Henry Laurens was born of Huguenot parentage in Charleston, South Carolina. His grandfather, Andre Laurens, had fled from Rochelle, France, in 1682 at the start of the religious persecution of Protestants. His mother's family were Huguenot refugees who settled in New York. John Laurens, Henry's father, became a wealthy Charleston merchant and bequeathed much of his estate of his son.
Henry was educated in the colony, and in 1744 was sent to London to work in a commercial firm and make business contacts. He returned to Charleston and became a leading merchant in the city through a flourishing overseas export/import trade which included the exchange of rice for slaves. After 1764, he became more concerned with acquiring land and managing plantations, including "Mepkin" near Charleston, and in the political affairs and events that led to the American Revolution.
In 1775, Laurens was elected to the first Provincial Congress and became its president as well as president of the Council of Safety. He held the same positions in the second Provincial Congress. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1777, served for a year as president, but resigned in December 1778.
While traveling on a diplomatic mission to the United Provinces in 1780, Laurens and the documents he was carrying were captured at sea. He was confined in the Tower of London on suspicion of high treason from October 1780 until December 1781. Eventually, he was released and joined the American delegation in Paris that was engaged in drafting a peace treaty with Britain.
For several years he remained in England as an unofficial minister to that country and returned to the United States in 1784. The last years of his life were spent in retirement at "Mepkin" where he died on 8 December 1792 after a long period of ill health. After making a fortune in the slave trade, before his death he expressed views on the emancipation of black slaves. He may also have been one of the first Americans to stipulate in a will that his body should be cremated.
The Henry Laurens Papers contain fourteen letter books on the first eight reels of microfilm, and several others throughout the reels, dating from 1747 until 1783. Subjects covered include plantations, slavery, agriculture and trade including rice and indigo, merchants, commerce, natives/indigenous peoples, education, politics and government including the Provincial Congress and the Continental Congress, American and British military, defence and security, privateers, the Siege of Charleston (battles), diplomats/ diplomacy, foreign/international relations, and women.
Laurens recorded his business and personal affairs from the time he became established in business in Charleston until a few years before his death. In addition, he retained many letters he had received from other correspondents as well as important documents associated with his career. The Papers hold a rich and varied collection of records as shown by the examples in the brief content description which follows: letters to Committees of Congress, 1776-1779; correspondence of Henry Laurens with George Washington and others, 1776-1777; notes and other materials concerning the work of Congress, 1779-1780; a volume marked, Military, 1777-1778; returns of the army and navy and other records concerning the conduct of the war, 1776-1780; Journal of the Council of Safety for the Province of South Carolina, 15 June-27 July 1775; other letters and papers of the South Carolina Council of Safety, 16 June-9 December 1775; records of the Continental Congress relating to foreign affairs, 1776-1779; correspondence between Henry Laurens and James Laurens (son), 1773-1780; Lafayette letters to Henry Laurens, 1777-1783; Franklin-Laurens correspondence, 1778-1784; letters of William Livingston to Henry Laurens, 1778-1779; papers concerning the Revolution and the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, 1775-1793; papers regarding Indian affairs, 1777-1779; miscellaneous papers of the South Carolina Council of Safety, 1775-1776; returns and other military records, chiefly for South Carolina, 1775-1781; papers concerning Lady Huntington's business affairs, 1770-1784; papers of John Laurens (son) 1777-1781; and many other important documents.