While he never visited the city that was named after him, Amos Adams Lawrence was an abolitionist who played a key role in making Kansas a free state. Unlike other, more notorious activists, his weapon of choice wasn’t a firearm or pike. It was his checking account.
“He was kind of a pioneer industrialist,” said Jonathan Earle, associate history professor at Kansas University. “He owned big cotton mills and factories in Massachusetts, so he made tons of money — Bill Gates kind of money.”
Amos Lawrence, born in Boston in 1814 to a notable philanthropist, was willing to give this money to almost anybody in need: former servants, old schoolmates and others he came across throughout his life.
One public scene would prompt Lawrence to direct his money toward a larger cause.
In the summer of 1854, a runaway slave named Anthony Burns was escorted by U.S. Marshals through the streets of Boston, where people gathered outside in protest. Burns was eventually sent back to his master in Virginia, and northerners were enraged. According to “The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t)” by Alvin Stephen Felzenberg, Lawrence wrote in describing the transformation that many underwent that night: “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise, Union Whigs, and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”
It was this event that changed Lawrence’s outlook, but it was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act the same year that gave him an outlet for his support of the abolitionist cause. Lawrence soon became involved with an organization that sent anti-slavery settlers to live — and vote — in Kansas.
According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, the New England Emigrant Aid Company needed Lawrence’s financial backing, and he agreed to serve as its treasurer.
The first mission for the company-supported emigrants was to found a settlement. They traveled up the Kansas River to an area named Wakarusa, assembled tents, then huts and log cabins, and named the post “Lawrence.”
Amos Lawrence’s money supported those who lived and fought here. “Amos Lawrence had a big, fat checking account. So if you needed money in the cause, you would go to him,” Earle said. “John Brown went to him during the Bleeding Kansas episode. It’s Amos Lawrence that sends guns.”
It wasn’t enough for Lawrence to fund a settlement and help defend it. “Life of Amos A. Lawrence,” by Amos’ son William, details correspondence between Amos and John Geary, governor of the Kansas territory. In one letter dated shortly after the village’s founding, Lawrence expressed his hopes for the state to be a model for the rest of the country, a place that held high standards for “learning, virtue and patriotism.”
Part of this vision was a place of higher education. Lawrence donated $10,000 toward the creation of a college, establishing the nucleus for what would be Kansas University.
In another letter, dated 1887, Charles Robinson, the first governor of Kansas, wrote to William about his father’s role in the battle to keep Kansas free: “Mr. Lawrence was one of the very few men who seemed to comprehend the struggle in its every detail, and to see the end from the beginning ... the crowning glory of his beneficent life will forever be his work in saving Kansas to freedom, and, as a consequence, redeeming the nation from the curse of slavery.”
Today, historians see Lawrence in the same light.
“KU owes a lot to Amos Lawrence, Kansas owes a lot to Amos Lawrence, freed slaves owe a lot to Amos Lawrence,” Earle said.
Lawrence continued with his anti-slavery involvement throughout the Civil War, backing President Abraham Lincoln and the war effort and raising a battalion, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
After the war ended, Lawrence led a quiet life with his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Appleton, whom he married in 1842, and their seven children. He is said to have placed a high importance on family, regarding them as his greatest treasures.
Lawrence died at his summer residence in Nahant, Mass. in 1886. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.