“Unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place,” Gen. George Washington wrote from Valley Forge on December 23, 1777, to Henry Laurens, the recently-appointed president of the Continental Congress, “the Army must inevitably be reduced to one or the other of these three things. Starve—dissolve—or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence.” A week later, in letters sent to the state governors, Washington reported that more than 2,898 soldiers at Valley Forge were “unfit for duty” because they lacked clothes; the troops at the camp had not been fed in three days, but he pledged to continue to “conceal the true state of the army from public view” to prevent the British learning of its condition and attacking while it was so weak.
The estimated amount of money required to supply the army for the coming year and to operate the new country’s central government was three million British pounds. During that terrible winter of 1777-1778, Henry Laurens and his son, John Laurens, a Washington aide-de-camp, independently hatched two interesting ideas for tapping the country’s wealth to underwrite the war.
Even a friendly biographer faulted Henry Laurens for being too “cocksure about the rightness of his contentions,” a man whose “egotism was something a little too much in evidence.” Laurens had come to the Revolution reluctantly but steadily. One of the wealthiest colonists in South Carolina, he was a major importer-exporter and the owner of four plantations that utilized slave labor. His fellow delegates to the Continental Congress thought so highly of him that less than six months after his arrival in their midst they selected him to succeed John Hancock as president of Congress.
He took the job and its responsibilities very seriously. When Congress moved to York, Pennsylvania, to continue its work after having to leave Philadelphia ahead of the British capture of that city, many delegates just went home for the winter. Laurens stayed with the Congress in York, living in a boarding house and, as the troops were doing, dining on bread, cheese, and grog—while suffering from gout to the point that he could hardly walk, yet putting in eighteen-hour work days.
Laurens wanted to cut back on government spending and find new ways to bolster the treasury. He advocated new “taxation in each colony,” to “sell vacant and forfeited estates,” and to “do a thousand other things which . . . we would do, if luxury and avarice were discountenanced.” He pushed these ideas in Congress, but to little avail.
His specific idea for marshaling the wealth of the country was detailed in a letter to his son, then at Valley Forge. It was to lobby 500 wealthy families to buy new government-issued bonds. Each of those families would purchase £3,000 worth, and their willingness to buy in would serve as an inducement to the rest of the population to purchase the remainder. He wrote that he would “subscribe to morrow five or Ten Thousand Pounds Sterling & if these were found insufficient all my Estate shall be given for saving the public.”
Laurens’ idea was statistically not a wild stab. The population of the United States of America just then numbered more than three million. Thus the top one percent consisted of 30,000 people, or, given the average family size of five, about 6,000 fairly wealthy households. A plan to get money from less than one out of ten of these wealthy families was quite reasonable. Moreover, governmental bond sales were usual in Europe as a way of raising money to fight wars.
John Laurens was a hotshot, everyone at Valley Forge agreed. His family’s roots were among the Huguenots, and he spoke French well. After training as a lawyer in London and in Geneva, he returned home to take part in the war. His talents and potential would be recognized by two good judges of character, George Washington, who advanced him to a field command and sent him on important missions, and Benjamin Franklin, with whom he would later deal in Paris.
The plan that John Laurens put forth for mobilizing the country’s wealth was constructed with the enthusiastic participation of his twenty-something pals at Valley Forge, the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and Pierre L’Enfant. (Washington had asked Laurens and Hamilton, who both spoke French, to assist in integrating the French officers into the American command.) John’s idea was to mobilize that portion of the country’s wealth that was held in slaves. He would double the size of the Continental army by inducing slaves to enlist in exchange for their eventual freedom. L’Enfant and Laurens each offered to lead one of these new army units themselves.
Currently, Rhode Island was trying to put that idea into practice at the behest of Gen. James Varnum, enlisting slaves in the 1st Rhode Island regiment in exchange for their later freedom. As we now know, this regiment would be among the finest in the country, distinguished for valor and bravery in every encounter throughout a long war, from 1778 through to Yorktown.
Back in 1776, Henry Laurens had made a speech denouncing slavery, and had recently clarified his position on it to John: he abhorred slavery as an institution but was resigned to its current economic necessity. He now said he would agree to the young officers’ plan for enlisting slaves, with the caveat that slave-owners would have to be compensated so that they could hire replacement workers. Washington echoed that formulation. But if these two older slave owners thought that the compensation objection might kill the young men’s idea, they were wrong, because the junior officers had anticipated and budgeted for paying the slave owners to allow their slaves to go to the front lines. And to further assuage their elders, they added a new condition, that the slaves would only be freed at the successful conclusion of their military service, as attested to by their commanding officers.
The British were already freeing slaves in the territories they conquered, and were inducing them to join the redcoats. By war’s end, some 20,000 would have done so. Could the American army do less than the British for and with America’s slaves?
Washington agreed to have the John Laurens plan sent on to the Congress for approval and funding.
Both plans, that of Henry Laurens and that of John Laurens, came to naught.
The wealthy did not rush to participate in Henry Laurens’ bond plan, for several reasons. First and foremost, many of the one-percenters were Loyalists, and had chosen to sit out the war; some were emerging from the woodwork just then in Philadelphia and fawning over Gen. William Howe and the British occupiers. Estimates of how many Loyalists there were in America range from twenty-five to forty percent; one solid figure shows that of 1,100 Loyalists who chose to abandon Boston with the British in the spring of 1776, 213 were merchants and their families—seventy percent of all the merchants in the Boston area.
The more Revolutionary-minded of America’s wealthy had a justifiable fear of an eventual American loss of the war, and with it, their fortunes. Then too, not all American merchants were profiting from the war: historian Thomas Doerflinger’s study of the records of Philadelphia merchants found that there was no “general prosperity” among them, and “despite the rise of a few great fortunes, the capitals of many merchants shrank or stagnated.”
Even such proven patriots as Jeremiah Wadsworth of Hartford, an experienced commissary officer who would soon be appointed as chief of that service, were wary. He had already advanced $50,000 for the cause and had not been reimbursed, in Continental dollars or in any other currency, and so was not inclined to risk more. “The want of this money much retards my accounts,” he wrote, “as it is in vain for me to call on People [to purchase new supplies for the Army] when I can’t pay them.” A Wadsworth friend, an officer at Valley Forge, similarly advised that he had lost “two or three thousand pounds” advanced for the public interest, “and I think I have done my part that way.” Robert Morris, who a year earlier had sent Washington $50,000 of his own money to distribute to the troops after the daring Christmas crossing of the Delaware River, had retired from Congress to pay more attention to his business, which was falling apart.
So Henry Laurens’ idea fizzled out. The effort to sell it to the wealthy was soon overtaken by the news that France was to become the United States’ ally, and the hope that King Louis XVI would grant loans to the United States of America to carry on the joint war against Great Britain.
As fate would have it, Henry Laurens would later be captured at sea while sailing to Europe to negotiate more funding for the Revolution. He would spend the remainder of the war in the Tower of London.
As for John Laurens’ idea of giving slaves their freedom in exchange for front-line military service, the Continental Congress had too many slave owners in it for that idea to pass in early 1778.
Until the arrival of funds from France, and even after it, America’s armies were supplied largely by means of the personal credit of middle-rank commissaries and provisioners, who expressed their patriotism by putting their own money and credit at considerable risk. Many were never repaid.
Two years later, in the spring of 1780, Charleston, South Carolina—John Laurens’ home town—was being threatened by a British invasion, and John took this crisis as reason to convince Congress to do what it had refused to do in 1778, pass a resolution allowing the states of South Carolina and Georgia to enlist 3,000 slaves each in their army units, in exchange for promises of freedom at the end of their enlistment, and to authorize cash payments to those slaves’ current owners at the rate of $1,000 for each new enlistee.
Savannah had already fallen and Charleston was on the brink. More manpower was needed to save Charleston. Nonetheless, South Carolina refused to go along with the enlisting-slaves plan. Weeks later, Charleston did fall; one of the reasons why was that there had not been enough American troops outside of the city to harry the British, who were thus able to throw at Charleston their entire force, producing the surrender of 5,000 American and French defenders.
John Laurens was among them. Then, released on parole, John was sent to France by Congress to complete his jailed father’s mission of obtaining new loans. In Paris, he and Franklin played good-cop, bad-cop with the Versailles government. As Franklin wrote to John Jay, “Mr. Lawrens is worrying the minister for more money and we shall I believe obtain a farther sum.” Franklin was so impressed with Laurens that he thought the young man would be an admirable successor to him as emissary in Paris. The amount granted to the U.S. through Laurens’s efforts was double what Franklin had first been promised. That money underwrote the Washington campaign that in 1781 took his main army from the Hudson River to Yorktown alongside Rochambeau’s.
John Laurens served with distinction at Yorktown, and continued with the southern army thereafter. In 1782, in a militarily insignificant battle with the British in South Carolina, he was killed.
His idea for mobilizing the wealth of the country by freeing some of its slaves for duty on the front lines never came to pass, and after his death it had an unfortunate codicil. When Henry Laurens was released from the Tower of London, in exchange for Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis, to take part in the Paris Peace talks, one of the treaty clauses under consideration dealt with the return of stolen, confiscated, and seized property. Although he was still in mourning for his idealistic son John, and although he continued to abhor slavery, his sense of the planters’ economic interests guided his actions. Henry Laurens’ sole contribution to the peace process was to insist that the list of property to be returned to Americans include improperly-freed slaves. The effect of this clause was to embed slavery into the fabric of the American economy for the next eighty years.
George Washington to Henry Laurens, December 23, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0628.
Washington “circular letter” to governors, December 29, 1777, www.loc.gov/resource/mgw3c.002/?sp=212&st=text.
Daniel J. McDonough, Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots (Sellinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2000). See also Gabriel Neville, “The Tragedy of Henry Laurens,” allthingsliberty.com/2019/08/the-tragedy-of-henry-laurens/.
Robert Morris to Washington, January 1, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0402.
E. Wayne Carp, To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); Erna Risch, Supplying Washington’s Army(Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1981).
Benjamin Franklin to John Jay, April 12, 1781, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-34-02-0417.