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The Life and Times of Lieutenant James Lawrason

By John D. Sinks, Fairfax Resolves Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution
01 November 1992

 

James Lawrason was born on December 2, 1753. The place is unknown to us, as is the name of his father. His mother, Elizabeth, was born in 1733 or 1734 and died in Alexandria on July 12, 1819.1 The deed books of Fairfax County establish that his wife was named Alice2, but we know nothing of her parentage. She was born about 1755 or 17563, but we do not know when she was married. Indeed, we know little of James Lawrason and his family until the Revolution.

 

James Lawrason Grave Marker

James Lawrason Grave Marker
Click to Enlarge

During the Revolution, a military hospital was established in Alexandria. This was not a hospital at which those wounded in battle were treated: there were no battles near here. The principle business of the hospital seem to have been giving soldiers of the Continental Line small-pox inoculations. This was a dangerous business two centuries ago. Doctors did not have weakened viruses to use. People got sick from inoculations, and more than a few contracted full-scale cases of small pox. Some died. The returns of the Alexandria hospital show that of 773 patients between September 22, 1777 and November 30, 1777, 21 died.4 On September 25, 1777, James Lawrason commenced service as a steward in the Alexandria military hospital. During his tenure, the hospital became a subject of controversy. The charge was made that Director of Hospitals for Virginia, Dr. William Rickman neglected his duties and failed to care for the troops in the hospital. This led to an investigation. On February 17, 1778 James Lawrason gave an affidavit in support of Rickman. He said of Rickman that from September 25 “...to the middle of Dec. received orders from him every day or every other day to issue provisions to the troops under [illegible] station (excepting while at Fredricksburgh where he went to purchase medisons for said troops) ....”5 He also said that Rickman provided him money to purchase necessaries for the troops, and that he had often seen Rickman going to the barracks to visit the troops and care for the sick.

 

Later in the war Lawrason was engaged in an activity more closely linked to his lifelong profession. The Commissioners of the Specific Revenue for Fairfax County, Richard Chichester and Martin Cockburn, collected their taxes in commodities. One could not put wheat, corn, and oats in a bank. Chichester and Cockburn delivered 3,497 bushels of corn along with wheat, rye, and oats to Lawrason.6 As a merchant of Alexandria, Lawrason would have had storage facilities and the connections for shipping the commodities.

 

During the Revolution James Lawrason signed several petitions to the Virginia House of Delegates. In 1778 Lawrason was among the signers of a petition favoring the incorporation of Alexandria as a city with a mayor. This petition was successful. On 25 October 1779 he was among the citizens of Alexandria to petition for the establishment of a Naval Office either a Alexandria or Colchester. A Virginia Naval Office was in operation at the mouth of the Potomac, and inbound vessels were to check in there. The winds at the mouth of the Potomac during the fall, winter, and spring, made it necessary for vessels to anchor closer to the Maryland shore. The captains, if they were bound for a Virginia port, would have to make the trip across the river to check in. The British, with their naval superiority in the Chesapeake at this time, would sometimes appear when a captain was away from his ship. This made it more attractive for ships to trade with Maryland than Virginia, a matter of serious concern to Alexandrians. Establishing a Naval Office at Colchester or Alexandria, further up river than the British generally came, was a solution to this problem. Lawrason signed two different petitions which were received by the House of Delegates on 27 May 1782. One contained several requests, including a request for a public ferry to be established across the Potamac at Alexandria, permission to extend Water Street in Alexandria, and a request for an Alexandria representative in the House of Delegates. The second petition requested that Virginia duties on imports be reduced at least to the level of Maryland’s because the merchants of Baltimore and Philadelphia were at a competitive advantage with Alexandrians because they paid lower import fees. The petition pointed out that had the seamen involve in trade before the Revolution been Americans, that the British would not enjoy naval superiority. Linking economic strength to national defense is nothing new.

 

The final information about Lawrason’s Revolutionary service is recorded in the Fairfax County Court Booklet recording claims for the Revolution.7 Lawrason appeared before the Court in Alexandria on 21 June 1785 and made three claims. The first was,

United States to James Lawrason Lt. to certificate No. 1 given by John Herndon Jan. 1781 £3530

 

It would appear that Lawrason was a lieutenant, although we fail to find his name on extant rolls of either the Continental Line, the State Troops, or the militia. The Fairfax County Militia rolls are for the most part missing, as is the court order book in which commissions would have been recorded for most of the Revolution. The amount of money involved is far more than the pay of a lieutenant. It is reasonable to suppose that Lawrason advanced the United States something on credit, or delivered public goods or funds for which he was personally liable. The second certificate is also not specific:

To cert. No. 2 given by James Wrenn pr. Charles Alexander Commr. £73-10

 

The claim was clearly not for Lawrason’s own services, but those of another who had assigned is claim to Lawrason:

To certificate No. 3 given by Jonah Watson cert. assigned to me £600.

 

Many assigned their certificates in trade or payment of debts.

 

After the Revolution, Lawrason remained in Alexandria. He resided on St. Asaph St. near the intersection of Wolfe St.8 He continued his practice of signing petitions to the House of Delegates. One petition gives us insight into the difficulties in separating church and state after the Revolution. In a petition received 21 November 1783 members of the Parish of Fairfax, including Lawrason, pointed out that the principles of republicanism were inconsistent with the powers exercised by vestries in filling vacancies. The vestry, among other things, appointed persons to be responsible for caring for the poor of a parish. With the separation of church and state, Lawrason and the other petitioners requested that the caring of the poor become a function of government, rather than the church. On 22 May 1784 another petition bearing Lawrason’s signature which reflected the concerns of the Alexandria merchants was presented to the House of Delegates. The petitioners asked for a repeal of a law regulating the proving of certain kinds of debts. The law would discourage the granting of credit which as essential to commerce. Lawrason was among 35 who petitioned the General Assembly on October 30, 1786 to incorporate an academy of learning in Alexandria, and to permit Alexandria tax moneys from billiard tables, tavern licenses, and “the penalties for non-observance of the Laws respecting them” be used to support the academy.9 He, along with other merchants of Alexandria and Fairfax County, signed a petition to the House of Delegates dated October 19, 1787 advocating the establishment of inspection stations for flour.10 Philadelphia and Baltimore had gained a major advantage in trade by establishing inspection stations whose judgments purchasers could rely upon. On October 9, 1792, Lawrason was among 125 merchants and inhabitants of Alexandria who petitioned the General Assembly to for permission to establish a bank in Alexandria. The petition stated, “...the experience of commercial Nations for several ages has fully evinced that well regulated Banks are highly useful to Society by promoting punctuality in performance of Contracts, increasing the medium of Trade, preventing the exportation of Specie, furnishing for it a safe deposit, and by discount, rendering easy and expeditious the anticipation of funds on reasonable Interest.”11

 

The Alexandria Gazette informs us of the deaths of a number of members of James Lawrason’s family: his son James, Jr. on February 14, 1814, his mother Elizabeth on July 12, 1819, and his wife Alice on April 25, 1821.12 The death of Thomas Lawrason, probably a son, was reported in 1819.13 James own death was reported in the five years later: “Died, on the night of the 18th inst. after a short illness, Captain James Lawrason, in the 71st year of his age.”14 Although the tombstone records the year as 1823, the 1824 newspaper account published two days after his death is more reliable for the year of his death.

 

We see in James Lawrason a different side of the Revolution than we have seen in examining the lives of those we have honored in previous years. Although he appears to have been a soldier and officer, we have no evidence that he was active in the field, like John Westcott, Samuel Cooper, or Charles Simms. His earliest service as a hospital steward exposed him to risks of disease, and required no small amount of courage in the 18th century. He was not of the landed gentry, like Charles Broadwater, Richard Chichester, or Charles Simms. He was a merchant, and much of his documented service, drew on his ability and experience to work out logistics. This work on the home front, like that of Charles Broadwater and Richard Chichester, was critical to the Revolution. As a signer of the petitions to incorporate Alexandria and to secure Alexandria representation in the House of Delegates, James Lawrason can be regarded properly as one of the city fathers of Alexandria.

 

Perhaps more than in some of the others whose lives we have examined, we find a vision of the future. James Lawrason was concerned the principles of republicanism. He realized that the separation of church and state was more complicated than a simple issue of religious liberty, that the church had been carrying out functions that were more civic than religious in nature. Lawrason wanted the community of Alexandria, a community of merchants rather than landed gentry, to be represented in the House of Delegates. In the 18th Century, in which land was tied to government, this was radical. Lawrason perceived that the future of the community rested not just on the ability to grow and harvest crops, but on strong trade. He saw very clearly that the policies of governments have a tremendous impact on trade and the economy as a whole. While this truth may appear self evident from the 20th century perspective, it was not so clearly perceived in the 18th century. In his vision of the future, James Lawrason was a true revolutionary.

 

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* The paper is based on a talk given November 1, 1992 when the Fairfax Resolves Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution, placed a marker at the grave of James Lawrason in honor of his Revolutionary services at Christ Church Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia. I am indebted to the staff of the Lloyd House Library for their assistance in the research for this paper.

 

James Lawrason Grave Marker

James Lawrason Grave Marker
Click to Enlarge

James Lawrason Grave Marking 2010

James Lawrason Grave Marking 2010

 

 

Bibliography

 

1 Alexandria Gazette, 13 July 1819, p. 3.

2 Fairfax County Deed Book ---, pp. 9-11, 37-38.

3 Alexandria Gazette, 26 April 1821, p. 3.

4 Papers of the Continental Congress, M247, r101, i78, v19.

5 Ibid.

6 Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts, Vol. II, p. 128.

7 Fairfax County Court Booklet, p. 26.

8 Fairfax County Deed Book, p. 39. Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 15, 1814, p. 3; Apr. 26, 1821, p. 3.

9 Virginia Legislative Petitions.

10 Virginia Legislative Petitions.

11 Virginia Legislative Petitions.

12 Alexandria Gazette, February 15, 1814, p. 3; July 13, 1819, p. 3; April 26, 1821, p. 3.

13 Alexandria Gazette, June 10, 1819, p. 3.

14 Alexandria Gazette, April 20, 1824, p. 3.

 

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2017 Fairfax Resolves Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution