Hamilton on the Death of John Laurens

On August 27, 1782, John Laurens was killed while leading a party of American soldiers in a skirmish against the British.  Hamilton and Lauren had been extremely close, and Hamilton struggled with the news as he began his Congressional career.

Hamilton and Laurens became friends when both were aides-de-camp to Washington during the Revolution, and the two had an extremely close bond.

In April 1779, Hamilton wrote:

“Cold in my professions, warm in ⟨my⟩ friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m⟨ight⟩be in my power, by action rather than words, ⟨to⟩ convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ’till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you. Indeed, my friend, it was not well done. You know the opinion I entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments, and to keep my happiness independent on the caprice of others. You sh⟨ould⟩ not have taken advantage of my sensibility to ste⟨al⟩ into my affections without my consent. But as you have done it and as we are generally indulgent to those we love, I shall not scruple to pardon the fraud you have committed, on condition that for my sake, if not for your own, you will always continue to merit the partiality, which you have so artfully instilled into ⟨me⟩.”

 

In 1779, Laurens left Washington’s service when he was elected to the South Carolina state legislature.  In that position, he attempted to win support for his plan for the enlistment of Black troops in the Continental Army.  On July 14, 1779, Laurens wrote:

Ternant will relate to you how many violent struggles I have had between duty and inclination—how much my heart was with you, while I appeared to be most actively employed here—but it appears to me that I shd be inexcusable in the light of a Citizen if I did not continue my utmost efforts for carrying the plan of black levies into execution, while there remains the smallest hope of success.

Image of John Laurens from Wikimedia

Just two weeks before Lauren died in South Carolina, Hamilton wrote him a letter on August 15, 1782 imploring him to join Congress and help him with the country’s next steps after the Revolution.

It requires all the virtue and all the abilities of the Country. Quit your sword my friend, put on the toga, come to Congress. We know each others sentiments, our views are the same: we have fought side by side to make America free, let us hand in hand struggle to make her happy.

Unfortunately, they never had that chance.  After Laurens’ death Hamilton wrote to his friend Nathaniel Greeene on October 12, 1782:

“I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and ⟨inesti⟩mable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end. How strangely are human affairs conducted, that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate? The world will feel the loss of a man who has left few like him behind, and America of a citizen whose heart realized that patriotism of which others only talk. I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved, and one of a very small number.”

Hamilton’s Views on Race and Slavery: Enlisting Black Soldiers in the Continental Army

In a March 14, 1779 letter to John Jay, then-president of the Continental Congress, Hamilton advocated a proposal to raise three or four battalions of black soldiers.  This was a project that Hamilton and his friend and fellow abolitionist John Laurens came up with together, and John Laurens delivered the letter to Jay.  In the letter, Hamilton stated:

The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favour of this unfortunate class of men.

In the book Black Patriots and Loyalists, Alan Gilbert describes the role of black soldiers in both the Loyalist and patriot cause.  The British actively recruited black soldiers, with Lord Dunmore’s November 1775 proclamation.  The proclamation stated that all indentured servants and slaves “free” who were “able and willing to wear arms.”  While black soldiers had been part of the colonial militias, Washington had refused to accept them into the official Continental Army.  However, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation prompted Washington’s decision to finally accept black soldiers in the army on December 31, 1775.  In 1781, during the Battle of Yorktown, when Hamilton was commanding a battalion of troops under Lafayette, Lieutenant Colonel de Gimat’s battalion was composed of a majority of black soldiers.

According to the Freedom Trail Foundation:

By 1779, 15% of the Continental Army and colonial militias were made of men of African decent. They saw action in every single major battle including Ticonderoga, Monmouth, Valley Forge, Princeton, and Washington’s Delaware crossing.

Despite the opposition of his contemporaries, and Washington’s initial refusal, Hamilton and Laurens persisted in advocating for the acceptance of black soldiers into the Continental Army.  Hamilton’s responses to the racist views of his contemporaries foreshadowed his lifelong commitment to the cause of abolition.  In sharp contrast to the blatant racism of “Enlightenment” thinker Jefferson, Hamilton never wavered on his philosophical opposition to slavery.