Memorial to Abbott Lawrence Appearing in the NEHGS Register

The following account, dating from 1866, represents the most succinct telling of the life of Abbott Lawrence that I could find. For a longer, but slightly more relaxed read, see H.A. Hill’s Memoir of Abbot Lawrence.







VOL. X.                     OCTOBER. 1866.                                NO. 4.


THERE is something far more instructive in the lives of men who have been practically useful than in those of warriors and theoretical philosophers. Abbott Lawrence belonged to the former class. It is a great mistake in young readers to suppose that biography has no interest unless its subject has led armies, or suffered incredible hardships in some service which could never have been of any benefit to the world. The cultivated mind will turn from these to those of men who have really been benefactors to their own race, and will find their interest to increase in their perusal, in proportion as that mind becomes susceptible of what is truly great and of lasting importance.

In the brief space to which we are confined in the pages of the Register, little more can be done than to glance at the prominent events in the life of Mr. Lawrence. But agreeably to the plan of this work it is proper to say something respecting the antiquities of the family to which he belonged. It is by no means common for one of any name to be able to trace his descent through so many ages in an unbroken line as has been done in the present case, and with all the certainty that is desirable, as regards the line of descent.

The Lawrence pedigree extends through a period of about seven hundred years. It commences with Sir Robert Lawrence, who was with Richard Coeur de Lion at the siege of Acre, in the year 1191. The immediate descendants of this Sir Robert Lawrence became allied by marriage to the since distinguished and noble family of Washington; and thus the name of Lawrence came into that family, and was continued in it down to the grandfather of General Washington. The grandson of Sir Robert Lawrence married Matilda, daughter and heir of John de Washington. [1]

In its progress to the present age the family became connected by marriage to many other distinguished names, but of those it is not important to take notice in this necessarily brief sketch.

The emigrant ancestor of the subject of this Memoir, named John, was among the founders of Watertown in 1635, and may have been in the country as early as 1630. He finally settled in Groton, and there reared a pretty numerous family of both sons and daughters.

The Hon. Abbott Lawrence was born at Groton, on the 16th of December, 1792, and received his Christian name from his paternal grandfather, Amos Lawrence of Groton, having married Abigail, daughter of Nehemiah Abbott of Lexington. His father, Major Samuel Lawrence of Groton, died at his residence in that town, in 1827, at the age of 73 years and about six months. He was one of the firm men of the Revolution, was wounded at Bunker’s Hill, and fought in other fields at a subsequent period of the glorious struggle for independence. His son Abbott received his education in the common Town School and at the Groton Academy, as it was then called, but which has since received the name of the Lawrence Academy, bestowed in grateful remembrance of the Lawrence family, the members of which having munificently endowed it.

There was nothing remarkable in the boyhood of our subject; although it has been remarked of him, that he was always found in the van where anything was to be performed requiring energy and perseverance.

When young Lawrence had attained his sixteenth year he came to Boston, and entered the store of his brother Amos, as an apprentice, who had been but a short time established here in the “English goods business.” Brothers do not always do well together, but this was an exception, and resulted to the lasting benefit of both. The younger brother, though well disposed, and of an amiable disposition, required paternal care and protection. This was extended to him by one eminently qualified for so important a trust, as appears, not only from the course of the young man, but from the Diary of the elder brother, who therein wrote at the time: “My brother [Abbott] came to me as my apprentice, bringing his bundle under his arm, with less than three dollars in his pocket, (and this was his fortune.) A first‑rate business lad he was, but, like other bright lads, needed the careful eye of a senior to guard him from the pitfalls he was exposed to.” Thus circumstanced, he applied himself to his business, and after about five years his brother proposed to him to enter into co-partnership. Amos had been prosperous, and could now command some fifty, thousand dollars, but a cloud, in the shape of a “speck of war,” came over the mercantile horizon. Their stock depreciated, and the younger brother saw himself a bankrupt; but his partner had confidence, and generously offered to cancel their articles of co-partnership, and to pay him five thousand dollars at the end of the year. This generosity on the part of Mr. Amos Lawrence revived the spirits of young Abbott, and with equal generosity he declared he would stand by his agreement, come what might.

War between the United States and England followed. Business was at a stand, or scarcely worth attending to. This state of things caused many to leave their business and to go into the army. Young Lawrence having considerable military ardor, made up his mind to adopt the profession of arms, and, with the consent of his brother, actually applied to the War Department of the nation for a commission in the regular service. Fortunately, the news of peace arrived before the application for a commission was acted upon. This was a most fortunate circumstance, a circumstance to which Mr. Lawrence referred to ever afterwards as an interposition of Providence for his good. But his military propensities were not eradicated. He was for several years after a member of a military company, and we are acquainted with those who were his companions in arms, and who refer to him as a cheerful companion, remarkable for his observance of discipline and correct deportment. For some time during the war he served as a soldier among others to defend the town from invasion, which for many months was constantly threatened.

When the war closed, the brothers Lawrence were in a capacity to improve the revival of business. The scarcity of English goods during the war had become very great, and whoever should be enabled to obtain them during this state of the market, were sure to be rewarded by large returns. This firm was beforehand in such an enterprise. The junior partner was to proceed to England, make purchases, and forward them with the utmost possible dispatch. The Milo was the first merchantman which sailed from Boston for England after peace was proclaimed. In this ship Mr. Lawrence proceeded to Manchester by way of Liverpool; made his purchases there, which arrived in Boston in eighty‑four days from the time of his departure thence. Suffice it to say that the goods were all sold in about a week after they were landed, and at  “enormous profits.”

Mr. Lawrence did not return in the Milo, but remained sometime in England, as other young merchants have done, and as unknown there as one upon similar business would be at the present day. That he was, in other years, to revisit that land with the eyes of the world upon him, did not probably enter into his imagination. He afterwards made other voyages to England, all of which were prosperous, and the business of the firm became extensive and proportionately lucrative. Their place of business was at No. 31 Cornhill (now Washington Street,) afterwards at No. 15 Market Street (now Cornhill,) and at a later period, in Liberty Square, and lastly at their well‑known present stand in Milk Street.

When in the twenty‑seventh year of his age Mr. Lawrence was married. This important event in his life took place on the 28th of June, 1819. The partner of his choice was Miss Katharine, eldest daughter of the Hon. Timothy Bigelow, a lawyer in high standing, who resided in Medford. He had been acquainted with this lady from her youth, her father, during most of her girlhood, having been a resident of Groton. The union was a most happy one. Few women could be more devoted to her real duties as a wife, and few husbands ever more fully appreciated the value of so worthy a companion.

It was now a period of much uncertainty to importers of English goods; and it was beyond the capacity of the most judicious to calculate upon a tariff or no tariff. If a steady protective duty could be depended upon, then the question of the establishment of cotton and other manufactures was easily determined. Nothing seemed certain, but that one Congress would undo what its predecessors had done. However, amid these uncertainties, Amos and Abbott Lawrence gave up importations, and employed their capital and energies in the establishment of home manufactures; and, associating themselves with the Lowells and others, the great manufacturing cities bearing these names are monuments which grew out of their perseverance, business capacities, and stern integrity.

Mr. Lawrence took no avaricious view of the wants of the country, when he determined upon the establishment of manufactures. The grounds upon which he rested his theory were philanthropy and political economy. The result has long since proven a disinterestedness worthy of the great mind he possessed. In 1846 he published a series of letters to the Hon. William C. Rives of Virginia. These discussed the nature of home manufactures, the valuable influence they would exert upon the country at large, and their importance to the cotton growers of the South. They were able and convincing, and extensively read.

At the Harrisburg Convention of 1827, Mr. Lawrence was a delegate. The object of this Convention was to consider what could be done to protect the manufacturing interests of the country? The result was a Memorial to Congress and the tariff of the following year.

Mr. Lawrence was far from being an office‑seeker. On the other hand, he accepted office only from the dictates of that duty which every good member of society feels. In the year 1831 he served the city of his adoption as a Common Councilman; and when his term of service expired he declined being a candidate for re-election. But in 1834 he was prevailed upon to be a candidate for Congress, and was triumphantly elected to the House of Representatives. In that body he was on the important Committee of Ways and Means, and his sound judgment and experience was of great advantage in the business of the first two years which he served in Congress.

On the return of Mr. Lawrence from Congress, a public dinner was tendered him by his constituents, but which he thought proper to decline. He was importuned to stand for another term, but he utterly refused, notwithstanding the political party opposed to him declared, if he would do so, they would place no candidate in the field against him. About four years later, however, he suffered himself to be again a candidate, and was again elected. This term proved to be one of severe trial, which arose from a dangerous fever by which he was attacked, and, after a long prostration, he was obliged to resign his seat and return home. His malady was typhus fever, which, through the most skillful care of experienced physicians, and more than all, through the exertions of his devoted wife, was subdued; but he was never again the physical man he was before. The remains of the Washington fever were ever after with him, and hastened his steps down to the grave.

The stoppage of specie payments by the banks in 1837, caused much excitement, and on the arrival of the circular from Washington, requiring all custom‑house dues and postages to be paid in specie, the indignation was so great among the people, that some serious disturbances were apprehended; insomuch that a meeting was called on the 17th of May, at Faneuil Hall, to consider what could be done to allay the agitation. On this occasion Mr. Lawrence made an excellent speech, which had great influence in quieting the minds of the people. He persuaded them that there was a remedy for the troubles, but they must exercise a prudent patience, which if they did, he assured them all would come right.  “But,” said he, “any violent proceedings will certainly defeat the objects expected to be gained. Suppose,” he continued, “You should go and destroy the Post‑Office to‑day; it might gratify the bad feelings of revenge. You could get no letters tomorrow. Thus the evil would fall upon yourselves, as well as upon the most innocent portion of the community.”   Others spoke at the same meeting, but the remarks of no one made such an impression on the mind of the writer as did those of Abbott Lawrence.

The straight-forward and honorable merchant will carry his business attainments into any and all affairs. This consideration caused Daniel Webster to suggest Mr. Lawrence as one of the most proper men to negotiate with Lord Ashburton upon the settlement of the Eastern boundary question. The manner in which he acquitted himself in that commitment is too well known to require reposition in this brief memoir.

Worn down with his long and heavy responsibilities, rendered less supportable by the effects of his sickness at Washington, Mr. Lawrence, in the summer of 1843, with his family, embarked for England, hoping to be benefited by relaxation and the voyage. But this voyage came near being a disastrous one; for the steam ship— the Columbia— in which he took passage was wrecked on a ledge near Seal Island in Nova Scotia. Fortunately the state of the weather was such that the vessel did not go to pieces, and all the passengers got safely on shore. After five days of much privation on a desolate island, they were taken to Halifax. Thence Mr. Lawrence and his family proceeded to England.

In England Mr. Lawrence met with a warm reception, not only from those who had received his hospitalities in Boston, but from many who knew him by reputation.

Amidst all Mr. Lawrence’s extensive business operations and political obligations he did not forget the importance of education. This he manifested by munificent donations. He gave two thousand dollars to be devoted to prizes to the scholars of the Boston High and Latin Schools. And reflecting upon the deficiencies for a scientific education at Harvard College, he matured a plan of a Scientific School, which, being highly approved by the faculty of that University, Mr. Lawrence gave fifty thousand dollars for its establishment. This was in 1847. Encouraged by the practical working of his plan, he gave a further sum of fifty thousand dollars, which he saw its extended usefulness required. He had, however, lived to see his benevolent hopes fully realized, and the name of the Lawrence Scientific School[2] will remain an enduring monument to its founder; a monument which his descendants may far more value than anything its cost and accumulated interest could ever purchase.

Mr. Lawrence was a great admirer of Henry Clay, and used his great influence to procure his nomination for the presidency of the United States: the Convention, of which he was a member, did nominate him. He afterwards entered with great earnestness into the presidential campaign which resulted in the election of Gen. Taylor. This was looked upon as a disinterested service, for it is well known that Mr. Lawrence had good reason to believe that himself would be nominated for vice‑president. Gen. Taylor having been elected, he well knew the value of Mr. Lawrence’s services, and at once proffered him a seat in his cabinet; first as Secretary of the Navy, and then as Secretary of the Interior. Both of these Mr. Lawrence declined. Next came the offer of the mission to England, the most important diplomatic station belonging to this government. To accept this was not to be done without great sacrifices. Mr. Lawrence was ready to make them, provided he could, by so doing, materially advance the public good. He was for a time, however, in some doubt whether he ought to accept the appointment. During this period of suspense he told the writer he had made up his mind to accept, provided he could so arrange his business at home, as to allow of so long an absence from it. That he did accept, that he accomplished his mission in the most able and satisfactory manner, are matters belonging to the general history of the country, and do not require to be detailed here. His felicitous manners, fine personal appearance, and, above all, his sincerity in everything, gained him innumerable friends in England and Ireland. There, no political envy lent its aid to detraction, as was the case in his own country.

When Mr. Lawrence had been absent about three years, he signified to the President of the United States his intention to resign his place, and to return home. Although he had entrusted his concerns to his oldest son, Mr. James Lawrence, who conducted it with great ability and to his father’s entire satisfaction, yet Mr. Lawrence considered he could leave his important public post without great detriment, having prosecuted all important issues to final adjustment, or to points whence they could be successfully continued.

On the day of Mr. Lawrence’s departure from England, there appeared a notice of that gentleman in the Liverpool Times, one of the best conducted and truthful newspapers in the kingdom, from which we make the following extract:

“A distinguished American, Mr. Abbott Lawrence, leaves the shores of England this day for his native country, and it is needless to say, that he carries with him the respect of every member of the government to which he was accredited, as well as those who succeeded them in office, while the numerous private friendships which he has formed on this side of the Atlantic will experience no inconsiderable regret at the severance. It has often been the good fortune of the American Union to be represented at the Court of St. James by able and experienced men; but we know of no instance, during recent years, in which this fact has been more palpably brought out than in the person of the Minister who now returns to Washington.” It is sufficient to say that this was fully responded to by every patriotic American.

On the arrival of Mr. Lawrence in Boston, a public dinner was intended for him; but it being a time of mourning for the death of Mr. Webster, (who died on the 24th of October, 18S2,) the design of a dinner was not carried into effect. He immediately proceeded to Marshfield to celebrate the funeral of the great Statesman, and there, for the first time after his arrival, met many of his Boston friends.

After Mr. Lawrence and his Lady had had time to recover from the fatigues of their voyage, they were called upon by both branches of the City Government, with congratulations for their safe return, and to express the sincere regard they had for the private virtues and public services of one who had so well earned the esteem of every good citizen. The meeting was an affecting one, and the touching manner in which Mr. Lawrence expressed his gratitude for the kindness which greeted him on every hand, brought tears from the eyes of many of his auditors.

With the mission to England ended the political career of Mr. Lawrence, with the exception of his participation in the attempt to elect Gen. Scott to the Presidency. He now devoted himself to his private affairs, and to helping forward public improvements and works of charity. Everything seemed to promise the quiet enjoyment of a well-earned reputation, a plentiful fortune, and a delightful intercourse with friends and family. Thus prepared to pass the autumn of his life, this good and benevolent citizen was immediately struck down with a disease which confined him several months, and finally put a period to his life. He expired on the 18th of August, 1855, in the sixty-third year of his age. Although he had suffered much during his long sickness, he fell at last into the arms of death so quietly, that the precise moment in which his spirit took its flight was not known to those watching over him.

Besides the bequests made by Mr. Lawrence, already mentioned, that for the erection of model houses for the poor in Boston should be fully noticed. For this object he left by will fifty thousand dollars. He took great interest in the success of these monuments of mercy, and not more than ten days before his death his mind was actively engaged upon the plans for those buildings. He left in all, for charitable purposes, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Of this sum the Public Library of Boston receives ten thousand.

There was an extraordinary interest manifested by the public during Mr. Lawrence’s last sickness. Every seeming change was daily published to satisfy the constant inquiry among all persons respecting the state of his malady. And when his death was announced, there was a sensation in the community seldom witnessed on any similar event. So, on the day of his funeral; nothing could exceed the heartfelt demonstrations of respect and sorrow. Many closed their places of business, the. bells of the churches were tolled, the military were under arms, ships put their flags at half‑mast, and military guns were fired. He was followed to Mount Auburn by an immense procession, and the way was lined by thousands of spectators, anxious for a last look upon the hearse which conveyed to the tomb their great benefactor.

Mr. Lawrence was a member of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, almost from its foundation. About a year before his death he was, with much propriety, made Doctor of Laws by Harvard College.

[1] Note: As I have mentioned elsewhere, the connection of our family to these Lawrences has since been called into question. Consequently, I debated whether or not to leave out this first portion of Abbott’s biography. Why perpetuate a myth? I decided to include it, though, if only to remind readers of the weight certain nineteenth century New Englanders attached to royal bloodlines. In this capacity, the passage bolsters the idea that, during this era, less than scrupulous genealogists were formulating family histories almost as fiction for newly wealthy, status-conscious clients— in effect telling people what they wanted to hear.

[2] Actually, the institution was soon renamed Harvard Medical School.



Some other portraits (as well as a bust and a paperweight) of the man.

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