Henry Laurens and the Grand Tour of Europe


January 23, 2020
by Will Monk Also by this Author


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In the fall of 1771, the South Carolina rice merchant Henry Laurens sailed to Britain with his teenaged sons. They toured the countryside and settled in London, where Laurens conducted business and oversaw the loading of ships to America. He also wanted to give his sons an education, placing them with men who would help them become gentlemen. After six months, when his business was completed, Laurens decided that his sons needed the polish of a European tutor. On May 30, 1772, a horse-drawn carriage took them out of London, across a countryside of villages and rolling hills. They traveled southeast to the English Channel, getting to Dover twelve hours later. They walked to its famous beach and saw the cliffs of Dover towering above them, and even from the beach Laurens claimed he could see the distant shore of France, lit by the fading sun. He led his sons to Payne’s Inn for a night of rest before continuing their journey.[1]

The next morning the Laurens party stepped aboard a packet boat with British and American tourists, all looking forward to seeing France. It took four hours to cross the Channel, with rain and haze limiting their view. As their boat entered the harbor of Calais, it came to a long wharf of wooden piles driven into the mud and supported by stones, which formed an artificial coastline to match the natural shore of sand dunes and rocks. In the harbor were passenger and cargo ships from Britain, Norway and the Netherlands, with twenty fishing boats used in the mackerel trade. The main street of Calais featured flags of many colors, to celebrate weddings which took place that Sunday morning. French soldiers in white uniforms patrolled the city as Laurens and his sons saw a play performed in the streets, before finding an inn.[2]

The next morning, they began their journey to Paris. Laurens found the rental carriages so dirty and small that he bought his own two-wheeled carriage, drawn by horses. The Laurens party took this coach through a long, tree-lined avenue to the town of St. Omer’s, which hosted stone walls built centuries earlier, and a Jesuit college with hundreds of students. From there they rode past rivers with stone locks to control flood waters and help guide boats in and out of the French interior. At Arras, they saw the Grand Abbey of St. Heloise, surrounded on all sides by fields full of young wheat and corn stalks. As the carriage crossed the Somme River, cherry trees and apple orchards came in view; flocks of partridges calmly walked across the road between rumbling carriages. Farm girls in long dresses and wooden shoes hitched horses to wagons and donkeys to plows. Poor farmers wore powdered wigs, dress clothes, and swords to their belts as if they were nobility. Beggars often ran alongside carriages, shouting “La charite! La charite!” and offered to pray to the Virgin Mary for the passenger’s safety in exchange for a thrown coin. Customs officials also stopped carriages, asking to inspect the luggage, so passengers paid a small fee to avoid this nuisance.[3]

At the gates of Paris, Laurens endured another inspection of his luggage before entering the city itself. He saw many narrow and dirty streets, as he had in London, but these led to wide boulevards and elegant townhouses three and four stories high. Avenues curved and side roads were interrupted to create trapezoids and triangles, like mosaic tiles which had not been connected. He found Louvre Palace, which had once been home to the French royal family but now was an art museum and host of concerts. At Tuileries Garden, crowds admired marble statues and water spouts; on Champs-Élysées, parades of cavalry galloped down the avenue. A few blocks south was the Seine River, which cut through the middle of Paris on its way to the English Channel.

Boats carried lumber, hay, and slabs of beef from the countryside, all ready to be consumed in the city. Laurens followed the river east until he reached Pont Nuef, a bridge with a statue of King Henry IV on horseback. The bridge led to Ȋle de la Cité, an island in the Seine which was home to the Cathedral de Notre-Dame, where he bought two books. From there he crossed to the southern half of Paris and toured the Gobelins tapestry factory, visited churches of the Carmelites and the Benedictines, shopped at a wine store, and finally took rooms at Hotel d’Espagne.[4]

Paris was full of tourists, many of whom went twelve miles south, to the king’s palace of Versailles. Carriages went down a paved road lined with trees holding glass lanterns.  At the village of Versailles, tourists passed two large buildings for the king’s horses, then entered a large iron gate opening to a courtyard, where roses, tulips and carnations swayed in a breeze. The palace had kennels, army barracks, a furniture warehouse, an art gallery and enough gardens to feed hundreds of residents. A dairy had enough cows and chickens to cover breakfast tables with cheese and eggs, while the surrounding countryside had enough deer to fill dinner menus with venison. Visitors passed guards and servants on their tour of the palace. A marble staircase led to a second floor, and crowds simply wandered through the royal apartments and reception rooms, scuffing their heels on oak floors and running their fingers across silk curtains. When members of the royal family went to mass, which they did every day, tourists lined both sides of the chapel to watch them enter and leave. King Louis XV ruled the nation from Versailles, with ambassadors, courtiers, businessmen, and mistresses coming and going from hundreds of rooms and passages, as if the palace represented the complexity of France itself.[5]

Engraving from Diderot, Encyclopédie, v. 1, pl. 1, Agriculture, Labourage, illustrating the French countryside, c. 1770. (Library of Congress)

Henry Laurens and his sons stayed in the capital just a few days, then continued farther east: from Paris to Essone, Ponthiery, Fountainbleu, Montargis, Mouslins, St. Gerard, and so on—through the heart of France. Laurens peered out of his carriage window at farms growing corn, beans, peas, and hemp, and he noted the many women, boys, girls, and old men working in the fields. Wagons rumbled over roads and barges floated up the Rhone River, bringing wine, figs, raisins, flour, fish, and rice from seaports in Cartagena and Malaga, in Spain. As his carriage passed these barges, he saw great flocks of geese and herds of cattle, horses, and sheep.[6]

Laurens and his sons reached Lyon, France, on June 8. Laurens had drunk champagne and wine on the journey, which caused a flare up of gout in his foot so severe he had to stay in a chair several days, whistling and sucking through his teeth to endure the pain. He wrote letters to friends in Britain, made dinner plans for his return, and took time to sell one of his slaves by proxy. When the swelling in his foot subsided he was able to inspect farm plows and marvel at the canal system that linked the south-flowing Rhone River, which went to the Mediterranean Sea, to the north-flowing Loire River, which flowed to Paris, the Seine, and the English Channel. His sons practiced their French well enough to string sentences together and act as interpreters.[7]

They began the final part of their journey together on June 14, following the Rhone River east as it cascaded down the French Alps. They soon crossed into Switzerland and stopped at Geneva. Laurens wanted to find a proper tutor in classics, drawing, and sciences for his sons, and several men offered their own homes. Laurens met Jacques Prevost, a general in the British Army who came from a prominent Swiss family and had lived in the American colonies. Laurens spent a week in Geneva, noting both its “luxury and vice,” but felt it was safe enough for his two sons, whom he left in the general’s care.[8]

Laurens went on alone, crossing back into France briefly to visit Strasbourg, guardian of the province of Alsace. He visited the cathedral, commonly called Strasbourg Minster, which had a tower 466 feet high that made it the tallest church in Europe. He claimed to have seen the tower eight miles away from the city, and would have seen it even earlier except for trees blocking his view. The cathedral’s stained glass windows gave a history of the Bible, and its clock had mechanical statues of two roaring lions and a crowing rooster, both of which attracted crowds. Laurens also went to Palais Rohan, home to the family of Cardinal Rohan who had built it fifty years earlier. Laurens toured the palace as if it were Versailles, noting its eighty foot long hallway, marble pillars, oak parquet floors, library, and drawing rooms for formal entertaining. From there he reviewed a Bavarian regiment (hired by Louis XV) which patrolled the city and marched in formation for public display.[9]

The next day, Laurens hired a carriage and crossed a wooden bridge over the Rhine River into Germany. This was not a single country, but a collection of a hundred smaller nation-states wedged next to each other, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Larger states like Bavaria, Hesse, Württemberg, and Hanover loomed beside principalities of fifty square miles or less, each ruled by a prince or margrave. Laurens passed familiar farms and went through a pine forest that blocked out the sun at mid-day. He stopped at Rastatt and Esslingen, but his gout flared up again and he was forced to stay for a day “in great misery” until it subsided. As if racing against his own body, Laurens hurried north to Frankfurt, Koblenz and Cologne. He noted that each area through which he traveled, except one, was predominantly Catholic. Travelers in Germany knew they had entered a Catholic region when they saw crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Francis Xavier standing by the roads. Land along the Rhine was collectively called the Marquisate of Baden, but the Prince of Baden-Baden controlled Catholic areas, while the Prince of Baden-Durlach controlled Protestant areas. The Prince of Baden-Baden had a large palace in Rastatt; the Elector of the Palatinate had his own palace at Mannheim (fifty miles away) with a stable for two hundred horses. This show of wealth contrasted with the condition of roadside taverns, in which travelers slept in short beds with thin, feather mattresses and ate poorly-cooked food.[10]

The roads had Catholic pilgrims who traveled hundreds of miles through Europe on their way to Rome. They took no money and had to beg for food and a place to sleep each night, as a penance for their sins. Tourists on the road had to decide whether to stop at a town in the middle of the afternoon and lose a few hours of travel, or risk getting shut out of a town further down the road if its gates closed before they arrived. Each night a few disappointed tourists had to sleep outside the city, or seek a bed in a farmhouse, and in the morning they stood at each town gate, waiting for it to open. While Laurens had little trouble with closing gates and said he was treated well, he also claimed Europeans charged him more money than they charged locals because he spoke English and was assumed to be wealthier than his companions.[11]

Laurens followed the Rhine River northwest, into the Netherlands. It had seven provinces, but the largest one, Holland, was so important that foreigners referred to the whole country by that name, and its people were known as Dutch. This nation had access to the Rhine River and North Sea, which allowed ships to go to any European seaport and deep into the continent’s interior. Dutch fleets sailed to the Caribbean, Africa and southern Asia, and brought back pepper, cloves, nutmeg, silks and cotton. Hundreds of ships were at sea, or in port, at any given time.[12]

Laurens got off in Rotterdam, where Dutchmen met travelers getting out of their barges and argued about who would get to carry their luggage into the city. Drawbridges stood over a dozen canals, while the narrow streets of Rotterdam were cluttered with horse-drawn carriages, men with wheelbarrows, and wagons pulled by dogs. Houses had flowers growing in pots at the doors and windows, and mirrors with swivels so people in their homes could see what was happening on the street without revealing themselves. Bells rang to open drawbridges or loaf wagons. Laurens went further north on a barge. Now houses were so close to the canals that people fished out of their windows, and so many storks nested on rooftops that homeowners put iron rails around chimneys to prevent it. On either shore, cows, horses and goats outnumbered people.[13]

“The Canal called Kleveniers Towards the House of Weights of S. Antonio D’Amsterdam,” an eighteenth-century illustration. (History of Science Museum)

In the middle of July 1772 Laurens arrived in Amsterdam. It was on the Amstel River which flowed into the Zuider Zee and the North Sea, so it was another port cluttered with ships, all full of trade goods. Like Rotterdam, the city had an outer canal as a defense against attack, a series of inner canals forming rings, and smaller canals bisecting them, with arched bridges connecting every part of Amsterdam. Narrow boats on canals carried food, furniture, clothes and tools to houses on the canal, with street steps descending into the water to accommodate tides; between these canals were streets crowded with sleds, each pulled by a single horse because there was a tax put on carriages with wheels. Religious sects had their own houses of worship: eleven Dutch Reformed, three synagogues, two churches each for French and German visitors, one for British Protestants, and forty Catholic chapels hidden between houses of lodged-in apartments.[14]

The one house where everyone went was the Exchange, a building 250 feet long and 140 feet wide, supported by forty-six pillars which were all numbered so merchants could be found easily. Laurens went looking for garden seed. Three thousand traders filled the Exchange each day—except Saturdays, when the Jews were not present and aisles were less congested. In winter, traders crowded into coffee houses, which had crackling stoves and gambling tables. Men read books, sipped hot chocolate, smoked tobacco and traded gossip over which company’s stock would rise or fall. The Exchange and its traders loaned money to companies and royal houses across Europe, and so much money flowed in and out of Amsterdam that when wars erupted hundreds of miles away, and countries stopped payments, traders hoped that rival nations would win victories in battle to ensure they would pay their debts.[15]

Laurens did not stay long in the Netherlands. He briefly traveled south into modern day Belgium, then took another ferry across the English Channel. He had traveled through nations that would soon send thousands of soldiers and sailors to America and the West Indies to supply a rebellion with the tools of war, and fight on distant battlefields for a cause far removed from the genteel nature of Europe at peace.[16]


[1]Henry Laurens Travel Journal, May 30, 1772, Laurens Papers, South Carolina Historical Society. Henry Laurens to John Lewis Gervais, May 29, 1772, states that Laurens’s black slave, Scipio, did not go on the trip to Europe.

[2]Ibid. May 31, 1772.

[3]Ibid., June 1 – 2, 1772 (St. Omer and Arras), Henry Laurens to Richard Oswald, June 10, 1772, and Henry Laurens to James Laurens, June 9, 1772 ( both on new carriage, crops, wooden shoes, wigs,  and fancy dress), all in Henry Laurens Papers; Henry Laurens Letter Book, December 19, 1772 – April 29, 1773, New-York Historical Society (farm girls, wooden shoes, partridges, cherry and apple trees); Jabez Maud Fisher Diary, September 27 – October 6, 1776, Thomas Fisher Family Papers, MC 2004.1, Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College. (farmers, wigs, swords, and customs officials). Henry Laurens Travel Journal, his letter to John Laurens, the Jabez Fisher Travel Journal, Thomas Fisher Family Papers, MC 2004.1, Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College, and the Elkanah Watson Travel Journal, 1779 – 1780, page 23, Elkanah Watson Papers, SC 12579, New York State Library, all mention beggars on the roads of France, and the phrases “La charite” and “Charite, s’il vous plait.” Laurens made three round trips from Britain to France between May, 1772 and May 1773. I have combined some descriptions from the three trips for a clear narrative.

[4]Henry Laurens Travel Journal, June 4 and 5, 1772 (itinerary in Paris); Henry Laurens to Richard Oswald, June 10, 1772 (Gobelins); Thomas Fisher Diary, May 13 – 17, 1764, MC 2004.1, Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College, and John Greenwood Diary, BV Greenwood, John, New-York Historical Society (inspections, and descriptions of Paris). The Elkanah Watson Travel Journal, 23, also mentions being inspected at the gates of Paris.

[5]Thomas Fisher Diary, May 18, 1764; Elkanah Watson Travel Journal, 23 – 25; Claude-Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, “Les Amours de Louis Quinze Roi de France,” 1762, and Marianne-Agnes Pillement, Dame de Fracques, “Mémoires Secret des Amours de Louis XV,” 1772, both in C0199, Bound Manuscripts, Firestone Library, Princeton University (all on Versailles and the royal family).

[6]Samuel Smith to his father, August 20, 1773 and August, 1773, both in Box 1, Samuel Smith Family Papers, Library of Congress (items from Spain); List of Expenses, Henry Laurens Travel Journal, June 5 – 8, 1772; Henry Laurens Travel Journal entries, June 30 – July 4, 1772, and Henry Laurens to James Laurens, June 9, 1772 (his route, boats and farm animals), all in Henry Laurens Papers. The List of Expenses is separate from the diary entries in the same journal.

[7]Henry Laurens to James Laurens, June 9, 1772, and June 22, 1772, Henry Laurens to George Appleby, June 10, 1772, Henry Laurens to Richard Grubb, June 10, 1772, Henry Laurens to Richard Oswald, June 10, 1772, and Henry Laurens to Ross and Mill, June 10, 1772, all in Henry Laurens Papers.

[8]Henry Laurens to Jean Daniel Roux, June 21, 1772, and Henry Laurens to James Laurens, June 22, 1772, both in Henry Laurens Papers.

[9]Henry Laurens Travel Journal, June 30 – July 1, 1772.

[10]Travel Journal of Joseph Shippen, 1760 – 61, am. 1373, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In his journal entry for June 30, Laurens mentions the sole Protestant area as Markelsheim, but he did not reach this area until after leaving Esslingen on July 4. He may have meant an area of France or Switzerland through which he traveled between June 28 and July 4. Laurens misspelled several French and German places in his journal.

[11]Henry Laurens Travel Journal, June 30, 1772 (charged more); George Croghan Journal of a Trip to England, January 30 – February 10, 1764, Cadwalader Family Papers, Series 4, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (city gates). The idea that town gates closed at night is also found in the Henry Laurens Travel Journal, June 30, 1772, and the Jabez Maud Fisher Diary, October 3 – 24, 1776.

[12]Francis Goelet Diary, 1757, BV Goelet, Francis, New-York Historical Society (seven provinces); and John Greenwood Diary (people called it Holland); Memorandum of Johann Rudolff Ochs, no date, item 2225, Dutch West India Company Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (travelers to America). The items in the Dutch West India Papers are chronological, so the Ochs memo is from the mid 1700s.

[13]Henry Laurens to Jacques Prevost, August 14, 1772, Henry Laurens Letter Book (Laurens in Holland); Thomas Fisher Diary, April 26 – 27, 1764 (Rotterdam and canal travel). A separate Henry Laurens Travel Journal, April 21, 1773, BV Laurens, New-York Historical Society, and the Jabez Maud Fisher Diary, September 27 – 30, 1776, both mention people of various social ranks and languages on barges.

[14]Francis Goelet Diary.

[15]Francis Goelet Diary, 1757 (the Exchange described); Henry Laurens to Jacques Prevost, August 14, 1772 (garden seed); Archibald Laidlie to John Laidlie, January 28 and May 12, 1760, Box 3, Mrs. Walter Pierson Collection, New-York Historical Society (credit and debts).

[16]Henry Laurens to James Laurens, August 6, 1772, Henry Laurens Papers.

One thought on “Henry Laurens and the Grand Tour of Europe

  • Interesting article! Certainly, Henry Lauren’s tour of Europe well-prepared him for the critical foreign policy discussions while he was President of the Continental Congress.

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