Slavery and Liberty in the American Revolution

John Laurens's Black Regiment Proposal

Early in 1776, as many Americans moved toward an emotionally wrenching separation from Great Britain, two young South Carolinians studying abroad discussed their country's uncertain future. John Laurens, son of the wealthy merchant and planter, Henry Laurens, ardently embraced republicanism and independence. Francis Kinloch, ward of former South Carolina royal governor Thomas Boone, feared that his countrymen, without a monarch to check democratic excesses, would degenerate into anarchy. In defending revolution and republicanism, Laurens recognized the disparity between American ideals and practices. It was hypocritical, he wrote, for white Americans to demand their liberty while they held blacks in bondage:
I think we Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves. How can we whose Jealousy has been alarm'd more at the Name of Oppression sometimes than at the Reality, reconcile to our spirited Assertions of the Rights of Mankind, the galling abject Slavery of our negroes. . . . If as some pretend, but I am persuaded more thro' interest, than from Conviction, the Culture of the Ground with us cannot be carried on without African Slaves, Let us fly it as a hateful Country, and say ubi Libertas ibi Patria [where Liberty is there is my Country].
Championing emancipation in a private letter was one thing; championing emancipation in public was something else altogether. In an August 1776 letter to his son John, Henry Laurens privately acknowledged that slavery violated the Golden Rule. The elder Laurens, whose devout Christian faith set him apart from most other American political leaders, hoped one day to free his own slaves and convince his contemporaries to follow suit. Despite this pledge, he never made a public attack on slavery. Of the nearly 260 slaves Henry owned, he freed only George, his personal servant during the Revolution. Unlike his father, John Laurens translated private sentiments into public action. He eventually conceived a bold plan to enlist slaves in the Continental Army and grant them freedom in return for their service. His proposal not only pledged reinforcements to the dwindling American regular forces but also threatened to subvert the institution of slavery in the lower South. On the surface it appears surprising that John Laurens, of all people, wanted to raise a battalion of slave soldiers. He was, after all, born and raised in a slave society. He owed his public identity as a member of America's patrician class to the sweat of slaves working on his father's rice plantations. One day John would inherit much of this human chattel and extensive property and take his rightful place among South Carolina's political and social elite. Why, then, did he espouse an idea so potentially threatening to slavery, the bedrock of South Carolina's economy? Why did he continue advocating his plan for so long against such intense political opposition? What motivated him and drove him to be so different from his contemporaries?

John Laurens's lonely crusade against slavery involved elements of romantic idealism and personal ambition. To a degree, he simply extended to a logical conclusion the views held by two previous generations of the Laurens family. His grandfather, also named John, was a prosperous and respected saddler in Charleston who laid the foundation for the family's wealth. Though he owned at least five slaves, he was ambivalent toward the institution and predicted its eventual demise. Henry Laurens first made his mark as a merchant, becoming one of the most prominent slave traders in Charleston. He then invested his fortune in land and slaves. A patriarchal master who expected his slaves to be diligent and obedient, Henry paradoxically possessed misgivings about slavery that he communicated to John in person and on paper. While the influence of his family was important, other factors drove John to make a public attack on slavery. Because South Carolina lacked a college, Henry sent his son to Europe to be educated. In 1772 John began more than two years of study in Geneva, Switzerland, a republic with an outstanding reputation as an educational center. In Geneva and later in London, where he studied law at the Inns of Court, John encountered and embraced the culture of sensibility, which was immensely popular among the Anglo-American middle class. Sensibility entailed passionate friendships, emotional responses to literature and the beauty of nature, and recognition of a common humanity that connected people from different cultures. An English man of sensibility demonstrated his virtue through acts of charity and attempts to reform social ills such as rampant poverty, overcrowded prisons, and, above all, the hated slave trade. In England John formed a close friendship with Thomas Day, an author and reformer who, with his collaborator John Bicknell, wrote a melodramatic antislavery poem, The Dying Negro, published in 1773. John Laurens introduced Day to an expatriate American slaveowner who asked the Englishman for his opinion on slavery. Day responded with a pamphlet, Fragment of an original Letter on the Slavery of the Negroes. Because of his sympathy for the American political cause, Day did not publish the letter until 1784. In the pamphlet, he argued that slavery violated the natural rights of Africans. One can imagine Day employing this argument in conversations with John Laurens, for that kind of reasoning was reflected in the young man's letter to Francis Kinloch. A family heritage of ambivalence toward slavery, an irresistible cultural movement, a dynamic English friend. These influences, taken together, shaped John's views on slavery, but he still lacked a catalyst to compel him to act on his ideas. His service as an officer in the American war of independence provided that catalyst. Henry Laurens preferred that his son never become a soldier. After fighting broke out in 1775, John pressed for permission to return home and serve his country. Reminding John that he first needed to finish his legal studies, Henry flatly refused. He had earlier decided to move his younger children to the safety of England and he wanted John to remain as their guardian. Once independence was declared, John could not be deterred, even though he now had greater personal responsibilities. By October 1776, he was married to Martha Manning, the daughter of William Manning, a prominent English merchant and Laurens family friend. Honor dictated that John marry Martha, who was at least five months pregnant. From John's point of view, honor also dictated that he place country over family. In announcing the marriage, he reserved to himself "a Right of fulfilling the more important Engagements to my Country."

John departed England in late December, leaving behind his wife and an unborn daughter he would never see. Shortly after his return to South Carolina, he journeyed north with his father, who had been elected a delegate to the Continental Congress. Upon their arrival in Philadelphia, John promptly volunteered his services to General George Washington. The American commander, recognizing that John had important political connections and skills, particularly his fluency in French, invited him to join his staff as a volunteer aide. Although John served on Washington's staff, rather than in the Continental line, he quickly won a reputation for reckless bravery. At the battle of Brandywine in September 1777, Laurens's rashness caught the attention of the Marquis de Lafayette, who wryly commented that "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." A few weeks later at Germantown, Laurens was slightly wounded in the struggle to take the large stone mansion owned by Benjamin Chew, where a party of British regulars held off Washington's Continentals. Laurens was hit by a musket ball when he attempted to light an armful of straw and burn open the door. After the battle, Washington recognized the young man's services by making him an official aide-de-camp. John Laurens joined the Continental Army at a desperate time. In late September the British captured Philadelphia and made their winter quarters there. Washington's army, meanwhile, shivered in their huts at Valley Forge. Many observers worried that an army of underpaid and poorly fed and clad soldiers would eventually cease to exist. In January 1778 a group of Rhode Island officers responded to a desperate situation with a daring idea. They proposed to Washington that their state fill its undermanned battalions with slaves. The following month Rhode Island's legislature approved the plan, which provided freedom for slaves who enlisted and compensation for their owners. A keen observer of these developments, John Laurens was inspired to come up with a plan of his own. He wrote his father, now president of Congress, and requested that his inheritance in slaves, which amounted to about forty able-bodied men, be given to him early and thus form the foundation for a regiment of black soldiers. John hoped that a battalion of slaves who were promised freedom in return for their service would augment the dwindling Continental forces and turn the tide of war toward victory. Already accustomed to discipline and hardship, slaves would make excellent soldiers, Laurens reasoned. He reminded his father of their conversations on the evils of slavery. When would there exist a better time to strike a blow at that evil, he asked, then the present? His plan promised two triumphs: Liberty for the United States and the beginning of liberty for an oppressed race.

The father and son debated the merits of the plan in several letters. When Henry challenged his son's assumptions, John responded with a spirited defense. Henry predicted that only four of the original forty men would enlist in the regiment; of those four, three would quickly desert. He argued that slaves would never leave the relative safety of the rice plantation and risk the danger of war. John responded that black men, like white men, possessed self-love. In other words, blacks recognized their long-term self-interest. They desired a better station-the liberty to control their own destinies-and would willingly face peril if they knew such a reward awaited them. Behind John's willingness to forfeit his inheritance, Henry recognized other motives. He questioned if John advocated the plan because he would command the black regiment and perhaps win fame on the battlefield, something that eluded him as an officer on Washington's staff. If that were so, Henry asked, why not return to South Carolina and raise a regiment of white men? Henry cut John to the quick. His question suggested that the young man was motivated less by public virtue, his willingness to place the common good over self, and more by personal ambition. With more than a little touchiness, John replied, "I am very sensibly affected by your imputing my Plan in so large a degree to Ambition."

When John announced that he had designed for his soldiers a uniform, white with red facing, that was coordinated with their skin color, Henry had heard enough. He wrote a sharp letter, informing John that nobody in Congress supported his idea. If he continued pressing the plan, he risked becoming the butt of jokes. John's reputation would suffer irreparable harm, leading to the humiliation of his wife and child, whom he seemingly did not consider at all. At this point, John agreed to drop the matter. He admitted, however, that he desperately wanted an independent command. Looking on the shivering soldiers at Valley Forge, he wrote, "I would cherish those dear ragged Continentals whose patience will be the admiration of future ages, and glory in bleeding with them." Before the year 1778 was over, the strategic situation in the South drastically changed. A British expedition captured Savannah, Georgia, in late December. It was the first step in a new strategy to subjugate southern provinces that were easier targets, the British believed, because of a sizable population of loyalists and slaves. Obviously the next step was an attack on South Carolina. John Laurens revived his black regiment plan, and this time he had support from Henry, who pressed the idea in Congress. Henry's change of heart was influenced by at least two factors: first, the new military threat made John's plan viable in a way that it was not before; second, he realized that he could no longer dissuade his son and hoped that the sanction of Congress would elicit a positive reaction from their fellow Carolinians.

In late March 1779, Congress approved a plan to enlist three thousand slaves from South Carolina and Georgia. If they served loyally for the duration of the war, the slaves would receive their freedom and fifty dollars, but only after they surrendered their firearms. The delegates commissioned John Laurens lieutenant colonel, which empowered him to train and command the regiment. Congress, however, could only endorse the plan. The final decision was left to the legislatures of South Carolina and Georgia. Laurens immediately journeyed to South Carolina to urge his state government to vote yes. As Laurens departed, William Whipple, a delegate from New Hampshire, reflected on this opportunity for revolutionary change. If Laurens's plan were implemented, Whipple predicted, "it will produce the Emancipation of a number of those wretches and lay a foundation for the Abolition of Slavery in America." When John arrived in South Carolina in early May, he found his state in a crisis. A British expeditionary force from Savannah had marched into South Carolina for provisions and now threatened Charleston. John verbally presented his plan to Governor John Rutledge and the Privy Council. They unequivocally said no. Feeling abandoned by Congress and irritated that their pleas for reinforcements had been met with a plan to arm slaves, Rutledge and a majority of the council offered to surrender Charleston. Their offer was conditional, however, and depended on the city and state being declared neutral for the duration of the war. The British commander rejected the proposal, insisting that the city's inhabitants surrender as prisoners of war. The arrival of American reinforcements forced the redcoats to fall back lest they be trapped. Though the crisis had been averted, the actions of Carolina leaders, who chose neutrality over arming slaves, did not bode well for the success of Laurens's black regiment plan. Christopher Gadsden, a member of the Privy Council who had opposed the neutrality proposal, summed up the general feeling. "We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending us to arm our Slaves," he wrote Samuel Adams, "it was received with great resentment, as a very dangerous and impolitic Step." That summer Laurens presented his plan formally to the House of Representatives, but was rebuffed overwhelmingly. Only about 17 percent of the delegates gave him support. One of those supporters, Dr. David Ramsey, remarked that "The measure for embodying the negroes . . . was received with horror by the planters, who figured to themselves terrible consequences." Within half a year, Charlestonians faced a renewed British threat: Sir Henry Clinton's expeditionary force of over 150 vessels. During a brief session of the House of Representatives in early February 1780, Laurens again pressed his idea. His colleagues responded that the proposal "was premature . . . and that it ought to be adopted only in the last extremity." These men did not recognize what John Laurens saw: Charleston already faced "the last extremity." On 12 May the city surrendered and over five thousand Continentals and militia became British prisoners of war. It was the worst defeat of the war for the Americans.

Among the soldiers taken prisoner at Charleston was Laurens, who secured a parole that allowed him to travel to Pennsylvania but prevented him from leaving the state or participating further in the war. In November he was freed in a prisoner exchange. He immediately turned toward his home state, where the decisive British victory at Camden had eliminated any threat from American regular troops. Washington granted Laurens permission to return South and serve with General Nathanael Greene, newly appointed commander of the moribund Southern Department. Laurens apparently thought his fellow Carolinians would change their minds now that the state was largely under British control. He used his own funds to purchase clothing for the black regiment and he contracted with the commissary of military stores to repair four hundred firearms. Foreign affairs, however, interrupted his plans. In December Congress unanimously elected him special minister to France, where he was to press for funds, supplies, and French naval supremacy in American waters. Wishing to be at the head of his black regiment, fretting that he might miss the decisive military engagement of the war, Laurens accepted this assignment with great reluctance. From March to May 1781, Laurens was in France, where he secured a sizable loan from the Netherlands, backed by the French treasury, and additional military supplies. His alarming account of an underfed and underpaid Continental Army influenced French naval planning and was a factor in the Comte de Grasse's decisive participation in the Yorktown campaign. He reached the United States in early September, just in time to make a report to Congress and rush to join Washington's army at the siege of Yorktown. At Yorktown he drafted Washington's letters to Admiral de Grasse, captured the British commander in the famous night attack on Redoubt No. 10, and represented the Americans at the surrender negotiations. A heady experience for most young officers, but Laurens refused to rest on his laurels. After the successful siege, he returned to South Carolina. He would do what he had intended to do the previous year-serve under Nathanael Greene and press Carolina leaders, a final time, to enlist slaves as soldiers. Though Greene endorsed arming slaves, Laurens again met an overwhelming defeat when the South Carolina legislature met in early 1782. This time, however, he demonstrated real political maturity and acumen. Laurens proposed that slaves from confiscated loyalist estates be used to form a black regiment. Unlike previous attempts, this plan did not threaten the property of any revolutionary. The distinction won him few votes. One opponent, the jurist Aedanus Burke, said aloud what many legislators felt privately. While there were obvious immediate concerns about arming large numbers of slaves, Burke looked into the future with some discomfort. Laurens focused on present goals: arming slaves, bringing reinforcements to the American army, and forcing the British to evacuate the South. Burke thought of future ramifications: What would happen to the freed blacks after the war? He expressed a fear that Thomas Jefferson later expounded on in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Whites and blacks could never live together harmoniously, for racial intermixing would inevitably result and create a mongrel race.

By now Laurens identified his plan with himself. The political had become personal; each public defeat represented a blow to his reputation. Despite overwhelming odds, he could not relinquish his idea. He talked of going to Georgia, where the former governor, Richard Howley, encouraged him to introduce the black regiment proposal. But Georgians were no more interested in arming slaves than their wealthier neighbors in South Carolina. They worried more that the British, who were preparing to evacuate Savannah, would take with them large numbers of escaped slaves. It is impossible to know whether Laurens would have continued his antislavery crusade after the war. On 27 August 1782, he was killed in a minor skirmish near Combahee Ferry, South Carolina. His death was unnecessary, as it was clear that the British planned to evacuate Charleston. With typical recklessness, moreover, he elected to launch a frontal attack on a redcoat position, even though his force was outnumbered three to one and he knew reinforcements were on the way. Laurens's repeated efforts to win approval of the black regiment were ultimately quixotic, and indicative of the way he served his country. When his worried father asked John what limit he placed on service to his country, he replied, "Glorious Death, or the Triumph of the Cause in which I am engaged." From the beginning, he thought only of one thing-securing American independence. He never looked beyond the day when American soil was free of British soldiers. Thus, it seems, he never fully considered the ramifications of his proposal. Other white Carolinians worried about losing the slaves who worked rice and indigo plantations. They could not conceive a functioning economy without slave labor. Others worried about placing arms in the hands of slaves, who formed the majority of the population. The labels white men placed on slaves, "precarious property" and "very dangerous domesticks," suggested an underlying fear of insurrections. Finally, other men worried privately over what Aedanus Burke and Thomas Jefferson expressed aloud: How could whites and blacks possibly live together as free people. These men could not conceive of a biracial republic, the very thing Laurens's plan foreshadowed. Laurens's fellow Carolinians, therefore, chose two years of British occupation and internecine warfare over a plan to arm and free a large number of slaves.

Despite his failure, or maybe because of it, John Laurens speaks more clearly to us today than other men of the American Revolution whose names are far more familiar. Unlike all other southern political leaders of the time, he believed that blacks shared a similar nature with whites, which included a natural right to liberty. "We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity," he wrote, "and almost render'd them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow'd upon us all." Whereas other men considered property the basis of liberty, Laurens believed liberty that rested on the sweat of slaves was not deserving of the name. To that extent, at least, his beliefs make him our contemporary, a man worthy of more attention than the footnote he has been in most accounts of the American Revolution.

Gregory D. Massey, John Laurens and the American Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).