Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens: The Parallel Lives of Two American Patriots

By Daniel J. McDonough | Go to book overview

13
Contention in Congress: Henry Laurens and
the Continental Congress, 1778–1779

BY THE TIME CONGRESS RETURNED TO PHILADELPHIA, IT HAD ALREADY EN tered into the conflict that would produce the sharpest party battle in the history of the Continental Congress. At the heart of the matter were the sharp disagreements among the American commissioners in Europe, a disputatious lot who seemed unable to agree upon anything. The main combatants in this sordid duel were Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, and members of Congress divided into factions supporting one or the other. Laurens had always denounced the existence of parties, and from his earliest days in Congress declared that he would refuse to associate with any of the Congressional factions.1 Until mid-1778, Laurens had been successful in this quest. Afterwards, however, and particularly during 1779, he found it increasingly difficult to avoid such a characterization. Though he continued to describe himself as free from all party considerations, Laurens was often found taking positions similar to those of the Lees of Virginia and the Adamses of Massachusetts. This was particularly true during the battle between the partisans of Deane and Lee, when Laurens placed his support squarely behind the latter.

In 1776, Congress had selected Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to represent American interests in France. When Jefferson declined the honor, Congress appointed another Virginian, Arthur Lee, to take his place. Trouble began almost immediately, as a personality conflict developed between the sanctimonious Lee and the gregarious duo of Deane and Franklin. As the relationship deteriorated, the latter two commissioners increasingly ignored the former, which rankled the jealous and egotistical Virginian. Nursing his bruised ego, Lee suspected that Deane and Franklin were mixing private and public business in an effort to enrich themselves. Thus, Lee began sending sharply critical reports to his brother, Richard Henry Lee, in Congress. As ambitious as he was self-righteous, Arthur Lee suggested to his brother that he secure an arrangement by which Deane would be sent to The Hague, Franklin to Vienna, and the plum of Versailles would be reserved for himself.2

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