South Carolina Fire-Eater
The Life of Laurence Massillion Keitt, 1824-1864
Publication Year: 2014
Published by: University of South Carolina Press
Title Page, Frontispiece, Copyright
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A project that consumes forty years from start to finish accumulates a significant number of obligations along the way. I returned to my alma mater in 1970 before I had completed work on my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Allen Moger, one of my undergraduate professors, then chairman of the Department of History proposed that I write a biography of Laurence Keitt. He explained...
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In September 1860, the New York Leader published a description of Congressman Laurence M. Keitt of South Carolina that would have agitated the enemies and surprised the friends who read it. It was not the physical description of the man that would have attracted their attention. He was, as the anonymous author wrote, tall, “broad shouldered, deep-chested, and powerful.” He had dark brown...
One: “See that you rear a new Union”
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According to stories still repeated in Calhoun County, the first Keitt came to South Carolina from Bermuda shortly before the Revolutionary War. Around 1760, George Kitts settled on Big Bull Swamp just west of Orangeburg, married Dorothy Whetstone, and began to acquire land and slaves. The marriage produced five children, a daughter and four sons. In 1812 three of the sons changed...
Two: “Trample upon your hosannas to the Union”
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Keitt’s career in the House of Representatives coincided almost exactly with the struggle between North and South for control of Kansas. He arrived in Washington late in 1853, in time to throw himself into the fight over the organization of the territory. Seven years later, when he resigned his seat and led South Carolina out of the Union, the English Compromise was only eighteen months...
Three: “He who dallies is a dastard”
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At least as early as the fall of 1855, South Carolina politicians began to look ahead to the presidential elections of the following year. Speaking for the state’s moderate minority, James L. Orr proposed that it take the novel step of sending delegates to the Democratic nominating convention. During the nullification controversy more than twenty years earlier, South Carolina had cut its ties to...
Four: “Shake the Federal temple from turret to foundation stone”
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When the members of the Thirty-fourth Congress returned to Washington late in 1856, few observers could have disagreed with Keitt’s assessment that the political climate was “gloomy and ominous.” The Democratic victory had changed nothing. At the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Franklin Pierce still occupied the White House. The last of his annual messages, an embittered attack on the...
Five: “Like mildew and blast, like pestilence and famine”
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Even before the Thirty-fifth Congress adjourned in June 1858, Keitt realized that his actions during the session had displeased constituents at one end of South Carolina’s narrow political spectrum—conservatives like William Henry Trescott, who criticized his readiness to indulge in exaggerated rhetoric and even to provoke riots on the floor of the House. He knew, however, that his defiance of...
Six: “Lance couched, helmet on, visor down”
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Long before Keitt took his seat in the House of Representatives for the first time, southerners had drawn the outlines of the pro-slavery argument and filled in most of the details. Reacting in part to internal pressures, in part to the first feeble attacks of the abolitionists, they had discarded the defense employed by the founding fathers who admitted that the institution was a blot on southern...
Seven: “Take the fetters from your heart”
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When Congressman Keitt arrived in Washington for the first time late in 1853, he found himself in a city with a distinctly southern flavor. Life there was slow paced, provincial, often lacking in creature comforts. The weather was frequently foul: hot and humid in summer, the season when the fortunate few fled to the mountains, and cold and wet in winter. Many of the public buildings were still...
Eight: “Style, beauty, and high training”
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The Keitts arrived in Washington on December 3, two days before Congress was scheduled to convene, and took up temporary lodgings at Brown’s Hotel. In a letter to her mother, Sue described the trip north from “Mandeville” and at the same time revealed the fears of a young bride facing life in an unfamiliar city. The weather during the trip was “oppressively hot,” she complained; the dust from...
Nine: “Fidelity to the Union is treason to the South”
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With the struggle for the speakership finally over, congressmen turned their attention to long-neglected business, none of it immediately related to slavery or secession. The Congress enacted a homestead bill, and Buchanan vetoed it. The House approved a slight upward revision of the tariff, but the Senate killed it. Neither house could agree on a route for a railroad to the Pacific...
Ten: “True liberty is won by the blood of the brave”
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The South Carolina delegation, minus Chesnut and Withers, reached Montgomery by rail on February 2, two days before the convention was scheduled to meet for the first time. Heavy rains had flooded rivers, washed out long sections of track, and made the trip even more treacherous than usual. In Atlanta the train carrying the South Carolinians was already twelve hours behind...
Eleven: “Proudly the Southern Cross still floats to the breeze”
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With the fall of Battery Wagner, Keitt’s active role in the defense of Charleston harbor had almost come to an end. In mid-September, he moved the Twentieth South Carolina from Sullivan’s Island, now within easy range of the Union guns, to a safer location on the mainland. For the next nine months, the regiment camped near Mount Pleasant on the grounds of the Moultrie House, a resort...
Epilogue: “I will not lose my land”
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After Keitt’s death at Cold Harbor in June 1864, records reveal all too little about Sue and her two daughters. Shortly after the close of the war, the editor of the Boston Atlas noted that she was living in poverty. Before the war, Keitt had boasted that he had married the daughter of a wealthy planter, not a merchant or industrialist or speculator whose assets could vanish overnight during a...
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Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2014