Letter from John Laurens to Henry Laurens (1778)

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Headquarters, Valley Forge,

I barely hinted to you my dearest Father my desire to augment the Continental Forces from an untried Source—I wish I had any foundation to ask for an extraordinary addition to those favors which I have already received from you I would sollicit you to cede me a number of your able bodied men Slaves, instead of leaving me a fortune—I would bring about a twofold good, first I would advance those who are unjustly deprived of the Rights of Mankind to a State which would be a proper Gradation between abject Slavery and perfect Liberty—and besides I would reinforce the Defenders of Liberty with a number of gallant Soldiers—Men who have the habit of Subordination almost indelibly impress’d on them, would have one very essential qualification of Soldiers—I am persuaded that if I could obtain authority for the purpose I would have a Corps of such men trained, uniformly clad, equip’d and ready in every respect to act at the opening of the next Campaign—The Ridicule that may be thrown on the Colour I despise, because I am sure of rendering essential Service to my Country—I am tired of the Languor with which so sacred a War as this, is carried on—my circumstances prevent me from writing so long a Letter as I expected and wish’d to have done on a subject which I have much at heart—I entreat you to give a favorable Answer to

Your most affectionate

Headquarters, Valley Forge,
February 2, 1778

My dear Father.
The more I reflect upon the difficulties and delays which are likely to attend the completing our Continental Regiments—the more anxiously is my mind bent upon the Scheme which I lately, communicated to you—the obstacles to the execution of it had presented themselves to me, but by no means appeared insurmountable—I was aware of having that monster popular Prejudice open-mouthed against me—of undertaking to transform beings almost irrational into well disciplined Soldiers—of being obliged to combat the arguments and perhaps the intrigues of interested persons—but zeal for the public Service and an ardent desire to assert the rights of humanity determined me to engage in this arduous business, with the sanction of your Consent—my own perseverance aided by the Countenance of a few virtuous men will I hope enable me to accomplish it—

You seem to think my dear Father, that men reconciled by long habit to the miseries of their Condition, would prefer their ignominious bonds to the untasted Sweets of Liberty, especially when offer’d upon the terms which I propose—I confess indeed that, the minds of this unhappy species must be debased by a Servitude from which they can hope for no Relief but Death—and that every motive to action but Fear, must be nearly extinguished in them—but do you think they are so perfectly moulded to their State as to be insensible that a better exists—will the galling comparison between themselves and their masters leave them unenlighten’d in this respect—can their Self-Love be so totally annihilated as not frequently to induce ardent wishes for a change—

You will accuse me perhaps my dearest friend of consulting my own feelings too much but I am tempted to believe that this trampled people have so much human left in them, is to be capable of aspiring to the rights of men by noble exertions if some friend to mankind would point the Road, and give them a prospect of Success-If I am mistaken in this, I would avail myself even of their weakness, and conquering one fear by another, produce equal good to the Public—You will ask in this view how do you consult the benefit of the Slaves—I answer that like other men, they are the Creatures of habit, their Cowardly Ideas will be gradually effaced, and they will be modified anew—their being rescued from a State of perpetual humiliation—and being advanced as it were in die Scale of being will compensate the dangers incident to their new State —the hope that will spring in each mans mind respecting his own escape—will prevent his being miserable—those who fall in battle will not lose much-those who survive will obtain their Reward—

Habits of Subordination—Patience under fatigues, Sufferings and Privations of every kind—are soldierly qualifications which these men possess in an eminent degree.

Upon the whole my dearest friend and father, I hope that my plan for serving my Country and the oppressed Negro-race will not appear to you the Chimara 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—

You say that my own resources would be small, on account of the proportion of women and children—I do not know whether I am right for I speak from impulse and have not reasoned upon the matter—I say Altho my plan is at once to give freedom to the Negroes and gain Soldiers to the States;—in case of concurrence I shd: sacrifice the former interest, and therefore wd. change the Women and Children for able bodied men—the more of these I could obtain the better but 4o might be a good foundation to begin upon—

It is a pity that some such plan as I propose could not be more extensively executed by public Authority—a well chosen body of 5000 black men properly officer’d to act as light Troops in addition to our present establishment, might give us decisive Success in the next Campaign—

I have long deplored the wretched State of these men and considered in their history, the bloody wars excited in Africa to furnish America with Slaves—the Groans of despairing multitudes toiling for the Luxuries of Merciless Tyrants—I have had the pleasure of conversing with you sometimes upon the means of restoring them to their rights—When can it be better done, than when their enfranchisement may be made conducive to the Public Good, and be so modified as not to overpower their weak minds—

You ask what is the General’s opinion upon this subject—he is convinced that the numerous tribes of blacks in the Southern parts of the Continent offer a resource to us that should not be neglected—with respect to my particular Plan, he only objects to it with the arguments of Pity, for a man who would be less rich than he might be—

I am obliged my dearest Friend and Father to take my leave for the present, you will excuse whatever exceptionable may have escaped in the course of my Letter—and accept the assurances of filial Love and Respect of

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