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   Chapter 4 AMOS LAWRENCE.

Great Fortunes, and How They Were Made By James Dabney McCabe Characters: 27687

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


AMOS LAWRENCE was born at Groton, Massachusetts, on the 22d of April, 1786. His ancestor came of a good English family, and was one of the company which sailed from England for the New World under Governor Winthrop, in 1630, and which, according to Grahame, contained "several wealthy and high-born persons, both men and women, who expressed their determination to follow truth and liberty into a desert, rather than to enjoy all the pleasures of the world under the dominion of superstition and slavery." This Lawrence settled in Watertown, and was one of the original proprietors of the town of Groton, which was founded in 1655. Samuel Lawrence, the father of the subject of this memoir, was the fifth in descent from the founder of the family, and was himself a gallant officer of the American army in the War of the Revolution, the close of which found him the possessor of a small farm, which yielded a modest support for his family.

Young Amos was brought up on the farm, with none of the advantages of wealth, and with but a limited education, which he gained at the village schools, and which was seriously interfered with by his delicate health. He received his final training at the Groton Academy, to which, in after life, he became a liberal patron. "As we children came forward," he wrote, late in life, "we were carefully looked after, but were taught to use the talents intrusted to us; and every nerve was strained to provide for us the academy which is now doing so much there." Toward the close of the year 1799, when but a little over thirteen years of age, he took his final departure from school, and entered a store in the village of Dunstable, as clerk.

He remained there but a few months, and then returned to Groton, where he obtained a place as apprentice in the store of a Mr. Brazer. This was the largest establishment in the place, and conducted a very important trade with the country for miles around. Boston was so far, and so difficult to reach in those days, that Groton came in for nearly all the business of its vicinity which the railroads have now taken to the city. Mr. Brazer's establishment, which was known as a "variety store," came in for the best part of this trade. Every thing was sold there; "puncheons of rum and brandy, bales of cloth, kegs of tobacco, with hardware and hosiery, shared attention in common with silks and threads, and all other articles for female use." Even medicines were sold there; and Dr. Wm. B. Lawrence, the son of our hero, assures us that his father was obliged to sell medicines, not only to customers, but to all the physicians within a circuit of twenty miles, who depended on this establishment for their supplies. "The confidence in his good judgment," he adds, "was such that he was often consulted in preference to the physician, by those who were suffering from minor ails; and many were the extemporaneous doses which he administered for the weal or woe of the patient."

The Brazer store was a prominent feature in Groton. It was a place of general resort, and close by was the tavern where the mail coaches stopped. Travelers were constantly passing through the town, bringing the news of those stirring days when Napoleon was rushing over Europe with his armies, overturning old states and building up new ones, and changing the destinies of the world. The domestic politics of the day were exciting, and it is likely that they aided, together with the events in the Old World, in imparting to the character of Mr. Lawrence the earnestness and gravity for which he was noted when a mere lad.

Mr. Brazer had in his employ a number of clerks, but it was not long before the energy and business talent of young Lawrence made him the most trusted of all. Mr. Brazer did not give much personal attention to the store, and when he found that his young clerk was so admirable and reliable a manager, he left the business entirely in his hands. This was a post of unusual responsibility for one so young, but Amos Lawrence accepted it promptly, and labored to discharge its duties faithfully. He at once established the character for probity and fairness which distinguished him through life; his simple assertion was sufficient in any matter, being received with implicit trust by all who knew him. His duties kept him constantly employed, and though he lived within a mile of his father's house, weeks sometimes passed without giving him the opportunity of visiting it.

Drunkenness was at that day the curse of New England. Every body drank, and such fiery fluids as brandy, whisky, rum, and gin were the favorites. Men, women, and children were addicted to the vice, and Groton was no exception to the rule. Mr. Brazer's store was famous for the good liquors served out to its customers, and his clerks were aware that their employer did not object to their helping themselves when they felt thirsty. Amos Lawrence fell into the habit to which all were given, and for some time went along with the rest; but at length he came to the conclusion that such indulgence was wantonly ruining his health, and he resolved to abstain entirely. "We five boys," said he, years afterward, "were in the habit, every forenoon, of making a drink compounded of rum, raisins, sugar, nutmegs, etc., with biscuit-all palatable to eat and drink. After being in the store four weeks, I found myself admonished by my appetite of the approach of the hour for indulgence. Thinking the habit might make trouble if allowed to grow stronger, without further apology to my seniors, I declined partaking with them. My first resolution was to abstain for a week, and, when the week was out, for a month, and then for a year. Finally, I resolved to abstain for the rest of my apprenticeship, which was for five years longer. During that whole period I never drank a spoonful, though I mixed gallons daily for my old master and his customers."

At the same time, Mr. Lawrence determined that he would not use tobacco in any form. He was very fond of the odor of "the weed," and at one period of his life always kept a fine Havana in his drawer that he might enjoy the scent of it; but he was totally free from our disgusting national vice in any of its forms. In this respect, as indeed in all others, he offers a fine example to the rising youth of the present generation.

On the 22d of April, 1807, Mr. Lawrence completed his twenty-first year, and his seven years' apprenticeship with Mr. Brazer came to an end. He was now of an age to enter into business for himself, and it was his intention to open a small store in Groton, in connection with a brother apprentice, but before doing so he decided to visit Boston for the purpose of establishing a credit. He reached the city with but twenty dollars in his pocket, richer, he subsequently declared, in his own estimation, than he ever felt before or afterward. While in the city, he received the offer of a clerkship from a mercantile house of good standing. It was entirely unsolicited, and took him by surprise, but he decided to accept it, and abandoned his idea of going into business for himself in Groton; and this act led to a career entirely different from that to which he had looked forward.

Boston, in 1807, had a population of about thirty thousand, and the commercial position of the city was relatively much greater than at present. The foreign trade of the United States was enormous, and was carried on in American ships, and not, as at present, in foreign vessels. The total tonnage of American shipping engaged in this trade was seven hundred thousand tons, and of this Boston possessed a fair share. Her domestic trade was also important.

"The merchants of Boston had then high places in the estimation of the world. The Perkinses, the Sargeants, the Mays, the Cabots, the Higginsons, and others, were known throughout the world for their integrity, their mercantile skill, and the extent and beneficial character of their operations. These were the golden days of Boston's commerce.... The standard of integrity was high, and though it would be absurd to suppose that there was not the usual amount of evil in the place, it may be assumed that in no part of the world was the young trader more likely to find severer judges of character and conduct, or to be better treated if he should afford unquestionable proofs of capacity and honesty."

It was into this community that Mr. Lawrence now entered, and in which his life was spent. He gave such satisfaction to his employers that, when he had been with them a short time, they astonished him with the offer of a partnership. He was but partially acquainted with their affairs, but their manner of conducting their business did not please him, and he declined their offer. His sagacity was verified by the result. In a few months the firm failed, and the creditors appointed him to settle their affairs, which he did to their satisfaction.

Being now out of employment, he resolved to commence business on his own account in Boston. He had made such a favorable impression upon the merchants of the city that he had no difficulty in obtaining credit. He rented a store in Cornhill, stocked it with dry goods, and began his career as a merchant. Four months after this, his father, who was keenly interested in his son's success, without consulting the latter, mortgaged his farm for one thousand dollars, and, repairing to Boston, placed the money in Amos Lawrence's hands. Mr. Lawrence was profoundly affected by this proof of his father's devotion, but he regretted it none the less, as he knew that his failure would bring ruin to his parent as well as to himself. "I told him," said he, forty years later, "that he did wrong to place himself in a situation to be made unhappy if I lost the money. He told me he guessed I wouldn't lose it, and I gave him my note." Mr. Lawrence made a prompt use of the money, and paid the mortgage at the proper time; but he had a narrow escape from loss, as the bank on which he had bills for the amount of the mortgage failed almost immediately after he had obtained specie for them.

"This incident," he said, "shows how dangerous it is to the independence and comfort of families for parents to take pecuniary responsibilities for their sons in trade, beyond their power of meeting them without embarrassment. Had any Hillsborough bank-notes not been paid as they were, nearly the whole amount would have been lost, and myself and my family might have been ruined. The incident was so striking that I have uniformly discouraged young men who have applied to me for credit, offering their fathers as bondsmen; and by doing so I believe I have saved some respectable families from ruin. My advice, however, has sometimes been rejected with anger. A young man who can not get along without such aid will not be likely to get along with it."

He began his business upon principles of prudence and economy, which he rigidly maintained throughout his whole life. He never allowed himself to anticipate his gains, and having fixed his personal expenses at a certain sum, he never went beyond it. His system, which is thus stated by himself, is offered here as a safe and admirable rule for all persons:

"When I commenced, the embargo had just been laid, and with such restrictions on trade that many were induced to leave it. But I felt great confidence that, by industry, economy, and integrity, I could get a living; and the experiment showed that I was right. Most of the young men who commenced at that period failed by spending too much money, and using credit too freely.

"I adopted the plan of keeping an accurate account of merchandise bought and sold each day, with the profit, as far as practicable. This plan was pursued for a number of years, and I never found my merchandise fall short in taking an account of stock, which I did as often at least as once in each year. I was thus enabled to form an opinion of my actual state as a business man. I adopted also the rule always to have property, after my second year's business, to represent forty per cent, at least more than I owed-that is, never to be in debt more than two and a half times my capital. This caution saved me from ever getting embarrassed. If it were more generally adopted, we should see fewer failures in business. Excessive credit is the rock on which so many business men are broken."

Mr. Lawrence was very successful from the first. His profits during his first year were fifteen hundred dollars, and over four thousand during the second. In seven years he made over fifty thousand dollars. He paid the closest attention to his business, and nothing could draw him from it in working hours. After these were over he would take his pleasure. His aim was to keep every thing in the most complete state possible. During the first seven years of his business he never allowed a bill against him to stand unsettled over the Sabbath. If he made a purchase of goods on Saturday, and they were delivered to him that day, he always examined and settled the bill by note, or by crediting it, and leaving it clear, so that there should be no unfinished business to go over to the next week, and make trouble for his clerks in case he should not be at his post. "Thus," said he, "I always kept my business before me, instead of allowing it to drive me."

The first years of Mr. Lawrence's mercantile experience covered the darkest period of the history of the Republic. They were marked by the embargo, the crippling of our commerce by the hostility of England and France, and the second war with Great Britain, in all of which there was much to dis-hearten a beginner, even if he escaped positive loss. Nothing was certain. The events of a single hour might undo the labor of years, and baffle the best laid plans.

Yet he persevered, and went steadily on to fortune. He was remarkable for his keen foresight, as well as for his prudence, and was always on the alert to profit by the fluctuations of the market. Yet he abominated speculation. He averred that speculation made men desperate and unfit for legitimate business, and that it led them, when under excitement, to the commission of acts against which their cooler judgment would have warned them. The fair profits of legitimate business were, in his opinion, sure to reward any honest and capable man. His aim was to elevate commerce, and not to degrade it. He introduced into Boston the system of double-entry in book-keeping, in advance of any other city merchant. He was prompt and faithful in the performance of every contract, and required a similar course toward himself from all indebted to him, as long as they were able to do so. When they became unfortunate, he was kind and generous, ready to compromise upon the most liberal terms, or to give them their own time for payment; and it is recorded of him that he never dealt harshly with a debtor who had failed in business.

As long as such a course was necessary, Mr. Lawrence devoted himself entirely to his business, but after he had placed it on a safe footing, he was careful to reserve to himself time for other duties and for relaxation. No man, he said, had the right to allow his business to engross his entire life. "Property acquired at such sacrifices as I have been obliged to make the past year," he wrote at the commencement of 1826, "costs more than it is worth; and the anxiety in protecting it is the extreme of folly." He never lost sight of the fact that man is a responsible, intelligent being, placed in the world for other purposes than the mere acquisition of wealth.

In October, 1808, his brother, Abbott Lawrence, afterward famous as a merchant and statesman, came to him as an apprentice, and on the 1st of January, 1814, he was admitted to partnership, the style of the firm being A. & A. Lawrence. This partnership was terminated only by the death of the elder brother in 1852. Their business was the importation and sale of foreign manufactures, and the firm soon took its place at the head of the Boston merchants engaged in this trade. The tariffs of 1816 and 1824 gave a new and powerful impetus to the manufacture of woolens and cottons in this country, and the Lawrences entered largely into the sale of these goods on commission. In 1830, they became interested in the cotton mills at Lowell; and on the establishment of the Suffolk, Tremont, and Lawrence Companies, as well as subsequently in other corporations, they became large proprietors. From this time their business as selling agents was on the most extensive scale, and their income from all sources large in proportion. They amassed large fortunes, and won names which are the most precious heritages of their children.

Perhaps the best exposition of the principles upon which these brothers conducted their commercial operations is found in the following letter from the elder to the younger, written on the 11th of March, 1815, upon the occasion of a visit to England by the latter on business for the firm:

My Dear Brother-I have thought best, before you go abroad, to suggest a few hints for your benefit in your intercourse with the people among whom you are going. As a first and leading principle, let every transaction be of that pure and honest character that you would not be ashamed to have appear before the whole world as clearly as to yourself. In addition to the advantages arising from an honest course of conduct with your fellow-men, there is the satisfaction of reflecting within yourself that you have endeavored to do your duty; and however greatly the best may fall short of doing all they ought, they will be sure not to do more than their principles enjoin.

It is, therefore, of the highest consequence that you should not only cultivate correct principles, but that you should place your standard of action so high as to require great vigilance in living up to it.

In regard to your business transactions, let every thing be so registered in your books, that any person, without difficulty, can understand the whole of your concerns. You may be cut off in the midst of your pursuits, and it is of no small consequence that your temporal affairs should always be so arranged that you may be in readiness.

If it is important that you should be well prepared in this point of view, how much more important is it that you should be prepared in that which relates to eternity!

You are young, and the course of life seems open, and pleasant prospects greet your ardent hopes; but you must remember that the race is not always to the swift, and that, however flattering may be our prospects, and however zealously you may seek pleasure, you can never find it except by cherishing pure principles and practicing right conduct. My heart is full on this subject, my dear brother, and it is the only one on which I feel the least anxiety.

While here, your conduct has been such as to meet my entire approbation; but the scenes of another land may be more than your principles will stand against. I say may be, because young men of as fair promise as yourself have been lost by giving a small latitude (innocent in the first instance) to their propensities. But I pray the Father of all mercies to have you in his keeping, and preserve you amid temptations.

I can only add my wish to have you write me frequently and particularly, and that you will embrace every opportunity of gaining information.

Your affectionate brother,

Amos Lawrence.

To Abbott Lawrence.

In his politics, Mr. Lawrence was a Federalist, and then a Whig. He served for one term in the State Legislature as a Representative from Boston, with credit to himself, but afterward avoided any active participation in public events. When his nephew-by-marriage, General Pierce, was a candidate for the Presidency, he was very much gratified personally by the selection of the Democracy, but declined to vote for him. In a letter to a friend, written at this time, he said: "I had a charming ride yesterday with my nephew, Frank Pierce, and told him I thought he must occupy the White House the next term, but that I would go for Scott. Pierce is a fine, spirited fellow, and will do his duty wherever placed. Scott will be my choice for President of the United States."

Regarding himself as a steward of the riches committed to him, Amos Lawrence was liberal in his charities. During the last twenty-four years of his life he kept an accurate account of the sums he thus distributed, but with no idea that the statement, which he intended for his own eye only, would ever be made public. During this period he gave away six hundred and thirty-nine thousand dollars. The greater part of this was given away in ten years, and during a period when his average income was sixty thousand dollars a year. He was a liberal patron of education, giving large sums to its extension; and it was his delight to assist poor clergymen, without regard to denominations. He gave away clothing, food, books, etc., in large quantities, as well as ready money. "Two rooms in his house," says his son and biographer, "and sometimes three, were used principally for the reception of useful articles for distribution. There, when stormy weather or ill-health prevented him from taking his usual drive, he was in the habit of passing hours in selecting and packing up articles which he considered suitable to the wants of those whom he wished to aid." He did not forget the children, and many of his packages contained toys, and books, and other things calculated to promote their enjoyment.

He was beset with beggars of all kinds, many of whom he was compelled to refuse. In his diary, he wrote on the 11th of April, 1849, "Applications come in from all quarters, for all objects. The reputation of giving freely is a very bad reputation, so far as my personal comfort is concerned."

It pained him to have his charities made public, and he frequently requested the recipients to say nothing about them. He once made a present of some books to the Johnson school for girls, and the gift being acknowledged through the columns of a newspaper, he wrote to the principal of the school: "I merely want to say that I hope you will not put me in the newspaper at present, and when my work is done here, if you have any thing to say about me that will not hurt my children and grandchildren, say on," To another party he wrote: "I must request that my name be not thrust forward, as though I was to be a by-word for my vanity. I want to do good, but am sorry to be published, as in the recent case."

As a merchant, Mr. Lawrence was upright, prudent, far-seeing, sagacious, and courageous; as a citizen, he was patriotic, public-spirited, and devoted; and as a man, he was a sincere, earnest, Christian husband, father, and friend. Viewed in any light, his character affords one of the most perfect models to be found in our history. He was the Christian gentleman in all things, even in the minutest detail of his business. His standard was very high, but he came up to it. Courteous and dignified in manner, with a face handsome and winning in youth, and gentle and benignant in age, he made scores of friends wherever he went, for it was a true index to his character. It is a significant and interesting fact that, during the hottest passages of the old nullification times, although his views were known to be uncompromisingly opposed to the attitude of the South, he never lost the warmest friendship of some of the most advanced of the South Carolina leaders. When one thinks of the friendships that were wrecked amid the passions of those days, this fact speaks volumes for the personal attributes of Mr. Lawrence.

He was a true American-proud of his country's past, hopeful for her future, and desiring nothing better than to live and die in the land of his birth. He sent his children abroad that they might see the Old World, and profit by the lessons learned there, but he strove earnestly to keep them true to their country. To his son, who was traveling in France in 1829, he wrote:

"Bring home no foreign fancies which are inapplicable to our state of society. It is very common for our young men to come home and appear quite ridiculous in attempting to introduce their foreign fashions. It should be always kept in mind that the state of society is widely different here from that in Europe; and our comfort and character require it should long remain so. Those who strive to introduce many of the European habits and fashions, by displacing our own, do a serious injury to the republic, and deserve censure. An idle person, with good powers of mind, becomes torpid and inactive after a few years of indulgence, and is incapable of making any high effort. Highly important it is, then, to avoid this enemy of mental and moral improvement. I have no wish that you pursue trade; I would rather see you on a farm, or studying any profession.

"It should always be your aim so to conduct yourself that those whom you value most in the world would approve your conduct, if your actions were laid bare to their inspection; and thus you will be pretty sure that He who sees the motive of all our actions will accept the good designed, though it fall short in its accomplishment. You are young, and are placed in a situation of great peril, and are, perhaps, sometimes tempted to do things which you would not do if you knew yourself under the eye of your guardian. The blandishments of a beautiful city may lead you to forget that you are always surrounded, supported, and seen by that best Guardian."

He was an eminently just man, and he carried this trait into the little details of his domestic life. His household adored him; and his friends were bound to him by ties unusually strong. He was firm and positive in his own opinions; but he was tolerant of those who differed from him. He was a man of quick, nervous temperament, but he possessed a powerful self-control. He was a sincere and earnest Christian, and while attaching himself to the sect of his choice, his sympathies and aid went out to the whole Christian Church.

Denominational differences had no place in his heart. He stood on the broad platform of the "faith of Christ crucified."

During the last years of his life, Mr. Lawrence was a constant invalid. To a man of his temperament this was a great trial, but he bore it unflinchingly, exhibiting, in the long years of feeble health which preceded his death, a cheerfulness and patience which plainly showed the aid of the Arm on which he leaned for support. For sixteen years he did not take a meal with his family. His food and drink, of the simplest kind, were regularly weighed, a pair of scales being kept in his chamber for that purpose. He wrote to his friend President Hopkins, of Williams College: "If your young folks want to know the meaning of epicureanism, tell them to take some bits of coarse bread (one ounce or a little more), soak them in three gills of coarse meal gruel, and make their dinner of them, and nothing else; beginning very hungry, and leaving off more hungry."

Mr. Lawrence continued in this condition until December, 1852, when he was seized with a severe attack of the stomachic trouble to which he was a martyr. He died peacefully, on the last day of that month and year, at the age of sixty-six years, eight months, and eight days. He was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, and was followed to the grave by a host of friends who mourned him as a brother, and by strangers to whom his kindness in life had brought relief from many a care and suffering.

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