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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
His background makes this hypothesis plausible. Educated on the classics, he, like many of his contemporaries, grew up the imaginary companion of ancient heroes who died defending liberty. Foremost among them was Cicero, who chose to die at the hand of Mark Antony’s men, a martyr to republican ideals. Then too there was Cato the Younger, who committed suicide by tearing out his own bowels after being defeated by Caesar. “Conquering causes are dear to the gods,” Lucan wrote, “the conquered to Cato.” Such men could easily have supplied the models of behavior—fictional or real—that modern psychologists have found to be crucial to the development of personality during adolescence. Thus one of the most frequently quoted lines of Horace, the most popular poet of antiquity among the Revolutionary generation, was the one inscribed on Laurens’ gravestone. Significantly, it was also the one he had used in requesting his father’s permission to return to America. Furthermore, the concept of republicanism itself possessed ethical correlates. Consequently when Americans sought to institutionalize and sanction their Revolution by republican forms of government, they endowed their efforts with moral meaning. But in the process they also assumed a heavy burden, for in classical theory and contemporary political thought the stability of republics depended upon the virtue of their people. That is to say, Americans believed that their perilous experiment could succeed only if they proved to be virtuous. One result of such a belief, of course, was to put Revolutionary leaders under great pressure to demonstrate that they did in fact measure up. Moreover, for many what has been termed the Puritan ethic augmented the force of the republican imperative. A complex system of values, ideas, and attitudes, this ethic—like Max Weber’s concept of the Protestant ethic, to which it is closely related—involved the notion of a calling. God called a man to a socially useful occupation, and, be it high or low, it was his duty to “labor assiduously at it.” Specifically, as Edmund S. Morgan put it in an essay on the Puritan ethic, “he must shun both idleness, or neglect of his calling, and sloth, or slackness in it.” In short, it was his duty to strive to be virtuous. Moreover, by the time of the American Revolution this ethic was by no means limited to Puritans, or even to their descendants, though men whose ancestors could be numbered among the Protestant dissenters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have taken these imperatives most seriously.
That the Laurenses were originally Huguenot refugees therefore is a fact of some importance. Henry’s letters to his son distill the doctrine. “The Evil of prodigality is not confined to the Loss of Money—Loss of time is a greater. …” “Loss of Time even at your Age is scarcely redeemable. …” “Life is the Gift of God & we are accountable to him not only for, but for the improvement of, it.” In particular, John’s station in life meant that he was called to leadership. “The Eyes of your friends & of your Country are upon you,” his father reminded him, “they are in expectation … for your own sake, for theirs & for the sake of posterity disappoint them not by coming up a bundle of Garolina Rushes. …” Doubtless John had received exactly the same kind of counsel from his old tutor, the Reverend B. Henri Himeli, pastor of the Huguenot Church in Charleston, for Himeli considered the minor French novelist Jean François Marmontel to be the wisest author of his age. And to Marmontel, who put the essence of his philosophy in the mouth of one of his characters, the art of governing consisted of “following the suggestions of wisdom and virtue.” And finally, as if this were not enough to influence him, Laurens spent an important part of his formative years in Geneva, that proud remnant of European republicanism in the eighteenth century. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that all the imperatives of the age impinged upon him with special force. Destined to be a leader, he was expected to be a model of republican virtue. For him to have internalized the demands that his surroundings and associates continually reinforced would have been only natural; that he in fact did do so seems to be borne out by one of his favorite quotations: “Where liberty is, there is my country.” It was the famous motto of Algernon Sidney, the seventeenthcentury republican martyr who occupied a high place among the heroes of the Revolutionary generation.