For John Laurens (Oct. 28, 1754- Aug. 27, 1782)- A Birthday Memorial
When you drive around in almost any state, you’re bound to see a Jefferson or Washington street (we have at least 6 that I see regularly), maybe even a Madison, Hamilton, or Lafayette street. There are countless books documenting the lives of all of the above.
I’ve never once seen a “Laurens” street though. I’ve only found one book about him, and it’s very hard to get your hands on. If you mention Jefferson or Washington, or even Hamilton now, almost anyone in the U.S. would know exactly who you mean, but not so when it comes to John Laurens.
So who was John Laurens?
There are the things we know, and the things we can never be sure of.
We know he was a soldier. We know he was brave and rash in his search for an honorable death in battle- we know he was careless with his own life to the point that many suspect he was suicidal to some degree. After he was shot in the ankle, the Marquis de Lafayette said of him, “It was not [Laurens’] fault that he was not killed or wounded; he did every thing that was necessary to procure one or t’other.”
We know he was one of the strongest abolitionists of the time- despite (or perhaps because of) coming from South Carolina, from one of the bigger slave plantations of the time, and being raised in an environment where owning people was normal.
From the beginning though, he knew that what his father and his peers and so many people were doing was morally wrong in every way. Of slavery, he said;
“We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity, & almost render’d them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow’d upon us all.”
We know Laurens was an aide-de-camp to George Washington. We know he married Martha Manning to protect her reputation. We know that his younger brother died when only 10 years old and that both Laurens and his father blamed John for the incident. We know that Henry Laurens was emotionally manipulative of his son. We know these facts, but we don’t know their causes or effects. We don’t know if Laurens really was queer, though we have reasonable evidence pointing to it in his relationships with Alexander Hamilton and Francis Kinloch. We don’t know if he really was depressed or suicidal, but again, there were many clues that suggest it was possible, even if he didn’t understand it himself.
Washington wrote after hearing of his death, “In a word, he had not a fault that I ever could discover, unless intrepidity bordering upon rashness could come under that denomination; and to this he was excited by the purest motives.”
The most important thing that we do know about John Laurens is that he was a courageous soul. He wasn’t as desperately tenacious as Alexander Hamilton, as steadily commanding as General Washington, or as political as the eccentric “father of democracy”, Thomas Jefferson. Everything about him was behind the scenes. He was rash and bold in battle, but he wasn’t so desperate to leave his own legacy as he was to change things for other people.
Probably part of the reason we don’t know as much about him is because that was never his goal. He never strove for glory or legacy; his brand of change was not big-flashing-lights, riotous change. It was personal change. It was fighting for years for only a couple of goals: most noticeably, the freedom of his new country and the liberation of 3,000 black men.
He’s a supporting character in the musical Hamilton because he was a supporting character in reality. If Hamilton was a revolutionary, Laurens was a visionary.
John Laurens sacrificed himself to his passionate fight for change. He was one of the first martyrs in America’s long-lasting war for freedom- not from Britain, but from inequality, intolerance, and hate.
We still fight this war today, and John is one my inspirations as an aspiring social activist.
John died young- only two months short of turning 28. He had so much passion and potential that was wasted when his life was unnecessarily stamped out. I can’t go back in time and save him or even answer some of my questions about him. To quote the new Alice Through The Looking Glass movie; “You can’t change the past, you can only learn from it.”
I’ve learned a lot from the examples of the characters depicted in Hamilton. I see both the heroic and the ugly sides- from slave owning to sex scandals- of the founding fathers and have learned from both their successes and their mistakes.
What John Laurens and Alex Hamilton had in common was that they were both doers AND dreamers. They saw a progressive, exciting future and they strove to create that forward, equal, bright world. While they both died relatively young (27 and 47 respectively) and weren’t able to see through every dream they had for this country, they made as much of a difference as they could in the time they had. They fought for it; they overcame various obstacles just to see the birth of our nation and to progress it as much as possible. Alexander Hamilton wrote shelves full of words; established the banking system, the New York Post, and in part, the Continental Congress; and so much more. John Laurens fought bravely and with humility and self abandon; and he stood up for the rights of those whose oppression had been normalized.
All we can do to honor the memory of people like Hamilton and Laurens is to follow their examples of persistence, courage, and a hunger for justice.
Alexander has inspired me to write like every word is urgent; to take hold of my passion and strong will and use them as driving forces to make a difference. John has inspired me to live a brave life of activism and to fight until my last breath for the equality of all different peoples.
“He was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit… Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” -Ron Chernow
Happy birthday, John Laurens, and God bless you. I’m sorry that most of the world has forgotten you, but I swear to keep your memory alive while I can and to follow your example of a quiet leader; strong-willed and assured in his beliefs of right and wrong and equality for all humanity. I pledge to continue the fight you began.