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Henry Laurens - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Tuesday, December 29, 2020

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Birth: March 6, 1724
Death: December 8, 1792 (age 68)
Colony: South Carolina
Occupation: Plantation Owner, Merchant, Politician
Significance: Signed The Articles of Confederation (at the age of 54); served as Vice President of South Carolina (1776-1777); served in the Continental Congress (1777-1780); served as President of the Continental Congress (1777-1778)

Portrait of Henry Laurens painted while Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London

Henry Laurens was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Born to French Immigrant parents in Charleston, South Carolina, Laurens' father was a successful saddler and was able to provide Laurens with an education.

Laurens himself became a successful merchant and had thirteen children. In 1770, after the death of his wife Eleanor, Laurens traveled to London to assist his oldest son, John, in continuing his legal studies. John Laurens has become well known due to his friendship with Alexander Hamilton, which led to John Laurens appearing as a character in Hamilton: An American Musical. After Henry Laurens prepared John for his studies in England, Henry Laurens left England and returned to South Carolina.

After returning to the American colonies, Laurens joined the American Philosophical Society, America's first scholarly society, founded by fellow Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. While Laurens was not in Philadelphia with most members, Laurens corresponded with members of the society, many of whom had become consumed by the rising conflict between the American Colonies and Britain. Laurens became a strong supporter of the American Colonies in their dispute with Britain and became involved in politics. To that end, Laurens joined the South Carolina Committee of Safety, and in 1775, Laurens was elected to the South Carolina Provincial Congress, and was eventually elected President of the assembly. Laurens' political ascent continued when he was elected the first Vice President of South Carolina in March of 1776, a position analogous to the present day Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina.

Laurens was elected to serve in the Second Continental Congress in early 1777. While in the Continental Congress, Laurens became a very influential member of the assembly, and he was named the fifth President of the Continental Congress, succeeding John Hancock. Laurens presided over the approval of the Articles of Confederation by the Continental Congress, and he was among the first to sign the Articles on July 9, 1778 after the Articles were ratified by his Colony of South Carolina. 

Laurens left the Continental Congress in 1780 to travel to Amsterdam and negotiate a treaty with the Dutch. Laurens was however captured by the British off the coast of Newfoundland and held on suspicion of high treason. Laurens was taken to England, and he imprisoned in the Tower of London. Laurens was imprisoned for 15 months and was among the highest profile prisoners that the British captured during the American Revolution. He was eventually given his freedom in exchange for the freedom of Lord Cornwallis who was captured by the Americans following his decisive loss at the Battle of Yorktown to the Continental Army.

Unfinished Painting of the Treaty of Paris by Benjamin West which depicts Henry Laurens (second from right)

By the time Laurens was released, a group of delegates led by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were already in Paris negotiating the end of the American Revolutionary War. Laurens traveled to Paris and played a critical role in the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris, but Laurens returned to America before the treaty was signed.

Laurens returned to South Carolina to rebuild his plantation which had been destroyed by the British during the Revolutionary War. Henry Laurens' son, John, had tried to convince his father to free his slaves before John perished in the American Revolutionary War, but Henry ignored this request, and he never freed any of the over 250 slaves that he held.

Laurens was reelected to Continental Congress (Congress of the Confederation) upon his return to America but Laurens was in poor health and refused any further government appointments and retired from public life. Laurens died in 1792 on his plantation in South Carolina.

Henry Laurens in Philadelphia

Henry Laurens traveled to Philadelphia to serve as a member of the Second Continental Congress, during which time, Laurens worked at Independence Hall, where he signed The Articles of Confederation. And although Laurens mostly corresponded from afar as opposed to meeting in Philadelphia, Laurens was a member of the American Philosophical Society which meets at Philosophical Hall.

Today, Independence Hall and Philosophical Hall are some of the stops visited along The Constitutional Walking Tour!

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