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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
Needless to say, living up to these ideals was difficult, and Laurens frequently fell short of them. But again there wTere special reasons why he should regret his failures more deeply than most. One was his father, who quite simply expected far more than the average parent. Strive to be perfect, he told John. Although Henry admitted that this was impossible for any human being, he frequently acted as though he thought his own offspring was an exception. Moreover, though there is little evidence about John’s punishment as a boy, what has survived indicates that his father probably depended a great deal on the threatened deprivation of love. The nature of Henry’s ideals as well as the character of his own personality, which made him prone to rigid ethical judgments about persons, would seem to dictate as much. Furthermore, when there was a possibility that John would disobey him by breaking off his education and returning to America before receiving permission, his father remarked that in such an event he would console himself with the thought that he had “had a son.” The emphasis was on the past tense; disobedience would bring both material and emotional disin heritance. For present purposes, the important thing about all of this is that the empirical findings of modern psychology suggest that this type of punishment may be associated with the development of personalities that direct their aggressions inward rather than outward, against self rather than others.
In addition to his upbringing, two episodes in John Laurens’ life indicate that there were tangible reasons for directing aggressions against himself. The first occurred because he was the oldest of three brothers being educated abroad. “You are the Man, the proper Man to be my friend while I live, & the friend of my younger family after my Death; you [are] therefore [the one] on whom, next to God, I rely …” his father confided to him. Put in these terms, the care of his younger brothers involved an awesome responsibility, but John accepted it manfully. A bit later he wrote to his father, enclosing letters from “our dear little Jemmy. … I promise to take great care of him.” This was written about January, 1775; within the year John was to write that James, having fractured his skull while playing, was dead at the age of ten. Obviously John was not responsible, but as a later writer observed, his “sensitive nature … prompted him to bitter self reproaches. …” In addition, John was soon to have more justification for feeling guilty. Sex. And it was not because he was not forewarned. His father’s one-time friend Sir Egerton Leigh had made himself notorious in Charleston by sleeping with Laurens’ cousin. On another occasion Henry had used another man as an object lesson for a lecture on the dangers of an imprudent attachment. “There,” he wrote, “is a Bar to Fame—to Honest Fame & peace of Mind—the Work & Hopes of Parents—the Labour & Laudable Ambition of all the Years in Youth—tumbled down—by a Baggage of no Value—the Love & friendship of Good Men—of a whole Community —prospect of Glory & future good Days—All—All, sacrificed upon the knees of a little FYeckled Faced ordinary Wench—Let other Men Comiserate his Wretchedness & take Heed.” Not too many years later John himself was forced to confess that “Pity” had recently forced him to marry secretly without either parent’s permission and that he would soon be a father. Though socially his equal, John’s wife was English, and marriage on the eve of his return to America to fight against his wife’s native land could hardly be termed prudent. Nor was it necessarily indicative of romance, for Laurens neither took her with him nor waited for the birth of his daughter. And though his wife apparently went to FVance to meet him in 1781, there seems to be no evidence for the belief that they were presented together at court. In fact, if he saw her at all, it could only have been very briefly. Sometime after he left for America, she died in Flanders. How Laurens felt when he got the news is a fruitful subject lor conjecture.
Tragedy was obviously no stranger to him, and it is unlikely that he was ever entirely free from the feeling that he had been inadvertently responsible. Whether he felt the same way about men lost under his command also invites speculation. More certain, though, is the way in which Major John André’s fate fascinated both Laurens and Hamilton. In part theirs was no doubt a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I.” André’s position as an aide to Sir Henry Clinton was comparable to theirs vis-á-vis Washington. André’s negotiations with Benedict Arnold led to his capture and eventual execution; a similar mission with a similar fate was easily within the realm of possibility for either of the two Americans. Hamilton, clearly, was deeply moved by André’s courageous death. Laurens’ reaction is less well documented, but he could scarcely have shrugged off his friend’s observations. After a eulogistic recounting of André’s qualities Hamilton noted in a letter to Laurens: “I am aware that a man of real merit is never seen in so favourable a light, as through the medium of adversity. The clouds that surround him are shades that set off his good qualities. … His spectators who enjoy a happier lot are less prone to detract from it, through envy, and are more disposed by compassion to give him the credit he deserves and perhaps even to magnify it.” Hamilton and Laurens both knew death to be the onlv real absolution.