Friday, August 7, 2015

Poet-Politician Mirabeau Lamar complained, ‘I feel queerly--I believe I am going to die’—and promptly did

Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar is generally thought of (if at all) as a politician who almost inadvertently served as second President of the Republic of Texas—but he was also a poet, and if not a distinguished one, he was at least persistent. Lamar was born August 16, 1798, in Louisville, Georgia, and grew up on his father’s plantation in Milledgeville, Georgia. As a boy he was adept at the manly arts of horsemanship, fencing, oil painting, and writing poetry.  One of his verses was called “An Evening on the Banks of the Chattahoochee” (a river whose charms must be overpowering, for half a century later they would also provide poetic inspiration to another poet, named Sidney Lanier).

Lamar dabbled in newspaper publishing in Cahawba, Alabama, where his New Year’s poem in the Cahawba Press suggested that he had more aptitude for meter than for rhyme.  It reads in part:

            Yearly doth the Laureat sing
            In honor of his country’s King.
            And Poets annually raise
            To Patrons tributary lays.
            With Printers, too, it is in vogue
            To write to friends a New Year’s ode,
            And in compliance with the fashion,
            I’ll make some rhymes if I can match ‘em.

It is easy to see that poetry was not and never would be Lamar’s primary occupation. He became the secretary of the governor of Georgia, founded the Columbus Enquirer, won a seat in the state senate, failed twice to win election to Congress, and then, after his wife's death from tuberculosis, moved to Texas in 1835, just in time to be on hand when the Anglo colonists, a rambunctious bunch of trouble-makers, many of whom were in Texas to escape authorities in the United States, decided to rid themselves of the nuisance of the Mexican authorities as well.

Still writing poems, Lamar had the good sense to avoid being caught in the Alamo in 1836, but then joined the Texian (as it was then known) army as a private and, given the shortage of presentable soldiers, wound up being promoted to colonel a mere month later. He led the cavalry at the Battle of San Jacinto, which resulted in Texas’ independence from the civilizing influence of the Mexicans. 

In September of the same year, his career rising like a rocket, Lamar was elected Vice President of the fledgling Republic of Texas, an office that made so little demand on his time that he spent most of his term back in Georgia studying Spanish and blithely accepting adulation as a war hero. 

When he returned to Texas the following year, he threw himself into organizing the Philosophical Society, when he suddenly realized that a campaign to elect him to succeed Sam Houston as President of Texas had been launched without his knowledge or approval. He opted to stay in the race when the only other two candidates both committed suicide before the election, making the ease of his victory the envy of every politician in the world.

As President, Lamar advocated setting aside land for schools and universities, and even though none of these institutions was actually established during his administration, he thereby became known as “the Father of Texas Education.”  Delving into his poetic vocabulary, he once said in a speech that a “cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy,” and someone translated that into Latin as Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis and made it the motto of the University of Texas.

Lamar lived more than twenty years after his Presidency ended, fought Mexicans with General Zachary Taylor in 1846, served for a couple of years in the 1850s as United States minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and continued to advocate secession from the Union by the Southern slave states and to create poetry up to his last breath—which came quite unexpectedly on December 19, 1859, when in the midst of preparations for Christmas on his plantation in Richmond, Texas, he remarked (ungrammatically, it must be pointed out), “I feel very queerly; I believe I am going to die”—and then promptly did so, at the age of sixty-one. The attending doctor said death was caused by a “heart ailment” and “apoplexy.”

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