Study Guide

Lucius Q.C. Lamar (Secretary of the Interior) in The Dawes Act of 1887

By Henry Laurens Dawes / The Forty-Ninth Congress of the United States of America

Lucius Q.C. Lamar (Secretary of the Interior)

Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II was, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Not because of "Where on earth did he get that name?" because, duh, he was a "II."

But get this: The same man who wrote Mississippi's Ordinance of Secession and who firmly believed in slavery and "the supremacy of the unconquered and unconquerable Saxon race", ended up as a chapter in JFK's book Profiles in Courage for his tear-jerking speech about ending the bitterness between the North and the South after the Civil War and his efforts at reconciliation.

People change, we guess.

Son of the South

LQC II was Georgia-born, son of a lawyer who killed himself when young Lucius was nine years old. He was taken under the wing of Judge Augustus Baldwin Longstreet—no slouch in the name department himself—the president of Emory University. He married the judge's daughter and opened up a law practice. The judge eventually moved on to Ole Miss, and hired Lamar as a math professor.

Lamar decided to run for Congress in 1852, and won. He and his fellow Mississippian Jefferson Davis—yes that Jefferson Davis— were hugely popular politicians in the years before the Civil War. By all accounts, Lamar was a decent, gentlemanly, dutiful guy who was always fair to his political opponents (source).

Except.

Part of being a decent and dutiful southern politician in the antebellum years was to be an unabashed supporter of slavery and of the idea that the federal government had no business telling the states what to do about their "peculiar institution." So he quit his job in Congress and went home to Mississippi to write their Ordinance of Secession. He joined the Confederate Army and was appointed by Davis, now the president of the Confederacy, as a diplomat. They loved him in London (source).

The war years were terrible for Lamar—besides ending up on the losing side of the conflict, he lost both brothers and two law partners in battle. Reconstruction wasn't much easier, as he witnessed the Union Army occupying Mississippi and the government dismantling the state's political structure (source).

Despite the fact that Confederate officers weren't allowed to hold office in the new Union, Lamar ran again for Congress. His decency and fairness paid off: Congress passed a special law in 1872 to pardon him and allow him to take his seat in the House of Representatives.

Lamar's Kumbaya Moment

In 1874, Lamar rocked the House with his speech in memory of Charles Sumner, the recently deceased Massachusetts senator who'd been one of the most powerful anti-South voices in the Senate, and who was once beaten with a cane on the Senate floor by a colleague from South Carolina.

(And you thought it was bad now.)

Lamar said that the best way Congress could honor their departed teammate was to reconcile and build a strong nation free of partisan hatred. It was a moving speech with a big finish: "My countrymen! Know one another, and you will love one another" (source).

That's the speech that got him into Profiles in Courage. It also got him a gig as a speaker touring the country, and according to JFK, had a huge impact on the people who heard it. You can check out the speech here.

Lamar was a great compromiser (although he couldn't have the nickname "The Great Compromiser" because Henry Clay had already taken it). He encouraged Mississippians to honor the 14th and 15th amendments extending equal rights and the vote to African Americans. He might have had some ulterior motives—he wanted Reconstruction to end ASAP—but it couldn't have been an easy sell.

Onward and Upward

The Mississippi legislature elected Lamar to the U.S. Senate in 1876—remember, that's how senators were elected in those days. JFK also cited Lamar's ability to take some unpopular stands that could've, and almost did, cost him his job. Against the wishes of most citizens of Mississippi, he supported the presidential bid of Rutherford B. Hayes, and he opposed the popular (in his state) policy of "free silver", i.e., the unlimited coinage of silver money that would have boosted the prices of farmers' products.

Lamar resigned from the Senate to become President Grover Cleveland's Secretary of the Interior, where he served from 1885-1888. Lamar was the head of a corrupt department rife with political patronage. One of the duties of the Secretary of the Interior was to oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that's how he was connected with the Dawes Act.

You were probably wondering when we'd get around to that.

Honestly, not a lot is known about his involvement in formulating the terms of the Act, but as the head of Interior, he would've had to approve its provisions. And as we've seen, it wasn't the first time in his career that he dutifully and fairly came to some epically wrongheaded conclusions about what was best for certain ethnic minorities.

The capstone of Lamar's career was his nomination by Cleveland to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Supreme Court in 1888, where he served until his death in 1893—the first justice from the ranks of the Confederacy.

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