Protestant Exiles from France/Volume 2 - Book Third - Chapter 6 - Section III

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III. Ancestors of American Presidents.

Before the year 1789, when George Washington inaugurated the office of President of the United States, the president of the legislature was called The President of the Congress of the United States. Among those early presidents there were descendants of the Huguenot Refugees. A few notes regarding them may be appropriate.

(1.) Laurens. There were refugees of this surname in England in 1682. In that year John Laurens, his wife Anne, and two daughters were naturalised (see List IV.). Laurent was probably the same name. Simon-Peter and Mark Laurent were naturalised in 1688 (see List XIV.). And on 3d May 1691, “Simon Pierre Laurens” married Anne Chicot, in London, within the French Church in the Savoy. There were other Laurents, also refugees, called Lauran and Laurans; but these I need not specify, because the president’s ancestors may have emigrated from France to British America. Indeed, it is said that they settled “first” at New York, and then removed to Charlestown, in South Carolina.

Henry Laurens was born in Charlestown in 1724. He made his fortune as a merchant under the sway of Great Britain. With regard to the quarrel with the mother country he afterwards said:—

“For many years, at the peril of my life and fortune, I evidently laboured to preserve and strengthen the ancient friendship between Great Britain and the colonies; in no instance did I ever excite on either side the discussions which separated them. The commencement of the present war was a subject of great grief to me, inasmuch as I foresaw, and foretold in letters now extant, the distresses which both countries experience at this day. In the rise and progress of the war I have extended every act of kindness in my power to persons called Loyalists and Quietists, as well as to British prisoners of war.”

His abilities and character commanded universal respect; and on the 1st November 1777 he was elected President of Congress on the resignation of Mr. John Hancock. The next year he signed the reply of Congress to the King’s Commissioners, which concluded thus:—

“Congress are inclined to peace, notwithstanding the unjust claims from which this war originated, and the savage manner in which it hath been conducted. They will therefore be ready to enter upon the consideration of a treaty of peace and commerce not inconsistent with treaties already subsisting, when the King of Great Britain shall demonstrate a sincere disposition for that purpose. The only solid proof of this disposition will be an explicit acknowledgment of these States, or the withdrawing of his fleets and armies.

“Signed by order of the unanimous voice of Congress at York-town, June 17, 1778.

Henry Laurens, President.”

On the 6th August he publicly received at Philadelphia the French Ambassador, who made a friendly speech, and “the President answered it with ease and dignity.” After filling the presidential chair for a year or upwards, he was succeeded by Mr. Jay. In 1780, Mr. Laurens was sent as an extraordinary envoy to negotiate a treaty with Holland, and sailed for the Hague in the Congress packet Mercury. On 3d September the ship was taken by a British cruiser off the Banks of Newfoundland. This box of papers, which he was observed to throw overboard, was recovered by a British sailor. Himself and papers were examined in London by the Privy Council; he was committed close prisoner to the Tower, and not released until the 31st December 1781. We meet with him next at Paris, on 30th November 1782, signing the treaty with Great Britain, along with the other three commissioners, Adams, Franklin, and Jay. His son, Lieut.-Colonel John Laurens (born in 1755). had been killed in action on 27th August 1782. He himself died in South Carolina on 1st December 1792. His daughter Martha was the wife of Dr. Ramsay, author of a “History of South Carolina,” and of “Memoirs of the Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay,” 1811.

(2.) Jay. Pierre Jay, a merchant and shipowner of La Rochelle, sent his family to England at the beginning of the dragonnades. For this offence he was imprisoned, but escaped. One of his own ships, homeward-bound, hove in sight, and a pilot’s boat conveyed him on board, and himself as well as the ship’s cargo was conveyed to England. Messieurs Haag give the names of two sons, Auguste and Isaac, by his wife, Judith Francois, and state that Isaac was an officer, killed at the battle of the Boyne. In the naturalisations I find, on 31st January 1690, Peter Jay, and his sons Gabriel, John, and David (see List XVII.), and “Augustus Jay,” on 6th September 1698 (see List XXIII.). These, however, may be members of families related by consanguinity. So we shall proceed under the guidance of Haag.

Auguste Jay (born 1665, son of Pierre and Judith), having been sent to England in his boyhood in 1681, received a good commercial education. Returning to France in 1685, he heard that the Edict of Nantes had just been revoked by Louis XIV., whereupon he emigrated to Charlestown, and ultimately settled in New York as a trader. In one of his voyages, in 1692, he was taken by a St Malo privateer, and was imprisoned in France; but, escaping to La Rochelle, he, by the help of his Aunt Monchard, was landed on the isle of Rhé; thence he sailed to Denmark, and passing through Holland and England, he returned to America, where he died in 1751. aged eighty-six. He in 1697 married Anne Marie Bayard. Their son was Peter Jay, who, by his wife, Mary van Courtland, had ten children, of whom the eighth was John.

John Jay (born 1st December 1745) became B.A. of the Royal College, Columbia, 15th May 1764. He was by profession a barrister-at-law. He was Governor of New York from 1775 to 1781, and President of Congress in 1779-80. He was Ambassador at Paris 1782, Chief-Justice of the United States from 178) to 1801; on 27th April 1792 he received the degree of LL.D. from the University of Edinburgh. On 28th April 1794, he arrived in London as minister plenipotentiary from the United States of America. He retired from public life in 1801, and spent twenty-eight years as an agriculturist. He died on 17th May 1829. (William Jay, son of John Jay and Sara Livingston, was born in 1789; he was a barrister, and rose to be a judge; he published his father’s life in 1833, and died in 1858.)

(3). Boudinot. Elias Boudinot, and his children Peter, Elias, John, and Mary were naturalised at Westminster 20th March 1686 (see List XII.) On the following 7th November Elias Boudinot, a widower, married Susanne Papin, a widow, in London, within the French Church in the Savoy. His second son, Elias (named above), founded a family which settled in America. This second Elias was the grandfather of Elias Boudinot the fourth, who was the son of Elias Boudinot the third, by Catharine Williams, his wife, a lady of Welsh descent. Elias the fourth, born in Philadelphia on 2d May 1740, was an eminent lawyer, and received the degree of LL.D. He became a Member of Congress in 1777, and was elected President in November 1782. He thus was officially pre-eminent in bidding farewell to British rule, under which my greatgrandfather, Andrew Elliot, had been Lieutenant Governor of the Province of New York. To him he addressed the following courteous letter:—

Princeton, 29th. Oct. 1783. — Sir, — Being lately informed, with some degree of certainty, that you mean to leave the City of New York for Europe with the British troops, and not knowing whether it was matter of choice or from any apprehension of your remaining being disagreeable to the State, permit me, sir, to offer you any services in my power, and to assure you that, as far as I can judge, your stay will be both agreeable and pleasant to any State where you may think proper to reside, and to promise that I will undertake to obtain the most ample acknowledgment of this temper from the government of either of the States you may think proper for this purpose, if you should require it. Having been fully convinced of the rectitude of your conduct throughout the late disagreeable contest, and having experienced the happy effects of your liberality and beneficence to multitudes of our unhappy citizens who have suffered captivity by the fortune of war, I could not withhold my testimony to your goodness, and contribute my mite in giving you your election as to your residence in this country, as far as was in my power. I have the honour to be, with great respect and esteem, sir, your most obedient and very humble servant,

Elias Boudinot.”

After his Presidential year of office Mr. Boudinot returned to the practice of law, but was again in political life as a Member of Congress from 1789 to 1796. He was the Director of the Mint of the United States from 1796 to 1805. The remainder of his life he spent in retirement. Professor Weiss says of him, “True to the traditions of the French Protestant families, he devoted himself wholly to the great work of the propagation of the gospel.” He is celebrated as the first President of the American Bible Society (founded in 1806), to which he gave a donation of ten thousand dollars. He was a trustee of Princeton College, and founder of its cabinet of natural history. He had been a prosperous man, and was able to crown the munificent benefactions of his life with splendid legacies. He died at Burlington, New Jersey, on 24th October 1821, aged eighty-one. An only daughter survived him. One of his legacies gave 3270 acres of land to the Hospital at Philadelphia for the benefit of foreigners; the General Assembly of the American Presbyterian Church were his residuary legatees.