Little is known about his early life other than he became a merchant and rice planter.
Laurens served in the militia, as did most of the able-bodied men during his time.
He rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel in the campaigns against the Cherokee Indians in 1757–1761, during the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War).
1757 also marked the first year he was elected to the colonial assembly. Laurens was elected again every year but one until the American Revolution replaced the colonial assembly with a state Convention as an interim government.
In 1772 he joined the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and carried on extensive correspondence with other members.
The single year Laurens missed the colonial assembly was 1773, when he traveled to England with his sons to arrange for their educations.
As the American Revolution neared, Laurens was at first inclined to support reconciliation with the British Crown.
But as conditions deteriorated, he came to fully support the American position.
When Carolina began to create a revolutionary government, Laurens was elected to the Provincial Congress, which first met on January 9, 1775.
Laurens was president of the Committee of Safety, and presiding officer of that congress from June until March 1776.
When South Carolina installed a fully independent government, he served as the Vice President of South Carolina from March 1776 to June 27, 1777.
Laurens was first named a delegate to the Continental Congress on January 10, 1777.
Henry Laurens then succeeded John Hancock as the President of the Continental Congress from November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778.
Laurens presided over the Continental Congress when the U.S. Constitution was passed November 15, 1777 and was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation.
In the fall of 1779, the Congress named Laurens their minister to the Netherlands.
In early 1780 he took up that post and successfully negotiated Dutch support for the war.
However, on his return voyage to Amsterdam that fall, the British Navy intercepted his ship, the continental packet Mercury, off the banks of Newfoundland. Although his dispatches were tossed in the water, they were retrieved by the British, who discovered the draft of a possible U.S.-Dutch treaty prepared by William Lee.
This prompted Britain to declare war on the Netherlands, becoming known as the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War.
The British charged Laurens with treason, transported him to England, and imprisoned him in the Tower of London (he is the only American to have been held prisoner in the Tower).
On the battlefield, most captives were regarded as prisoners of war, and while conditions were frequently appalling, prisoner exchanges and mail privileges were accepted practice.
During his imprisonment, Laurens was assisted by Richard Oswald, his former business partner and the principal owner of Bunce Island. Oswald argued on Laurens’ behalf to the British government.
Finally, on December 31, 1781 Laurens was released in exchange for General Lord Cornwallis and completed his voyage to Amsterdam.
In a late skirmish during the Revolutionary War, Laurens’ oldest son John was killed in 1782. John had supported enlisting and freeing slaves for the war effort and suggested to his father that he begin with the 40 slaves he stood to inherit.
He urged his father to free all of their slaves.
After the war, Henry Laurens manumitted all his 260 slaves.
Then in 1783, Henry Laurens was sent to Paris as one of the Peace Commissioners for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris. While he was not a signatory of the primary treaty, he was instrumental in reaching the secondary accords that resolved issues related to the Netherlands and Spain. Richard Oswald, a big former partner of Laurens in the slave trade and the friend who helped negotiate Laurens release from the British, was the principal negotiator for Great Britain during the Paris peace talks.
Laurens generally retired from public life in 1784. He was sought for a return to the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the state assembly, but he declined all of these positions.
He did serve in the state convention of 1788, where he voted to ratify the United States Constitution.
The British occupying forces from Charleston had burned his main home at Mepkin during the war. When Laurens and his family returned in 1784, they lived in an outbuilding while the great house was rebuilt.
He lived there the rest of his life, working to recover the estimated £40,000 that the revolution had cost him (equivalent to about $3,500,000 in 2000 values).
After Laurens died December 8, 1792 at his estate, his will stated he wished to be cremated, and his ashes be interred at his estate.
It’s reported that he was the first formal cremation in United States.
Now We know em
- The “Penman of the Constitution” was born today in 1752. Now WE know em (nowweknowem.com)
- American founding father and “the poor man’s councilor” was born today in 1726. Now WE know em (nowweknowem.com)
- “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike . . .” founding father and signer of the Declaration of Independence Richard Henry Lee, born today in 1732. Now WE know em (nowweknowem.com)
- Today in 1778, the father of the Continental Army arrived at Valley Forge. Hint, he was not George Washington. Now We know em (nowweknowem.com)