The Tragedy of Henry Laurens

Hon. Henry Laurens, Pres[ident] of the American Congress (Painted 1781, while in the Tower)," by British portrait artist Lemuel Francis Abbott. Laurens was exchanged for Lord Cornwallis after Yorktown. (United States Senate)

It wasn’t really their fault, they said. Slavery, men of the founding generation liked to argue, was brought to the colonies by Britain. It came via Barbados and the other sugar islands of the Caribbean. Thomas Jefferson and Henry Laurens both blamed Britain and wished the colonies could free themselves of the practice. It was ironic, therefore, that American slavery not only outlasted the War for Independence but also outlasted slavery in the British Empire. In truth it was more than ironic: it was a tragedy that led to additional decades of forced labor and the deaths of well over half a million Americans in the Civil War.[1]

Could the abolition of American slavery have come sooner? Maybe. Slavery never existed in the New World without someone also speaking out against it, and antislavery views took a demonstrably large leap forward during the founding era. Christianity, social contract theory, and the very spirit of the Revolution led many Americans to the same conclusion. Even many slaveowners understood it was wrong. “I can only say,” wrote George Washington about slavery in 1786, “that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”[2]

Thomas Jefferson memorably condemned slavery in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. While this language was removed by Congress, Jefferson really did want to effect a change. His concurrent draft of a Virginia constitution would have decreed, “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever.” A decade later, he wrote that“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.”[3] His concern was not just for Virginia’s children:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.[4]

Even more counter-cultural than Jefferson was Henry Laurens of South Carolina who strongly (but privately) condemned slavery in the summer of 1776. He did this in Charleston just a few months before he succeeded John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress. The cogency of Laurens’s condemnation begs for speculation about alternate futures. Could his sentiments, wealth, stature, and office, have altered the future of slavery in America? What if he had been more courageous? What if he had accepted a seat in the Constitutional Convention? Or, some have asked, what if he had only believed in public what he said in private?[5]

Laurens did not sign the Declaration of Independence and he did not sign the Constitution. His stature, however, was equal to those who did, and he contributed greatly to the cause of Independence. The earnest eyes that look out from his portraits are appropriate for a man who dared to ask, but could not answer, the hardest moral question of his age. To understand him, it is essential to look at the distinct American subculture from which he came. Though slavery existed almost everywhere in America before the Revolution, it was strikingly prevalent in South Carolina. Charleston was the southernmost major city of British North America, remote from other British population centers and close to the Empire’s hated Catholic enemies. It was an urban fortress protected by walls, moats, cannon, and drawbridges, all built to protect it from the Spanish and the French.[6]

Charleston in 1774, by Thomas Leitch. (Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts)

South Carolina was the only mainland colony in which enslaved people outnumbered free people. In 1765 there were approximately 90,000 Africans and 40,000 Europeans there. Intriguingly and uniquely, South Carolina was in many ways the “colony of a colony.” Caribbean sugar was so profitable that Barbadian planters did not want to use acreage on their island to grow food for their slaves. For that, they looked to the mainland. Soon, like Barbados, the economy of Lowcountry South Carolina was utterly dependent on involuntary servitude, defining its culture for generations. It is not a coincidence that South Carolina was the only state to keep the importation of African slaves legal until 1808, precipitated the Nullification Crisis in 1832, produced the ideology of John C. Calhoun, and was the first state to secede from the Union in 1861.[7]

Charleston, in the eyes of some visitors, was an enclave of immoral, irreligious, and wealthy plantation owners in a colony whose Lowcountry areas were otherwise thought to be uninhabitable because of malaria and yellow fever. It was a town where rich people played while their slaves toiled away in mosquito-infested rice fields. The botanist Alexander Garden described the Charleston planters as “absolutely above every occupation but eating, drinking, lolling, smoking, and sleeping, which five modes of action constitute the essence of their life and existence.” Josiah Quincy, a 1773 visitor from Massachusetts, wrote, “Cards, dice, the bottle and horses engross prodigious portions of time and attention: the [planters and merchants] are mostly men of the turf and gamesters. Political inquiries and philosophic disquisitions are too laborious for them.” Quincy assessed that the South Carolina legislature served primarily as a means of enforcing slavery around Charleston and of suppressing the rights of the culturally separate inland settlers, who typically came to the colony by way of Pennsylvania and the Great Wagon Road.[8] 

Quincy complained that, “The state of religion here is repugnant not only to the ordinances and institutions of Jesus Christ, but to every law of sound policy.” Some plantation owners actively prevented missionaries from preaching to their slaves because they did not want to see black people in Heaven. Missionaries to the Indians reported that their chief obstacle was the “scandalous and immoral life of the white men” who called themselves “Christians.”[9]

Though some of these contemporary portrayals may be overwrought, they are specific to the colony in which Laurens was born and raised. Despite the wealth and temptations around him, Laurens retained an admirable personal decency. In 1775, when he was president of the Council of Safety, he defended a Scottish-born preacher who had been accused of trying to incite a slave rebellion. He asserted that the preacher “had never anything more in View than the Salvation of those poor ignorant creatures.” He avoided Charleston’s worst enticements and disapproved of gambling. He occasionally played a game for small stakes, but always paid his losses and never accepted his winnings. These facts alone set him apart from most of his peers.[10]

He was a loving husband and father and a joyfully committed Christian. He read the Bible to his family and encouraged his children to study it as adults. He loved the Book of Proverbs. He made notes in his Bible, keeping track of the ways God blessed him. One biographer wrote, “In his business dealings, he was punctual, diligent, and fair; he expected the same from other men. A deeply religious man, his strict moral code and great capacity for work made him intolerant of others less endowed with these qualities, both in business and in politics.”[11]

A circa 1760 advertisement for a slave sale by Henry Laurens and his business partners published in a local newspaper . (National Park Service)

As upstanding as he was in many ways, he clearly had no problem with slavery in his early career. Seeing beyond the Charleston norm required a moral imagination he didn’t yet have. As a young man he formed a trading firm with a partner and entered the profitable slave trade. He became very wealthy, earning a ten percent commission on each of the estimated 6,900 slaves he sold at the wharves in Charleston. He also traded indentured servants, rice, indigo, and deerskins. Tax records suggest he may have made more money than any other Charleston merchant in certain years of the 1750s and early 1760s. By the time of the Revolution, he was one of the richest men in America.[12]

His main plantation, Mepkin, sat forty miles up the Cooper River from the city. Between that plantation and his other properties he owned nearly 300 people. Over time his views on slavery changed. He lost his enthusiasm for the trade, and got out of it before 1769. He said he withdrew for practical reasons, but later asserted that his moral objections had grown firmer with time. By another account, it was the Bible that changed his mind. Egerton Leigh, who hated Laurens, snidely claimed in print:

The goodness of his heart persuades him one moment that a certain branch of his profession is odious, nay, repugnant to all sound doctrine. He reads the Revelations, which speak of divers articles of merchandize, and finding that slaves and the souls of men are also in the enumerated list, swears that St. John meant, in his vision, the pernicious practice of the African trade; he therefore withdrew himself from the horrid and barbarous connection, retaining however, to himself, a few of those jewels which he had heretofore amassed, some of the wages of this abominable trade, for an old ballad relates, that “gold in handling will stick to the fingers like meal.”[13]

Leigh was correct insofar as Laurens quit the slave trade but did not emancipate the slaves in his possession. According to his letters, Laurens offered some of his slaves their freedom but found that they were, perhaps justifiably, afraid to go. Laurens had his own reasons to be afraid. Late in his life, Thomas Jefferson described this fear when he wrote, “I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way . . . but as it is, we have a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Laurens expressed the sentiment more succinctly when he called his slave holdings “precarious riches.” The vast majority of people in South Carolina were slaves. How would they, individually or together, treat their former masters if they were suddenly free? The 1739 Stono Rebellion, which occurred just south of Charleston, suggested a frightening answer.[14]

Before long, the Revolutionary cause forced Laurens—and others—to think more deeply about the issue. More than a few people wondered how men fighting for liberty could also own slaves. In England, Samuel Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” It was a fair question.[15]

A week before Congress declared independence, a British fleet attempted an attack at Charleston. Miraculously, the half-finished fort on the south side of Sullivan’s Island repelled a day-long bombardment and the north end of the Island was defended by South Carolina and Virginia riflemen. A few weeks later, a still-giddy Charleston celebrated the Declaration of Independence under the city’s Liberty Tree. The opening prayer and closing speech were given by the Rev. William Percy. It speaks volumes that even on that occasion and even under that tree, the speaker was shaded from the hot August sun by a parasol held by a slave who simultaneously fanned him with his other hand.[16]

Shortly after these events, Laurens wrote an extraordinary letter to his son John, who was studying in London. He eagerly reported on the victory and on the celebration. First, though, he condemned slavery in terms that were eloquent, passionate, and unambiguous.

You know, my dear sir, I abhor Slavery. I was born in a Country [i.e., South Carolina] where Slavery had been established by British Kings and Parliaments as well as by the laws of that Country Ages before my existence. I found the Christian Religion and Slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation. I nevertheless disliked it. In former days there was no combatting the prejudices of Men supported by [self or financial] Interest. The day I hope is approaching when from principles of gratitude as well as justice every Man will strive to be foremost in shewing his readiness to comply with the Golden Rule.

He intended to do something. But he was also clear about the obstacles in his way—one of which, he admitted, was the immense value of his own human chattels.

Not less than £20,000 st[erlin]g would all my Negroes produce if sold at public Auction tomorrow. I am not the man who enslaved them. They are indebted to English men for that favour. Nevertheless I am devising means for manumitting many of them and for cutting off the entail of Slavery. Great powers oppose me: the Laws and Customs of my Country, my own [avarice,] and the avarice of my countrymen. What will my Children say if I deprive them of so much Estate? These are difficulties, but not insuperable. I will do as much as I can in my time and leave the rest to a better hand.

He dissociated himself from the hypocrisy of the other slave-owning founders with unambiguous moral clarity and earnestness: “I am not one of those who arrogate the peculiar care of Providence in each fortunate event, nor one of those who dare trust in Providence for defence and security of their own Liberty while they enslave and wish to continue in Slavery, thousands who are as well intitled to freedom as themselves.” Finally, he asked for his son’s help.

I perceive the work before me is great. I shall appear to many as a promoter, not only of strange but [also] of dangerous doctrines. It will therefore be necessary to proceed with caution. You are apparently deeply interested in this affair, but as I have no doubt of your concurence and approbation, I most sincerely wish for your advice and assistance & hope to receive both in good time.[17]

While this letter is unique in its moral clarity it is also perplexing. It would be hard to identify a founder who had benefitted more from slavery than its author had. Nevertheless, four score and seven years before the Gettysburg Address he asserted, albeit privately, that black people deserved freedom every bit as much as he did. Private or not, putting these thoughts in writing was a dangerous act. Such notions were deemed by Laurens’s peers to be treacherous and subversive.

Laurens was, when he wrote the letter, the vice president of South Carolina under the colony’s new constitution. The previous year he had served as both president of the Provincial Congress and as president of the Council of Safety. In November, he succeeded John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress. His prestige continued to grow through his efforts and sacrifices for the patriot cause. His patriotism and personal courage were unquestionable. The British captured him as he sailed to Holland to negotiate the Dutch Republic’s support for the Revolution. He was committed to the Tower of London “on suspicion of high Treason.”[18]

He was offered his freedom in exchange for an admission that he was an English citizen and a vague promise of “future services.” He steadfastly refused, commenting bluntly, “If I were a rascal, I might presently get out of the Tower. I am not.” His honor meant more to him than his personal freedom. When he was finally released, exchanged for none other than Lord Cornwallis who had recently surrendered at Yorktown, Laurens was asked by Congress to go to Paris and serve as one of five peace negotiators.[19]

Pondering alternate futures is generally a fruitless exercise. What “could have happened” simply doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, Henry Laurens forces us to wonder: “What if?” If any of the Founders had the status and credibility to launch a meaningful post-war campaign for abolition, it was he. John Laurens, an aide to Washington, ardently shared his father’s convictions on slavery. In fact, the father’s beliefs were a paler reflection of his son’s passion.

But Henry was a realist and John was a romantic. While in London, John had been influenced by Thomas Day, an admirer of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a poet, and a zealous abolitionist.[20] In a 1776 letter to an American slave-holder, Day asked

How dare the inhabitants of the southern colonies speak of privileges and justice? Is money of so much more importance than life? Or have the Americans shared the dispensing power of Saint Peter’s successors, to excuse their own observance of those rules which they impose on others? If there is an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.[21]

The recipient of Day’s letter is evidently still unknown, but there is every reason to consider that it may have been Henry Laurens. It is even plausible that Henry’s aforementioned letter to John was in fact a response to Day’s arguments, perhaps in a letter forwarded to him by John.

During the Valley Forge encampment, John was inspired by a Rhode Island plan to fill regimental vacancies with slaves who would be rewarded with their freedom. He wrote to his father to propose a plan to do the same in South Carolina. Henry, who was still president of Congress, was careful in his response but firmly believed the idea was ill-conceived. Of Henry’s nearly three hundred slaves, only about forty were able-bodied men of fighting age. Moreover, Henry did not believe many would agree to the proposal and pointed out that any plan to force them to do it would violate the very principles of the enterprise. John backed off.[22]

When the British captured Savannah, Georgia late in 1778 it became clear that Charleston was also vulnerable. Noting that significant reinforcements from the north were unlikely to come soon, John revived his plan—he called it his “black project”—to enlist slaves. He wrote to his father again.[23]

Meanwhile, South Carolina sent Daniel Huger, a prominent citizen, to make a personal plea to Congress for military aid. An attack on Charleston was believed to be imminent. Huger conferred in Philadelphia with Henry Laurens and William Henry Drayton, South Carolina’s two delegates (Laurens’s term as President had now expired.) The trio proposed a plan to enlist slaves into the army. Appealing to more than just desperation, their argument followed a logic peculiar to South Carolina’s culture and demographics. Outnumbered by their slaves, plantation owners were frightened not only of rebellions but also that the British might free and enlist their “domestics,” as had been done in Virginia. Standard military recruiting was hampered by white aversion to leaving slaves unmonitored at home. Huger, Laurens, and Drayton proposed enlisting slaves on the theory that it would simultaneously increase the number of men at arms, keep able-bodied slaves occupied and away from the enemy, and remove a barrier to white enlistment. On March 29, Congress passed a resolution authorizing Georgia and South Carolina to raise “three thousand able bodied negroes” who would be commanded by white officers. Congress agreed to pay slave owners up to one thousand dollars for each recruit. Slaves who served to the end of the war would, after returning their weapons, be emancipated and given fifty dollars. [24]

The scheme was a significant departure for Congress, which had previously disallowed African American soldiers. A delegate from New Hampshire said the plan, if “carried into effect,” would “produce the Emancipation of a number of those wretches and lay a foundation for the Abolition of Slavery in America.” While John had proposed the idea, it was his father Henry—working with two other prominent South Carolinians—who had pushed it through. Significantly, he did this over the objections of George Washington, who feared it would trigger a race with the enemy to arm slaves.[25]

John, ever eager, was given a lieutenant colonelcy and raced south to persuade the state legislature. When he arrived in Charleston, however, he faced immediate resistance. “It was received with horror by the planters who figured to themselves terrible consequences,” wrote legislator and future historian David Ramsay. Another legislator, Christopher Gadsden, wrote, “We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending us to arm our slaves, it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic step.” John, disappointed, went on to play an important role at Yorktown before he was killed in a minor skirmish in 1782.[26]

In a 1782 portrait by John Singleton Copley, Laurens sits in an opulent setting in a fashionable velvet suit. Commerce, including the slave trade, had made him one of America’s wealthiest men. This portrait was made in England after Lauren’s release from the Tower of London and before he left for Paris to help conclude peace negotiations. (National Portrait Gallery)

When the Treaty of Paris was ratified in 1784, the war was finally, formally, and completely over. With John dead and in the ground, any continued advocacy for abolition in South Carolina now lay in Henry’s hands alone. He had already advocated in Congress—openly and successfully—for a Continental legislative measure that provided for the emancipation of three thousand southern slaves. Notably, he did this in his capacity as a representative of South Carolina, knowing full well how men like Gadsden (his best friend from childhood) would react. He has received little credit for this.[27]

After the peace negotiations in France, Laurens returned home and largely retired from public life. He was asked to serve in the state legislature, but declined. He was asked to serve again in Congress, but declined. He was chosen to be a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but declined. He did serve in the South Carolina convention to ratify the Constitution and later as an elector in the first presidential election, but neither role required him to leave the state.[28] It is difficult to blame him for retreating from national affairs. His son was dead and his home had been pillaged. He was old and he suffered from gout. He had been imprisoned and had lost much of his fortune. He had already done a great deal for his country.

Still, he continued to speak to his peers about the injustice of slavery. In 1785, he described his efforts to Alexander Hamilton. “Could I but prevail upon my fellow citizens to prohibit further importations [of slaves],” he wrote, “I should deem it progress equal to carrying all the outworks.” By this he meant that ending the slave trade would be like taking the outer defenses of a fortress before laying siege to the main structure (slavery itself). He continued, sadly, “my attempts hitherto have been fruitless, I have some ground for believing offensive.” The white Charleston planter class did not like what he was proposing. “Speaking generally, a whole Country is opposed to me.”[29]

With the “whole Country” of South Carolina opposed to him, he gave up. He told Hamilton, “Pressing the business which we had in view would not forward it, nor afford happiness even to the negroes.”

Resigned to failure, Laurens comforted himself with the hope that future generations would complete the task. He turned his attention to his own enslaved people. He offered some their freedom, and paid others for their work. He forbade whipping. He seems to have decided that if he couldn’t free his slaves in this world, he would focus on their fate in the next. This may have been his meaning when he told John, “I will do as much as I can in my time and leave the rest to a better hand.” One historian suggests that Laurens “saw the Christian conversion of his slaves as a means by which he could balance his dislike for slave trading with his role as slaveholder.”[30]

Like others of his generation, Laurens naively believed that the infectious spirit of liberty would eradicate slavery on its own.[31] He wrote,

I think I see the rising gradations to unlimited freedom and view the prospect with pleasure. When we shall be wise enough to stop importation [of slaves], such happy families will become more general and time will work manumission or a state equal to it. . . . At present our number of wretched slaves, precarious riches, is our greatest weakness. But alas! these southern states are not at this moment in a disposition to be persuaded, tho’ one should rise from the dead.[32]

He knew, however, that events could go another way. He expressed this fear to Hamilton, writing, “God forbid [that] our conversion, by too long a delay, shall be the effect of a direful struggle.” These were prophetic words. The conversion was indeed delayed and the “direful struggle” took more than 600,000 lives between 1861 and 1865.[33]

Almost 230 years after his death, Henry Laurens’s life still invites speculation into alternate histories. What if he had not given up? What if his health had been better? What if he had gone to the Constitutional Convention and pressed for abolition? What if he had embraced the offense he was causing and publicly shamed his peers? What if John Laurens had lived for another forty years?

For a time after the Revolution, it appeared that things were improving for African Americans. The northern states each abolished slavery during or soon after the war. The Confederation Congress banned slavery in the vast Northwest Territory in 1787. The Constitution provided for ending the slave trade after twenty years (in 1808). In Virginia, a number of individual planters voluntarily freed their slaves.[34]

These “rising gradations of freedom” did not last, however, and never reached South Carolina. With the coming of a new generation, slavery grew and entrenched itself even more deeply into the southern economy and culture. By the 1830s John C. Calhoun was actively and unapologetically defending the South’s “peculiar institution.” “I fearlessly assert,” he said, “that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions.” It took a war followed by another century of cruelty and striving for Americans to become legally equal to one another. This was precisely the “direful struggle” Laurens had feared. [35]

The likely truth is that stronger, longer, and more eloquent advocacy against slavery would not have changed the immediate future of South Carolina. Perhaps, though, a more robust and public effort could have planted seeds in the form of a visible abolitionist faction in the Deep South. It is worth contemplating the extent to which such a faction might have grown or mitigated the North-versus-South nature of the conflict that followed.

Marxists and other economic determinists will argue that peaceful abolition could not have happened in the South because it was not in the interest of the elite. Old-style “great man” theorists might disagree, but would have to concede that, though enlightened compared to his neighbors, Henry Laurens was not great enough.


[1]The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807. Slaves in the empire were emancipated in 1834. See “Slavery and negotiating freedom,” The [British] National Archives,, accessed May 17, 2019.

[2]George Washington to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, W.W. Abbot, ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 4: 15-17.

[3]Lawrence Clayton, Bartolomé de las Casas and the African Slave Trade, History Compass, November 6, 2009,; “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Rhode Island,” Slavery and Justice (exhibition), John Carter Brown Library, Brown University,, accessed March 18, 2019; Jeffrey Robert Young, “Slavery in Antebellum Georgia,” New Georgia Encyclopedia,October 20, 2003,, accessed March 18, 2019; Katharine Gerbner, “‘We Are Against The Traffik of Men-Body’: The Germantown Quaker Protest of 1688 and the Origins of American Abolitionism, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, 74 (2007):149-172;John Wesley, Thoughts on Slavery (Philadelphia: Joseph Crukshank, 1774),; “Jefferson’s ‘original Rough draught’ of the Declaration of Independence,” and “Second Draft [of a Virginia Constitution] by Jefferson,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950 – ), 1: 423, 353.

[4]Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 169-170. Jefferson nevertheless viewed Africans as inferior in ways that can only be described as racist. See “Query XVIII” in Notes on the State of Virginia.

[5]Lacey Hunter, “Redefining Henry Laurens” in Ezra’s Archives (Cornell University),7 (2017): 22-35,, accessed March 18, 2019.

[6]Nic Butler, “The Earliest Fortifications at Oyster Point,” Charleston County Public Library, January 25, 2019,, accessed February 23, 2019.

[7]Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003), 73; Daniel C. Littlefield, “Slavery,” South Carolina Encyclopedia,, accessed May 17, 2019;Daniel R. Coquilette and Neil Longley York, eds., Portrait of a Patriot: The Major Political and Legal Papers of Josiah Quincy Junior (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2007), 3: 219; Robert M. Weir, Colonial South Carolina: A History (Millwood, N.Y: KTO Press, 1983), 50-65, 142, 174-175, 229.

[8]Coquilette and York, Portrait of a Patriot, 3: 212-215; Gregory D. Massey, John Laurens and the American Revolution (Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 12.

[9]Charles Frederick Pasco, Two Hundred Years of the S.P.G: An Historical Account of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701-1900 (London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1901), 15.

[10]David Ramsay, Ramsay’s History of South Carolina, From its First Settlement in 1670 to the Year 1808 (Newberry, S.C: W.J. Duffie, 1858), 2: 260-261; David Duncan Wallace, The Life of Henry Laurens with a Sketch of the Life of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laurens (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1915),438-441.

[11]Henry Laurens, “An Appendix to the Extracts from the Proceedings of the High Court of Vice-Admiralty in Charlestown, South Carolina” in The Papers of Henry Laurens, George C. Rogers and David R. Chesnutt, eds., 16 vols. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979), 7: 18, 51, 57; Henry Laurens to James Habersham, October 16, 1769 and October 1, 1770, Papers of Henry Laurens, 7: 163-166, 374-377; “Council of Safety to St. Bartholomew Committee, July 18, 1775, Papers of Henry Laurens, 10: 231; Wallace,Henry Laurens, 47, 181, 438-439; Henry Laurens to Martha Laurens, August 18, 1771, in David Ramsay, Memoirs of the Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay (London: T. Bayley, 1815), 45; Henry Laurens to Martha Laurens, February 29, 1776 in Ramsay, Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay, 46-49; Henry Laurens to Martha Laurens, March 14, 1776 in Ramsay, Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay, 49-50; Martha Laurens Ramsey to Miss Sproat, in Ramsay, Life of Martha Laurens Ramsey, 223-226; David Ramsay, History of South Carolina, 2:260-261; Massey, John Laurens, 9.

[12]Daniel J. McDonough, Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2000), 21; Wallace, Henry Laurens,47.

[13]Egerton Leigh, The Man Unmasked: or, the World Undeceived, in the author of a Late Pamphlet (Charles-Town [Charleston]: Peter Timothy, 1769), 143-144. “And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.” (Rev. 18:11-13, KJV).

[14]Henry Laurens to Alexander Hamilton, April 19, 1785, Papers of Henry Laurens, 16: 553-556; Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed February 18, 2019; Massey, John Laurens, 142. When I say the slaves’ fear was “perhaps justifiable,” I mean that it would be rational for them to fear unknown next steps in a colony that viewed them as both dangerous and inferior.

[15]Samuel Johnson, “Taxation No Tyranny” in The Works of Samuel Johnson, 12 vols. (London: Luke Hanford, 1806) 8: 203-204.

[16]“Circumstantial account of the proceedings of the British Fleet and Army, both before and after their defeat at Sullivan’s Island, on the 28th of June, 1776,” in Worthington Force, American Archives, ser. 5, 1:436-438; Henry Laurens to John Laurens, August 14, 1776, in Henry Edward Bunbury, ed., The Lee Papers, 4 vols. (New York: New York Historical Society, 1871-1875), 2: 216-229

[17]Henry Laurens to John Laurens, August 14, 1776 in Papers of Henry Laurens, 11: 222-236.

[18]“Henry Laurens,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-2005 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), 1423; Papers of Henry Laurens, 15: 340. See also McDonough, Gadsden and Laurens.

[19]“Narrative,” Collections, 2: 31-32; Samuel C. Smith, “Henry Laurens: Christian Pietist,” South Carolina historical Magazine Vol. 100 No. 2 (April 1999): 149.

[20]Brycchan Carey, “Thomas Day (1748-1789),”, accessed May 14, 2019.

[21]Thomas Day, Fragment of an Original Letter on the Slavery of the Negroes Written in the Year 1776 (London: John Stockdale, 1784), 10. The reference to “Saint Peter’s Successors” is evidently a reference to the Papacy.

[22]John Laurens to Henry Laurens, January 14, 1778,, accessed June 9, 2019; Massey, John Laurens, 92-97.

[23]John Laurens to Henry Laurens, February 17, 1779, Papers of Henry Laurens, 13: 59-60.

[24]Journals of the Continental Congress, Roscoe R. Hill, ed., 34 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937), 13: 384-389.

[25]Journals of the Continental Congress, 13:388-389; William Whipple to Josiah Bartlett, April 27, 1779, in Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of the Delegates to Congress: 1774-1789, 26 vols. (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 12: 398-399.

[26]David Ramsay to William Henry Drayton, September 1, 1779 in Documentary History of the American Revolution, Robert W. Gibbes, ed., 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1857), 2: 121 and Christopher Gadsden to Samuel Adams, July 6, 1779 in The Writings of Christopher Gadsen, 1746-1805, Richard Walsh, ed. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1966), 166; Wallace, Henry Laurens, 15; W. Curtis Worthington, “David Ramsay,”South Carolina Encyclopedia,, accessed May 17, 2019.

[27]Lacey Hunter, “Redefining Henry Laurens,” 22-35,

[28]“Henry Laurens,” Biographical Directory of Congress, 1423; Wallace, Henry Laurens, 422.

[29]Henry Laurens to Alexander Hamilton, April 19, 1785, Papers of Henry Laurens, 16: 553-556.

[30]Henry Laurens to Alexander Hamilton, April 19, 1785, Papers of Henry Laurens, 16: 553-556; Smith, “Henry Laurens: Christian Pietist,” 166n. Jefferson wrote similarly, “I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters rather than by their extirpation.” (Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 171)

[31]Henry Laurens to Alexander Hamilton, April 19, 1785, Papers of Henry Laurens, 16: 553-556.


[33]Ibid., accessed May 14, 2019.

[34]Donald Ratcliffe, “The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787-1828,” Journal of the Early Republic, 33 (2013): 229-230; Journals of the Continental Congress, 32: 343; Constitution of the United States, Article 1, Section 9; Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Slavery: ‘Treason Against the Hopes of the World,’ in Jeffersonian Legacies, Peter S. Onuf, ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 181-221, 188.

[35]John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions,” February 6, 1837 Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, Ross M. Lence, ed (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), 461-476.

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  • Indeed, slavery was on the wane in the United States at the end of the Revolution; but that’s because it was becoming less profitable as planters further north shifted their emphasis from crops like tobacco to less labor intensive wheat; while the rice in South Carolina remained embargoed by the British sugar islands, their traditional market, long after the end of the war. But all that changed when Whitney perfected/invented the cotton gin. Cotton replaced rice as the main southern export, and the demand for slave labor rocketed once again.

  • Slavery — and Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Laurens’s, and many other’s struggle with it — was the greatest example of the central dilemma the founding generation faced: reconciling or implementing the soaring ideals of the Revolution into real-world political, social, and economic practice. Excellent examination, and definitely the correct conclusion.

  • Excellent article on Laurens and the slavery issue. Very well done! I do wish to note that Jefferson did not condemn slavery in his original draft clause that was excised from the Declaration of Independence and replaced with the one Congress inserted into the final document. Instead, Jefferson charged the king with his role in the slave trade, not slavery per se (though as you point out, he did condemn the institution of slavery elsewhere). At least that’s the way I read his original language. Here is the full draft clause from the Library of Congress (complete with grammatical errors):

    he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

    • “…he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us….”

      Jefferson is specifically addressing Lord Dunmore’s proclamation here.

  • Great writing! I share your intrigue with the Laurens men. Indeed, perhaps other than had Jefferson’s original 1784 NW Ordinance passed, or had Washington set the example and publicly denounced slavery, the story of Henry and John Laurens reads like “a missed opportunity” in the Founding era. While we must remain cautious in this approach, as storytellers and historians, we do the historical record justice by presenting these people, warts and all, as conflicted human beings who strived to do the right thing, even if they themselves were incapable of seeing it through. Excellent article.

  • Likely Laurens was the point man re Congress’s September 10, 1782 motion [] re the demand that the British return the slaves carried off during the war. Commissioner Laurens arrived in Paris one day before the November 30th Preliminary Articles of Peace was signed. It was his last minute insistence that the addition of “or carrying away any Negros or other property” was added to Article 7. Was Laurens wanting to protect his / America’s chattels or prevent their abuse by British captors?

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