He was a prize catch. Henry Laurens was just off the coast of Newfoundland when the British cruiser Vestal chased and intercepted his lone rebel packet, the Mercury. Fearing the worst, he emptied all the diplomatic papers from his trunk, stuffed them into a leather bag weighted with shot, and threw the heavy bundle overboard. Unfortunately, he failed to deflate the air within the bag--so it floated, was sighted by an alert sailor on the Vestal, and subsequently was hooked on board.
On thus discovering both the identity of the Mercury's prominent passenger and his intended mission, the commander of the Vestal had the small packet boarded and Laurens was arrested.
It was September 3, 1780. The rebellion of England's American colonies was now in its fourth year. And the war was not going particularly well for the mother country. Although the rebels could boast precious few actual field victories, they were a stubborn and elusive lot. They were poorly equipped, under-financed, and lacked even a modicum of formal military training, yet they continued to harass supply lines, out-maneuver troop placements, and evade naval blockades.
The morale of His Majesty's troops was at an all-time low. The distance from home combined with the constant frustration at arms had taken a bitter toll. The war, never particularly popular before, was now stirring a near mutinous restlessness among the conscripts.
The commander of the Vestal was hopeful that the capture of Laurens might actually afford the royal cause the advantage it now so sorely needed. He was, after all, one of the most important leaders of the revolution and its fledgling government.
A wealthy merchant from South Carolina, he was a member of the first provincial convention in Charleston in 1775. The next year he was elected vice-president of the sovereign state under its new constitution and was chosen to serve as a representative in the continental congress in Philadelphia. He was so highly regarded by his fellow delegates there that when John Hancock resigned his position as president, they unanimously elected Laurens to succeed him on November 1, 1777.
His tenure as the fourth president of the newly independent United States was predictably tumultuous. Besides all the difficulties of trying to mobilize the tiny confederated nation for war against impossible odds, supply the widely dispersed continental army, hold together the fractious congress, and secure international recognition for the rebel cause, he also had to deal with the acrimonious conflict between his commander-in-chief, George Washington, and the temperamental General Thomas Conway. But somehow he was able to do it all--with amazing success. Furiously outspoken, unflaggingly ambitious, and decisively brilliant, his obvious leadership abilities won him the admiration of the American patriots--and the enmity of the court at Westminster.
At the end of his distinguished term he was appointed to supervene John Adams as the legate to the Dutch government at the Hague. And it was to that assignment that he was traveling when he was captured.
The commander of the Vestal delivered Laurens to his superiors at home amidst a flurry of publicity and fanfare. The London papers trumpeted the news with all the gaudy gossip of a palace coup. They displayed the worst qualities of journalism: all its paralysis of thought, all its monotony of chatter, all its sham culture and shoddy jingoism, all its perpetual readiness to cover any vulgarity of the present with any sentimentalism of the past. One of the papers declared that the rebel cause had at last been "dealt its death blow." Another predicted that American resistance would likely "collapse within the month." More prudent press observers, while admitting the vital significance of the former president to the colonial cause, cautioned that his captivity might only serve to "stiffen their resistance."
Whatever the American reaction might prove to be, it was clear that the English reaction was profound. Though he has been "thoughtfully neglected" in our own day--as the esteemed Southern man-of-letters M.E. Bradford was wont to say--his greatness was certainly recognized in his own day.
Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Steeped in English history and in the blood of many of its leading participants, the infamous fortress on the Thames had dominated the London skyline ever since William the Conqueror built it to repress his unwilling Saxon subjects. It had thus served for centuries as the scene of state and private violence, of torture, murder, and execution.
Although he had been a life-long churchman, Laurens was not particularly known for his piety--quite unlike his close friends Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. But cut off from the noisy forgetfulness of public life, he resolved his faith into what he called a "God-fearing, Bible-reading, hymn-singing passion for permanent things." Each day he was allowed to attend private service's in the St. Peter-ad-Vincula chapel. Within the precincts of the vast Tower compound, to the northwest, the little sanctuary was built by Henry VIII on the site of a previous chapel in 1519. In it were buried his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and his fifth, Catherine Howard, both of whom he had beheaded on the Tower Green a few yards away. Also killed there, and buried ignominiously below the chapel floor paving, were the old Countess of Salisbury, Lady Jane Grey, the Elizabethan Earl of Essex, the rebel Duke of Monmouth, and a host of others. The associations of the place make it rather oppressive, even today; old terrors and miseries seem to hang in the air. But Laurens found "an unspeakable comfort" there. Although he would be released at the end of the war--exchanged for Lord Cornwallis following the surrender at Yorktown as a part of the negotiated cease-fire arrangement--he maintained to the end of his life that it was in that "dismal, haunting chapel" that he found "genuine release."
Though he was no less irascible in his resistance to English rule, no less belligerent in his revolutionary insurgency, and no less antithetic in his sedition against tyranny, he was far more pensive, far more judicious, and far more principled. Years later he would summarize his new "Christian vision" for "social involvement" as the "natural outworking of covenantal responsibility."
Laurens had come to believe that good government is essentially a matter of character apart from merely external, mechanical, legal, or political stratagem. Knowing what is right and what is wrong is not nearly so difficult as doing what is right and not doing what is wrong. Orthodoxy is a far simpler matter than orthopraxy. Mathing word and deed is a vital, but terribly difficult proposition.
Thus, Laurens asserted that the solution to grave societal problems, the antidote to endemic cultural pathogens, and the counter-weight to brazen political tyrannies, is to be found first and foremost in the hearts and minds of men, not in the promises and plans of programs. In other words, he was anything but a radical revolutionary. Amazingly, his time in the Tower had only reinforced his resilient conservatism. It was fact that became all the more evident in the years afterward when he became a leader in the Anti-Federalist movement--and still a model for us amidst the present cultural morass.