Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How Young Was America's Founding Generation in 1776?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Susan reporting,

A version of this post originally appeared on my other blog, but it seems so appropriate now that I'm sharing it here, too.

This miniature portrait of Lt. Colonel John Laurens is one of my favorite paintings in the Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank, part of the Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia. It's easy enough to overlook. 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 missed. It's also tiny, the most miniature of miniatures. Including its frame of enamel work 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 remarkable for its power and privilege, and wealth created on the backs of enslaved men and women. Tall and handsome, well-spoken and intelligent, Laurens was educated abroad and 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 slave owner and seller, Laurens believed that all Americans, regardless of race, 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 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 Hamilton 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, and James Madison 25. For fans of the TV series TURN, John Andre was 26, Benjamin Tallmadge 22, Robert Townsend 22, Abraham Woodhull 26, and Peggy Shippen a mere 16. Slightly older (though not exactly greybeards) were Abigail Adams at 31, Thomas Jefferson 33, John Hancock 39, Thomas Paine 29, 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, and to making their world a better place. Consider how our current government is one of the oldest in American history: the average age for members of the House of Representative is 57 and for Senators 61, with a president who's 71. I, for one, am glad to see that revolutionary youth and spirit once again rising up today among those who born around the turn of the 21st century. Who knows what brave new things they, too, can accomplish?

Above: Miniature Portrait of John Laurens by Charles Willson Peale, c1784, Independence NHP.


Anonymous said...

I am glad to see it too.

Kathy Whalen said...

Great blog post. I love hearing about these revolutionaries, and it is a surprise to recognise how young they all were. Although it sometimes makes me prickly when youngsters say "Don't trust anyone over thirty", the whacky decisions that this ageing US government are making suggest that it is beyond time for a breath of fresh air. Bring on the new generation!

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Anonymous said...

Fascinating that they were all so young!

Jan Taylor said...

Amen! This is so inspiring. I for one am a Boomer who is heartily ashamed of the mess my generation has made of the country. We were supposed to change the world in the 1960s and instead we became a bunch of selfish, self-righteous, conservative old farts. I'm thrilled by what the "kids" are doing today, and wish them all the luck in the world. A breathe of much needed fresh air.

Margaret said...

I haertily agree. Here's to the new generation.

gruff said...

I hate to rain on everyone's parade but the current youth ferment is going to pan out just like the Boomers' wild experiment did: there'll be a lot of sound and fury but in the end they'll mess most things up, and two generations on will be getting blamed by the young people of that day.

Screenshot this and revisit it in sixty years!

Jum said...

"...wealth created on the backs of enslaved men and women."

Immaterial, not even particularly relevant, but oh, such obligatory virtue-signaling.

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