From the tapestry of the American Revolution emerges a figure unlike any other: John Laurens of South Carolina. What distinguishes Laurens is his fervent stance against slavery, an audacious position in an era of contradictions. Born to privilege and poised to inherit a legacy of plantations and trade, Laurens defied his upbringing, dedicating himself to liberty for all. His journey unfolds as he navigates battles, friendships, and ethical dilemmas in a nation grappling with its own creed. A revolutionary visionary ahead of his time, Laurens’ life story is a testament to his unyielding dedication to the cause of liberty, forward-thinking ideals, and lasting legacy in the American Revolution.

Early Years and Education

John “Jack” Laurens was born on October 28, 1754, in Charleston, South Carolina, to a prominent family deeply enmeshed in the colonial elite. Henry, his father, held a seat in Congress, possessed an extensive rice plantation, and managed one of the nation’s most prosperous slave markets. Consequently, raised in an atmosphere of privilege, John received an education combining classical learning with enlightenment principles. His exposure to the writings of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, among others, ignited a hunger for freedom and equality that would define his life’s trajectory.

John Laurens Portaits
A collage portrait of John Laurens (left) by Charles Willson Peale and (right) by H.B. Hall (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The eldest among five surviving children, John and his younger brothers were sent to Europe for their education. Despite his eagerness to join the Continental Army, young Jack could only do so after finishing his law studies. When he finally did, he joined the American forces during the Philadelphia Campaign, where he directly assumed George Washington’s “military family.” Subsequently, he made acquaintance and a tight-knit bond with the Marquis de Lafayette and the revered Alexander Hamilton. Washington invited Laurens to join his staff as a volunteer aide-de-camp, or confidential secretary, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Contribution to the American Revolution

When the winds of revolution began to sweep across the American colonies, Laurens eagerly embraced the cause. His family’s wealth allowed him to support the Patriot forces financially, but his true impact lay in his unwavering commitment to the ideals he held dear. As a young officer in the Continental Army, Laurens displayed exceptional leadership and strategic prowess, catching the eye of General Washington.

Laurens was there for all of Washington’s big battles, from Brandywine (1777) to Yorktown (1781), and he was quite brave—sometimes too brave. His fellow soldiers and officers noticed this. At the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette said Laurens did everything he could to get hurt, even though it wasn’t his fault he didn’t.

“It was not his fault that he was not killed or wounded; he did everything that was necessary to procure one or t’other.” said Lafayette.

In 1778, amid the revolutionary fighting against the British crown, Laurens found himself challenging General Charles Lee, accordingly dubbed Washington’s most arrogant commander, to a duel after Lee impugned Washington’s character. The arrogant general got wounded on his side, and their second-in-command resolved the entire altercation.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis
Detail of ‘Surrender of Lord Cornwallis‘ by John Trumbull, showing (from left to right) Colonels Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and Walter Stewart. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Laurens’ most notable contribution came in the form of his fervent advocacy for the enlistment of African Americans into the Continental Army. Recognizing the injustice of slavery and the need for a workforce, he proposed a daring plan to recruit enslaved individuals as soldiers, offering them freedom in exchange for their service. This proposition, though met with resistance from some quarters, showcased Laurens’ radical vision of a more egalitarian America.

The Fight Against Slavery

Laurens’ fight against slavery extended beyond the battlefield. He understood that true freedom required not only independence from British rule but also the liberation of those in chains. In 1779, he journeyed to Paris, forging an alliance with abolitionist Benjamin Franklin and securing military support for the American cause. During his time in Europe, he also developed friendships with influential thinkers like Lafayette and Hamilton, sharing his vision of an inclusive republic.

Laurens’ Legend and Legacy

Tragically, John Laurens’ life was cut short at the tender age of 27 in a skirmish against British forces in 1782. His death marked the loss of a voice that could have further propelled the abolitionist cause and shaped the trajectory of post-revolutionary America. The news of his death was mourned by many people, including Hamilton, who wrote his immense sorrow upon hearing the news of Laurens’ death. In his heartfelt words, Hamilton described Laurens as a dear and exceptional friend, emphasizing his virtuous life that has come to 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,” Hamilton wrote in a letter to Major General Nathanael Greene.

Yet, Laurens’ legacy endured. His commitment to enlisting African Americans eventually bore fruit, as the Continental Army did integrate Black soldiers, albeit to a limited extent. His ideas on racial equality echoed through the decades, reverberating in the works of later abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

In recent years, John Laurens’ legacy has gained renewed recognition. His story has emerged from the shadows, highlighting his role as a revolutionary ahead of his time, a man who saw the interconnectedness of liberty and equality and dared to challenge his era’s norms. As the world continues to grapple with issues of justice and equality, the story of John Laurens serves as a reminder that even in the darkest of times, some stand as beacons of hope, blazing a trail toward a more just and equitable future.