The First Federal Congress Project
Documentary History of the First Federal Congress

John Laurance, Representative from New York

John Laurance was born near Falmouth, in Cornwall, England, in 1750. He emigrated to New York City in 1767, read law under Lieutenant Governor Cadwalader Colden, and began practicing in 1772. His reputation and growing identification with the revolutionary movement were bolstered by his marriage soon thereafter to Elizabeth McDougall, daughter of the New York merchant Alexander McDougall, a radical whig described as "the John Wilkes of America." In August 1775 Laurance joined the Fourth New York Regiment of the Continental Army as a second lieutenant and participated in the invasion of Canada. A year later he joined the First New York Regiment as paymaster and aide de camp to his father-in-law. Early in 1777 he was promoted to Judge Advocate General of Washington's staff, a position he held until resigning his commission in June 1782. Laurance was a charter member of the Society of the Cincinnati.
Returning to New York City immediately after the war, Laurance became active in a variety of social and municipal improvement organizations. In 1784 alone, he was elected vestryman of Trinity Church, trustee of Columbia College (now University), and regent of the University of the State of New York. In the midst of his civic duties, he did not neglect his own affairs. Laurance's practice flourished, due in part to his defense of loyalists seeking restitution for their confiscated lands. At the same time his investments in military bounty lands and confiscated loyalist estates grew to exceed forty thousand acres. His friend Alexander Hamilton was frequently a partner in these land speculations.
After a single term representing New York City and County in the state Assembly, Laurance was elected to the Confederation Congress. Attending from April 1785 to January 1787, he was a very active delegate, serving on numerous committees and establishing contacts with many of his future colleagues in the First Congress. In 1788 and 1789, he served simultaneously as state Senator for the Southern District and city alderman for the East Ward.
Laurance played no formal role in the ratification of the Constitution, beyond leading the successful fight in the state Senate for universal male suffrage in the election of convention delegates. His well known Federalist sympathies were rewarded with a place of honor in the Federalists' "grand procession" of 23 July 1788 to rally support for ratification. As one of Hamilton's most dependable lieutenants, Laurance received widespread Federalist endorsements in the race for Representative of the Second District, comprising Manhattan and southern Westchester County. Antifederalists acknowledged the Federalists' preponderance of influence in New York City, and shrewdly opted for the lesser of two evils by supporting the moderate Federalist merchant John Broome.
The two candidates had nearly identical military and political backgrounds, but Broome touted a mercantile expertise that Laurance lacked. It was his principal liability in the campaign. In partial compensation, Laurance's partisans pointed out that Broome had opposed allocating city money to refurbish Federal Hall, a measure intended to tempt Congress to remain in New York City. There is evidence that the legislature's impasse over the election of United States Senators also contributed to the tense atmosphere surrounding the election. Only a week before the polls opened, a dozen New York and out-of-state newspapers circulated reports that the legislature had elected Laurance one of the senators. On the second day of polling, another alarm was raised in the New-York Daily Gazette, where "Nestor" uncovered an Antifederalist plot to promote Broome in order to divide the Federalist vote and deliver the seat to Westchester lawyer Philip Pell. On 7 April, a joint legislative committee announced Laurance's victory by 2418 votes to Broome's 372 and Pell's thirty-three.
Laurance took his seat on 8 April, one week after the House commenced business. He was present at both subsequent sessions on the appointed opening day. He does not appear to have ever requested leave. Presumably his attendance was exemplary, at least during the first two sessions. With both his law office and home located a mere minute's walk away at 13 Wall Street, no other member suffered less inconvenience on account of Congress's distance from hearth and home. A summer home in nearby Newark, New Jersey, afforded additional relief from the burdens of public life and the pain of private life. His wife Elizabeth suffered a lingering illness and died four days after the close of the second session. Laurance, described as a handsome and dignified man, remained a widower for less than a year. On 30 June 1791 he married Elizabeth Allen, a Philadelphia widow.
During the congressional election, Hamilton had promised voters that Laurance would help to ensure "the preservation of the government itself, in its due force and vigor."1 It was no empty campaign promise. One of the leading defenders of Federalist programs, Laurance spoke on the floor of the House with great frequency and eloquence. His alliance with Hamilton remained strong throughout his service in Congress, where he avidly espoused the viewpoints of Hamilton and other strong nationalists.
Laurance grounded his support for broad executive prerogatives on a loose construction of Congress' constitutional authority to grant them. The right of legislative construction was the principal theme of his lengthy 17 June 1789 speech on the Foreign Affairs Act [HR-8]. He concluded the speech by arguing that expediency dictated that Congress grant the president the exclusive power of removal. He echoed the same themes in his speeches in favor of the president's power to determine salaries under the Foreign Intercourse Act [HR-35] without consent of the Senate, and the extensive judicial establishment provided by the Judiciary Act [S-1]. Laurance continued to promote the administration's interests by supporting the secretary of the treasury's power to "digest and report" revenue plans under the Treasury Act [HR-9], and the president's right to issue writs under the Courts Act [S-4] and to hire and compensate his own secretaries under the Compensation Act [HR-15]. He also voted for relatively high appropriations for executive salaries under the Salaries-Executive Act [HR-21].
On 6 May 1789, Laurance presented to the House the New York legislature's application for a second constitutional convention. His record throughout the subsequent debate on proposed amendments to the Constitution, however, was consistently against any structural alterations. His longest speech during the debate criticized a high ratio of representation on the grounds that the smaller, "landless" states with no prospect of gaining population would never agree to the measure. He offered successful motions on due process, and opposed integrating amendments into the original document.
At one point during the debate on amendments, Laurance preached that "every member on this floor ought to consider himself the representative of the whole union, and not of the particular district which had chosen him."2 His position on economic issues, however, reveals an overriding regard for his own constituency's interests. As sole representative of the fastest growing town in the Union, Laurance represented a highly diverse constituency of mechanics, manufacturers, and merchants. During the debate on the Impost Act [HR-2], he skillfully satisfied the interests of all of them. For mechanics and manufacturers he backed high duties on imports that competed with goods produced domestically, while for merchants he sought low duties on goods that the nation needed to import. The merchants' interest prevailed when Laurance came out against discriminatory tonnage duties that threatened the city's heavy trade with Great Britain. His consistently pro-British actions and comments caused Maclay to conclude that Laurance was "a mere tool for British Agents & factors."3
On at least one occasion, Laurance showed perhaps too keen an enthusiasm for his constituents' economic gain. As one of the Grand Committee's three members primarily responsible for drafting the first Collection Bill [HR-3], Laurance deserves at least some of the blame for the bill's slow progress. Although the Impost Act [HR-2] was still in the Senate, legislators faced the uncomfortable prospect of having an impost without the means to collect it. On the floor, Laurance advocated further postponing the temporary collection system, in order to correct some of its discrepancies. Maclay suspected ulterior motives, claiming that merchants were already adding the amount of the duties to their prices.
In supporting the fiscal measures proposed in Hamilton's report on public credit, Laurance actively safeguarded the interests of New York's large number of speculators. One sixth of the public debt, in continental and state securities, was owned by New York investors. When the assumption of the states' war debts lost on its first vote in the Committee of the Whole, Maclay rejoiced to record that "happy Impudence sat enthroned on Laurance's brow."4 In the third session debate on the Land Office Bill [HR-114], the House considered accepting the newly funded securities at market value in payment for public lands. Such easy terms for purchasing western lands and liquidating the public debt threatened at once to depopulate the eastern states and to undermine Hamilton's purpose behind a longterm funded debt. Laurance moved to strike the clause. His motion failed, but the bill later died in the Senate.
Laurance was more successful in promoting Hamilton's vision of a Bank of the United States. He opposed Southern members' demands to postpone the time allotted for purchasing shares, but was willing to compromise on the length of the bank's charter. If the bank carried only a ten year charter, he predicted "the constitutional objections to it might vanish like snow before a warm sun."5
During both the first and second sessions, Laurance was New York's representative in the informal negotiations over the location of the capital. In the high stakes competition, Laurance missed no opportunity to try to keep the capital in his district for as long as possible. His efforts included actively disputing the validity of New Jersey's congressional elections, which had resulted in a delegation decidedly oriented towards Philadelphia.
Laurance successfully combined his behind the scenes political activity with one of the most arduous committee loads of any member of the First Congress. He served on a total of thirty-eight, reporting for six. Not surprisingly, committees on trade, commercial regulations, and ways and means outnumbered the rest. Six concerned private petitions for compensation for wartime services, five related to territorial expansion, and three dealt with matters of internal business and procedure.
Well satisfied with Laurance's politics and stamina, his district reelected him in April 1790. Antifederalists fielded no candidate of their own, although Melancton Smith received a token number of votes. Laurance decided not to run for reelection to the Third Congress. His reputation as a lawyer was enhanced by his appointment as one of the first counsellors admitted to argue before the Supreme Court. In May 1794 Washington acknowledged his legal expertise by appointing him judge for the United States District Court of New York. He left the bench in 1796 to fill the Senate seat vacated by his friend and fellow Federalist Rufus King, holding the position until his resignation in 1800. Following a partial recovery from a paralytic stroke, Laurance died in New York City on 11 November 1810.
A small collection of Laurance's papers is at the New-York Historical Society. John Trumbull's 1792 miniature, also at the New-York Historical Society, was part of a study for a larger, unrealized painting of Washington's first inaugural. No full length biography has been written.
    1. New York City Federalist Committee of Correspondence, 3 Mar. 1789, DHFFE 3:477.
    2. House Debates 11:1279.
    3. Maclay Diary, p. 50.
    4. Maclay Diary, p. 242.
    5. House Debates 14:383.

Recommended citation: Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, ed. Charlene Bickford, et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2002). [Accessed (supply date here)]

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