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Portrait Of A Hero

July 2024
20min read

Courtly, gallant, handsome, and bold, John Laurens seemed the perfect citizen-soldier of the Revolution. But why did he have to seek death so assiduously?

How a nation regards its past is itself a fact of considerable historical significance, and it will be interesting to observe the treatment of the Founding Fathers during the Bicentennial celebration. Indications are that in some quarters at least the military heroes of the Revolution may not fare very well. “They wrote in the old days,” Ernest Hemingway noted some years ago, “that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.” To men who have experienced the agony and frustration of American involvement in Vietnam—in fact, to virtually anyone who seriously considers the possibility of nuclear annihilation- that statement has to make a good deal of sense. Clearly, however, it does not represent the spirit with which some of our predecessors fought the Revolution, least of all John Laurens.

Personally one of the most attractive figures of his generation, John was born in South Carolina in 1754, the son of Henry Laurens, a leading local politician and merchant who eventually became president of the Continental Congress. John received a cosmopolitan education in Charleston, Geneva, and London, where he was enrolled at the Middle Temple. Though impatient to return to America at the outbreak of the Revolution, he remained in England because of his father’s desires until January, 1777, when he sailed for South Carolina. There he joined the Continental Army, in which he served throughout most of the war. He fought in the Battle of Brandywine, was wounded at Germantown, and spent the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge on Washington’s staff. At Monmouth the following summer he escaped unscathed when his horse was shot from under him. A duel followed with General Charles Lee, who had reflected uncharitably upon Washington’s fitness to command. Laurens drew praise as well as blood from his antagonist. Meanwhile, during the late summer of 1778, he had served as a liaison officer between the French and American commands during the joint attack on Rhode Island. His linguistic ability made him popular with the French officers and useful to Washington, who spoke no French at all.

Nevertheless, Laurens was able to prevail upon his commander to send him back to South Carolina, where he hoped to raise and lead a regiment of blacks against the British in the South. Although the South Carolina legislature failed to approve his plan, he remained to help defend his native state against British incursions from Georgia. Unsuccessfully attempting to check General Augustine Prevost’s forces near the Savannah River, he was again severely wounded. Less than two weeks later, when Prevost’s rapid progress brought him to the fortifications of Charleston, Laurens was up and about and was one of the firmest advocates for continued resistance. This time the city held out. Then some four months later, when American and French forces attempted to oust the British from Savannah, Laurens was again present in an important role. Courage, however, proved insufficient to take the city or to defend Charleston against Sir Henry Clinton’s massive assault the following year. So John Laurens, along with more than five thousand of his fellow Americans, was captured on May 12, 1780. Unlike most of them, though, he was soon exchanged for a British prisoner and was therefore free to accept an assignment from the Continental Congress as special envoy to France. There, in the spring of 1781, his persistence and up-to-date information about the military situation in America helped to pry loose some two million dollars in French aid promised, but not yet delivered, to Benjamin Franklin.

Returning to Boston with the supplies and cash, Laurens rejoined Washington’s army in time to take part in the capture of Cornwallis’ forces at Yorktown. There he again distinguished himself for heroism in the famous bayonet assault commanded by Alexander Hamilton. Later he also had the satisfaction of conveying Washington’s demands for Cornwallis’ surrender under terms identical to those that Clinton had imposed upon the garrison of Charleston. Then serving as the officer in charge of prisoners, Laurens doubtless discovered a grim pleasure in receiving Lord Cornwallis, who was technically the constable of the Tower of London, where Laurens’ own father was still imprisoned after being captured on a diplomatic mission to Holland. Appropriately enough, too, Cornwallis was exchanged for Henry Laurens.

But this was after John had gone back to serve under Nathanael Greene in South Carolina, where, having lived through so much, he met his death in one of the last skirmishes of the war. Although Yorktown had made it clear that the British would end hostilities, neither Greene nor the governor of South Carolina wished to risk prolonging the occupation of Charleston by agreeing to a truce that would have permitted the garrison to draw supplies from the surrounding countryside. In turn, British expeditions sought to gather rice by force. Although the details of the reports differ, it is clear that Laurens was killed in an engagement on August 27, 1782, trying to counter one of these foraging parties. True to form, he appears to have been heroically leading his men against a force that outnumbered them perhaps as much as six to one.

Brave he certainly was; and there is no question that his exploits provide a pretty fair outline of most of the important military actions of the Revolution. Furthermore, he had charm and talent. He was, incidentally, something of an artist, and he possessed a certain style that drew many men—and perhaps some women—to him. Washington, who was never a particularly demonstrative individual, was fond of him; the more emotional Hamilton loved him. Even when one discounts much of the rhetoric between them as a conscious attempt to imitate Damon and Pythias, it is impossible not to agree with the historian who termed a letter from Hamilton to his friend “one of the most moving” he ever wrote. “You know the opinion entertain of mankind, and how much it is my desire to preserve myself free from particular attachments ”Hamilton remarked to Laurens. Therefore “you should not have taken advantage of my sensibility to steal into my affections without my consent.” Unfortunately Laurens’ flair perished with him, and its nature must be left largely to our imaginations; luckily his ideals are permanently recorded in his words and his deeds.

Like Washington, he refused to take pay for his military service; when first offered the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army, he declined it lest he be a source of dissension among those whose promotions came more slowly. That he later accepted the rank—and wished he had done so earlier—perhaps shows that he too was human. More important, he carried egalitarianism to a degree most unusual, if not unique, among members of his social class. Receiving the news of a disastrous fire that occurred in Charleston on January 15, 1778, he remarked that he would lament the catastrophe “if it has fallen upon individuals of moderate fortune”; but, he added, “if it affects only a number of rich men, it will contribute to equalizing estates, [and] I shall not regret it.” A few months later he elaborated these ideas: “I would wish the burthens of society as equally distributed as possible, that there may not be one part of the community appropriating to itself the summit of wealth and grandeur, while another is reduced to extreme indigence in the common cause.” He wanted to see “all odious distinctions of jealousy laid aside, for we are all citizens, and have no separate interests. If mediocrity could be established generally, by any means, it would be well; it would ensure us virtue and render our independency permanent. But,” he continued, “there never will be virtue in the poor, when there are rich in the same community. By imperceptible and indirect methods, we should labour to establish and maintain equality of fortunes as much as possible, if we would continue to be free.” Although these words sound- and probably were—genuinely radical, it could be argued that they represented little more than an expression of the traditional wisdom about the nature of republics. But the same cannot be said about his plans for raising a battalion of black soldiers.

Early in 1778 John Laurens broached the matter to his father, who was then president of the Continental Congress. “I would solicit you to cede me a number of your able bodied men slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune,” he wrote. Formed into a unit and trained, they might render important service during the next campaign, he argued. What is amazing about his plan, though, is not merely that he was willing to surrender a large part of his inheritance in order to augment the Continental Army- practically everything he did during the Revolution testifies to his willingness to sacrifice his own private interest in favor of the general welfare. Nor is it even that he was willing to arm slaves—South Carolinians had considered that step during earlier emergencies. Rather the astonishing aspects of his proposal are its candor, its boldness, and its larger purpose. “We have sunk the African and their descendants below the standard of Humanity,” he had earlier remarked, by unjustly depriving them of “the rights of mankind.” Service in the Revolutionary army would be a steppingstone to freedom—”a proper gradation between abject slavery and perfect liberty,” which would not only prepare a slave to take his place in free society but also establish his claim to it. In short, his was a clever and far-reaching plan for the gradual abolition of slavery. Though his father also favored abolition, he was less than enthusiastic about this particular idea, so John temporarily shelved it. A year later, after the fall of Savannah, however, the obvious need for additional manpower led Congress to urge the southern states to raise three thousand blacks, who would be freed at the end of the war. Fortified with this resolution, Laurens tried to prevail upon the South Carolina legislature to sanction the plan. An overwhelmingly adverse vote produced what his father described as John’s first defeat in politics. Although the most important immediate result of these efforts seems to have been a wave of resentment among South Carolinians against the Continental Congress for making such a suggestion, Laurens brought the matter up again in 1782 at the first meeting of the legislature since the British had captured Charleston. This time he did not do much better: his proposal appears to have received about i 2 per cent of the vote. Although the magnitude of his defeat suggests that he might have been a cold ideologue, completely out of step with his contemporaries, such was not the case. His conduct and the love he inspired among intimates indicate otherwise. In the action at Yorktown he gave quarter when he could, thus setting a humane example followed by others in the assault. In the closing days of the war he was among the minority that favored leniency toward Tories. Not surprisingly, foes as well as friends lamented his death. The Loyalist editor of the newspaper in Charleston eulogized him by noting that had he not been a rebel, nothing could “tarnish his reputation as a man of honour, or affect his character as a gentleman.”


It is therefore easy to sympathize with Henry Laurens, who, a few months after being released from imprisonment, was stunned by news of his son’s death. “His philosophy forsook him,” reported a fellow American who discovered him at Bath, prostrate with grief. In part because Laurens never really recovered from the pain of his loss, his biographer can still move us with a description of the graves of father and son, marked with simple stones bearing only names, dates, and the Latin inscription on John’s: “Duke et decorum est I pro patria mon”—“sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country.” The head and foot stones, the author notes, “are ten feet two inches apart, giving the impression of the resting place of giants.”

Yet it is worth observing that with the exception of a few real intimates, those who knew John Laurens best seem to have mourned him least. Washington’s judgment gives a clue to why: “intrepidity bordering on rashness” was his only fault. Greene’s report makes the explanation clearer: “Poor Laurens has fallen in a paltry little skirmish. You knew his temper, and I predicted his fate. The love of military glory made him seek it upon occasions unworthy [of] his rank.” Such censure of a dead man was unusual for Greene; to understand it we need to recall that he had lost not only an officer but also nearly half of his detachment. Nor was this the first time Laurens had rather foolhardily risked the lives of his troops. At Coosawhatchie, near the Georgia boundary, when he was wounded in 1779, he had disobeyed orders and crossed the river to engage the enemy. Only good luck and the presence of mind of one of his subordinates managed to keep the command from being captured. In short, Laurens was too often ready to back up reckless rhetoric with reckless action. Moreover, his letters were crammed with references to death and to his willingness to bleed for his country. Having heard enough of this to make him uneasy, his father asked him what limits he put on his military service. “Glorious death, or the triumph of the cause in which we are engaged” was the response. That John alone—of all of Washington’s aides- courted death with sufficient ardor to win it during the war makes it significant that he placed victory second, as if he thereby unconsciously revealed a personal order of priorities.

His background makes this hypothesis plausible. Educated on the classics, he, like many of his contemporaries, grew up the imaginary companion of ancient heroes who died defending liberty. Foremost among them was Cicero, who chose to die at the hand of Mark Antony’s men, a martyr to republican ideals. Then too there was Cato the Younger, who committed suicide by tearing out his own bowels after being defeated by Caesar. “Conquering causes are dear to the gods,” Lucan wrote, “the conquered to Cato.” Such men could easily have supplied the models of behavior—fictional or real—that modern psychologists have found to be crucial to the development of personality during adolescence. Thus one of the most frequently quoted lines of Horace, the most popular poet of antiquity among the Revolutionary generation, was the one inscribed on Laurens’ gravestone. Significantly, it was also the one he had used in requesting his father’s permission to return to America. Furthermore, the concept of republicanism itself possessed ethical correlates. Consequently when Americans sought to institutionalize and sanction their Revolution by republican forms of government, they endowed their efforts with moral meaning. But in the process they also assumed a heavy burden, for in classical theory and contemporary political thought the stability of republics depended upon the virtue of their people. That is to say, Americans believed that their perilous experiment could succeed only if they proved to be virtuous. One result of such a belief, of course, was to put Revolutionary leaders under great pressure to demonstrate that they did in fact measure up. Moreover, for many what has been termed the Puritan ethic augmented the force of the republican imperative. A complex system of values, ideas, and attitudes, this ethic—like Max Weber’s concept of the Protestant ethic, to which it is closely related—involved the notion of a calling. God called a man to a socially useful occupation, and, be it high or low, it was his duty to “labor assiduously at it.” Specifically, as Edmund S. Morgan put it in an essay on the Puritan ethic, “he must shun both idleness, or neglect of his calling, and sloth, or slackness in it.” In short, it was his duty to strive to be virtuous. Moreover, by the time of the American Revolution this ethic was by no means limited to Puritans, or even to their descendants, though men whose ancestors could be numbered among the Protestant dissenters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have taken these imperatives most seriously.


That the Laurenses were originally Huguenot refugees therefore is a fact of some importance. Henry’s letters to his son distill the doctrine. “The Evil of prodigality is not confined to the Loss of Money—Loss of time is a greater. …” “Loss of Time even at your Age is scarcely redeemable. …” “Life is the Gift of God & we are accountable to him not only for, but for the improvement of, it.” In particular, John’s station in life meant that he was called to leadership. “The Eyes of your friends & of your Country are upon you,” his father reminded him, “they are in expectation … for your own sake, for theirs & for the sake of posterity disappoint them not by coming up a bundle of Garolina Rushes. …” Doubtless John had received exactly the same kind of counsel from his old tutor, the Reverend B. Henri Himeli, pastor of the Huguenot Church in Charleston, for Himeli considered the minor French novelist Jean François Marmontel to be the wisest author of his age. And to Marmontel, who put the essence of his philosophy in the mouth of one of his characters, the art of governing consisted of “following the suggestions of wisdom and virtue.” And finally, as if this were not enough to influence him, Laurens spent an important part of his formative years in Geneva, that proud remnant of European republicanism in the eighteenth century. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that all the imperatives of the age impinged upon him with special force. Destined to be a leader, he was expected to be a model of republican virtue. For him to have internalized the demands that his surroundings and associates continually reinforced would have been only natural; that he in fact did do so seems to be borne out by one of his favorite quotations: “Where liberty is, there is my country.” It was the famous motto of Algernon Sidney, the seventeenthcentury republican martyr who occupied a high place among the heroes of the Revolutionary generation.

Needless to say, living up to these ideals was difficult, and Laurens frequently fell short of them. But again there wTere special reasons why he should regret his failures more deeply than most. One was his father, who quite simply expected far more than the average parent. Strive to be perfect, he told John. Although Henry admitted that this was impossible for any human being, he frequently acted as though he thought his own offspring was an exception. Moreover, though there is little evidence about John’s punishment as a boy, what has survived indicates that his father probably depended a great deal on the threatened deprivation of love. The nature of Henry’s ideals as well as the character of his own personality, which made him prone to rigid ethical judgments about persons, would seem to dictate as much. Furthermore, when there was a possibility that John would disobey him by breaking off his education and returning to America before receiving permission, his father remarked that in such an event he would console himself with the thought that he had “had a son.” The emphasis was on the past tense; disobedience would bring both material and emotional disin heritance. For present purposes, the important thing about all of this is that the empirical findings of modern psychology suggest that this type of punishment may be associated with the development of personalities that direct their aggressions inward rather than outward, against self rather than others.

In addition to his upbringing, two episodes in John Laurens’ life indicate that there were tangible reasons for directing aggressions against himself. The first occurred because he was the oldest of three brothers being educated abroad. “You are the Man, the proper Man to be my friend while I live, & the friend of my younger family after my Death; you [are] therefore [the one] on whom, next to God, I rely …” his father confided to him. Put in these terms, the care of his younger brothers involved an awesome responsibility, but John accepted it manfully. A bit later he wrote to his father, enclosing letters from “our dear little Jemmy. … I promise to take great care of him.” This was written about January, 1775; within the year John was to write that James, having fractured his skull while playing, was dead at the age of ten. Obviously John was not responsible, but as a later writer observed, his “sensitive nature … prompted him to bitter self reproaches. …” In addition, John was soon to have more justification for feeling guilty. Sex. And it was not because he was not forewarned. His father’s one-time friend Sir Egerton Leigh had made himself notorious in Charleston by sleeping with Laurens’ cousin. On another occasion Henry had used another man as an object lesson for a lecture on the dangers of an imprudent attachment. “There,” he wrote, “is a Bar to Fame—to Honest Fame & peace of Mind—the Work & Hopes of Parents—the Labour & Laudable Ambition of all the Years in Youth—tumbled down—by a Baggage of no Value—the Love & friendship of Good Men—of a whole Community —prospect of Glory & future good Days—All—All, sacrificed upon the knees of a little FYeckled Faced ordinary Wench—Let other Men Comiserate his Wretchedness & take Heed.” Not too many years later John himself was forced to confess that “Pity” had recently forced him to marry secretly without either parent’s permission and that he would soon be a father. Though socially his equal, John’s wife was English, and marriage on the eve of his return to America to fight against his wife’s native land could hardly be termed prudent. Nor was it necessarily indicative of romance, for Laurens neither took her with him nor waited for the birth of his daughter. And though his wife apparently went to FVance to meet him in 1781, there seems to be no evidence for the belief that they were presented together at court. In fact, if he saw her at all, it could only have been very briefly. Sometime after he left for America, she died in Flanders. How Laurens felt when he got the news is a fruitful subject lor conjecture.

Tragedy was obviously no stranger to him, and it is unlikely that he was ever entirely free from the feeling that he had been inadvertently responsible. Whether he felt the same way about men lost under his command also invites speculation. More certain, though, is the way in which Major John André’s fate fascinated both Laurens and Hamilton. In part theirs was no doubt a feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I.” André’s position as an aide to Sir Henry Clinton was comparable to theirs vis-á-vis Washington. André’s negotiations with Benedict Arnold led to his capture and eventual execution; a similar mission with a similar fate was easily within the realm of possibility for either of the two Americans. Hamilton, clearly, was deeply moved by André’s courageous death. Laurens’ reaction is less well documented, but he could scarcely have shrugged off his friend’s observations. After a eulogistic recounting of André’s qualities Hamilton noted in a letter to Laurens: “I am aware that a man of real merit is never seen in so favourable a light, as through the medium of adversity. The clouds that surround him are shades that set off his good qualities. … His spectators who enjoy a happier lot are less prone to detract from it, through envy, and are more disposed by compassion to give him the credit he deserves and perhaps even to magnify it.” Hamilton and Laurens both knew death to be the onlv real absolution.

Why Hamilton survived the Revolution and Laurens did not is therefore a question worth considering. Upon occasion they could be equally foolish. When American forces were in full retreat at Monmouth, Hamilton rushed up to General Lee, brandishing his sword and exclaiming, “I will stay here with you, my dear General, and die with you; let us all die here rather than retreat.” Lee considered him to be daft—“much flustered and in a sort of frenzy of valor” was his description of the young colonel. And at Yorktown, Hamilton again rashly exposed himself to death. One reason he outlived Laurens by some twenty years was that he participated in fewer engagements. But had he chosen to, Laurens could have seen much less combat. In 1779, for example, Congress offered him a position as secretary to the American legation in Paris. His command of French would have made him useful there; he had already established his reputation for valor; and his father obviously hoped that he would accept the appointment. Yet John refused. Somehow he could not heed the advice his father had given him after the Battle of Cermantown. “No Man can doubt of your bravery, your own good sense will point out the distinction between Courage & temerity nor need I tell you that it [is as] much your duty to preserve your own health & strength as it is to destroy an Enemy.” Although one is tempted to conclude that John ignored this admonition because risking his life in battle provided a legitimate way of symbolically rejecting his father’s lifelong demands, it is worth noting that Hamilton gave him exactly the same advice: “Adieu my Dear; I am sure you will exert yourself to save your country; but do not unnecessarily risk one of its most valuable sons. Take as much care of yourself as you ought for the public sake and for the sake of Y[ou]r affectionate A. Hamilton.”

Interesting as this entire letter is, Hamilton’s last point is most significant for present purposes. Antiquity offered the Revolutionary generation two related but essentially different models of behavior. The one was the military hero, or republican martyr; the other was the solon, or wise legislator. Hamilton was well aware of the distinction, and except in moments of unusual excitement he subordinated the former to the latter. Laurens either failed to understand the difference or reversed the priorities. Hamilton usually took risks because they served a larger purpose in which his desire to benefit the public and himself were inextricably but consciously intertwined; nowhere is this more clearly apparent than in his death. Though reluctant to accept Aaron Burr’s challenge, he felt that he had no choice, because a refusal might compromise his popular reputation to the point where he would be debarred forever from rendering his country further service. In short, despite all his love for glory Hamilton’s military exploits bore a political penumbra; Laurens’ political actions, however, carried a military aura.

Hamilton could be manipulative; Laurens could only be demonstrative. It was as if the latter believed the gesture to be more important than the results. When Governor Rutledge apparently tried to stall for time by offering to negotiate with General Prévost while American forces hurried to the defense of Charleston in 1779, Laurens refused to carry his messages, thereby demonstrating both his patriotism and his political naivete. In France two years later, he was probably not as direct and obtuse as has sometimes been reported, but his impatience with diplomatic niceties could well have wrecked his mission if the French court had not already been favorably disposed. The more subtle Franklin quietly noted after his departure that he had “brusqued the ministers too much, and I found … that he had thereby given more offence than I could have imagined.” And noble as it was, his attempt to raise a black regiment was cut from the same cloth. His father, who was a wily politician though a man of principles opposed to slavery, cautioned him against ignoring many considerations. “A Work of this importance must be entered upon with Caution & great circumspection. …” But John replied that “my reputation is at stake. … As a Soldier, as a Citizen, as a Man—I am interested to engage in this work. …” The scheme, he hoped, would not appear to his father to be “the chimera of a young mind, deceived by a false appearance of moral beauty, but a laudable sacrifice of private interest, to justice and the public good.” Significantly, these words were remarkably similar to those with which he explained his refusal to take pay for his military service, which—he said—was because he wished to give to his country “a pure offering of disinterested services.” Without deprecating his plan or denigrating his motives, it is possible to suggest that his project was designed not only to save the state from the British and the blacks from slavery but also to demonstrate something about himself. Sincere as he probably was in both of the former aims, it is hard to believe that he could be blind to what every Virginia politician of stature appears to have known at the time: that a frontal attack on slavery—even there, let alone in South Carolina, where planters were more committed to it- would be self-defeating and politically suicidal.

In politics as in war, it seemed, Laurens was willing to destroy himself in order to prove his virtue. Such zeal may make a martyr, but not a politician. Marmontel to the contrary, effective politics demands more than virtue; it also requires the kind of realism about oneself and others that prompted John Rutledge to declare in the Constitutional Convention that the slave trade, which he was then defending, had nothing to do with moral principle; rather it was a matter of economic interest, pure and simple. Given conditions at the time, this was not cynicism on his part, but political horse sense. If the noble imperatives of the classical tradition and the Puritan ethic helped to endow the American Revolution with moral meaning, it was the rational assessment of realities that helped to make it succeed. True to the eighteenthcentury ideal, the most creative men of the age were able to maintain something of a balance between the real and the ideal. Laurens, on the other hand, allowed himself to become obsessed by the pursuit of virtue; Hamilton termed him a knight errant.

Ironically, it was precisely this lack of balance that made him attractive to ante-bellum South Carolinians, for his quest—like theirs—was essentially a romantic and perhaps irrational one. They both protested too much; the continual assertion and eventual suicidal demonstration of their selfless virtue suggests that each found the tension between aspiration and achievement ‘more than could be borne. For only in the heedless disregard of personal safety could the cavaliers of the Old South demonstrate that their attachment to slavery was not motivated by self-interest; and only in death could John Laurens prove that he was as virtuous as he sought to be. Thus the kinship of circumstance, as well as of land and blood, helps to explain why southern politicians and men of letters like Robert Y. Hayne and William Gilmore Simms revered Laurens as “the Bayard of America”—the knight “ without fear , and without reproach ” ready to sacrifice everything in the cause of his country. He was, said Hayne, “the purest and most disinterested of human beings.” But that the memory of a man who sought to free the blacks should be invoked to defend their enslavement brings to mind A. E. Housman’s lines of “To an Athlete Dying Young”: “Smart lad, to slip betimes away / From fields where glory does not stay.”

In a sense, Laurens had his day. Bravery such as his was doubtless functional in the Revolutionary army, where an officer’s example often had to substitute for discipline among an amateur soldiery. But the case is not so clear-cut in regard to the common claim that “had it not been for his untimely death,” as one historian put it, he might have been “one of the greatest of the younger Founding Fathers.” Perhaps. But conditions in the modern world make us more aware that his qualifications as a statesman are somewhat suspect. In short, Laurens exemplified—perhaps more clearly than most of his contemporaries—a dangerous but essential facet of our political tradition. To realize how dangerous it can be we have only to review his own career and that of his nineteenth-century hagiographers; to remember how essential it is too, however, we have only to recall the events of the last few years in which some of our leaders allowed, in the words of Jeb Stuart Magruder, “ambition, loyalty, and partisan passion” to override both judgment and honor. Before we jettison the military heroes of the Revolution, we should recall that that is a mistake few of them, and least of all John Laurens, would have made.

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