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Hicks column: Henry Laurens, founding father and complicated Charles Town

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Hicks column: Henry Laurens, founding father and complicated Charles Town

1784 engraving of Laurens as President of the Continental Congress

Editors note: Local columnist, Brian Hicks has created installments for a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate its 350th anniversary. This article is a special supplemental from this weeks fourteenth installment.  

This week’s installment of the Charleston 350 serial introduces a key player in the city’s story … and the history of the American Revolution.

During Charles Town’s violent reaction to the Stamp Act, a mob invades the home of local merchant Henry Laurens, ultimately holding a cutlass to his throat. These folks figured Laurens for a loyalist, which he kind of was at the time, but they also erroneously believed he was hiding a cache of the controversial British stamps.

It’s a dramatic entrance for a man who will figure prominently into this story throughout the Revolutionary period. Even Christopher Gadsden’s career cannot compare to that of his sometimes rival. Not to give too much away, but Laurens will become a patriot, a leader of the Continental Congress, and a pawn in the coming war.

So a little background is in order. Laurens’ grandparents were Huguenots who emigrated to American in the late 17th century. Eventually, they moved from New York to Charles Town, where John Laurens – Henry’s father – became this city’s most successful saddler.

According to the National Park Service, Henry Laurens was born in the city in 1724 (there are some accounts he was born the prior year). He was educated in Charles Town but sent to England to study under an established merchant. Laurens returned to the city in 1747, which is around the time his father died and bequeathed him a considerable estate. And in 1750, Laurens married Eleanor Ball – the daughter of rich rice planters.

Henry and Eleanor had 13 children. Note that in the Stamp Act raid on the Laurens home Eleanor is pregnant … because she was with child almost constantly. Many of the couple’s children died, but their oldest son, John, also becomes a prominent player in history – and perhaps his father’s closest confidant.

Laurens fought in the French and Indian Wars as a lieutenant colonel and got into politics in 1757 when he was first elected to the Assembly. He would remain a public figure for the rest of his life.

Laurens is more than just another Charles Town elite, however. By 1765 he was one of the richest men in the colonies. In 1748, he opened an import/export business called Austin and Laurens, which moved rice, rum, deerskins and, ultimately, slaves.

In the 1750s alone, Laurens sold between 7,000 and 8,000 human beings, taking a 10 percent commission on every sale. Laurens also owned more than 300 people, many of whom worked on his primary plantation, Mepkin, nearly 40 miles inland on the Cooper River.

There is considerable – and fair – debate these days over the role of slavery in American independence and the attitudes toward it among the county’s founding fathers. Laurens’ own story is even more nuanced since he not only owned other humans but was a leading slave trader of the day.

But as the serial continues, and Laurens’ loyalty to Britain fades, we will see him come to recognize the discrepancy of fighting for freedom while holding other humans in bondage. It will change his life, if not the direction of the country.

It is, in a word, complicated.