Lawrence became a company commander in the 40th regiment in Nova Scotia in December 1749. The following April Governor Edward Cornwallis* sent him with a small force to establish British authority in the isthmus of Chignecto. On the north bank of the Missaguash River Lawrence found French forces under Louis de La Corne, who had orders to prevent British penetration beyond that point and who had had the village of Beaubassin, near the south bank of the river, burned. Rather than fight the French, with whom the British were not at war, or admit to any territorial limitation, Lawrence withdrew.
The settlers found cleared land, but most of the work remained to be done. Soured by months or years of waiting in squalid huts in Halifax, they were impatient to stake their claims and to start cultivation. Lawrence had seen the effects of Indian raids in different parts of the province and had to persuade the settlers to build defences before anything else. It was human to ignore a danger which few of them had experienced and it required artifice on Lawrence’s part to make them do communal work. “Decent people,” he noted, had to be cajoled into sleeping in communal shelters for protection and sharing them with those who were “dirty [and] full of Vermin.” Building supplies were pilfered and fights over favoured sites were frequent. But little by little this “inconceivably turbulent” crew was brought to see that they must either “proceed in another manner, or have [their] throats cut.” By a mixture of bribery, bullying, and verbal persuasion, Lawrence gained their affection – “not only their hats but their hearts,” as he described it – and retained it, to his political advantage, after his return to Halifax in August 1753. By then Hopson was preparing to return to England and had summoned Lawrence back as president of the council.
In 1754 Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts approached Lawrence with a plan to drive the French troops out of their Chignecto forts. Both men were sure of Lord Halifax’s support and took advantage of an ill-advised letter from Thomas Robinson, the new secretary of state, ordering them to cooperate to throw the French out of Acadia. Robinson later repudiated the letter, but Shirley used it as authority to plan an operation. Late in the fall of 1754 he and Lawrence raised two battalions in Massachusetts, giving the command to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Monckton, assisted by the New Englander John Winslow. This force was to attack Fort Beauséjour (near Sackville, N.B.), which the French had built on the north shore of the Missaguash River, opposite Fort Lawrence. Without authority, Lawrence paid for the force with the annual parliamentary grant for Nova Scotia. Early in 1755 General Edward Braddock, commander-in-chief in North America, sailed for America with flexible orders for the removal of French “encroachments” given him by the Duke of Cumberland, commander-in-chief of the army. Braddock was permitted to undertake several operations against the French simultaneously if he had sufficient troops. He authorized Monckton’s expedition and it sailed from Boston on 19 May 1755. Fort Beauséjour fell to Monckton on 16 June.
The capture of Beauséjour was the only British success that year, but Lawrence had no orders for exploiting it. Braddock was killed near Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh, Pa.) early in July [see Daniel-Hyacinthe-Marie Liénard de Beaujeu], while Shirley, his second in command, was proceeding towards Fort Oswego (Chouaguen) for operations against the French. In June, off Louisbourg, Vice-Admiral Boscawen let most of the French fleet escape with reinforcements for Louisbourg, Quebec, and Montreal. In an atmosphere of doubt about his superiors’ activities and intentions and of apprehension about the enemy’s, the defence of what he had gained became Lawrence’s main concern.
John Winslow was the linchpin of the plan to obtain New England settlers. But owing to Lawrence’s uncertainty about how to exploit his victory, Winslow was not permitted enough time to survey the land around Chignecto after the fall of Beauséjour. Inactivity caused the discipline of Winslow’s troops to collapse and he quarrelled with Monckton, who had been ordered to recruit New Englanders for the regular battalions. Shirley also raided their ranks for his own use on the American continent. Winslow became embittered and lost interest in settlement. Short of troops and under the impression that the French were going to counter-attack, Lawrence turned his attention to securing his communications with Chignecto and was thus forced to deal with the issue of the loyalty of the Acadians of the peninsula. The scene was set for the tragedy.
In July 1756 Lawrence became governor of Nova Scotia. He saw as his most important task the settlement of the Acadian lands. But by 1757 merchants who were opposed to his personal rule, such as Joshua Mauger* and Ephraim Cook, had convinced the Board of Trade that settlers would not come unless they had an elected assembly. They also tried to show that Lawrence had favoured his friends with contracts and offices and would not call an assembly for fear of exposure.
In October 1754 the Board of Trade had instructed Jonathan Belcher, on his arrival as chief justice, to inquire into the legality of enactments made without an assembly. He reported that the governor’s instructions did not make an assembly mandatory and pointed out that only one township would qualify for representation at that time. In fact, he added, an assembly would be a hindrance to the administration of the province. Both the attorney-general and solicitor-general of Great Britain, however, advised that without an assembly Lawrence’s acts as governor could be illegal. The board then instructed Lawrence to prepare a scheme for setting up an assembly, although it was aware that undue representation might be given to “dram-sellers” and contraband runners in Halifax, and that the Lunenburg settlers, who were not yet naturalized, could not be represented until 1757. The board also knew that an assembly might be a forum for the struggle which had broken out in Hopson’s time between the New England and British elements in the population. The correspondence about various schemes dragged on through 1755 and 1756.
Lawrence, with the temporary rank of “brigadier in America,” commanded a brigade under General Jeffery Amherst* in the successful expedition against Louisbourg. He returned to Halifax in September to help prepare the British forces for operations against Quebec in 1759. Stores were scarce but he improvised. Thousands of pairs of shoes were made, arms repaired, and light infantry units formed and trained. Lawrence paid special attention to feeding the troops and thanks to fresh meat, milk, spruce beer, and “our climate in spite of the opinions of the C.O.s,” the sick recovered. When James Wolfe, the commander of the Quebec expedition, returned in the spring, that critical young man had nothing but praise for Lawrence and his subordinates. Lawrence had hoped to command a brigade at Quebec; in the end the commands went to Monckton, James Murray, and George Townshend, that of the latter through political influence. It was a “mortifying situation” to be left behind, but Lawrence threw off his disappointment and turned to the problems of settlement and politics in Nova Scotia, which were less glamorous, but in the long run more important, than commanding a brigade on the Plains of Abraham.
The first meeting of the new assembly had taken place on 2 Oct. 1758, with 20 assemblymen present, and its business was conducted with surprisingly little trouble. Lawrence’s support on the council grew in August 1759 with the appointment of Richard Bulkeley, Thomas Saul, and Joseph Gerrish, to the seats left vacant by the absence of William Cotterell, Robert Grant, and Montagu Wilmot. In December the first Lunenburg representatives entered the assembly, and Lawrence received an address of praise from that body for his achievements in the province.
Settlers were reluctant to break new forest land while the marsh land of Chignecto and the cleared areas of the Annapolis valley were vacant. To resolve this difficulty, Lawrence preferred to combine old land with new in each grant and thus offered favourable conditions usually permitted only to those breaking in new lands. He had been instructed to submit proposals for settling the old lands to the Board of Trade, but he disregarded this directive and informed the board of his policies after the fact, as was his custom. The board was angry, but by the time it had explained that the good lands were intended as rewards for the army and navy, Morris had surveyed lots with representatives of “some hundreds of associated substantial families” from New England and had promised them advantageous conditions. The board could not cancel the arrangements and had to be satisfied with Lawrence’s assurances that new land taken by Monckton’s expedition up the Saint John River in the fall of 1758 and land on the Miramichi River would be kept for the military. Lawrence wrote privately to Lord Halifax, however, to point out that servicemen were bad settlers. Their “drunken, dissolute and abandoned” habits, “particularly that most unhappy one,” idleness, made them quite unsuitable. Lord Halifax’s influence ensured that when the commissioners for Trade and Plantations received copies of the grants in 13 townships at the end of 1759 under conditions which they had earlier condemned, they wrote that it was a great satisfaction “to us . . . to express to you our approbation.” From the Board of Trade, which seldom had anything good to say about its governors, that was praise indeed.
Lawrence’s death on 19 Oct. 1760 took everyone by surprise. “I should have taken an annuity on his life as soon as anyone I knew,” wrote Amherst to General James Murray.