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MAGAZINE OF AMERICAN
HENRY LAURENS IN THE LONDON TOWER
N the summer of that dark and memorable year for America, 1780, when
the leaders of thought and the leaders of armies were alike groping in a dense cloud of agonizing uncertainty as to the future of this country, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, ex-President of the Continental Congress, was commissioned by that body to proceed to Holland and endeavor to borrow money there, or anywhere in Europe, on account of the United States. A packet belonging to Congress was in Philadelphia, the fast-sailing brigantine, Mercury, commanded by Captain William Pickles, and in the general impatience for speedy relief Mr. Laurens hurriedly embarked on her, with the expectation of being attended on his voyage by two frigates and a sloop-of-war, as far, at least, as the banks of Newfoundland.
Henry Laurens was at this time fifty-six years of age, a Christian gentleman, of large means, of well-known mercantile experience and integrity, of fine personal presence, varied learning, and many accomplishments. He had previously resided a few years in England while superintending the education of his sons, and was personally acquainted with many of the leading statesmen of Europe. Before sailing he asked the Committee of Foreign Affairs for a copy of a paper that had been drafted by Vanberkel, the Dutch Minister, and William Lee of Virginia, as a possible form for a treaty between the Dutch provinces and the United States when the independence of the latter should be established. The original instead of a copy was given to Mr. Laurens, as it had never been read in Congress and was of no special value•or authority whatever. He tossed it into a trunk of miscellaneous papers, chiefly waste, intending to look over the whole at sea and discard what was worthless. The frigates failed, much to the disappointment of Mr. Laurens, to join the Mercury as a convoy, and the sloop-of-war was soon dismissed because it was an exasperatingly slow sailer and wasted valuable time. Shortly afterward, on the bright morning of the 3d of September, a British man-of-war, the Vestal, of twentyeight guns, was seen bearing down upon the lone vessel, and before noon the Mercury was fired upon and forced to surrender. As soon as escape
Vol. XVIII.- No. 1.
was found impossible Mr. Laurens hastily burned or threw overboard all his most valuable documents; but the trunk of odds and ends was left, and had not his secretary reminded him of some private letters within it, would have been esteemed too unimportant for destruction. As it was they scrambled its contents with some confusion into a long bag, poured in some shot and threw it into the sea. The British sailors saw it and fished it up, and the unauthentic draft of the treaty—the project-eventual of two gentlemen in their private capacities—was subsequently made by Great Britain the basis for a declaration of war against the Dutch.
When conducted to the Vestal Mr. Laurens offered his sword and purse containing about fifty guineas in gold to Captain Keffel, who refused both somewhat gruffly, saying: “ Put up your money, sir, I never plunder.” It was some ten days before the vessel arrived at St. Johns, Newfoundland, and during that time the distinguished captive was treated with the utmost courtesy. “Soon after we anchored,” wrote Mr. Laurens in his diary, “ Admiral Edwards sent his compliments, desiring I would dine with him that and every day while I should remain in the land. The Admiral received me politely at dinner; seated me at his right hand; after dinner he toasted the king; I joined. Immediately after he asked a toast from me. I gave George Washington,' which was repeated by the whole company, and created a little mirth at the lower end of the table. The Admiral, in course of conversation, observed I had been pretty active among my countrymen. I replied that I had once been a good British subject, but after Great Britain had refused to hear our petitions, and had thrown us out of her protection, I had endeavored to do my duty. While I was at Newfoundland I never heard the term rebel ; and as occasion required I spoke as freely of the United States, of Congress, and of independence, as I had ever done in Philadelphia. Nine captains of British menof-war honored me by a visit, and every one spoke favorably of America, but lamented her connection with France. One of these gentlemen advised me, upon my arrival in London, to take apartments at the new hotel; 'then’ said he 'we shall know where to find you. I smiled and asked if there was not a hotel in London called Newgate? • Newgate!' exclaimed two or three, “they dare not send you there!' Well, gentlemen,' I said, 'wait a few weeks and you will hear of the hotel where I shall be lodged.
On the 18th of September Mr. Laurens sailed for England in charge of Captain Keffel, and in ten days landed at Dartmouth, whence he was driven in a post chaise with four horses to London. They arrived at the
* Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, Vol. I.
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FAC-SIMILE OF THE ORIGINAL AUTOGRAPH LETTER WRITTEN BY HENRY LAURENS ON THE
(From the collection of Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet.)
Admiralty Office late in the evening of October 5, from where Mr. Laurens was sent under a strong guard up three pair of stairs, in Scotland Yard, into a very small chamber. Two kings' messengers were stationed at one door all night, and a subaltern's guard of soldiers at the other. Mr. Laurens smiled at this unnecessary parade of power, as he was so ill at the time that he could not walk without assistance. The next day he was con
ducted to the secretary's office and examined before Lord Hillsborough, Lord Stormont, Lord George Germain, and other notables. Lord Stormont conducted the examination, which was very brief, and then told Mr. Laurens that he was to be committed to the Tower of London on picion of high treason.” Mr. Laurens asked for a copy of the commitment, which was not granted. Mr. Chamberlain, Solicitor of the Treasury, who was present, said, “Mr. Laurens, you are to be sent to the Tower of London, not to a prison; you must have no idea of a prison." Mr. Laurens gracefully bowed his thanks and thought of the “new hotel” which had been recommended by his friends in Newfoundland. He wrote in his journal : “From Whitehall I was conducted in a close hackney coach, under the charge of Colonel Williamson, a polite, genteel officer, and two of the illest looking fellows I had ever seen. The coach was ordered to proceed by the most private ways to the Tower. It had been rumored that a rescue would be attempted. At the Tower the colonel delivered me to Major Gore, the residing governor, who, as I afterwards was well informed, had concerted a plan for mortifying me. He ordered rooms for me in the most conspicuous part of the Tower (the parade.) The people of the house, particularly the mistress, entreated the governor not to burthen them with a prisoner. He replied, “It is necessary. I am determined to expose him.' This was however a lucky determination for
The people were respectful and kindly attentive to me from the beginning of my confinement to the end ; and I contrived, after being told of the governor's humane declaration, so to garnish my windows by honeysuckles and a grape-vine, as to conceal myself entirely from the sight of starers, and at the same time to have myself a full view of them. Their Lordships' orders were 'to confine me a close prisoner ; to be locked up every night ; to be in the custody of two wardens who were not to suffer me out of their sight one moment day or night; to allow me no liberty of speaking to any person, nor to permit any person to speak to me; to deprive me of the use of pen and ink; to suffer no letter to be brought to me, nor any to go from me, etc.' As an apology, I presume, for their first rigor, the wardens gave me their orders to peruse. And now I found myself a close prisoner, indeed; shut up in two small rooms, which together made about twenty feet square ; a warden my constant companion ; and a fixed bayonet under my window : not a friend to converse with, and no prospect of a correspondence. Next morning, 7th October, Governor Gore came into my room with a workman and fixed iron bars to my windows; altogether unnecessary. The various guards were sufficient to secure my person. It was done, I was informed, either to shake my mind or to mor