U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts has garnered more than his share of attention recently as the court handed down decisions in high profile cases. Only last week, he cast the deciding vote and wrote the majority opinion finding that President Obama's healthcare reform act was not unconstitutional with its mandate for individual health insurance policies. History was made when the measure passed the Congress, and was made all over again with that decision.
It would be stretching things to say that Covington has a serious tie to the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, but even our small connection is interesting, the further one delves. Right there on Floyd Street just before it intersects with Pace Street, a freestanding marker put up by the Georgia Historical Society identifies the spot where a man named Lucius Q. C. Lamar once practiced law "at two different intervals between 1847 and 1854."
Frankly, it is difficult to pin down Lamar's exact trajectory to explain that notation.
It is known that Lamar was born near Eatonton in 1825, and when his father died, the family moved to Covington, then on to Oxford where Lamar graduated from Emory College. (I'd like to know why the family ended up here, wouldn't you?) He married the daughter of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, one of Emory's first presidents, who in 1849 became chancellor of the brand new University of Mississippi at Oxford. Lamar followed his father-in-law there and taught math and practiced law for a year, before returning to practice in Covington in 1852. The next year, he was elected as a Democrat by the voters of Newton County to the Georgia House of Representatives, his first taste of politics.
By 1855, he was back in Mississippi, and in 1857 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He resigned to become a member of the Mississippi Secession Committee, thereafter serving two years as a Confederate officer. For the last two years of the war, according to The Supreme Court Historical Society website, he was a Judge Advocate for the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee. Later pardoned for his service to the Confederacy, he was re-elected from Mississippi to the U.S. House, then to the U.S. Senate. In his second term, he resigned to become Secretary of the Interior under President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland appointed Lamar to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1888. He served five years and died in 1893, only 67.
Few may know that Lucius Q. C. Lamar was among the eight U.S. Senators included by then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy in his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography - Profiles in Courage. Kennedy cited several acts of integrity by Lamar, some which put him at odds with his own constituents. He is memorably recalled for the eulogy he delivered as a first term Mississippi Senator and former Confederate upon the death of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist and much hated in the South for his vehement views on slaveholders. Sumner had been beaten brutally on the floor of the Senate by a South Carolina representative and took three years to recover. In his later years, Sumner's views of the South moderated, and in an act aimed at healing North/South relations, Lamar spoke in praise of Sumner. (We can talk about whether Kennedy actually wrote the book some other time.)
My curiosity about Lamar's rather grandiloquent name remained: Lucius Quintus Cincinatus Lamar II. On Wikipedia, I found that he had been named for a Roman political figure and one-time aristocrat - Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus - who lived between 520 and 430 B.C. The spelling of the names is slightly dissimilar. History describes Cincinnatus as an early Roman hero distinguished by his simple virtues and disdain for power. A farmer at the time, he was called by the Roman Senate to become dictator or "Master of the People" for six months in order to lead an army against attacking Italian tribes. It took him all of 16 days to accomplish the task, after which he modestly returned to the life of a farmer, spurning the further accumulation of personal power. Rome wasn't through with Cincinnatus even then, and called him back a second time as dictator to beat back a conspiracy that threatened the government, then again he resigned to assume his modest life.
In so doing, Cincinnatus is regarded as having established a standard for military and political service, one that put the good of the republic first and foremost over personal gain. Has anybody seen him lately?
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.