Henry Laurens (1724-1792) was an American merchant and planter from South Carolina who became a political leader during the Revolutionary War. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, the Vice-President of South Carolina, and a diplomat.
Henry was born to John and Esther Grasset Laurens on March 6, 1724 in Charleston, South Carolina. His father was a saddler and his parents had come to Charles Town as part of the Huguenot immigration, drawn by the promise of religious liberty. His family prospered, and in 1744 Henry went to England where he learned the ways of commerce from a merchant who had formerly lived in Charleston.
Henry returned to Charleston in 1747. He entered the export and import business and became a prosperous merchant. On June 25, 1750 he married Eleanor Ball. The couple would have twelve children. While seven died in infancy or childhood, others achieved prominence. Their son John Laurens fought and died in the Revolution. Their daughter Mary married Charles Pinckney, while their son Henry married Eliza, the daughter of John Rutledge.
In 1772, Henry like many successful American merchants began to buy farmland. He purchased 3,000 acres (12 kmē) at Mepkin. Although he later bought another 20,000 acres (81 kmē), Mepkin became the family seat. By 1776 he had given up his mercantile ventures, although he always ran his plantations in a very business-like way.
Laurens served in the militia, as did most able bodied men in his time. He rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel in campaigns against the Cherokee Indians in 1757-1761. 1757 also marked the first year he was elected to the colonial assembly. He was elected again every year but one until the revolution replaced the assembly with a state Convention as an interim government. The year he missed was 1773 when he visited England to arrange for his children's education. He was named to the colony's Council in 1764 and 1768, but declined both times. In 1772 he joined the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and carried on some extensive correspondence with other members.
As the American Revolution neared, Laurens first inclination was to support reconciliation with the British Crown. But as conditions deteriorated he came to fully support the American position. When Carolina began the creation of a revolutionary government, he was elected to the Provincial Congress which first met on January 9, 1775. He was president of the Committee of Safety, and presiding officer of that congress from June until March of 1776. When South Carolina installed a full independent government, he served as the Vice President of South Carolina from March of 1776 to June 27, 1777.
Henry Laurens was first named a delegate to the Continental Congress on January 10, 1777. He served in the Congress from then until 1780. He was the President of the Continental Congress from November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778.
In the fall of 1779 the Congress named Laurens their minister to Holland. In early 1780 he took up that post and successfully negotiated Dutch support for the war. But on his return voyage that fall the British Navy intercepted his ship. He charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London. This became another issue between the British and Americans. In the field, most captives were regarded as Prisoners of War. While conditions were frequently appalling, prisoner exchanges and mail privileges were accepted practice. Finally, on December 31, 1781 he was released in exchange for General Lord Cornwallis and completed his voyage.
In 1783 Laurens was in Paris as one of the Peace Commissioners for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris. While he didn't sign the primary treaty, he was instrumental in reaching the secondary accords that resolved issues involving Holland and Spain. He generally retired from public life in 1784. He was sought for a return to the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and the state assembly, he declined all of these jobs. He did serve in the state convention of 1788 where he voted to ratify the United States Constitution.
The British forces from Charleston had burned the main home at Mepkin during the war. When Henry returned in 1784, the family lived in an outbuilding while the manor was rebuilt. He lived there the rest of his life, working to recover from the estimated 40,000 pounds that the revolution had cost him. (This would be equivalent to about $3,500,000 in 2000 values.) He died at Mepkin on December 8, 1792, and afterward was cremated and his ashes were interred there. The estate at Mepkin passed through several hands, but large portions of the estate still exist, and are now a Trappist abbey.
Some aspects of the life of Henry Laurens were used in creating the fictional character Benjamin Martin in the 2000 movie The Patriot. Like Martin, he maintained a residence in Charleston and was a reluctant rebel. While he didn't see military service, his home was burned and his oldest son died in battle.