How 'Poor Country Boys' Became Boston Brahmins: The Rise of the Appletons and the Lawrences in Ante-Bellum Massachusetts

By Mann, Anthony | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

How 'Poor Country Boys' Became Boston Brahmins: The Rise of the Appletons and the Lawrences in Ante-Bellum Massachusetts


Mann, Anthony, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


How 'poor country boys' became Boston Brahmins: The Rise of the Appletons and the Lawrences in Ante-bellum Massachusetts1

The promise of social mobility was a central cultural tenet of the northern American states during the nineteenth century. The stories of those who raised themselves from obscure and humble origins to positions of wealth and status, whilst retaining a sufficiency of Protestant social responsibility, were widely distributed and well received amongst a people daily experiencing the personal instabilities of the market revolution.2 Two families which represented the ideal of social mobility at its most extreme were the Appletons and Lawrences of ante-bellum Boston, Massachusetts.3 By the mid-nineteenth century, both families were solidly entrenched within the exclusive ranks of the Boston Brahmin upper-class. A lifetime earlier the same families, indeed the same men, had existed in provincial obscurity. The aim of this essay is to reinvestigate the social mobility of the Appletons and Lawrences, outline contemporary explanations for their success, often moral in tone, and put forward more persuasive alternative reasons for their climb from provincial obscurity. In so doing, it explores the relationship between social respectability and economic opportunity, examining social and cultural developments within the small New England towns of the late eighteenth century out of which the two families emerged.

The ante-bellum reputations of the Appletons and Lawrences were based on three related factors: they were successful merchants; they were self-made; and they were philanthropists giving time and money to enhance the well-being of their community. The combination of these themes persuaded the Reverend Theodore Parker to entitle his sermon on the death of Amos Lawrence "The Good Merchant." In praising the deceased, Parker stressed a number of aspects of Amos's life: his ready donations to charity; his seeking out former customers who had fallen on hard times; his sympathy for escaped slaves; and his ecumenical support for institutionalized education and religion. However, of greatest importance to Parker was that Amos was a self-made man, someone who had come to Boston "with nothing -- nothing but himself," but remained proud of his origins and benevolent in his success. To Theodore Parker, here was a model: "a man who knew the odds between the Means of Living and the Ends of Life. He knew the true use of riches."4 Amos Lawrence's death provoked strong reaction through Boston society. His own minister, the Reverend Samuel Lothrop at Brattle Street Church, called upon his congregation to examine this life "absolutely without spot or blemish" and to apply its characteristics of rectitude and honor to their own lives.5 The respectful dry goods merchants of Milk and Pearl streets closed their offices for Amos's funeral. The Boston Evening Transcript reported the "very remarkable" news that a post-morten had shown that the brain of the deceased weighed fully two ounces more than that of the late Daniel Webster, a man whose own cranial capacity had been the largest previously known.6

The death of Amos Lawrence's younger brother Abbott in 1855 was treated with similar respect. Newspapers reported his rise from lowly origins, his economic and political successes, and that his name "was the synonym of honor, uprightness, and all the kindred virtues." A public meeting was called at Fanueil Hall to decide how best to mark the death of someone who, in the words of Robert Charles Winthrop, had arrived in Boston, a poor boy with his bundle under his arm, and had "become the most important man in the community." Shortly after Abbott's elaborate funeral, newspapers announced that photographs of the deceased were available from Messrs. Southworth and Hawes of Tremont Street.7

Like the Lawrence brothers, the Appleton family enjoyed a reputation which went beyond economic and political success. An obituary of Samuel Appleton noted how he had "combined in a rare degree the best elements of the New England character. …

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