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John Laurens didn’t live to see the end of the American Revolution. He died at age 27, killed by the British ten months after Yorktown – which was only recognized in hindsight as the final battle of the American Revolutionary War. In fact, after Cornwallis’s surrender on October 19, 1781, thirty thousand British troops remained in America, occupying the key coastal cities of New York, Charleston, and Savannah. Laurens died on August 27, 1782, in a skirmish near his home town of Charleston.
Laurens (1754-1782) was only a few years older than Hamilton, and from August 1777 to mid-1778, both served on Washington’s staff. After the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, the Marquis de Lafayette remarked, “It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded … he did every thing that was necessary to procure one or t’other.” (Quoted in the American National Biography from a letter of Laurens’s father Henry, who was a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress.)
Had he lived, John Laurens might have been a prominent Founding Father and a powerful force in the abolitionist movement. At Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778, he conceived the idea of granting slaves freedom if they would volunteer to serve in the American army. His letter below, written February 2, 1778, was part of an ongoing discussion with his father about the project. Congress authorized the formation of black regiments in March 1779, but the South Carolina legislature repeatedly rejected the idea.
Before you start reading: pay attention to the way Laurens characterizes slaves, as opposed to how he reports that those arguing against him do. In the late 18th century most Americans, and especially Southerners, were racists: they believed that blacks were born inferior. (“Racism claims … that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control.” I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand, who rejected racism.)
Laurens, on the other hand, thinks slaves deserve “the rights of humanity.” He believes they have been trampled and oppressed, debased by servitude, and have in self-defense developed the habit of accepting what they were not able to change. But Laurens believes their wretched state is only the result of the way they’ve been treated, and that if given the choice to be free, they will take it.
By the standards of his time, then, Laurens had startlingly advanced ideas. Kudos to him for having the guts to fight for them in a time and place that was highly antagonistic. From this letter, it’s clear that even his father and Commander in Chief George Washington weren’t 100% behind him on his project.
Headquarters, 2d Feb., 1778
The more I reflect upon the difficulties and delays which are likely to attend the completing our Continental regiments, the more anxiously is my mind bent upon the scheme, which I lately communicated to you. The obstacles to the execution of it had presented themselves to me, but by no means appeared insurmountable. I was aware of having that monstrous popular prejudice, open-mouthed against me, of under taking to transform beings almost irrational, into well disciplined soldiers, of being obliged to combat the arguments, and perhaps the intrigues, of interested persons. But zeal for the public service, and an ardent desire to assert the rights of humanity, determined me to engage in this arduous business, with the sanction of your consent. My own perseverance, aided by the countenance of a few virtuous men, will, I hope, enable me to accomplish it.
You seem to think, my dear father, that men reconciled by long habit to the miseries of their condition, would prefer their ignominious bonds to the untasted sweets of liberty, especially when offer’d upon the terms which I propose.
I confess, indeed, that the minds of this unhappy species must be debased by a servitude, from which they can hope for no relief but death, and that every motive to action but fear, must be nearly extinguished in them. But do you think they are so perfectly moulded to their state as to be insensible that a better exists? Will the galling comparison between them selves and their masters leave them unenlightened in this respect? Can their self love be so totally annihilated as not frequently to induce ardent wishes for a change?
You will accuse me, perhaps, my dearest friend, of consulting my own feelings too much; but I am tempted to believe that this trampled people have so much human left in them, as to be capable of aspiring to the rights of men by noble exertions, if some friend to mankind would point the road, and give them a prospect of success. If I am mistaken in this, I would avail myself, even of their weakness, and, conquering one fear by another, produce equal good to the public. You will ask in this view, how do you consult the benefit of the slaves? I answer, that like other men, they are the creatures of habit. Their cowardly ideas will be gradually effaced, and they will be modified anew. Their being rescued from a state of perpetual humiliation, and being advanced, as it were, in the scale of being, will compensate the dangers incident to their new state.
The hope that will spring in each man’s mind, respecting his own escape, will prevent his being miserable. Those who fall in battle will not lose much; those who survive will obtain their reward. Habits of subordination, patience under fatigues, sufferings and privations of every kind, are soldierly qualifications, which these men possess in an eminent degree.
Upon the whole, my dearest friend and father, I hope that my plan for serving my country and the oppressed negro race will not appear to you the chimera of a young mind, deceived by false apearance of moral beauty, but a laudable sacrifice of private interest, to justice and the public good.
You say, that my resources would be small, on account of the proportion of women and children. I do not know whether I am right, for I speak from impulse, and have not reasoned upon the matter. I say, altho my plan is at once to give freedom to the negroes, and gain soldiers to the states; in case of concurrence, I sh’d sacrifice the former interest, and therefore w’d change the women and children for able-bodied men. The more of these I could obtain, the better; but forty might be a good foundation to begin upon. [NOTE: I’m not sure what he’s proposing here. DD]
It is a pity that some such plan as I propose could not be more extensively executed by public authority. A well chosen body of 5,000 black men, properly officer’d, to act as light troops, in addition to our present establishment, might give us decisive success in the next campaign.
I have long deplored the wretched state of these men, and considered in their history, the bloody wars excited in Africa, to furnish America with slaves the groans of despairing multitudes, toiling for the luxuries of merciless tyrants. [NOTE: Something’s wrong with the syntax here; if I had access to the original print version, I’d check if something’s missing. Or perhaps, writing in haste, Laurens simply made an error. DD]
I have had the pleasure of conversing with you, sometimes, upon the means of restoring them to their rights. When can it be better done, than when their enfranchisement may be made conducive to the public good, and be modified, as not to overpower their weak minds?
You ask, what is the general’s opinion, upon this subject? He is convinced, that the numerous tribes of blacks in the southern parts of the continent, offer a resource to use that should not be neglected. With respect to my particular plan, he only objects to it, with the arguments of pity for a man who would be less rich than he might be ….” (From The Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laruens in the Years 1777-8, with a Memoir by William Gilmore Simmms, 1867; quoted in Wm. Thomas Sherman, “...Your Dutiful Son, John Laurens“
Laurens and Hamilton
This is the point where a Hamilton scholar or someone with an LGBTQ ax to grind would discuss whether Hamilton and Laurens had a homosexual relationship. I’ve read their surviving letters to each other, which would be the only reliable evidence. The letters don’t support such a relationship. You (by which I mean, “not I”) can have a long-winded debate about the expression of affection in eighteenth-century prose and whether their families destroyed any “incriminating” letters, but it won’t get you any closer to the historical truth – whatever that was.
- In Hamilton: An American Musical, John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and the Marquis de Lafayette are Hamilton’s three best friends: they first appear halfway through “Aaron Burr, Sir.”
- The letter above is from a selection of John Laurens’s letters to his father, published with a short introduction by Wm. Thomas Sherman. These letters are not available (yet?) on the Founders Archive site.
- I’ve occasionally added comments based on these blog posts to the Genius.com pages on the Hamilton Musical. Follow me @DianneDurante.
- This is the fourth in a series of posts on Hamilton: An American Musical. Other posts are available via the tag cloud at lower right. The ongoing “index” to these posts is my Kindle book, Alexander Hamilton: A Brief Biography. Bottom line: these are unofficial musings, and you do not need them to enjoy the musical or the soundtrack.
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