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Henry Laurens,  4th President of the Continental Congress - A Stan Klos Biography

Henry Laurens
Second President of the Continental Congress
Served November 1, 1777 to December 9, 1778

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LAURENS, Henry, statesman, born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1724; died there, 8 December, 1792. His ancestors were Huguenots, who had left France at the revocation of the edict of Nantes. He was educated in Charleston and became clerk in a counting-house there, from which he was transferred to a similar house in London in order to acquire a thorough business education. Upon his return he engaged in mercantile pursuits and acquired a fortune, he was conspicuous in his opposition of British aggression, and had frequent contests with the crown judges, especially in respect to their decisions in marine law and in the courts of admiralty, and the pamphlets that he published against these measures gave evidence of great legal ability.

Laurens also served in a military campaign against the Cherokees, of which he left a diary in manuscript. Retiring from business, he want to England in 1771 to superintend the education of his sons, and traveled through Great Britain and on the continent. While in London he was one of the thirty-eight Americans who signed a petition in 1774 to dissuade parliament from passing the Boston port bill. He returned to Charleston in that year, was , a number of the 1st Provincial congress there in 1775, and drew up a form of association to be signed by all the friends of liberty. He also became president of the council of safety.

In 1776 , he was made vice president of South Carolina under the new constitution and elected a delegate to the Continental Congress. Upon the resignation of John Hancock he was elected President of Congress on November 1, 1777.   His tenure as President of the Continental Congress was during one of most stormy periods in the Revolutionary War:

Journals of the Continental Congress 1777 - November 1 Elects Henry Laurens president of Congress. November 4 Commends General Gates and his army for their defense against Burgoyne's invasion and various other officers and units for their defense of the Delaware. November 7 Names new appointees to reorganized Board of War. November 10-14 Conducts final debates on Articles of Confederation. November 15 Adopts Articles of Confederation. November 17 Transmits Articles of Confederation to states for their consideration. November 19  Directs General Washington to inquire into the treatment of American prisoners. November 20 Adopts report on pacification of the western frontier. November 21 Recalls Commissioner Silas Deane from the court of France. November 22 Adopts economic program asking the states to levy taxes, call in paper money, and regulate prices. November 24 Adopts measures for improving the provisioning of the army. November 27 Recommends confiscation of loyalist property in the states; completes reconstitution of the Board of War, Horatio Gates named president. November 28 Appoints committee to confer with General Washington; orders inquiry into the failures of the Rhode Island expedition and the Delaware River defenses; appoints John Adams commissioner to France. November 29 Appoints committee to obtain a French translation of the Articles of Confederation and to invite Canada "to accede to the union of these states."

December 1 Rejects alteration of the Saratoga Convention to permit embarkation of Burgoyne's army from Rhode Island. December 3 Resolves to seek $2 million loan from France and Spain; directs suppression of Delaware loyalists; adopts instructions for retaining continued neutrality of the Six Nations; endorses proposal for a surprise attack against Lake Champlain. December 8 Orders Silas Deane's immediate return to Congress. December 10 Denounces Gen. William Howe's treatment of American prisoners; authorizes General Washington to impress supplies in Pennsylvania. December 13 Appoints Gen. Thomas Conway to newly constituted post of inspector general of the army. December 16 Receives report of the committee at head quarters. December 19 Questions General Washington's plans for a winter cantonment. December 26 Debates implementation of the Saratoga Convention. December 30 Grants navy boards increased authority over naval officers; extends General Washington's powers to impress supplies, discipline officers, and punish spies.  

1778-- January 2 Dismisses Esek Hopkins from the -Continental Navy. January 8 Detains Convention Army in America until properly notified of Britain's "explicit ratification of the convention of Saratoga." January 11 Appoints committee to repair to headquarters to concert with General Washington on the reform of the army. January 12 Examines John Folger on the theft of despatches from the commissioners in France. January 14 Accepts Baron Steuben's tender of services as a volunteer in the Continental Army. January 15 Orders creation of additional magazines for supply of the army in Pennsylvania. January 16 Instructs committee at camp to evaluate an attack on Philadelphia. January 17 Resolves to issue an additional $10 million in loan office certificates. January 20 Appoints Charles Carroll and Gouverneur Morris to the committee at camp to replace members named from the Board of War. January 21 Adopts measures to secure improved British treatment of American prisoners of war. January 23 Names General Lafayette to command an invasion of Canada. January 27 Appoints committee to confer on the reform of the hospital department. January 30-31 Studies proposals for reform of the quarter master department and for retaining the neutrality of the Indians in the northern department.  

 February 2 Appoints officers for Canadian expedition. February 3 Prescribes oath required of all officers of the United States. February 4 Directs commissioner to the court of Tuscany to seek $1 million loan; receives Committee at Camp recommendation that Jeremiah Wadsworth be appointed commissary general of purchases. February 6 Reforms medical department; appoints middle department physician general. February 11 Adopts regulations for commissary general of military stores. February 13 Requests North Carolina beef and pork embargo. February 16 Resolves to emit additional $2 million in bills of credit. February 17 Suspends Board of War's special purchasing agents. February 19 Relocates Convention Army for security purposes. February 23 Appoints committee to reexamine feasibility of Canadian expedition. February 26 Adopts resolves for arranging a prisoner exchange; adopts new Continental Army quotas and recruiting regulations. February 27 Prescribes death penalty for persons convicted of aiding the enemy.  

March 2 Appoints Nathanael Greene quartermaster general and adopts new quartermaster regulations; urges cavalry recruitment; suspends Canadian expedition. March 3 Authorizes General Burgoyne's return to England. March 4 Authorizes Washington to employ Indians with the army. March 5 Resolves to emit additional $2 million in bills of credit. March 7 Designates April 22 a day of fasting and prayer. March 12 Urges states to keep three delegates in constant attendance. March 13 Adopts new commissary regulations; reassigns Lafayette and de Kalb. March 16 Orders return of Pennsylvania pacifists exiled to Virginia; orders study of state compliance with recommendations of Congress. March 18 Increases Washington's authority to negotiate prisoner exchanges. March 21 Adopts measures for defense of the northern department. March 24 Resolves to resume once daily sessions. March 26 Orders arrest of Delaware loyalists to thwart invasion threat. March 28 Appoints Casimir Pulaski to command independent cavalry corps. March 30 Adopts revised prisoner exchange instructions.  

April 4 Resolves to emit additional $1 million in bills of credit; empowers Washington to call New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland militia. April 7 Adopts contract terms for Commerce Committee to execute with Roderique Hortalez & Co. April 9 Sets pay and allowances for commissary officers and appoints Jeremiah Wadsworth commissary general of purchases. April 10 Holds acrimonious debate on letter criticizing Washington, sparking walkout of Thomas Burke and Edward Langworthy. April 11 Orders Thomas Burke to answer charges of disrupting proceedings of Congress; resolves to emit additional $5 million in bills of credit. April 14 Adopts regulations for commissary general of purchases. April 15 Responds to Delaware protest that General Smallwood's seizure of loyalists infringed the internal police of the state; directs General Gates to take command of the northern department. April 16  Rejects motion to refer issue of Continental officers' pensions to the states. April 18 Orders inquiry into the loss of the Virginia. April 22 Orders publication of statement on North Ministry's peace proposals. April 23 Urges states to pardon and forgive penitent loyalists; requests Maryland to send troops to suppress Delaware uprising. April 25 Resolves that Thomas Burke's withdrawal from Congress was "disorderly and contemptuous." April 26 Holds Sunday debate on half-pay proposal for Continental officers. April 28 Accepts General Conway's resignation. April 29 Adopts plan to encourage desertion of British mercenaries seeking land and citizenship in the United States.  

May 3 Holds Sunday session to consider treaties of commerce and alliance negotiated with France. May 4 Ratifies the treaties with France. May 5 Instructs commissioners to secure revocation of two treaty of commerce articles. May 8 Adopts an address to the inhabitants of the United States. May 9 Issues proclamation denouncing seizures of neutral shipping by American armed vessels. May 11 Instructs Massachusetts on safeguarding the rights of the owners of an illegally seized Portuguese vessel. May 13 Rejects motion to refer proposed officer pension plan to the states. May 15 Adopts plan to provide half pay for officers for seven years after the conclusion of the war. May 18 Receives "plan for regulating the army" from the committee at camp. May 19 Orders emission of $6.3 million in bills of credit to pay interest on loan office certificates. May 21 Authorizes Massachusetts to assist Nova Scotia revolutionaries at Continental expense; adopts principles for governing prisoner exchanges. May 22 Resolves to emit additional $5 million in bills of credit. May 26 Adopts revised "rules" of Congress. May 27 Adopts new "Establishment of the American Army." May 28 Revises commissions of the American commissioners to Vienna, Berlin, and Tuscany. May 30 Resumes twice daily sessions "for the space of one month."

 June 1 Debates instructions for the American commissioners in Europe. June 4 Recommends suspension of state price regulations; directs Washington to "proceed in arranging" the army. June 6 Rejects peace proposals submitted by Lord Howe and Sir Henry Clinton. June 8 Embargoes provisions (effective June 10-November 15, 1778). June 11 Receives notice of the arrival of the Carlisle peace commission at Philadelphia; orders expedition against Fort Detroit; orders quartermaster department inquiry. June 13 Receives letter from the Carlisle peace commission. June 17 Adopts reply to the Carlisle peace commission orders halt to personal "correspondence with the enemy." June 20 Receives notice of the British evacuation of Philadelphia; resolves to emit additional $5 million in Continental currency. June 22-25 Debates proposed state amendments to the Articles of Confederation. June 25 Orders reinforcements for Rhode Island. June 26 Orders Articles of Confederation to be engrossed for signing. June 27 Adjourns from York, "to Thursday next, to meet at the State House in Philadelphia."  

July 2-6 Convenes in Philadelphia, but adjourns "from day to day" for lack of a quorum. July 7 Achieves quorum; thanks Washington for "gaining the important victory of Monmouth." July 9 Corrects engrossed Articles of Confederation and begins the signing; directs committee of arrangement to repair to headquarters. July 11 Receives news of the arrival in Delaware Bay of the French fleet carrying Conrad Alexandre Gerard and Silas Deane; directs Washington to prepare for a joint Franco-American offensive. July 14 Appoints committee to arrange public reception for the French minister Gerard. July 18 Rejects renewed overtures from the Carlisle peace commission. July 20 Endorses Ebenezer Hazard's plan to collect "various state papers relative to the origin and progress of the several European settlements in North America." July 23 Orders inventory of goods left in Philadelphia at the time of the British evacuation; receives Jean Holker's commissions as French marine agent and consul in Philadelphia. July 25 Defers attack on Fort Detroit; adopts measures for Pennsylvania and New York frontier defense. July 30 Emits additional $5 million in Continental currency. July 31 Appoints committee to "superintend an entertainment" for the French minister  

August 1 Consigns tobacco for payment of Beaumarchais' contract claims. August 3 Investigates commissaries Benjamin Flower and Cornelius Sweers for fraud. August 6 Holds formal audience with French minister Gerard. August 7 Debates proposal to discipline board of war members for disregarding an order of Congress. August 10 Postpones proposal to exchange former New Jersey governor William Franklin for Delaware president John McKinly. August 11 Adopts declaration denouncing peace commissioner George Johnstone for attempted bribery of American leaders. August 13 Curtails issuance of passes for travel to British occupied New York; orders Silas Deane to at tend Congress. August 15 Orders Silas Deane to prepare an oral report on his mission to France; adopts resolution for maintaining the secrecy of correspondence of the committee for foreign affairs. August 17 Hears Silas Deane's testimony; receives resignation of Maj. Gen. Thomas Mifflin. August 20 Refers report on the inspector general's department to Washington; rejects motion to exchange William Franklin for John McKinly. August 21 Orders printing of the proceedings of Gen. Charles Lee's court-martial; hears Silas Deane conclude "the general account" of his mission to France. August 24 Orders the release of commissary Benjamin Flowers and the prosecution of deputy commissary Cornelius Sweers. August 28 Receives news of failure of the Franco-American attack on Newport. August 31 Adopts measures to improve recruitment of the Continental Army.  

September 1 Refers passport application of British secret agent John Temple to the state of Pennsylvania. September 2 Recommends granting exemptions to the provisions embargo. September 3 Resolves to permit recruitment of German mercenary deserters; postpones expedition planned against Seneca Indians. September 5 Ignores appeal of secret British agent Dr. John Berkenhout for release from Pennsylvania jail; emits additional $5 million in continental currency. September 9 Votes thanks to Gen. John Sullivan for the conduct of his forces at Rhode Island; orders Rhode Island expedition inquiry September 11 Authorizes dispersal of Gen. John Burgoyne's Convention Army for its more convenient subsistence; urges Maryland to curb evasions of the embargo. September 14 Appoints Benjamin Franklin minister plenipotentiary to France; approves exchange of William Franklin for John McKinly. September 19 Reads committee of finance report; orders finance report printed. September 22 Orders examination of William Carmichael on the activities of Silas Deane in France. September 25 Appeals to Virginia and North Carolina to aid South Carolina and Georgia; appoints Benjamin Lincoln to command the southern department. September 26 Reorganizes the offices of the treasury; emits an additional $10 million in Continental currency. September 28 Conducts examination of William Carmichael. September 30 Conducts examination of William Carmichael; reassigns Casimir Pulaski's legion.  

October 2 Extends embargo to January 31, 1779; requests states to seize provisions to prevent engrossing and speculation. October 3 Informs Casimir Pulaski "that it is the duty of every military officer in the service of these states, to yield obedience" to the laws of the states. October 5 Conducts examination of William Carmichael on the activities of Silas Deane in France. October 6  Invites Dr. Richard Price to become a citizen and move to the United States to assist "in regulating their finances." October 8 Lifts limitations on the price of silver and gold. October 12 Adopts resolves to suppress "theatrical entertainments, horse racing, gaming, and such other diversions as are productive of idleness, [and] dissipation." October 13 Orders Washington to take measures for frontier defense. October 14 Receives documents from Silas Deane and schedules continuation of inquiry into charges made against him. October 15 Receives intelligence of the distribution of a "Manifesto and Proclamation" from the British peace commissioners. October 16 Orders seizure of persons attempting to distribute "manifestoes" of the British commissioners; orders removal of the Convention Army to Charlottesville, Va. October 17 Commends comte d'Estaing for his attempts to assist the forces of the United States. October 21 Orders arrest of British commissary of prisoners in Philadelphia; declares opposition to "partial and parole exchanges" of prisoners of war in favor of "a general exchange"; commends the marquis de Lafayette and declares thanks to the king of France. October 22 Assigns Horatio Gates to command of the eastern department; adopts instructions for the American minister to France and a "Plan of an Attack upon Quebec." October 26 Appoints a committee to prepare a publication on "matters relating to" negotiations with the British peace commissioners. October 27 Responds to the Governor of Havana for his introduction of Juan de Miralles, unofficial Spanish agent to the United States. October 29 Reorganizes the Board of War. October 30 Adopts a "Manifesto" vowing to take "exemplary vengeance" against future acts of enemy barbarity. October 31 Rejects proposal from the Spanish Governor of New Orleans for an attack on West Florida.  

November 2 Authorizes an attack on East Florida. November 3 Appoints a comptroller, auditor, treasurer, and commissioners of accounts for the reorganized treasury office. November 4 Orders printing of the Franco-American treaties; resolves to emit additional $10,000,000 in Continental currency. November 7 Orders December 30 set apart as "a day of general thanksgiving"; reaches compromise in dispute over provisioning prisoners of war. November 10 Augments plans for an expedition against East Florida. November 11 Exempts embargoed flour purchased in Virginia for the French navy. November 12 Denies John Connolly's plea to be treated as a prisoner of war because of parole violations. November 14 Adopts incentives for naval enlistments. November 17 Orders closer confinement of John Connolly; adopts thanksgiving day resolve. November 19 Authorizes Washington to appoint commissioners to negotiate a prisoner exchange; receives Thomas McKean's charges against Gen. William Thompson. November 20 Hears General Thompson's denial of Thomas McKean's charges. November 23 Examines witnesses in McKean-Thompson dispute. November 24 Adopts rules for settling rank and seniority disputes in the Continental Army; authorizes Board of War "to finish the arrangements of the army agreeably to the resolutions of Congress." November 26 Receives New Jersey ratification of Articles of Confederation. November 27 Rejects petition for exempting grain for Bermuda from the embargo. November 28 Responds to Adm. James Gambier's threat to retaliate against American prisoners of war.  

December 3 Confirms Gen. Philip Schuyler's court-martial acquittal; receives letters recommending secret British agent John Temple. December 5 Endorses Washington's recommendations for suspending preparations for a Canadian invasion; confirms Gen. Charles Lee's court-martial conviction. December 7 Orders Silas Deane to report in writing on "his agency . . . in Europe"; hears testimony in McKean-Thompson dispute. December 9 Receives Henry Laurens' resignation as president of Congress.

In 1779 he was appointed minister to Holland to negotiate a treaty that had been unofficially proposed to William Lee by Van Berekel, pensionary of Amsterdam. He sailed on the packet "Mercury," which was captured by the British frigate "Vestal," of twenty-eight guns, off Newfoundland. Mr. Laurens threw his papers overboard; but they were recovered, and gave evidence of his mission. The refusal of Holland to punish Van Berckel, at the dictation of Lord North's ministry, was instantly followed by war between Great Britain and that country. Mr. Laurens was taken to London, examined before the privy council, and imprisoned in the Tower, on 6 October, 1780, on "suspicion of high treason" for nearly fifteen months, during which his health was greatly impaired. He was ill when he entered, but no medical attendance was provided, and it was more than a year before he was granted pen and ink to draw a bill of exchange to provide for himself. But he obtained a pencil, and frequent communications were carried by a trusty person to the outside world, and he even corresponded with American newspapers.

When his son John appeared in Paris in 1781 to negotiate a loan with France, Mr. Laurens was informed that his confinement would be the more rigorous because the young man had openly declared himself an enemy to the king and his country. It was suggested that if Mr. Laurens would advise his son to withdraw from his commission, such action would be received with favor at the British court; but he replied that his son was a man who would never sacrifice honor, even to save his father's life. Laurens received attention from many friends, among whom was Edmund Burke. Twice he refused offers of pardon if he would serve the British ministry. While a prisoner he learned of his son John's death in a skirmish in South Carolina, and on 1 December, 1781, he addressed a petition to the house of commons, in which he said that he had striven to prevent a rupture between the crown and colonies, and asked for more liberty.

He was soon afterward exchanged for Lord Cornwallis and commissioned by congress one of the ministers to negotiate peace. He then went to Paris, where, with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin, he signed the preliminaries of the treaty, 30 November. 17S2, and was instrumental in the insertion of a clause prohibiting, on the British evacuation, the "carrying away any negroes or other property of the inhabitants."

On his return to Charleston he was welcomed with enthusiasm and offered many offices, which his impaired health forced him to decline. He retired to his plantation near Charleston and devoted his life to agriculture. His will concluded with this request: " I solemnly enjoin it on my son, as an indispensable duty, that, as soon as he conveniently can, after my decease, he cause my body to be wrapped in twelve yards of tow-cloth and burned until it be entirely consumed, and then, collecting my bones, deposit them wherever he may think proper." This was the first cremation in this country.

Some of Laurens's political papers have been published in the collections of the South Carolina historical society, and his rebus letter to Lord George Gordon is reprinted in the "Magazine of American History" (December, 1884).

Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM

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