I saw this miniature portrait of Lt. Colonel John Laurens yesterday at the Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank, part of the Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia. It would have been easy enough to miss. Like so many 18thc miniatures painted in watercolors on ivory, this one needs to be protected from light to keep from fading, and unless a visitor pushes aside the dark cloth shrouding its glass case (which you're invited to do; I didn't break any rules!), it will be overlooked. It's also tiny, the most miniature of miniatures. Including its frame of enamelwork and cut garnets, it measures only 1-3/4" high.
But that's not a face meant to be forgotten. John Laurens was born in Charleston, SC in 1754, into a family of remarkable for its power and privilege, and wealth created on the backs of enslaved men and women. Tall and handsome, Laurens was educated abroad, destined for a career in law. The Revolution changed that, and against his father's wishes, he joined the staff of Commander-in-Chief Gen. George Washington as an aide-de-camp in 1777. He was 23. He became close friends with both the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton, who considered Laurens his dearest friend in the military.
Known for his daring and impetuous courage in battle, Laurens was equally daring in his beliefs. Despite being the son of a slaveowner and seller, Laurens believed that all Americans, regardless of race, could and should be equal in the new republic, and he campaigned for the enlistment of enslaved men in the Continental Army as a way for them to earn their freedom - an unpopular idea that was never put into action.
Laurens made his mark on both the battlefield and as a statesman, serving as a special minister to France with Benjamin Franklin to help secure French aid for America. He fought in the last major battle of the war at Yorktown and survived, only to be killed in a meaningless skirmish in 1782, weeks before the British troops finally left America for good. He was only 27, his immense promise cut short.
This miniature was a copy of an earlier portrait by the same artist, and was painted after Laurens' death as a memento for one of his former comrades, Maj. William Jackson. The Latin motto around the miniature's frame reads "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” ("It is a sweet and honorable thing to die for one's country.") A noble sentiment, indeed. But Laurens' good friend Alexander Hamilton was devastated, and in one of those historical "what if's", it's impossible not to wonder what both men would have achieved together if Laurens had lived.
All of which made me think, too, of how young so many of the major figures of the American Revolution were when the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. My two main characters in I, Eliza Hamiton were among the youngest: Alexander Hamilton was around 21 (his birthdate is uncertain), while his future wife Elizabeth Schuyler was 18. John Laurens was 21, and Aaron Burr 20. The Marquis de Lafayette was 18, Betsy Ross 24, Henry Lee III 20, James Monroe 18, James Madison 25. For fans of TURN, John Andre was 26, Benjamin Tallmadge 22, Robert Townsend 22, Abraham Woodhull 26, and Peggy Shippen a mere 16. Slightly older but still not exactly greybeards were Abigail Adams 31, Thomas Jefferson 33, John Hancock 39, Thomas Paine 39, and John Adams, 40. Even George Washington, the future Commander-in-Chief, was only 44, and his nemesis King George III was 38.
They were young men and young women, brimming with enthusiasm, dedication, and fierce devotion to their ideals and dreams. Consider the ages of our current government (one of the oldest in American history, with the average age for members of the House of Representatives 58, and for Senators, 63 - and I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing a bit of that revolutionary youth and spirit once again.
Above: Miniature Portrait of John Laurens by Charles Willson Peale, c1784, Independence NHP.