This Day in History: American emissary captured
On this day in 1780, the British capture Henry Laurens, an American emissary who was then traveling to negotiate a treaty with the Netherlands. Americans were hoping for more help in their Revolution against Great Britain.
Unfortunately, this patriot would never make it to his destination. He would instead spend the rest of the war in an English prison.
Laurens was a well-respected Patriot and a former President of the Continental Congress. In fact, he was President of that body during one of its more challenging periods, shortly after Congress had been forced to flee Philadelphia.. During these difficult months, he worked with George Washington, then spending a long winter in Valley Forge.
Maybe it is unsurprising that Laurens was trusted with the delicate task of acting as an emissary to the Netherlands?
He was appointed as an emissary in 1779, but he unfortunately faced difficulties right from the start. Transportation was difficult, and he was unable to leave until August 13, 1780. Worse, his ship, Mercury, soon ran into trouble.
On September 3, the British captured Mercury off the coast of Newfoundland. Laurens was carrying an unofficial Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which he quickly threw overboard. Unfortunately, he had not weighed down the document sufficiently, and it was soon discovered.
The British imprisoned Laurens in the Tower of London for “suspicion of high treason.” He stayed there for 15 months! The conditions were terrible, and his health failed quickly. How tempting it must have been when the British twice offered him leniency in exchange for cooperation. On one occasion, he was asked to influence his son (then an American representative in Paris) against the American cause, but he responded:
“I know [my son] to be a Man of honor, he Loves me dearly & would lay down his Life to save mine but I am sure he would not sacrifice his Honor to save my Life & I applaud him.”
Wow. What a moment of pride—and sadness.
In the meantime, Britain ended up declaring war on the Netherlands. A treaty between America and the Netherlands would not become reality until October 1782, one year after Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Interestingly, Laurens finally obtained his own release in exchange for Cornwallis.
After the war, Laurens briefly helped to negotiate a treaty between the United States and Britain, but he soon resigned from public life and spent most of the last decade of his life in retirement on his family’s plantation. By then, his health had been severely undermined. Worse, his son had been killed while he’d been overseas, an event that left him heartbroken. Laurens entered the public eye again a few years later: He served as a member of South Carolina’s ratifying convention when the U.S. Constitution was adopted.
He had given a lot to see the day when that document would become possible, though, hadn’t he?
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A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: The Netherlands (U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian)
Bob Ruppert, Henry Laurens’ 15 Months in the Tower (Journal of the American Revolution; Sept. 23, 2015)
Daniel J. McDonough, Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots (2000)
David F Burg, The American Revolution (Eyewitness History series; 2007)
The Papers of Henry Laurens: December 11, 1778-August 31, 1782 (2000)