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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
Early in 1778 John Laurens broached the matter to his father, who was then president of the Continental Congress. “I would solicit you to cede me a number of your able bodied men slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune,” he wrote. Formed into a unit and trained, they might render important service during the next campaign, he argued. What is amazing about his plan, though, is not merely that he was willing to surrender a large part of his inheritance in order to augment the Continental Army- practically everything he did during the Revolution testifies to his willingness to sacrifice his own private interest in favor of the general welfare. Nor is it even that he was willing to arm slaves—South Carolinians had considered that step during earlier emergencies. Rather the astonishing aspects of his proposal are its candor, its boldness, and its larger purpose. “We have sunk the African and their descendants below the standard of Humanity,” he had earlier remarked, by unjustly depriving them of “the rights of mankind.” Service in the Revolutionary army would be a steppingstone to freedom—”a proper gradation between abject slavery and perfect liberty,” which would not only prepare a slave to take his place in free society but also establish his claim to it. In short, his was a clever and far-reaching plan for the gradual abolition of slavery. Though his father also favored abolition, he was less than enthusiastic about this particular idea, so John temporarily shelved it. A year later, after the fall of Savannah, however, the obvious need for additional manpower led Congress to urge the southern states to raise three thousand blacks, who would be freed at the end of the war. Fortified with this resolution, Laurens tried to prevail upon the South Carolina legislature to sanction the plan. An overwhelmingly adverse vote produced what his father described as John’s first defeat in politics. Although the most important immediate result of these efforts seems to have been a wave of resentment among South Carolinians against the Continental Congress for making such a suggestion, Laurens brought the matter up again in 1782 at the first meeting of the legislature since the British had captured Charleston. This time he did not do much better: his proposal appears to have received about i 2 per cent of the vote. Although the magnitude of his defeat suggests that he might have been a cold ideologue, completely out of step with his contemporaries, such was not the case. His conduct and the love he inspired among intimates indicate otherwise. In the action at Yorktown he gave quarter when he could, thus setting a humane example followed by others in the assault. In the closing days of the war he was among the minority that favored leniency toward Tories. Not surprisingly, foes as well as friends lamented his death. The Loyalist editor of the newspaper in Charleston eulogized him by noting that had he not been a rebel, nothing could “tarnish his reputation as a man of honour, or affect his character as a gentleman.”
It is therefore easy to sympathize with Henry Laurens, who, a few months after being released from imprisonment, was stunned by news of his son’s death. “His philosophy forsook him,” reported a fellow American who discovered him at Bath, prostrate with grief. In part because Laurens never really recovered from the pain of his loss, his biographer can still move us with a description of the graves of father and son, marked with simple stones bearing only names, dates, and the Latin inscription on John’s: “Duke et decorum est I pro patria mon”—“sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country.” The head and foot stones, the author notes, “are ten feet two inches apart, giving the impression of the resting place of giants.”
Yet it is worth observing that with the exception of a few real intimates, those who knew John Laurens best seem to have mourned him least. Washington’s judgment gives a clue to why: “intrepidity bordering on rashness” was his only fault. Greene’s report makes the explanation clearer: “Poor Laurens has fallen in a paltry little skirmish. You knew his temper, and I predicted his fate. The love of military glory made him seek it upon occasions unworthy [of] his rank.” Such censure of a dead man was unusual for Greene; to understand it we need to recall that he had lost not only an officer but also nearly half of his detachment. Nor was this the first time Laurens had rather foolhardily risked the lives of his troops. At Coosawhatchie, near the Georgia boundary, when he was wounded in 1779, he had disobeyed orders and crossed the river to engage the enemy. Only good luck and the presence of mind of one of his subordinates managed to keep the command from being captured. In short, Laurens was too often ready to back up reckless rhetoric with reckless action. Moreover, his letters were crammed with references to death and to his willingness to bleed for his country. Having heard enough of this to make him uneasy, his father asked him what limits he put on his military service. “Glorious death, or the triumph of the cause in which we are engaged” was the response. That John alone—of all of Washington’s aides- courted death with sufficient ardor to win it during the war makes it significant that he placed victory second, as if he thereby unconsciously revealed a personal order of priorities.