Lawrence was born on October 1, 1781 in Burlington, New Jersey but raised in Woodbury, New Jersey, the son of John and Martha (Tallman) Lawrence. His mother died when he was an infant and his Loyalist father fled to Canada during the American Revolution, leaving his half-sister to care for the infant. Though Lawrence studied law, he entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1798.
During the Quasi-War with France, he served on USS Ganges and the frigate USS Adams in the Caribbean. He was commissioned a lieutenant on April 6, 1802 and served aboard USS Enterprise in the Mediterranean, taking part in a successful attack on enemy craft on 2 June 1803.
In February 1804, he was second in command during the expedition to destroy the captured frigate USS Philadelphia. Later in the conflict he commanded Enterprise and a gunboat in battles with the Tripolitans. He was also First Lieutenant of the frigate Adams and, in 1805, commanded the small Gunboat No. 6 during a voyage across the Atlantic to North Africa.
Although Gunboats No. 2 through 10 (minus No. 7) arrived in the Mediterranean too late to see action, they remained there with Commodore Rodgers's squadron until summer 1806, at which time they sailed back to the United States. On 12 June 1805 Gunboat No. 6 encountered a Royal Navy vessel that impressed three seamen.
Subsequently, Lieutenant Lawrence commanded the warships USS Vixen, USS Wasp and USS Argus. In 1810, he also took part in trials of an experimental spar torpedo. Promoted to the rank of Master Commandant in November 1810, he took command of the sloop of war USS Hornet a year later and sailed her to Europe on a diplomatic mission. From the beginning of the War of 1812, Lawrence and Hornet cruised actively, capturing the privateer Dolphin in July 1812. Later in the year Hornet blockaded the British sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenne at Bahia, Brazil, and on 24 February 1813 captured HMS Peacock.
Upon his return to the United States in March, Lawrence learned of his promotion to Captain. Two months later he took command of the frigate Chesapeake, then preparing for sea at Boston. He left port on 1 June 1813 and immediately engaged the blockading Royal Navy frigate Shannon in a fierce battle. Although slightly smaller, the British ship disabled Chesapeake with gunfire within the first few minutes. Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded by small arms fire, ordered his officers, "Don't give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks." Or "Tell them to fire faster; don't give up the ship." Men carried him below, and his crew was overwhelmed by a British boarding party shortly afterward. James Lawrence died of his wounds on 4 June 1813, while his captors directed Chesapeake to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
After Lawrence's death was reported to his friend and fellow officer Oliver Hazard Perry, he ordered a large blue battle ensign, stitched with the phrase "Dont Give Up The Ship" [sic] in bold white letters. The Perry Flag was displayed on his flagship during a victorious engagement against the British on Lake Erie in September 1813. The original flag is displayed in the Naval Academy Museum and a replica is displayed in Memorial Hall at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. A replica is also on view at Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, on South Bass Island, Ohio.
Lawrence was buried with military honors at present-day CFB Halifax, Nova Scotia, but reinterred at Trinity Church Cemetery in New York City. He was survived by his wife, Julia (Montaudevert) Lawrence, who lived until 1865, and their two-year-old daughter, Mary Neill Lawrence. In 1838 Mary married a Navy officer, Lt. William Preston Griffin.
On July 4, 1813, Lawrence was posthumously elected to membership in the New York Society of the Cincinnati.
He was honored with a Congressional Gold Medal and the Thanks of Congress.
Many places are named for Captain Lawrence, including:Lawrence, Indiana
Lawrence County, Alabama
Lawrence County, Arkansas
Lawrence County, Illinois
Lawrence County, Indiana
Lawrence County, Kentucky
Lawrence County, Missouri
Lawrence County, Mississippi
Lawrence County, Ohio
Lawrence County, Pennsylvania
Lawrence County, Tennessee
Lawrenceville, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Lawrence Township, Marion County, Indiana and the municipality of Lawrence, Indiana contained therein.
Lawrence Township, Mercer County, New Jersey and its Lawrenceville neighborhood.
Captain Lawrence Drive in South Salem, NY, from which the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company of nearby Pleasantville takes its name.
His birthplace of Burlington, New Jersey, has a Captain James Lawrence Elementary School.Lawrence Street in Montgomery, Alabama is named in honor of Lawrence. It runs parallel to streets named after other Barbary War/War of 1812 naval heroes: McDonough Street, named for Thomas Macdonough; Perry Street, named for Oliver Hazard Perry; Decatur Street, named for Stephen Decatur; Hull Street, named for Isaac Hull and Bainbridge Street, named in honor of William Bainbridge.
Lawrence Avenue in Norman, Oklahoma is named in honor of Lawrence.
In addition, the U.S. Navy has named five ships USS Lawrence.The first USS Lawrence was a brig which acted as then-Master Commandant Oliver Perry's flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie until she was destroyed in that action.
The second USS Lawrence was also a brig, serving from 1843-1846.
The third USS Lawrence (DD-8) was a 400-ton destroyer, commissioned in 1903 and serving until 1920.
The fourth USS Lawrence (DD-250) was a Clemson-class destroyer, serving from 1921 to 1945
The fifth USS Lawrence (DDG-4) was a Charles F. Adams-class destroyer. Commissioned in 1962, she served until 1994. This ship was christened by Mrs. Dorothy Redmond Hubbard, Capt. Lawrence's great-great-grand-daughter, who at the time was his oldest living descendant.