Simon Cameron’s chief Western Pennsylvania lieutenant and the master’s eyes and ears in Harrisburg, George Van Eman Lawrence was born at Hunterstown, Adams County, Pennsylvania on November 13, 1818, the son of Joseph and Rebecca Van Eman Lawrence. The grandson of English immigrants John and Sarah Moffet Lawrence, the family settled on a farm at Pigeon Creek, Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1820.
George’s father and two uncles distinguished themselves as prominent members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The senator’s dad received very little formal schooling, nevertheless, became a member of the local debating team, an important figure at the Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian synod, and a major in the state militia. Joseph represented Washington County in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 1818-1826, serving as Speaker in 1820 and 1822. He secured an 1826 seat in Congress but failed in an 1828 bid for re-election. From 1834 through 1836, he rejoined the state legislature, finally returning to the U.S. House in 1840. He died of yellow fever in Washington DC in 1842.
Although Joseph and Rebecca groomed George for public service, he gave up studies at Washington College for farming 200 acres, marrying Elizabeth Welsh of Washington County in 1839. Elizabeth died in 1854, and the senator married a second wife, Mary Reed, three years after. At age-25, Lawrence represented Washington County as a Whig in the 1843 Pennsylvania House of Representatives. He lost re-election by twelve votes in 1844, suffering the only defeat of his lengthy political career. Lawrence returned to the House in 1847 and advanced to the state Senate a year later. After the 1850 apportionment, the number of senators elected to the 23rd District dropped from two, to one. With the addition of Greene County to the old Washington district, the former county’s popular Colonel Maxwell McCaslin captured Lawrence’s seat for the Democrats. In 1858 and 1859, however, he regained his spot in the state’s lower house, George joining his brother, Speaker of the House William Lawrence.
Lawrence served as Simon Cameron’s Western Pennsylvania political boss in Washington County, returned as a Union-Republican to the upper house in 1861, and was elected Speaker of the Senate in 1863. During the Civil War, he voted down strict Cameron lines, supported each session’s soldier’s bill, the Morrill Tariff, the PRR’s exemption from the tonnage tax, and the 1861 Washington Peace Conference. As 1861 chairman of the Banks Committee, Lawrence faced the unenviable task of guiding Pennsylvania’s imperiled financial system through rough economic waters. He was elected to Congress, 1864 and 1866, advocated adoption of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and backed passage of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. He was a candidate for governor at the 1869 state nominating convention, Washington County delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1872, and chaired the Townships and Boroughs Committee, where he framed the home rule provision. Lawrence returned to the Senate for seven years after enactment of the 1874 state constitution; led a Commonwealth investigation of the Reading Railroad’s “dangerous and oppressive combinations;” was chair of the Mines Committee, opposed the 1876 Molly Maguire bill (providing operators the right to demand reparations from striking miners, but exacting misdemeanor penalties against operators who violated safety standards); sponsored the 1877 Bituminous Safety Bill and introduced the miners wage act, protecting labor from the garnishment of wages by coal-town company stores; backed the 1879 Workers Pay Law; and supported legislation protecting striking laborers from retributive arrests by the coal and iron police. George rejoined the U.S. House in 1882, closing out an illustrious career as a member of the 1893-1896 Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The Honorable George Van Eman Lawrence passed away at age-86 in Monongahela, Washington County, October 2, 1904.
(Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress) History of Washington County, Pennsylvania, ed. Boyd Crumrine (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1882) 597- 598; G.V. Lawrence to Simon Cameron, February 11, 1855, Roll 2, Cameron Papers; also: Bradley, 343.