John Laurens Dies in South Carolina, August 1782 (Hamilton 42)

In July 1782, Alexander Hamilton passed the bar in New York State, became the state’s tax receiver, and was appointed a delegate for New York State to the Continental Congress, in the session that would meet in November 1782. His first-born son Philip was six months old. Meanwhile, Hamilton kept up his correspondence, including letters to Lt.-Col. John Laurens, with whom he’d become friends when they served together on Washington’s staff. (More on Laurens in this post, the fourth in my Hamilton Musical series.)

After a trip to France as envoy extraordinary in early 1781, John Laurens had returned to the United States in time for the Siege of Yorktown. There he helped set the terms of capitulation for Cornwallis and his men. (See here.) In early 1782, Laurens briefly served on the South Carolina legislature, then rejoined the army under General Nathanael Greene near Charleston, South Carolina. In early August, he wrote to his long-time friend:

I am indebted to you, my dear Hamilton, for two letters; the first from Albany, as masterly a piece of cynicism as ever was penned, the other from Philadelphia, dated the 2d March [NOTE: neither of these letters survives]; in both, you mention a design of retiring, which makes me exceedingly unhappy. I would not wish to have you for a moment withdrawn from the public service; at the same time, my friendship for you, and knowlege of your value to the United States, make me most ardently desire, that you should fill only the first offices of the Republic. I was flattered with an account of your being elected a delegate from N. York, and am much mortified not to hear it confirmed by yourself. I must confess to you, that, at the present state of the War, I shd. prefer your going into Congress, and from thence, becoming a Minister plenipotentiary for peace, to your remaining in the Army, where the dull System of seniority and the Tableau would prevent you from having the important commands to which you are entitled; but at any rate I wd. not have you renounce your rank in the Army, unless you entered the career above-mentioned. Your private affairs cannot require such immediate and close attention; you speak like a pater familias surrounded with a numerous progeny. 

I had, in fact, resumed the black project, as you were informed, and urged the matter very strenuously, both to our privy council and legislative body; but I was out-voted, having only reason on my side, and being opposed by a triple-headed monster that shed the baneful influence of Avarice, prejudice, and pusillanimity in all our Assemblies. It was some consolation to me, however, to find that philosophy and truth had made some little progress since my last effort, as I obtained twice as many suffrages as before. (More here; the end of the letter is missing, but might have included the paragraph quoted by John C. Hamilton, here)

The “black project” is Laurens’s proposal to grant slaves in South Carolina freedom if they volunteered to serve in the American army (more here).

Hamilton replied to Laurens from Albany on August 15, 1782:

I received with great Pleasure, My Dear Laurens, the letter which you wrote me in ___ [blank in manuscript] last.

Your wishes in one respect are gratified; this state has pretty unanimously delegated me to Congress. My time of service commences in November. It is not probable it will result in what you mention [i.e., an appointment as a minister plenipotentiary]. I hope it is too late. We have great reason to flatter ourselves peace on our own terms is upon the carpet. The making it is in good hands. It is said your father is exchanged for Cornwallis and gone to Paris to meet the other commissioners and that Grenville on the part of England has made a second trip there, in the last instance, vested with Plenipotentiary powers. [See the Founders Archive notes on the actual peace commissioners.]

I fear there may be obstacles but I hope they may be surmounted.

Peace made, My Dear friend, a new scene opens. The object then will be to make our independence a blessing. To do this we must secure our union on solid foundations; an herculean task and to effect which mountains of prejudice must be levelled!

It requires all the virtue and all the abilities of the Country. Quit your sword my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress. We know each others sentiments, our views are the same: we have fought side by side to make America free, let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.

Remember me to General Greene with all the warmth of a sincere attachment.

Yrs for ever
A Hamilton (More here)

Hamilton’s friend probably never received that letter. Laurens was stationed outside Charleston, which the British continued to occupy while peace negotiations were under way. On August 27, 1782, he was killed in a skirmish near the city.

We don’t know how Hamilton found out, but he knew by October 12, 1782, when he wrote to General Nathanael Greene, Laurens’s commander:

Dr General

It is an age since I have either written to you or received a line from you; yet I persuade myself you have not been the less convinced of my affectionate attachment and warm participation in all those events which have given you that place in your countrys esteem and approbation which I have know⟨n⟩ you to deserve while your enemies and rivals were most active in sullying your reputation.

You will perhaps learn before this reaches you that I have been appointed a member of Congress. I expect to go to Philadelphia in the ensuing month, where I shall be happy to correspond with you with our ancient confidence and I shall entreat you not to confine your observations to military subjects but to take in the whole scope of national concerns. I am sure your ideas will be useful to me and to the public.

I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and ⟨inesti⟩mable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end. How strangely are human affairs conducted, that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate? The world will feel the loss of a man who has left few like him behind, and America of a citizen whose heart realized that patriotism of which others only talk. I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number.

I take the liberty to inclose you a letter to Mr. Kane Executor to the estate of Mr. Lavine a half brother of mine who died some time since in South Carolina. …

I am Dr. Sir, truly Yr. friend & ser
A Hamilton (More here)

Several weeks later (November 3, 1782),  Hamilton wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette from Albany:

I have been taught dayly to expect your return. This I should not have done from my own calculations; for I saw no prospect but of an inactive campaign, and you had much better be intriguing for your hobby horse at Paris than loitering away your time here. …

I have been employed for the last ten months in rocking the cradle and studying the art of fleecing my neighbours. I am now a Grave Counsellor at law, and shall soon be a grand member of Congress. The Legislature at their last session took it into their heads to name me pretty unanimously one of their delegates. I am going to throw away a few months more in public life and then I retire a simple citizen and good paterfamilias. I set out for Philadelphia in a few days. You see the disposition I am in. You are condemned to run the race of ambition all your life. I am already tired of the career and dare to leave it.

But you would not give a pin for my letter unless politics or war made a part of it. You tell me they are employed in building a peace; And other accounts say it is nearly finished; I hope the work may meet with no interruptions: it is necessary for America; especially if your army is taken from us as we are told will soon be the case. That was an essential point d’appui; Though money was the primum mobile of our finances, which must now lose the little activity lately given them, our trade is prodigiously cramped. These states are in no humour for continuing exertions; if the war lasts, it must be carried on by external succours. I make no apology for the inertness of this country. I detest it; but since it exists I am sorry to see other resources diminish.

Your Ministers ought to know best what they are doing; but if the war goes on and the removal of the army does not prove an unwise measure I renounce all future pretensions to judgment. I think however the circumstances of the enemy oblige them to peace. …

There is no probability that I shall be one of the Commissioners for peace. It is a thing I do not desire myself and which I imagine other people will not desire.

Our army is now in excellent order but small. …

General & Mrs. Schuyler & Mrs. Hamilton all join warmly in the most affectionate remembrances to you. As to myself I am in truth yours pour la vie

I wrote a long letter to the Viscount De Noailles whom I also love. Has he received it? Is the worthy Gouvion well? has he succeeded? how is it with our friend Gimat? how is it with General Du Portail, all those men are men of merit & interest my best wishes.

Poor Laurens; he has fallen a sacrifice to his ardor in a trifling skirmish in South Carolina. You know how truly I loved him and will judge how much I regret him.

I will write you again soon after my arrival at Philadelphia. (More here)

Miniature of John Laurens by Charles Wilson Peale

Miniature of John Laurens by Charles Wilson Peale


  • This collection of John’s letters to his father (latest dated 1778) includes a photo of John Laurens’ grave marker.
  • Henry Laurens, John’s father, was at this time in Europe, having been captured by the British on his way to France, and then exchanged for Lord Cornwallis. He would have heard of his son’s death while he was still abroad, probably at least a month after the fact. In Hamilton: The Revolution (p. 131), Alexander hears of John’s death through a letter from Henry Laurens that’s read aloud by Eliza: “On Tuesday the 27th, my son was killed in a gunfight against British troops retreating from South Carolina. As you know, John dreamed of emancipating and recruiting 3,000 men for the first all-black military regiment. His dream of freedom for these men dies with him.” Henry Laurens was probably not the first to notify Alexander of John’s death – round-trip messages to Europe would take at least 2 months – but as a theatrical device, the letter from Henry Laurens works perfectly well. (If it’s an actual letter, I haven’t been able to find it: let me know if you have.)
  • I’ve started adding comments based on these blog posts to the pages on the Hamilton Musical: a fantastic resource. Follow me @DianneDurante.
  • The usual disclaimer: This is the forty-second in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical My intro to this series is here. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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