Cultural Reference: John Laurens
Jess Girdler (Fall 2019)
Part I ~ Introduction
The musical Hamilton is a dynamic work which shares the story of the revolution from the experience and perspective of Alexander Hamilton. While there are many central characters and relationships between characters which are integral to the plot and the themes of the musical, the presence and impact of John Laurens, Alexander’s best friend, is more subtle but no less important. In a musical where members of the main cast have signature numbers they sing and are associated with, Laurens is known instead for an inserted moment in the musical, the only bit of dialogue which isn’t sung, “Tomorrow there will be more of us” (Miranda and McCarter 131) which tells the audience of the death of John Laurens. So what exactly is the significance to the musical of the man who died halfway through?
Beyond his role in life as Alexander’s closest friend, the role of Laurens in the musical speaks to a friendship which functions outside of class and focuses on the ambitions of these two men of the revolution. Laurens’ presence and role as Hamilton’s best friend, shown in the wedding scene, emphasizes ambition as the most critical component of legacy creation. Here, we will specifically examine the role of Laurens during the scene portraying Alexander’s marriage to his wife, Eliza, to consider the class differences between these two men. We will explore the early life of John Laurens to show how the social class experiences of Alexander and Laurens differed, rendering their friendship unlikely. In order to situate the importance of ambition in the musical we will examine not only the role of ambition in Laurens and Hamilton’s relationship, but also the importance of ambition in politics and the use of ambition by Alexander in navigating his grief over Laurens’ death. Through these moments of ambition, centered in the relationship of Laurens and Hamilton, we can see that ambition is the most critical influence on legacy.
Part II ~ Historical Background
Where Hamilton’s upbringing was one of poverty, John Laurens’ upbringing was one of privilege. John Laurens was the second oldest child of Henry Laurens and Eleanor Ball and the oldest child to survive to adulthood (Massey 9). He spent his childhood growing up on his family’s two properties in Ansonborough and Mepkin (9). These properties where lavish and sprawling and no expense was spared for the homes where the Laurens children grew up. Despite navigating significant loss as a child and young adult, including the loss of his mother at sixteen (20), Laurens was raised as a child of high social status. His father, Henry Laurens, was well established as a respectable public figure in South Carolina and in the colonies. Henry valued the education of his children and because of this emphasis on education, John returned to England and eventually travelled to Geneva to continue his studies in law (27). A marker of both Laurens’ upbringing and education is the opportunity his status and financial security brought him. His status gave him access to leading scientists whom he could learn from (23) and when the expense of socializing with the social elite abroad grew and John ran low on funds, his father sent him more money and applauded his socializing (40). His status led Laurens all the way to a position as the fourth Aide De Camp to General George Washington who didn’t want a fourth Aide De Camp but hired Laurens anyway because he was the “son of a member of congress” (73).
While John Laurens received several opportunities due to his social status, his character and ambition were equally as important to the opportunities and accolades presented in his short life. Laurens was raised as a member of the Provincial Elite (Massey 11). This social class owned a vast majority of the land and status was passed by birth and wealth but those were not the sole determining factors. According to Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, members of this social class were determined not only by their wealth but also by their character, and while the social status was passed within a family, it still had to be earned (32). Since this social class emphasized learning the arts and general education Laurens, as a member of the Provincial Elite, was well studied. He learned “Latin, Greek, English and mathematics” (Massey 20) and had an interest in medicine but chose to study law instead.
Perhaps more significant than the commitment to learning engrained in Laurens is the character and ambition he presented in his life, two qualities that earned him the respect, admiration and friendship of Alexander Hamilton. He was known to be a rash individual who did not engage often in idleness. In a letter written, unbeknownst to his father, the day after John’s death, Henry Laurens referred to John Laurens as someone who “can’t endure idleness when there is scope for action” (230). This brash character trait ultimately led to the death of John Laurens in a small battle at the Combahee River (226). While the impulsive and brash nature of Laurens resulted in his death, it was also this brashness and ambitious nature that made him a dear friend to Alexander Hamilton. Alexander, upon hearing of the death of John Laurens, wrote in a letter to Nathaniel Greene that Laurens was a “citizen whose heart realized that patriotism of which others only talk” (Hamilton). Even before his death Hamilton valued Laurens’ willingness to act alongside his desire to earn his opportunities. In a letter to John Laurens in April of 1779, Hamilton applauds Laurens turning down a position which brought with it “a privilege, an honor, a mark of distinction, a something upon you; which they withhold from other Gentlemen in the family” (Hamilton). By John turning down this offer and Alexander applauding this action, they both show the shared value they placed on earning what you receive, emphasizing action and ambition over status.
Part III ~ The Scene Where It Happens
While John Laurens could be significantly connected to Alexander Hamilton historically, his presence in the musical is less noticeable but significant all the same. John Laurens is first introduced in the musical during a tavern scene in “Aaron Burr, Sir” (25) as a seemingly hot headed soldier who will fight his way to freedom. Throughout the first act there are moments where John appears again but usually those moments are not specifically his. In those moments he rarely speaks as the main character and is typically providing support for Hamilton alongside Marquette De Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan. With Laurens taking a secondary role, his position as dear friend is easily established as he is present for significant moments but doesn’t take the spotlight. One significant moment of this supporting role is Laurens serving as Alexander’s best man in the wedding scene in the musical. During the song “Helpless”(71), Laurens can be seen leading Hamilton into the party where he meets Eliza. Then, during the song “Satisfied” (80) Laurens begins the song by getting the attention of the wedding attendees and introducing the maid of honor, Angelica so she can give her speech. While there are other significant moments where Laurens appears in the musical, this moment highlights the disparity in their social class most clearly. Laurens gains control of the room with ease as he has been raised in these social settings for most of his life. In these scenes Alexander is identified as from a lower social class by his soon to be sister-in-law, Angelica who says that Alex is “penniless” (Miranda and McCarter 82). This stark comparison draws attention to their vastly different upbringings.
By identifying John Laurens’ ambitious nature alongside his privileged upbringing in both the musical and in history we can better understand why Alexander and John were friends even though they were raised in vastly different ways. This friendship, most highlighted in the class experience of the Schyuler/Hamilton wedding, reminds the audience that ambition is a critical attribute. Additionally, the ability for Hamilton and Laurens to serve in the same role as Aide De Camp to General George Washington shows that ambition can determine status and therefore legacy.
Part IV ~ Thematic Connections
John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton have both been proven as ambitious characters but it is not just their ambition but the value they place on ambition throughout their experiences and relationships that truly shows the importance of ambition in legacy creation. Through songs like “My Shot,” the “young, scrappy and hungry” (Miranda and McCarter 26) Alexander is easily identified as ambitious, but simultaneously, he is seen as difficult and argumentative. Hamilton doesn’t necessarily make friends easily which we especially see in his political disagreements with Burr, Jefferson, and Madison. The relationship difficulties of Hamilton show how special his relationship with Laurens is. Additionally, while Laurens is no longer alive in the musical during the “Election of 1800” (258), Alexander again shows the significance of ambition in this moment when he decides to support Jefferson over Burr because Burr is not ambitious in his beliefs like Jefferson. In this moment and in his relationship with Laurens, Hamilton privileges ambition as the most important component to the legacy of these men and the legacy of a nation.
Perhaps the most definitive evidence that ambition is the critical component of legacy creation comes in the death of John Laurens during the scene titled “Tomorrow there will be more of us” (Miranda and McCarter 130). In this scene, Eliza reads to Alexander the letter from Henry Laurens, John’s father, informing Alexander of his death. The constantly moving Hamilton is still for a moment as he processes this news and then says, “I have so much work to do” (131) and begins to work “Non-stop” (137) to continue building the nation. Essentially, as a response to his grief, Alexander sends his ambition into overdrive working as a lawyer, planning to defend the constitution, and ultimately writing 51 essays as a part of the federalist papers (142). The use of ambition to navigate his grief and maybe even worry over the possibility of his own death shows the audience that ambition is Alexander’s most significant tool in responding to grief and creating a legacy.
The ambitious John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton and their friendship built on ambition have implications on the audience’s experience of the musical as a whole. Specifically, the relationship between Laurens and Hamilton built in ambition influences the audience’s understanding of legacy creation by highlighting the critical nature of ambition in the one aspect of Hamilton’s life where he didn’t always excel. Through his relationships with other people in the musical, we can identify the significance of his relationship with Laurens. Additionally the heightened level of ambition immediately following the death of Laurens shows the audience that ambition is key to relationships and is the correct response to profound grief. Through the use of ambition as a central theme to their friendship and the use of ambition to move through the loss of his dearest friend and his own fears of death, Alexander Hamilton, as presented in the musical, shows us that ambition is the most critical component to legacy creation.
Part V ~ Concluding Thoughts
Ultimately, John Laurens was a revolutionary hero who was both significantly privileged and deeply ambitious. His ambition resulted in the seemingly unlikely friendship with Alexander Hamilton. In watching the musical we see John Laurens navigate his relationship with Alexander, built in ambition, alongside his social status. In navigating this space, we are reminded of the differences in experiences between Alexander and John. This comparison makes their similarities that much more significant, showing the audience that the most important component in many aspects but especially in legacy creation according to Alexander is ambition. The role of ambition in legacy creation is especially critical in the scene directly following the death of John Laurens where Hamilton addresses his grief and worry about death by becoming even more ambitious than he usually is. By utilizing Laurens in the musical we see in his life, his relationship with Alexander, and his death that ambition is the most critical element of creating a legacy in the eyes of Alexander Hamilton and in the musical Hamilton.
Hamilton, Alexander. From Alexander Hamilton to Lieutanant Colonel John Laurens, April 1779. Founders Online. National Archives and Records Administration, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0100
Hamilton, Alexander. From Alexander Hamilton to Major General Nathanael Greene, October 12 1782. Founders Online. National Archives and Records Administration, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-03-02-0090
Manuel-Miranda, Lin, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton The Revolution. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
Massey, Gregory. John Laurens and the American Revolution. University of South Carolina, 2000.
Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Random House, 1991.