Walter Lowrie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 10, 1784. At the age of seven, his parents and their six children emigrated to central Pennsylvania, and in 1800 the family packed their belongings again and headed west to a larger farm in Butler County. From an early age Lowrie realized education to be the key to a future away from the hard labor and tedium of rural life. Formal education was in short supply along the frontier, so instead Lowrie utilized tutors.
At the age of 18, Lowrie experienced a religious conversion at an outdoor revival, and soon after began to study for the Presbyterian ministry. He boarded with the Reverend John McPherrin, pastor of Butler’s First Presbyterian Church, drawing on the reverend’s extensive library to master Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
When not immersed in his studies, young Walter’s attention was drawn to Mcpherrin’s 17-year-old daughter Amelia, and he began to pursue her hand in marriage. Reverend McPherrin, however, apparently disapproved of the match. In a daring move that revealed a lifelong independent personality, young Walter and Amelia left her family farm on horseback and eloped, marrying at Butler in January 1808.
While eventually forgiven, such an affront to the region’s most prominent Presbyterian clergyman ruined Walter’s chances for a ministerial career. He pursued several occupations to support his family until turning his focus to politics. In 1811 Lowrie won a seat in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, where he served briefly before in 1815 moving on to the State Senate. Three years later, in 1818, he was nominated by the legislature to serve as one of the state’s United States Senators.
Lowrie came into the Senate at a time of high tensions over one of the most divisive topics in American history: slavery. While in Congress, Lowrie was vocal about his stance on the issue. During a speech given in the midst of debates over the Missouri Territory, he made his opinion clear saying “If the alternative be this: either dissolution of the Union or the extension of slavery over this whole western country, I for one will choose the former.”
Lowrie served the state well throughout his Senate term, but declined reelection due to the strains the travel put on his family life. In 1825 the position of Secretary of the Senate became vacant. Due to the positive reputation gained while in the Senate, Lowrie was voted into the position and held it until resigning in 1836. It was during this time that the family built their 1828 brick home in Butler, which they maintained as a summer residence.
Lowrie also played a leading role in the American Colonization Society, an organization formed to aid relocation of former slaves to land on the western coast of Africa. This same land would later be organized as the nation of Liberia. While on the surface the goals of the society seem admirable, the true intentions were more complex. Although some ACS members were abolitionists, others simply opposed slavery on economic grounds, or wanted to rid the United States of people of African descent. The uniting factor among most of the members was their belief that an integration of freed blacks into white society was not possible.
Lowrie’s involvement in the ACS makes his relationship with slavery complex. However, other evidence from his life indicates strong abolitionist convictions. One example is when Lowrie took the time and resources to help a young enslaved man named David McDonough. In 1838, David McDonough’s owner, an ACS member, sent David and his brother north from his Louisiana plantation to attend Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania with the expectation that the two young men would then emigrate to Liberia to aid the young nation. The slaveowner had arranged for Senator Lowrie to serve as David’s guardian while he completed his studies. By all accounts a bright student, David excelled at his coursework and was preparing to become a medical doctor.
Toward the end of his time at Lafayette, however, McDonough became “decidedly, utterly and radically opposed” to emigration to Africa. Despite his master’s furious recommendation that he not be permitted to graduate, Senator Lowrie prevailed, granted McDonough his freedom and allowed him to graduate. McDonough went on to a long and successful career as a physician and antislavery activist in New York.
While Lowrie undoubtedly played a significant role in politics, he never abandoned his religious faith and interest in ministry. As a Senator, Lowrie was a founder of the Congressional Prayer meeting and the Congressional Temperance Society. His deep loyalty to his Christian faith led him to end his career as the secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions following his resignation from the position of secretary of the Senate in 1836. He continued his religious and missionary work until his death in December of 1868.
In his latter years, Senator Lowrie had a brief opportunity to make the acquaintance of the fiery antislavery activist William Lloyd Garrison. In a letter home the next day, Garrison described Lowrie as “a man of large wealth and a most radical abolitionist” - a fitting summary of the achievements brought about by the perseverance and principles of a humble Scottish immigrant farmer’s son.