The Dilemma of Henry Laurens: An 18th Century Charleston Slave Merchant

Sam Cox discusses Henry Laurens.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

In the South Carolina Low Country, a merchant-planter elite class emerged in the eighteenth century, a class dependent largely on slave labor. Charleston’s Henry Laurens, by the American Revolution, was perhaps the most prominent and affluent of the S.C. merchant-planter elite. He was involved in virtually all goods coming in and out of Charleston, though he admitted that the trading of slaves was his “most profitable branch.” He ultimately withdrew from the slave trade, while becoming a successful planter and concentrating on administering his vast plantation network, which were kept afloat by the many slaves that provided labor. In addition to being a successful merchant, slave trader and planter, Laurens was also a revolutionary political leader, president of the Second Continental Congress, and a commissioner to negotiate the peace of independence. Laurens has been cited by South Carolina historians as unique among the Low Country merchant-planter elite for having been an abolitionist and for ending his lucrative involvement in the trading of human cargo. Traditional historiography cites Laurens’ withdrawal predominately because of moral implications and his evangelical zeal, yet perhaps other reasons prevailed?

Sam Cox

In addition to holding numerous degrees, Mr. Cox, is a retired US. Army Reserves officer, and has served as a history teacher, department chair, cross country and track coach, dean of students, upper school head, and headmaster at five independent schools. Since 2001, Mr. Cox has served as headmaster at Faith Christian School in Roanoke, VA. His historical specialties are Colonial America and Modern Europe, and his master's thesis dealt with Henry Laurens' involvement in the African slave trade.

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