens. 8 It appears in the Tower’s Register that members of his family thereafter were granted visiting privileges every ten days to two weeks. Mr. Thomas Digges, a Marylander living in London and working on behalf of American prisoners, informed Franklin that Laurens’s “outer room is but a mean one, not more than twelve feet square, a dark close bedroom adjoining, both indifferently furnished.”9 It would not be until November 7 that he was given permission to leave his quarters and walk under guard in a specific area of the Tower Grounds. The next day, “iron bars [were] put to my Windows.”10 On December 3, when going for a walk “Lord George Gordon who was also a prisoner in the Tower unluckily met and asked me to walk with him, I declined it & returned instantly to my apartment, [the Deputy Lieutenant] being informed of this by one of his Spies … caught hold of the occasion & locked me up. I remained thus closely confined by his Arbitrary Will 47 days.”11

On February 8, Deputy Lieutenant Gore arbitrarily imposed a time limit on each visit even though none was ever stipulated in a warrant. On March 7, Mr. Richard Oswald, a former business partner and old friend, visited Laurens for the second time since his detainment. He began their conversation by saying, “I converse with you this Morning not particularly as your friend but as a friend of Great Britain.” He had a proposition for Laurens. “You can write two or three lines to the ministers & barely say you are sorry for what is past [and] a pardon will be granted. Every Man has been wrong at some time or another of his Life & should not be ashamed to acknowledge it.” To which Laurens responded, “Sir, I will never subscribe to my own Family & to the honour of my Children.” Oswald explained that the confinement could be long and there might be further “possible consequences.” To which Laurens responded, “Permit me to repeat Sir, I am afraid of no consequences but such as would flow from Dishonorable Acts.”12

An engraving of the Tower of London in 1737 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck. (British Museum)
An engraving of the Tower of London in 1737 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck. (British Museum)

On March 14, Maj. Gen. James Grant, who Laurens had known for twenty years, visited and took a similar approach as the one taken by Oswald. He said, “Mr. Laurens, I have brought paper and pencil in my pocket, to take down any proposition which you may have to Administration & I will deliver them for you my self.” Laurens responded, “My dear General, I have both paper & pencil in yonder little Box, but I have not one proposition beyond repeating a request to be enlarged from this confinement.”13 On March 20, a third effort was made; this time by Dr. William Grant. He said that all of Laurens’s friends wanted to see him free and so they begged him to accept a pardon. Laurens’s response was no different than his first two: “Sir, the sentiments Which I have heretofore had the honor of expressing to you, might have convinced you I did not feel any compunction nor view myself in the light of a transgressor wherefore it is impossible for me to apply or to accept a pardon.”14

The final attempt to change Laurens’s mind came from his friend William Manning who wrote him a letter on March 27; Laurens’s response was again the same: “I will not wittingly My dear friend be Guilty of an Act which would make you ashamed of me … Imprisonment & even Death by the hand of power, Justice & equity will never give their assent, shall not shake me … Were I to do what your kindness insinuates as a wish, I should incur, after a little time, your Contempt … My Conscience acquits me, is serene & undisturbed; if I die, let me die in my integrity.”15

On June14, the President of the Continental Congress informed “the minster plenipotentiary of these United States at the Court of Versaille [that is, Benjamin Franklin] be authorized and empowered to offer lieut. Gen. Burgoyne in exchange for the Hon. H. Laurens.” John Burgoyne was a prisoner of war on parole in England at the time.16

On October 8, Mr. David Kinghorn, the Gentleman Gaoler, was sent by Deputy Lieutenant Gore to inform Henry Laurens that he owed ninety-seven pounds ten shillings to the two wardens who had attended him for the year. Laurens laughed and gave a scathing reply:

This is the most extraordinary attempt I ever heard of … I was sent to the Tower by the Secretaries of State, without money in my pocket. Their Lordships have never supplied me with a bit of beef, nor a bit of bread, nor enquired how or whether I subsisted. Tis upwards of three months since I informed their Lordships the fund which had … supported me, was nearly exhausted. I humbly prayed for leave to draw a bill on Mr. John Nutt which they had pleased to refuse by the most grating of all denials, a total silence; and now, sir, when it is known to every body that I had no money, a demand of this nature is made. If their Lordships will permit me to draw money  … I will continue to pay my own expenses, so far as respects myself; but if I were possessed of as many guineas as would fill this room, I would not pay the warders, whom I never employed, and whose attendance I shall be glad to dispense with …17

On October 20, Lieutenant General of the Tower Charles Vernon was informed in a letter from Lord Hillsborough to allow Laurens to draw a Bill on Mr. John Nutt, Merchant in London, for money for his subsistence. While he was imprisoned, Henry Laurens had to pay for his food, drink, bedding, clothes, coals, candles, and anything else needed to maintain his health.

On November 22, Benjamin Franklin “sent over to Mr. [Edmond] Burke, who was anxious for the liberty of his friend Burgoyne, a Copy of the Continental Congress Resolve, & requested him to negotiate it.”18

On December 6, Richard Oswald again visited Laurens. He informed him that he had written to the Lord Advocate of Scotland and to Lord Hillsborough on his behalf and Hillsborough responded that Laurens’s confinement was almost over. On the 28th, Dr. William Turton visited Laurens and checked on the state of his health. The following day, Mr. William Chamberlayne, the Solicitor to the Treasury, informed Laurens that the government had consented, on account of his poor health, to admit him to bail. Two days later, a Writ of Habeas Corpus was delivered to the Tower; in obedience to which, Mr. Laurens was immediately taken to the chamber of Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, at Serjeant’s Inn and admitted to bail.19 He was at liberty but had to appear at the Court of King’s Bench on the first day of the Easter term (which ran from April to June) to be officially discharged. Laurens was officially discharged on April 27, 1782.

Around the same time, Benjamin Vaughan communicated with Burke on the subject of the negotiations for Laurens’s release. Burke said that he used all his influence to secure Laurens’s release, but “knowing that the ministry wished ill both to Mr Laurens & Mr Burgoyne, he did not choose to double bar the door on Mr Laurens.”20

While Laurens was still in captivity, General Washington sent two men to negotiate the terms of surrender at Yorktown. They were Col. John Laurens and Viscount Noailles. John Laurens was the son of Henry Laurens. General Cornwallis just so happened since 1770 to be the Constable of the Tower of London. He now was the prisoner of and negotiating with the son of the man he held as a prisoner. Because Henry Laurens was considered a prisoner of the state and not a prisoner of war21 he was not eligible for exchange or did not have to be released at the end of the war, that is, until General Cornwallis became an American prisoner. When news reached London that the son of Henry Laurens was the custodian of General Cornwallis, his treatment dramatically improved.  Nine days after the surrender at Yorktown, General Cornwallis was paroled:

Charles Earl Cornwallis L. General [of his] Britannick Majesty’s Forces.

Do acknowledge myself a Prisoner of War to the [United] States of America, & having permission from His [Excellency] General Washington agreeable to Capitulation to proceed to New York & Charleston, or either, & to Europe.

Do pledge my faith & Word of Honor, that I will not do or say any thing injurious to the said United States or Armies thereof or their Allies until duly exchanged …22

Cornwallis arrived in New York on November 19; sailed for England on December 15, and arrived in England on January 20, 1782. 23 Henry Laurens’s release from the Tower was an exchange that included a promise to effect the release of Cornwallis from his parole. Unfortunately, even though Benjamin Franklin in his capacity as Minister Plenipotentiary absolved and discharged Cornwallis from his parole on June 9, 1782, the Continental Congress did not confirm the decision until a preliminary peace was agreed in 1783.24


1 “The Journal of Capture and Confinement in the Tower of London from August 13, 1780 to December 6, 1781,” The Papers of Henry Laurens, David C. Chesnutt and C. James Taylor, eds. (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina, 2000), 15:334.

2 Ibid., 15:338.

3 Ibid., 15:340.

4 William Cobbett, John Wright, et al., The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803 (London: T. C. Hansard, 1814), 19:4-52.

5 The Papers of Henry Laurens,” Appendix D, 15:617.

6 Ibid., Appendix D, 15:617-18.

7 “Orders for the Gentlemen Gaolers and Warders Attending Henry Laurens, 9 October, 1780,” The Papers of Henry Laurens, Appendix F, 15:623-24.

8 “Warrant to Visit the Tower of London, 13 October, 1780,” The Papers of Henry Laurens, Appendix G, 15:625.

9 Barbara Oberg, Ellen Cohn, et al. eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Digital  Edition (New Have CN: Yale University and the Packard Humanities Institute, 1988), 33:426.

10 The Papers of Henry Laurens, 15:346.

11 Ibid, 15:350.

12 Ibid, 15:358-59.

13 Ibid, 15:359-60.

14 Ibid, 15:367.

15 Ibid, 15:368-70

16 Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journal of the Continental Congress (Washington DC: G.P.O., 1912), 20:647.

17 The Papers of Henry Laurens, 15:377-78.

18 Barbara Oberg, Ellen Cohn, et al. eds., 36:94.

19 London Chronicle, December 29, 1781 – January 1, 1782.

20 The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 36:371.

21 The Parliamentary History of England, 22:877.

22 “Parole of Charles Cornwallis, Earl Cornwallis, 28 October 1781,” Special Collections, Library of Virginia (Richmond: 2014).

23 A. Francis Steuart, ed., Last Journals of Horace Walpole (London: John Lane Company, 1810), 2:492.

24 Charles Ross, ed., Correspondence of Charles, first marquis Cornwallis (London: J. Murray, 1859), 135, 141.

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