Merchant, planter, statesman, diplomat. Laurens was born on February 24, 1724, in Charleston, the eldest son of John Laurens, a saddler, and Esther Grasset. Both the Laurens and Grasset families fled France as Huguenot refugees in the 1680s, with John and Esther settling in Charleston about 1715. Henry Laurens provided no details but described his education as “the best . . . which [Charleston] afforded.” Following a three-year clerkship in the London countinghouse of James Crokatt, Laurens returned to Charleston in 1747 and formed a commercial partnership with George Austin. Austin & Laurens expanded in 1759 to become Austin, Laurens & (George) Appleby and continued until 1762, when the partnership was dissolved by mutual consent. Laurens subsequently traded on his own. As a merchant, he exported Carolina products (rice, indigo, deerskins, and naval stores) to Britain, Europe, and the West Indies. His vessels returned with wine, textiles, rum, sugar, and slaves. During the early 1760s Laurens’s interests expanded to include rice and indigo planting. He owned four South Carolina plantations (Mepkin, Wambaw, Wrights Savannah, and Mount Tacitus), two Georgia plantations (Broughton Island and New Hope), tracts of undeveloped land in both colonies, and town lots in Charleston. The earnings from his mercantile and planting interests made Laurens one of the wealthiest men in America.
Laurens entered public service at an early age, holding local and church offices in Charleston as early as 1751. He first sat in the Commons House of Assembly in 1757, representing St. Philip’s Parish. He would be reelected to the colonial or state assemblies seventeen times during his lifetime. He served as a lieutenant in the militia in 1757 and as a lieutenant colonel in the provincial regiment during the Cherokee Expedition of 1761. He refused appointment to the Royal Council in 1764.
During the early stages of the Anglo-American conflict, Laurens gained prominence as a political moderate. On October 23, 1765, at the height of the Stamp Act crisis, a mob invaded his home in search of stamped papers. This incident ended without injury but traumatized his wife and increased the conservative merchant-planter’s concern for the rights of individuals threatened by the violence and enthusiasm of the revolution. Between 1767 and 1769 royal officials in South Carolina seized his schooners Wambaw and Broughton Island Packet and the ship Ann for alleged customs violations. In response Laurens wrote pamphlets explaining his position and castigating the customs and vice-admiralty officials. He also challenged a customs officer to a duel. This aggressive behavior was not uncommon for Laurens, who sought vindication with dueling pistols on at least five occasions during his lifetime.
Laurens’s life took a new direction in May 1770 after the death of his wife, Eleanor Ball. Married to Laurens since June 25, 1750, Eleanor had given birth to twelve or thirteen children. Laurens now made the education of his five surviving children, especially his three sons, his foremost life’s work. He suspended direct supervision of his planting and commercial interests and sailed to England in September 1771. From there he traveled to the Continent, where he found suitable schools for his two older sons in Geneva, Switzerland. During the time he spent in England, Laurens and several other South Carolinians in London signed petitions to Parliament and the king seeking redress of American grievances.
The South Carolina to which Laurens returned in 1774 had moved beyond peaceful petition to revolution. Within weeks of his landing, St. Philip’s Parish elected him to the First Provincial Congress. In June 1775 he became president of the Provincial Congress and the Council of Safety and consequently the state’s chief executive during the establishment of the provincial regiments and the transition from royal to independent status. He contributed to South Carolina’s first constitution and served as vice president in the first state government formed in March 1776. He remained an active and moderating force in South Carolina’s revolutionary movement from 1775 until he left to serve in the Continental Congress in June 1777.
Laurens has been frequently cited by historians as one of the few citizens in the lower South who expressed opposition to slavery in America as early as the 1770s. In an oft-quoted passage from his correspondence, he wrote (after receiving a copy of the Declaration of Independence), “I abhor slavery,” despite participating in the slave trade early in his career, owning 298 slaves as late as 1790, and the fact that there is little evidence that he offered freedom to more than a few of his servants. Laurens understood the harm that slavery posed, to both races, and anticipated that it would end in a bloody conflict. His opposition to slavery, however, had little impact on the institution in South Carolina.
Arriving at Philadelphia in July 1777, Laurens quickly established himself as an active and respected member of the Continental Congress. In November 1777 he succeeded John Hancock as president during one of the most trying times in American history. He took the chair at York, Pennsylvania, where Congress met after Philadelphia had fallen to the British the previous September. During his tenure the Continental army spent its winter encampment at Valley Forge and turmoil in Congress and among Continental officers threatened General George Washington’s command. Laurens resigned as president in December 1778 but continued to represent South Carolina in Congress until late 1779. In October that year Congress selected him to travel to Holland and secure a loan and an alliance with the Dutch.
Shortly after departing on his Dutch mission, Laurens, his vessel, and most of his papers were taken by a British warship in September 1780. Charged with high treason, he was a prisoner in the Tower of London from October 1780 through December 1781. After obtaining his parole and subsequent freedom, Laurens learned that he had been named to the American commission to negotiate peace with Britain. The fifteen months spent in confinement ruined his health, however, and permitted him to play only a minor role. Along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay, Laurens signed the preliminary peace treaty in Paris in November 1782. Traveling to England to regain his health, Laurens did not attend the signing of the definitive treaty in Paris in September 1783.
Laurens returned to South Carolina in January 1785 and withdrew from public affairs. Elected as a delegate to both the 1787 Philadelphia constitutional convention and the 1790 South Carolina constitutional convention, he declined to serve in both. The one minor exception occurred in 1788 when he supported the federal Constitution as a delegate to the South Carolina ratification convention. He spent his declining years successfully rebuilding his war-ravaged estate. He died on December 8, 1792, at his Mepkin plantation on the Cooper River. As stipulated in his will, he chose to have his remains cremated before burial. His ashes were interred at Mepkin.
Clark, Peggy J. “Henry Laurens’s Role in the Anglo-American Peace Negotiations.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1991.
Frech, Laura Page. “The Career of Henry Laurens in the Continental Congress, 1777–1779.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1972.
Hamer, Philip M., et al., eds. The Papers of Henry Laurens. 16 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968–2003.
McDonough, Daniel J. Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2000.
Moore, Warner Oland. “Henry Laurens: A Charleston Merchant in the Eighteenth Century, 1747–1771.” Ph.D. diss., University of Alabama, 1974. Wallace, David Duncan. The Life of Henry Laurens. New York: Putnam, 1915.