8 Year Anniversary party winners: Joan Hochstetler's book winner is -- Caryl Kane, Naomi Musch's ebook goes to Crissy Yoder Shamion, Roseanna White's winner is -- Connie Saunders, Pegg Thomas's "A Bouquet of Brides" goes to Deanna Stevens, Debra E. Marvin's winner is -- Becky Dempsey, Carrie Fancett Pagels' giveaway of Colonial Michilimackinac: Michigan State Parks goes to Wilani Wahl, Carla Olson Gade's winner is Leila Reynolds, Shannon McNear -- Kaitlin Covel

Monday, March 11, 2019

Colonial Abolitionist John Laurens

A miniature of Laurens by Charles Wilson Peale
The popularity of the musical Hamilton has brought some refreshing familiarity with the colonial era and some of its more obscure inhabitants to general society in the past couple of years. One such figure is John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens, South Carolina planter and first president of the Continental Congress. (Also later a prisoner in the Tower of London.)

Like many planters’ sons, John went overseas for his education. While there, he married Martha Manning, the daughter of one of his father’s business associates—but by his own admission, out of “pity,” to save her reputation and the legitimacy of their child, which Martha was already expecting. Because of the outbreak of the American Revolution, he left Martha in England shortly thereafter and threw himself into the war effort, where he distinguished himself as brave to the point of recklessness, won the approval of George Washington, and found immediate friendships with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette.

The Laurens family cemetery, Berkeley County, SC
It was in 1779, however, when the British had just launched the Southern Campaign, that John Laurens’s character as a political and social maverick truly came to the fore. He argued with his father that after the fall of Savannah, Georgia, Charles Towne could be most effectively defended if the Continental Army would only enlist blacks. Henry Laurens had claimed to be in favor of abolition, despite making much of his fortune from slave trading and growing rice, and even went so far as to agree to give John forty of his enslaved men to form the core of a black regiment, with the promise of freedom at the end of the war if they served faithfully—a move that would have caused John to effectively forfeit his own inheritance. The idea was met with much resistance from other South Carolina planters and political leaders. Henry Laurens, feeling the pinch of that opposition from his own peers, and doubtless feeling caught between what he saw as reality vs. idealism, responded to his son with what basically amounted to, This will never be agreed to; sit down and stop rocking the boat, because you don’t understand the reality of our times and culture. John tried three different times to bring the measure before the South Carolina legislature, only to have it refused every time—and in May 1780, Charleston did indeed fall and remained under British rule until December 1782.

Blue hyacinth marking the grave of John Laurens
In August, during the last year of British occupation, John Laurens met an early death, the result of his famed recklessness in battle. He was buried on the banks of the Cooper River, beside family at Mepkin Plantation, now known as Mepkin Abbey. Though John’s vision died with him, many feel that such forward-thinking suggestions, and his insistence that enslaved Africans were indeed persons of worth and potential equal to any of European descent, set the stage for later abolitionist movements. His attempt to see blacks armed in the defense of our country, and later freed, definitely foreshadowed the debates of the Civil War era. Many have argued that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was merely a strategical military move and not in the best interest of enslaved Negroes in general, but by the end of the Civil War, even the Confederates had reluctantly agreed to offer freedom to enslaved black men in exchange for military service—but too late to save the Confederacy. The parallels, however, are fascinating.

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