Laurence M. Keitt (1824-1864)

Laurence Massillon Keitt, a Representative from South Carolina, was among the more prominent of the southern Fire-eaters (along with William Lowndes Yancey, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, Robert Toombs, and Louis T. Wigfall).

Keitt was born in Orangeburg District, S.C., October 4, 1824, pursued classical studies, and graduated from South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) at Columbia in 1843. He studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1845, and commenced practice in Orangeburg. He was member of the S.C. House of Representatives, 1848-1853 and then was elected as a Democrat to the 33rd and 34th Congresses and served from March 4, 1853, to July 16, 1856, when he resigned after the 34th Congress censured him on July 15, 1856, for his role in the assault made upon Senator Charles Sumner on May 22, 1856 (Keitt had stood guard with cane and pistol to prevent anyone from coming to Sumner's aid). Keitt was again elected to the 34th Congress (to fill the vacancy caused by his own resignation) and reelected to the 35th and 36th Congresses and served from August 6, 1856, until his retirement in December 1860. He was chairman, Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds in the 35th Congress.

As a delegate to the secession convention of South Carolina in November 1860, Keitt insisted that the rationale for secession should center soley on the issues of slavery: "Our people have come to this on the question of slavery. I am willing, in that address to rest it upon that question. I think it is the great central point from which we are now proceeding, and I am not willing to divert the public attention from it" (Charleston, South Carolina, Courier, Dec. 22, 1860). Other fire-eaters sought to add a wider agenda. Robert Barnwell Rhett and Maxcey Gregg, two stalwart secessionists, protested that singling out just one grievance "dishonored the memory of South Carolinians" who had opposed the Tariff of Abominations, various internal improvement bills, and the second Bank of the United States. Keitt replied that these were no reasons for leaving the Union. Only slavery was. The dissenters were defeated.

Keitt served as a member of the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy in Montgomery, Ala., in February 1861 and in Richmond, Va., in July 1861 and was a signatory to the Constitution of the Confederate States.

After the war began, Keitt raised the Twentieth South Carolina Regiment of Volunteers and was commissioned its colonel on January 11, 1862, and subsequently promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

He was wounded in the Battle of Cold Harbor, near Richmond, Va., and died as a result of his wounds the following day, June 4, 1864. He is buried in the family cemetery, near St. Matthews, S.C.

Merchant, John H., Jr. "Laurence M. Keitt: South Carolina Fire Eater." Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1976.