Henry Laurens in York Town: ‘I will not quit my post, although I … fear that I may perish on it’
Henry Laurens, president of Continental Congress, was one of a handful of candidates to serve in that body for the entire nine-month period it spent in York County. That service exacted a heavy toll on the South Carolinian. For all his accomplishments, he is best-known today as requesting that he be cremated upon his death. In 1792, his request was granted, believed to be the first formal or public cremation in the United States. Background posts: Where was Thomas Jefferson when Congress met in York?, Laurens believed to be the first American to be cremated, Who were these congressional visitors to York Town, anyway?
I’ve written about the sacrifices of Continental Congress president Henry Laurens before.
But for some reason, they seem particularly acute this time of year when his bout with gout during Congress’ visit in York was particularly intense.
So I made them part of today’s Christmas Day editorial appearing in the York Daily Record/Sunday News:
Families everywhere are celebrating around the Christmas tree this morning.
That’s the Hallmark image anyway.
Actually, not everyone is among family and friends.
Many are alone.
That’s how Henry Laurens felt at Christmastime 1777 in York County.
The widower was in a rented room.
In bed, aching from gout.
His home was in South Carolina.
But not all of his family was down South.
His son, John, was an aide to George Washington, the great general himself cut off from loved ones for much of that Revolutionary War winter in Valley Forge. That war would later claim John’s life — and that broke his father’s spirit.
Here Henry Laurens was in York, with the Continental Congress in the dark, early stages of a revolution that was looking bleak and offered no exit strategy.
But he wasn’t just with Congress. He was president of Congress.
And not many delegates had hung around that Christmas for him to lead.
At times that winter, maybe 10 delegates served as America’s governing body in that great war with Britain.
Laurens’ gout confined him to bed, or to crutches, or to crutches, or to be carried back and forth between his quarters and the courthouse.
Every day, he faced countless hours of work.
“Perhaps two, it may be three, hours after dark I may be permitted to hobble on my Crutches over Ice & frozen snow or to be carried to such a homely home as I have,” he wrote to a friend, “where I must set in Bed for one or two or three hours longer at the writing Table, pass the remainder of a tedious night in pain & some anxiety.”
He was tempted to turn in his delegate’s badge, but reconsidered.
“I will not quit my post,” he wrote, “although I have some grounds to fear that I may perish on it.”
Even when his time as delegate was up a couple of years later, he shipped out to Europe as a diplomat to Holland.
The British captured his ship and threw their prize prisoner in the Tower of London.
There, he stayed.
That broke his health.
Henry Laurens was no saint.
Sometimes, his letters from York to overseers in South Carolina showed concern about separating his troublesome slaves from each other lest their collusion lead to an uprising.
In one of those ironies of history, he did such business at the same time that he was working for America’s independence from Britain.
But on the main, he lived and worked, often alone, for a great cause.
In this sense, his life roughly paralleled the beginning and end of the life of Jesus, whose birth Christians are celebrating today.
Christians believe Jesus entered the world virtually alone — in a stable, no less.
The Bible points out that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own.
And his followers deserted him in a garden in the hours between this betrayal and his apprehension.
That arrest ended with his death on the cross atop a lonely hill, where two thieves provided him company.
Those alone — or with loved ones — this Christmas Day should take comfort in the paradoxes surrounding the story of Jesus.
“(H)e confounded the world, and the world’s expectations, by bringing light from darkness, strength from weakness, and life from death,” Newsweek’s Jon Meacham wrote in his best-selling “American Gospel.” “The Sermon on the Mount is about reversing the understood order of things.”
Those with family on this special day are specially blessed.
And those observing this day alone can find partnership with a peer like Henry Laurens, who persevered to fight the good fight.
Or they can find kinship and comfort with Jesus, who – though born in a lonely and lowly state and suffering betrayal and injustice – turned the world on its head.