Soldier, diplomat. Laurens was born in Charleston on October 28, 1754, the son of prominent merchant and planter Henry Laurens and his wife, Eleanor Ball. After studying under tutors in Charleston, Laurens traveled to London in 1771 for further schooling. He first enrolled in Richard Clarke’s school for Carolina boys before moving to Geneva, Switzerland, in May 1772. Laurens lived in Geneva, a city noted for its republicanism and excellence in education, until August 1774, when he returned to London to study law in the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court.
In December 1776 Laurens sailed to Charleston to enlist in the war for independence. He left behind in England his pregnant wife, Martha Manning, whom he had secretly married earlier in the year. The following summer he traveled to Philadelphia with his father, who had been elected to the Continental Congress. Laurens joined General George Washington’s staff and became the best friend of fellow aide, Alexander Hamilton. In the forefront at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, Laurens won a reputation for reckless bravery.
After the British shifted military operations to the South, Laurens proposed that South Carolina arm slaves and grant them freedom in return for their military service. In March 1779 Congress approved his idea and commissioned him lieutenant colonel. Elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, Laurens introduced his black regiment plan in 1779 and 1780, and met overwhelming defeat each time. His belief that blacks shared a similar nature with whites and could aspire to freedom in a republican society would set Laurens apart from all other prominent South Carolinians in the Revolutionary period.
At the same time, Laurens continued his military service. When the British threatened Charleston in May 1779, he opposed Governor John Rutledge’s offer to surrender the city on the condition that the state be allowed to remain neutral for the duration of the war. That fall Laurens commanded an infantry column in the failed assault on Savannah. Captured when Charleston surrendered in May 1780, he was exchanged in November.
In December 1780 Congress appointed Laurens special minister to France. He arrived in France in March 1781. In a whirlwind two-month mission, he obtained a loan from the Netherlands, military supplies, and French assurances that their navy would operate in American waters that year. Laurens finished his diplomatic duties in time to join Washington at Yorktown, where the timely arrival of the French fleet secured a decisive American victory. Laurens represented the American army in negotiating the British surrender.
Laurens returned to South Carolina and made a final attempt to secure approval of his black regiment plan. At Jacksonborough in early 1782, the House again decisively rejected his proposal, though the debate was heated. Laurens served under General Nathanael Greene and spent his final months operating a spy network that gathered intelligence of British activities in Charleston. On August 27, 1782, he was killed in a skirmish on the Combahee River.
Gregory D. Massey