Local History: Amos Lawrence gave a name and more to our city

photo by: History of American Textiles

The City of Lawrence was named for Massachusetts abolitionist Amos Adams Lawrence.

Where are you from? Lawrence, Kan., of course. But why Lawrence, of all the names our city could have? Turns out, it all goes back to Mass. ­Massachusetts, that is.

Lawrence, Mass., is named after Abbott Lawrence, who was the uncle of Amos Adams Lawrence. The Lawrences were a distinguished, wealthy family who were instrumental in the textile industry of New England. Amos Adams Lawrence (July 21, 1814-Aug. 22, 1886) also helped found Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Robert K. Sutton in the 2017 book “Stark Mad Abolitionists: Lawrence, Kansas, and The Battle over Slavery in the Civil War Era” helps us understand how an establishment industrialist became caught up in the controversies of the 1850s. Sutton states:

“From May 24 through June 2, 1854, Boston was in an uproar. On May 24, Anthony Burns, a young African American enslaved man, who had escaped from his bondage in Virginia and settled in Boston where he worked at a men’s clothing store, was captured by his owner on his way home from work. . . . to the citizens of Boston, his capture was an outrage.”

The fugitive slave law, according to another historian, Andrew Delbanco, was a vivid instance of the law of unintended consequences.

In “The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War,” Delbanco says that at the heart of this struggle was an issue of a particular historical era — the 1850s. But still, he notes that it repeats in one form or another — whenever people must decide whether to submit to an unjust law or to resist it. It was this injustice that Amos Adams Lawrence had to grapple with.

Delbanco explains what this dilemma meant for the 1850s:

“It turned antebellum America upside down. In the north, after a fugitive was violently arrested in Boston and sent back to his master in Virginia, one New England industrialist (Amos Adams Lawrence), whose textile mills wove slave-grown cotton into cloth, remarked, ‘We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs & waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”

It was this “stark mad Abolitionist” who, through his involvement in the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, made his last name the best choice in October of 1854 for a name for a community on the banks of the Kaw.

David Dary in “Lawrence Douglas County, Kansas: An Informal History” (1982) states that the choice was made on October 5, 1854 by the members of the first and second emigrant aid parties who had formed a town association. The name Lawrence City was a near unanimous choice:

“It was so named, according to one source, ‘first to honor Amos A. Lawrence, of Boston, both as an individual and officer of the company, and second because the name sounded well, and had no bad odor attached to it in any part of the Union.”

Amos Adams Lawrence as it turns out never lived here, and it is thought he only visited here twice in his lifetime. Still, even today, the choice of Lawrence seems an appropriate one.

Clifford Griffin in “The University of Kansas; A History” (1974) cites Charles Robinson’s letter to Amos A. Lawrence where he claims that a $ 15,000 fund left by Lawrence was instrumental in securing the University of Kansas for the town of Lawrence. This fund represented the first endowment monies which generated for years at least some interest income. In this way, Amos Lawrence provided a continuing gift to the community and to Kansas University.


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