Local History: There’s something fitting about linking Lawrence, Douglas in area namesakes

photo by: Photo courtesy Watkins Community Museum of History

A map of Lawrence in 1859, which was drawn while some buildings depicted were still bein planned — but ultimately were never constructed.

It has always seemed ironic, yet fitting, to me that our city and our county have the names that they do. Lawrence was known as the first place in Kansas founded by anti-slavery advocates and was named after Amos A. Lawrence. Douglas County was named for a U.S. senator, Stephen A. Douglas, who supported letting states choose if they would have slaves.

In 1854, controversy over the Fugitive Slave Act and a runaway slave named Anthony Burns galvanized the people of Boston as they saw Burns in chains being marched down to the Boston harbor to be shipped back.

A resident of Massachusetts, Lawrence wrote that “we went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” Robert K. Sutton documents the May 1854 uproar in in “Stark Mad Abolitionists: Lawrence, Kansas, and the Battle Over Slavery in the Civil War Era.”

Lawrence was chosen as the city’s name on October 6, 1854. “State of Kansas” by A.T. Andreas explained the choice as “first to honor Amos A. Lawrence, of Boston, both as an individual and officer of the [Massachusetts Emigrant Aid] company, and second because the name sounded well, and had no bad odor attached to it in any part of the Union.”

Due to a temporary period in Kansas of territorial pro-slavery ascendancy, Douglas became the name of the county within which the city of Lawrence resides. The county was named after the senator who was linked with the end of the Missouri Compromise. This 1820 measure had established a north-south demarcation between free states and slave states.

In 1854, Douglas, from Illinois, advocated the concept of popular sovereignty in which the people in elections would be the decider of whether or not they wanted slavery where they lived. Popular sovereignty was incorporated in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Keeping a territory such as Kansas a free state area was a critical motivation for organizations like the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. David Dary in “Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas: An Informal History” stated “The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealing the Missouri Compromise was generally cheered in the South but opposed in the North, especially in New England where many people feared the act had opened the door to slavery in the frontier West.”

Hence, Douglas was not well regarded by the people who initially settled in Lawrence. In 1855, the invasion by Missourians for the March election resulted in a Pro-Slavery territorial majority who were more than ready to choose a divisive, negative person to be the name of the area around free-state Lawrence. The county was named Douglas in the summer of 1855.

Douglas died in Chicago on On June 3, 1861, just a few months after the admission of Kansas to the Union.

So, at the time it was done, Lawrence and Douglas were strange bedfellows but, as the years have passed, having both names prominently featured here seems historically a good fit.


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