The South Carolina merchant-planter Henry Laurens often took a middle ground between radicals and conservatives during the American Revolution. In 1780, after serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress and as its president for a year, Laurens was dispatched to Europe and charged with negotiating a treaty in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the British captured him en route and kept him imprisoned as a traitor for more than a year. Though designated in 1782 as one of the commissioners to make final peace with Britain, he was too ill on his release to play much of a role in arriving at that agreement.
Painted in England shortly after Laurens won his parole, this likeness, by the expatriate American artist John Singleton Copley, eventually became the basis for an English mezzotint print. Placing his subject against an opulent backdrop typical of European portraiture of the day, Copley portrayed Laurens as "President of the American Congress," and the documents on the table refer to that body's ratification if its alliance with France in 1778.