Today, the Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin remembers Henry Laurens of South Carolina who began his position as president of the continental body on November 1, 1777 after the members unanimously chose him to succeed John Hancock.
From the Historic Houses of South Carolina by Harriette Kershaw Leiding, published in 1921:
Henry Laurens (born in Charleston 1734, died there 1792) was a swarthy, well-knit man, somewhat below middle size; a man very much the master of himself and his moods and passions.
His lips, as shown in the portrait of him by Copley, recently discovered in London, were naturally so firm as not to need to be compressed. The nose was not long, drooping just a little at the end to hide the nostrils, and his eyes were very watchful.
The whole man looked aggressive and just a bit cocksure. The face was roundish and firm about the jaws.
Henry Laurens was the first son of John Samuel Laurens. He was raised as a merchant and the wide general education he possessed was obtained after arriving at manhood through his habit of extensive reading.
In 1744 he was sent to London to obtain training as a merchant, and in 1746 he was prominent in the organization of the first fire insurance company in the United States. In 1749 he closed out his Charleston business and returned to London, where for many years he carried on an extensive trade, largely with America.
In 1749 he was made agent for the colony in England, a position which he held until 1750.
In 1771 and 1774 Laurens was again in London, but as a retired Carolina merchant and rich planter.
Young Laurens is said to have met “the beautiful Eleanor Ball, ” daughter of Elias Ball, at a plantation on Cooper River, and they were married on July 6, 1750, when he was at the age of 26.
Of Laurens’ 12 or more children who reached maturity only three survived their father.
While Laurens was a great merchant, he was something more. Though keenly engaged in business, he looked upon public affairs as vitally a part of his life.
In the Indian War of 1761, in the full tide of his wealth getting, he accepted a commission, collected recruits and marched into the Appalachian Mountains.
Henry Laurens was first elected to the House of Assembly in South Carolina in 1757 and continued to be elected except on one occasion until the Revolution.
Toward the end of October, 1777, Hancock resigned the presidency of the Continental Congress, and on November 1, 1777, the position was conferred upon Henry Laurens by a unanimous vote.
It was during his presidency that a strong friendship between LaFayette and Laurens developed. When LaFayette was wounded Laurens took him in his own carriage to the officers’ hospital near Yorktown.
In October, 1779, Henry Laurens was commissioned to go to Europe to purchase leather for the use of the colonial army.
He sailed on the Mercury, which was convoyed by a 16-gun vessel, but his vessel was captured by a British ship while off the coast of Newfoundland.
He carried valuable papers, which he endeavored to destroy by casting overboard, but they were recovered from the sea and used against him.
He was first taken before the admiral at St. Johns, N. F. Thence he was taken to London and was committed to the Tower of London on the charge of high treason.
In the beginning of December, 1781, his release, owing to the interest of Edmund Burke and Franklin, was assured. The release was made with the view of exchanging him for General Cornwallis.
On the last day of the year 1781, unable to stand except on crutches, Laurens was released, and in 1782 was appointed Peace Commissioner to Paris.
His services, terminating only with his departure for America, were of great importance and entitled him to be considered the first minister of the United States to England.
This distinguished father had a scarcely less distinguished son. John Laurens (born in South Carolina in 1755, educated in England and France) served on the staff of General Washington during the Revolution; also served with Major General Lincoln in South Carolina in 1779, and was wounded at Coosawhatchie Bridge.
He was a special envoy to France in 1781, returned to America at the end of the year and took part in the campaign in South Carolina in 1782, and was killed in a fight with the British at Chehaw Neck, on Combahee River, August 27, 1782.
A portrait of John Laurens is to be found in the State House at Columbia, S. C., and through the efforts of Colonel John Dargan was only recently publicly “unveiled” with suitable ceremonies, as a tardy recognition of the services this son of Carolina rendered to his native land.
The act of unveiling the picture was done by Laurens descendants of a collateral branch of the family, John Laurens having left no “hostages to the future.”
In writing to this son during the Revolution Henry Laurens once closed his letter with the following lines :
“My Dear Son I pray God protect you & add to your knowledge & learning, if it be necessary, discretion — Henry Laurens.”
Like all rice planters, Henry Laurens possessed a town house, situated at the southeast corner of Laurens Street and East Bay; it has only recently been destroyed.
As originally built the house was of nine-inch-long brick, and so substantial from the cellar to the heavily hewn timbers of the spacious attic that even after the many years it stood firm and true until torn down to make room for the Seaboard Air Line R. R.
With it perished colonial carvings, marble mantels, set-in bookcases, thick walls, secret doors, and, on the upper floor, a wonderful ballroom.
It was in this room that Henry Laurens’ sister, a young girl, was laid out when she died.
She lay facing a window, and her love for the garden, which used to extend to the river’s edge, worked a miracle; a storm came up, and through the open window rain dashed into her face.
A watcher, noticing that the little maid’s eyelids quivered, called help. The maiden revived and lived to be an old lady.
The incident left such an impression upon her brother that his will directed that his body should be burned at death. He concluded his will with these words:
“I come to the disposal of my own person. … 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 12 yards of Tow Cloth and burnt until it be entirely and totally consumed and then collect my bones, deposit them wherever he shall think proper.”
This request was duly complied with, and his body wrapped in tow cloth and burned on his plantation in an iron coffin at night.
The Congress Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin shows with an image of Henry Laurens, circa 1782.