CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — When Americans Are Jailed Abroad

WSJ journalist Evan Gershkovich.(AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
WSJ journalist Evan Gershkovich.(AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

So here we go, another American detained in Putin’s Russia. Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal has been incarcerated in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. He is accused of spying. Gershkovich is not so high profile as Brittney Griner of the WNBA, but the charges against him are much more serious. It is likely that he will languish in prison for a considerable amount of time before Russia and the U.S. agree on the prisoner exchange protocols and get him home.

These things happen in a world at war. Whether we admit it or not, we are fighting a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, thousands of miles from our shores.

Jailing prominent Americans certainly gets our attention. It also communicates Putin’s deep anger at the U.S. for supplying the weapons that are killing Russian soldiers and mercenaries.

Taking On Pirates

Two historical parallels come to mind. First, the Perdicaris-Raisuli Affair. In May 1904 Greek-American citizen Ion Perdicaris and his stepson were kidnapped in Tangier by a freelance Moroccan pirate named Ahmed ibn-Muhammed Raisuli. Raisuli demanded a ransom of $70,000, safe passage and political control over several north Moroccan provinces in exchange for Perdicaris. One day later, when the news reached his office, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched a naval squadron of seven vessels to Morocco. There was the Big Stick at work. Roosevelt hoped the sultan of Morocco would pressure Raisuli to release Perdicaris.

Just at this time the Republican National Convention was meeting in Chicago to decide whether to nominate Roosevelt for a full term. He had served out part of McKinley’s term (three years, 171 days) after the assassination. Nobody doubted that Roosevelt would be nominated by the Republicans, so there wasn’t much drama in the Chicago Coliseum. Roosevelt’s closest friend Henry Cabot Lodge, wrote, “Excitement is impossible where there is no contest.” Roosevelt spent the convention days in Washington. That was protocol then — the candidate stayed away from the convention city and let the delegates do their work. TR did make one adjustment to the norm, however. He was able to monitor the entire proceedings via a special telephone line that connected his office with the basement of the coliseum.


Secretary of State John Hay was in Chicago on behalf of the president. Reacting to yet another setback in the negotiations in Morocco, on June 22, 1904, Secretary Hay took the podium to convey the president’s words to the nation of Morocco in no uncertain terms:

“We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

The convention erupted in pure ecstasy, of course, because here was the essence of Theodore Roosevelt in a one-sentence telegram. Roosevelt, a cowboy, a big-game hunter, a wilderness man, a war hero, now a president of the United States with backbone. What was it that Roosevelt himself had said of McKinley? “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” This was the essence of Americanism, Roosevelt style.

How Roosevelt would have loved to have witnessed that interminable ovation in Chicago.

Two days later, Perdicaris was released.

Laurens in the Tower of London

The other example that comes to mind is the incarceration of the American diplomat Henry Laurens (1724-1792) in Britain’s fabled Tower of London. Laurens, a South Carolina plantation owner, had, among other achievements, served as the president of the Second Continental Congress.

Henry Laurens, an American Founding Father, a president of the Continental Congress and signatory to the Articles of Confederation who the British held prisoner in the Tower of London. (Journal of the American Revolution)
Henry Laurens, an American Founding Father, a president of the Continental Congress and signatory to the Articles of Confederation who the British held prisoner in the Tower of London. (Journal of the American Revolution)

In the autumn of 1779, he was appointed to a diplomatic post at The Hague, but on the way (1780), off the coast of Newfoundland, the packet ship on which he sailed, the brigantine Mercury, was boarded by a frigate of the British Navy (then the largest in the world). Laurens and his secretary threw his packets of diplomatic papers over the side of the ship. Unfortunately, one bag floated long enough for the British to fetch it out of the Atlantic. The papers included a proposed treaty with the Netherlands (the United Provinces) by which the U.S. hoped to secure a $10 million loan from Dutch bankers.

Had that satchel of papers sunk that day in the north Atlantic, history would have been significantly different. On the basis of the draft treaty found in Laurens’ papers, England declared war on the United Provinces. And Laurens, who might possibly have passed muster as a mere citizen, an American merchant, spent 15 months in the tower as a state prisoner.

Laurens remains the only American ever incarcerated in the Tower of London, which dates back at least to the 11th century.

Laurens was treated well enough in the tower. He was actually lodged in the house of one of the wardens who supervised his incarceration. In fact, his relations with the warden’s family were so satisfying that Laurens left a legacy in his will for the warden’s wife. Like most prisoners of the tower, Laurens was sick for a protracted period of time. He complained about what he regarded as arbitrary inconveniences. Sometimes he was allowed to walk the grounds, sometimes not. He had to pay all of his incarceration expenses out of his own pocket: room, board, grog and other services.

His family was permitted to see him every couple of weeks. He was even something of a celebrity. A worthy captive, a rare source of British pride in the midst of a disastrous war, someone to be closely observed by the British press. He was the subject of countless English newspaper reports and editorials. He secretly wrote letters that were smuggled out by a friendly woman. These letters were printed by London newspapers. They became the talk of the town — of the empire.

The war was not going well. The British public was growing weary of the whole thing. The British treasury was hemorrhaging. Prominent members of Parliament were openly questioning the usefulness of continuing the war against such odds with such a long and expensive supply line. Court and opposition newspapers took opposite stands on everything relating to Laurens, like MSNBC and Fox today. In a sense, Laurens was merely a pawn in the internal politics of Britain. The debate about him was essentially a debate about the conduct of the war and the geopolitical prospects for the years ahead. Some British newspapers argued that it was indecorous and ungentlemanly for Britain to throw a bona fide diplomat into prison.

Eventually, the British authorities attempted to convince Laurens to propose a peace settlement in which America would continue to be a British colony, but with the irritants that had led to the Declaration of Independence addressed in a way acceptable to the rebels. Laurens refused to consider the British proposal. The authorities offered to free him if he would merely “point out anything for the benefit of Great Britain, in the present dispute with the colonies.” Laurens refused to cooperate.

From time to time, the authorities warned Laurens he would probably be beheaded or hanged if the British won the war. Finally, they told him they would free him if only he would “write a few lines … saying that he was sorry for what was past.” “Sir,” said Laurens, “I will never subscribe to my own infamy and to the dishonor of my children.” He even refused to accept a pardon because it would signify that he had committed a crime.

Laurens had some spunk. During his house arrest in St. John’s, Newfoundland, just after capture, he responded to someone’s toast to George III with one for the other George, George Washington! This must have amused or irked his captors — or both.

In the end, Henry Laurens was exchanged for a British prisoner in America of equal stature. On Dec. 31, 1781, Laurens was exchanged for Gen. Charles Cornwallis, the British general who surrendered after the siege of Yorktown (Sept. 28, 1781). Strangely enough, Cornwallis was also the constable of the Tower of London, a sinecure. After he was released, Laurens did not return to America. He joined John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in Paris to begin negotiating the treaty that was to end the War of Independence.

But There is More to This Story

It’s not clear what to make of Laurens. He owned a large South Carolina plantation worked by large numbers of slaves. He was also the single largest trafficker in African slaves in America. In the 1750s alone, he imported more than 8,000 Africans for the American slave market. It is bad enough to be a slaveholder. It is much worse to be a trafficker in slaves. It is hard for us to think of anything more appalling than that. And yet he was a well-respected member of the colonial establishment, worthy of being elected president of the Continental Congress.

Forty years ago, Laurens’ wholesale complicity in the tragedy of slavery was not much more than a footnote to his biography. Today it soars up instantly into something like a fundamental and blanket condemnation of his very existence.

And yet it gets still more complicated. Both Laurens and his son, John, became advocates for manumission of slaves. In 1776, Laurens wrote to his son:

You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British kings and parliaments, as well as by the laws of that country ages before my existence. I found the Christian religion and slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation. I nevertheless disliked it. … I am devising means for manumitting many of them … . Great powers oppose me — the laws and customs of my country, my own and the avarice of my countrymen.

John Laurens (now best known because he is now portrayed as a character in the Broadway musical “Hamilton”) was an ardent abolitionist.

During the revolution, he devised a plan to recruit slaves from Southern plantations for service in Continental Army regiments, after which they would be freed. After hemming and hawing for as long as possible, the Continental Congress very hesitatingly authorized the plan but only if Southern states gave their legislative approval. The Southern states balked, of course, one more early inflection point in the long trajectory toward the Civil War. John Laurens had a heroic sense of himself. He was impetuous and reckless in combat. He was killed at the battle of Chehaw Neck, S.C., in 1782 (i.e., after the war was unofficially over). Hamilton grieved. Laurens had been his closest friend.

Just where American history will eventually shake out when our national narrative comes to be less-intensely debated is not certain. This much seems clear and right to me: that in any future account of the life and achievement of Henry Laurens, slavery has to share the lead.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

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