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Portrait Of A Hero
Courtly, gallant, handsome, and bold, John Laurens seemed the perfect citizen-soldier of the Revolution. But why did he have to seek death so assiduously?
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Brave he certainly was; and there is no question that his exploits provide a pretty fair outline of most of the important military actions of the Revolution. Furthermore, he had charm and talent. He was, incidentally, something of an artist, and he possessed a certain style that drew many men—and perhaps some women—to him. Washington, who was never a particularly demonstrative individual, was fond of him; the more emotional Hamilton loved him. Even when one discounts much of the rhetoric between them as a conscious attempt to imitate Damon and Pythias, it is impossible not to agree with the historian who termed a letter from Hamilton to his friend “one of the most moving” he ever wrote. “You know the opinion entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments ”Hamilton remarked to Laurens. Therefore “you should not have taken advantage of my sensibility to steal into my affections without my consent.” Unfortunately Laurens’ flair perished with him, and its nature must be left largely to our imaginations; luckily his ideals are permanently recorded in his words and his deeds.
Like Washington, he refused to take pay for his military service; when first offered the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army, he declined it lest he be a source of dissension among those whose promotions came more slowly. That he later accepted the rank—and wished he had done so earlier—perhaps shows that he too was human. More important, he carried egalitarianism to a degree most unusual, if not unique, among members of his social class. Receiving the news of a disastrous fire that occurred in Charleston on January 15, 1778, he remarked that he would lament the catastrophe “if it has fallen upon individuals of moderate fortune”; but, he added, “if it affects only a number of rich men, it will contribute to equalizing estates, [and] I shall not regret it.” A few months later he elaborated these ideas: “I would wish the burthens of society as equally distributed as possible, that there may not be one part of the community appropriating to itself the summit of wealth and grandeur, while another is reduced to extreme indigence in the common cause.” He wanted to see “all odious distinctions of jealousy laid aside, for we are all citizens, and have no separate interests. If mediocrity could be established generally, by any means, it would be well; it would ensure us virtue and render our independency permanent. But,” he continued, “there never will be virtue in the poor, when there are rich in the same community. By imperceptible and indirect methods, we should labour to establish and maintain equality of fortunes as much as possible, if we would continue to be free.” Although these words sound- and probably were—genuinely radical, it could be argued that they represented little more than an expression of the traditional wisdom about the nature of republics. But the same cannot be said about his plans for raising a battalion of black soldiers.