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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
In politics as in war, it seemed, Laurens was willing to destroy himself in order to prove his virtue. Such zeal may make a martyr, but not a politician. Marmontel to the contrary, effective politics demands more than virtue; it also requires the kind of realism about oneself and others that prompted John Rutledge to declare in the Constitutional Convention that the slave trade, which he was then defending, had nothing to do with moral principle; rather it was a matter of economic interest, pure and simple. Given conditions at the time, this was not cynicism on his part, but political horse sense. If the noble imperatives of the classical tradition and the Puritan ethic helped to endow the American Revolution with moral meaning, it was the rational assessment of realities that helped to make it succeed. True to the eighteenthcentury ideal, the most creative men of the age were able to maintain something of a balance between the real and the ideal. Laurens, on the other hand, allowed himself to become obsessed by the pursuit of virtue; Hamilton termed him a knight errant.
Ironically, it was precisely this lack of balance that made him attractive to ante-bellum South Carolinians, for his quest—like theirs—was essentially a romantic and perhaps irrational one. They both protested too much; the continual assertion and eventual suicidal demonstration of their selfless virtue suggests that each found the tension between aspiration and achievement ‘more than could be borne. For only in the heedless disregard of personal safety could the cavaliers of the Old South demonstrate that their attachment to slavery was not motivated by self-interest; and only in death could John Laurens prove that he was as virtuous as he sought to be. Thus the kinship of circumstance, as well as of land and blood, helps to explain why southern politicians and men of letters like Robert Y. Hayne and William Gilmore Simms revered Laurens as “the Bayard of America”—the knight “ without fear , and without reproach ” ready to sacrifice everything in the cause of his country. He was, said Hayne, “the purest and most disinterested of human beings.” But that the memory of a man who sought to free the blacks should be invoked to defend their enslavement brings to mind A. E. Housman’s lines of “To an Athlete Dying Young”: “Smart lad, to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay.”
In a sense, Laurens had his day. Bravery such as his was doubtless functional in the Revolutionary army, where an officer’s example often had to substitute for discipline among an amateur soldiery. But the case is not so clear-cut in regard to the common claim that “had it not been for his untimely death,” as one historian put it, he might have been “one of the greatest of the younger Founding Fathers.” Perhaps. But conditions in the modern world make us more aware that his qualifications as a statesman are somewhat suspect. In short, Laurens exemplified—perhaps more clearly than most of his contemporaries—a dangerous but essential facet of our political tradition. To realize how dangerous it can be we have only to review his own career and that of his nineteenth-century hagiographers; to remember how essential it is too, however, we have only to recall the events of the last few years in which some of our leaders allowed, in the words of Jeb Stuart Magruder, “ambition, loyalty, and partisan passion” to override both judgment and honor. Before we jettison the military heroes of the Revolution, we should recall that that is a mistake few of them, and least of all John Laurens, would have made.