- Historic Sites
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
Why Hamilton survived the Revolution and Laurens did not is therefore a question worth considering. Upon occasion they could be equally foolish. When American forces were in full retreat at Monmouth, Hamilton rushed up to General Lee, brandishing his sword and exclaiming, “I will stay here with you, my dear General, and die with you; let us all die here rather than retreat.” Lee considered him to be daft—“much flustered and in a sort of frenzy of valor” was his description of the young colonel. And at Yorktown, Hamilton again rashly exposed himself to death. One reason he outlived Laurens by some twenty years was that he participated in fewer engagements. But had he chosen to, Laurens could have seen much less combat. In 1779, for example, Congress offered him a position as secretary to the American legation in Paris. His command of French would have made him useful there; he had already established his reputation for valor; and his father obviously hoped that he would accept the appointment. Yet John refused. Somehow he could not heed the advice his father had given him after the Battle of Cermantown. “No Man can doubt of your bravery, your own good sense will point out the distinction between Courage & temerity nor need I tell you that it [is as] much your duty to preserve your own health & strength as it is to destroy an Enemy.” Although one is tempted to conclude that John ignored this admonition because risking his life in battle provided a legitimate way of symbolically rejecting his father’s lifelong demands, it is worth noting that Hamilton gave him exactly the same advice: “Adieu my Dear; I am sure you will exert yourself to save your country; but do not unnecessarily risk one of its most valuable sons. Take as much care of yourself as you ought for the public sake and for the sake of Y[ou]r affectionate A. Hamilton.”
Interesting as this entire letter is, Hamilton’s last point is most significant for present purposes. Antiquity offered the Revolutionary generation two related but essentially different models of behavior. The one was the military hero, or republican martyr; the other was the solon, or wise legislator. Hamilton was well aware of the distinction, and except in moments of unusual excitement he subordinated the former to the latter. Laurens either failed to understand the difference or reversed the priorities. Hamilton usually took risks because they served a larger purpose in which his desire to benefit the public and himself were inextricably but consciously intertwined; nowhere is this more clearly apparent than in his death. Though reluctant to accept Aaron Burr’s challenge, he felt that he had no choice, because a refusal might compromise his popular reputation to the point where he would be debarred forever from rendering his country further service. In short, despite all his love for glory Hamilton’s military exploits bore a political penumbra; Laurens’ political actions, however, carried a military aura.
Hamilton could be manipulative; Laurens could only be demonstrative. It was as if the latter believed the gesture to be more important than the results. When Governor Rutledge apparently tried to stall for time by offering to negotiate with General Prévost while American forces hurried to the defense of Charleston in 1779, Laurens refused to carry his messages, thereby demonstrating both his patriotism and his political naivete. In France two years later, he was probably not as direct and obtuse as has sometimes been reported, but his impatience with diplomatic niceties could well have wrecked his mission if the French court had not already been favorably disposed. The more subtle Franklin quietly noted after his departure that he had “brusqued the ministers too much, and I found … that he had thereby given more offence than I could have imagined.” And noble as it was, his attempt to raise a black regiment was cut from the same cloth. His father, who was a wily politician though a man of principles opposed to slavery, cautioned him against ignoring many considerations. “A Work of this importance must be entered upon with Caution & great circumspection. …” But John replied that “my reputation is at stake. … As a Soldier, as a Citizen, as a Man—I am interested to engage in this work. …” The scheme, he hoped, would not appear to his father to be “the chimera of a young mind, deceived by a false appearance of moral beauty, but a laudable sacrifice of private interest, to justice and the public good.” Significantly, these words were remarkably similar to those with which he explained his refusal to take pay for his military service, which—he said—was because he wished to give to his country “a pure offering of disinterested services.” Without deprecating his plan or denigrating his motives, it is possible to suggest that his project was designed not only to save the state from the British and the blacks from slavery but also to demonstrate something about himself. Sincere as he probably was in both of the former aims, it is hard to believe that he could be blind to what every Virginia politician of stature appears to have known at the time: that a frontal attack on slavery—even there, let alone in South Carolina, where planters were more committed to it- would be self-defeating and politically suicidal.