In December of 2019, the Law Library’s Rare Book Curator Nathan Dorn and I visited the Library of Congress Special Collections Division to take photos of a first printing of the Articles of Confederation for a rare book video we created about the Articles. At the end of the document, we were intrigued to find a signature that read “By Order of Congress, Henry Laurens, President.” Just who was Henry Laurens?
Laurens was one of the presidents of the Continental Congress, and he was president of the Congress at the time the Articles, which served as the first constitution of the United States, were adopted. There was no executive branch under the Articles, but the president of the Congress resembled an executive, albeit with very limited powers, presided over ceremonies and served to negotiate treaties on behalf of the United States.
In August of 1780, Laurens traveled to negotiate a treaty with and secure a loan from Holland, but his ship was intercepted at sea by a British frigate on September 3, 1780. Hoping to disguise his identity, Laurens and his secretary tossed their mail overboard, but one bag floated and was retrieved by a British sailor. With his identity revealed, Laurens was taken to London under suspicion of high treason, and imprisoned in the Tower of London on October 6, 1780. During his first day in the Tower, Laurens recalled: “The tune of Yankee doodle played I suppose in derision of me filled my mind with a sublime contempt & rather made me cheerful” (Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 7). While he was imprisoned in the Tower, the British attempted to convince Laurens to support peace without American independence in exchange for more favorable treatment, which he refused. Laurens’ portrait was painted while he was imprisoned in the Tower. If you look in the background of the portrait, you will see a building representing the Tower of London.
Laurens was held in the Tower until shortly after the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, when he was exchanged for the release of Lord Cornwallis on December 31, 1781. Laurens later joined John Jay, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin in Paris to begin negotiations on the treaty that would formally end the American Revolutionary War. Laurens’ plantation in South Carolina still exists and is now a monastery.
Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Third Series, Vol. 77 (1965), pp. 3-14 (12 pages)