Henry Laurens

Henry Laurens (1724-1792), wealthy South Carolina merchant and planter, was a leading American Revolutionary and a member of the Continental Congress.

Henry Laurens, a descendant of Huguenot immigrants, was born in Charleston on March 6, 1724. Henry's father had risen from a simple saddler to the owner of a prosperous merchant firm, well connected in England. Henry also entered trade, quickly becoming equally at home in London and Charleston. By the time imperial relations began to deteriorate in the early 1760s, Henry Laurens had become the leading merchant in South Carolina. After greatly extending his father's fortune, Laurens turned from trade to planting. The unfair seizure of one of his vessels by English customs men provided the overt cause for his departure from commerce in the 1760s. This episode also changed Laurens from a vigorous supporter of British authority to a Revolutionary.

Laurens became increasingly involved in the events leading to the American Revolution. Although a conservative by nature, he was personally affected by the inequities of the Stamp Act and the restrictions on trade. By 1774 he had moved into the mainstream of Revolutionary activity in South Carolina. Early in 1777 he was elected to the Continental Congress and was soon deeply immersed in its deliberations and committee operations. Although wholly committed by this time to the cause of independence, and despite the fact that he himself had been a merchant, he was shocked by the activities of other merchants, both in and out of Congress, whom he felt were capitalizing on the war.

Through most of 1778 Laurens served as president of Congress. At the end of 1779 he accepted a diplomatic mission to Holland. However, he never arrived in Holland, for the vessel on which he was sailing was captured by the English, and Laurens, despite protests of diplomatic immunity, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He remained there for more than a year and was treated most harshly; his health was broken and, to a degree, his spirit too. He was freed in exchange for the British general Cornwallis, Laurens made an attempt in 1783 to aid the peace negotiations in Paris, but his contribution was minimal.

Laurens retired to his South Carolina plantation after the war. He was honored by his native state on several occasions. His last public recognition came in 1787, when he was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. His health was so poor, however, that he never attended. He died on Dec. 8, 1792, having lived just long enough to see the creation of the American Republic.

Further Reading on Henry Laurens

The Papers of Henry Laurens, vol. 1: Sept. 11, 1746-Oct. 31, 1755, edited by Philip M. Hamer and others, was published in 1968. The only biography of Laurens is David Duncan Wallace, The Life of Henry Laurens (1915).