As the story opens, the President is standing just inside the door of his Dressing Room, using a mirror to sneakily peer out into the hallway beyond. He observes a "cooked bone, a rib," presumably the remnants of a meal just consumed by the two nameless Indians in the hallway. He catches his own face in the mirror, and sees that it has been overcome by "the baffled helplessness of a child." The Indians are wearing clothes that suggest "they had come intact out of Pickwickian England," except that they refuse to wear their pantaloons or boots. The reader learns later that the President has given all the Indians this clothing to wear.
He overhears the conversation between the two Indians, discussing why they must crouch in the hallway outside the President's room unarmed throughout the night. They decide it must be:
For honor... white man's honor. You don't understand white people. They are like children: you have to handle them careful because you never know what they are going to do next. So if it's the rule for guets to squat all night long in the cold outside this man's door, we'll just have to do it.
The President considers his situation: he has been "besieged within his very high and lonely ofice by them to whom he was, by legal if not divine appointment, father." He swears quietly, crosses the bedroom where his wife is sleeping, and meets a waiting "man in a long cloak." They tiptoe down the back stairway and go outside into the snow, observing the many tents the Indians have set up. They get horses from the stable and ride through the gates, encountering Indians with the carcasses of six deer, though the President has ordered that the Indians not be allowed guns with which to hunt.
When they arrive at the Secretary's house, he is surrounded by his uneaten breakfast; his whole appearance is harried. With him are the secretary to the Secretary and a horseman. He is reading a paper, and when the President asks him "What is it now?" he complains about all the complaints he has been receiving from the settlers, and all the demands they are making of the government. The President asks about why he saw the Indians with the killed deer, since he has forbidden them to have guns; the horseman answers that they don't use guns to hunt, only knives. The President swears again, then claims that it is the Secretary's job to "persuade them to keep their pantaloons on" so that his wife doesn't have to be embarrassed when she has guests.
The Secretary flies into a "shrill rage," and begins listing all the duties he is already busy with. He begins mocking the President by calling him "Your Excellency," though the "oblivious President" is at first unaware of his attitude. However, the Secretary brings up an incident that happened earlier, which they all know about, when Weddel/Vidal had presented him with a hideous costume in exchange for providing all the Indians with new clothing in the European style. The chief had surprised him with a formal visit at five in the morning, while he was still in bed. Now the President realizes the Secretary is poking fun at him, and says, "Have your joke. Have it quickly. Are you done laughing now?"
The Secretary begins to review the reason Weddel/Vidal is there in the first place; he does not know what the man's name is, and complains that "he don't even seem to know or even to care what his own name is." Weddel/Vidal and his "family or clan or whatever they are" have been granted all of Mississippi on the west side of the river. But a white man arrived on their land and stayed for a month, during which time he bargained with Weddel/Vidal and eventually ended up paying what the Indians assumed to be an exorbitant price for a small patch of their land. However, the land included the only access to the ford, and the white man began charging travelers a toll to cross the river. Weddel/Vidal's nephew challenged the white man to a horse competition, wagering the ford and tollgate. When the nephew's horse lost, the white man was murdered that night. Now Weddel/Vidal has brought the nephew to the President, "to be absolved or convicted in person." Apparently, the agent of the land could not stop them from coming because they left in little groups during the night, and he did not notice their absence until it was too late.
The Secretary has already told Weddel/Vidal that his nephew is not charged with a crime, but the chief insists upon an investigation by the President. The President suggests doing the trial right then and there.
Weddel/Vidal arrives with his nephew, explaining that if the nephew did indeed murder the white man, he should be punished. The President and Secretary sit behind the table putting on a "clumsy deception with dummy papers," ready to give a fake trial. When the President asks him what his correct name is, the chief answers, "Weddel or Vidal. What does it matter by what name the White Chief calls us? We are but Indians: remembered yesterday and forgotten tomorrow." The President declares that the nephew is not guilty and can return home.
However, Weddel/Vidal does not accept this verdict and, feigning deference, tells the President, "You will be amused. In my ignorance I had thought that even our little affair would have been concluded in... the big white council house beneath the golden eagle." The Secretary is shocked at this suggestion. But Weddel/Vidal says that the Indians will all have to wait, anyway, since more of them are arriving after accidentally traveling to the wrong town. He is self-deprecating, calling them "poor, ignorant Indians."
When the President and Secretary realize the Indians are planning to stay, they try to convince Weddel/Vidal not to by making the excuse that "the white council house beneath the golden eagle is being used now by a council of chiefs who are more powerful there than I am." They say that the "chiefs" will be there until the spring, but Weddel/Vidal responds, "Good. We will wait, then. Then the rest of the People will have time to arrive."
This is unacceptable to the President and Secretary, and they lead the Indians to the council house immediately. The President reads ten of Petrach's Sonnets in Latin, pretending that they are important words of justice that the Indians cannot understand, and cannons are fired in a great show. The President declares, "Nephew of Francis Weddel, you are free. Return to your home."
Now it is autumn, and very peaceful in the President's office. However, when he receives a letter from Weddel/Vidal, "he sprang up, the letter in his hand, glaring at it in shocked and alarmed consternation while the bland words seemed to explode one by one in his comprehension like musketry." The letter describes how another man arrived on the Chicksaw land and bought the land with the entrance to the ford, charging a toll to travelers. The nephew once again challenged him, this time to a swimming race, and the white man drowned. Weddel/Vidal is returning again, with the nephew.
This is unacceptable to the President, and he calls for the Secretary of War. He makes a sign that decrees that Weddel/Vidal and "his heirs, descendants and assigns from now on in perpetuity" own the land to the west of the river, provided they never again cross to the east side. Then he sends the Secretary to ride and stop them in their progress to Washington. If they refuse to stop, he orders the Secretary to "shoot every horse, mule, and ox. I know they won't walk." He has been transformed from President to Soldier: "eager, happy, as though he rode himself with the regiment."
The only character to be given a name is the Chicksaw chief, Weddel/Vidal. Meanwhile, the President and Secretary remain nameless, demonstrating Faulkner's issue with the impersonal government. The fact that the President and the Secretary continually stumble over Weddel/Vidal's name enforces the idea that they cannot understand his identity as a bridge between the Indians and the white settlers. His heritage is mixed, bridging the gap, but his actions do the same as he leads his people fifteen hundred miles to Washington for a personal audience with the President.
The words of the Indians in the hallway in the first scene are ironic, since they represent the ideas of the white people. What they say about the white people is more expected to be said by the white people about them: "You dont' understand white people. They are like children: you have to handle them careful because you never know what they are going to do next."
The President's attitude toward the Indians is one of general racism; he does not see them as individuals, but rather as one big mass of a problem. This opinion is demonstrated in his observance of the two Indians in his hallway:
He did not know the faces, though he knew the Face, since he had looked upon it by day and dreamed upon it by night for three weeks now. It was a squat face, dark, a little flat, a little Mongol; secret, decorous, impenetrable, and grave. He had seen it repeated until he had given up trying to count it or even estimate it; even now, though he could see the two men squatting before him and could hear the two quiet voices, it seemed to him that in some idiotic moment out of attenuated sleeplessness and strain he looked upon a single man facing himself in a mirror.
The Face is a generalizing term for the features the President takes all Indians to share; it is as if they are all one man "repeated."
In contrast, the President sees his own face in the mirror and is struck by its individuality: it is "the face of the shrewd and courageous fighter, of that well-nigh infallible expert in the anticipation of and controlling of man and his doings, overlaid now with the baffled helplessness of a child." It has been reduced to helplessness, ironically, by the other "shrewd and courageous" leader, Weddel/Vidal.
Though the story is humorous, the President's reaction to the final letter from Weddel/Vidal is serious: "the President is absent now and it is the Soldier alone who sits with the Secretary of War behind the map-strewn table, while there face them the officers of a regiment of cavalry." He seems to end the possibility of coexisting with the Indians by giving them the deed to all the land around the ford in perpetuity, provided they never cross to the eastern shore of the river again.
"Lo!" is Faulkner's follow-up to the historical introductions of Requiem for a Nun (1950), in which he complains about the American government's separation from its people. Francis Weddel bridges this gap as he leads what Lewis Dabney has described as the first fictional sit-in. He is able to force action on the President's part by simply staying on his land.
"Lo!" was inspired by actual visits of Chocktaw chiefs Pushmataha and Greenwood Leflore to presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson, respectively. Though he remains unnamed, the President is based upon Andrew Jackson, who was President of the United States from 1829-37. Jackson was famous as an Indian fighter. The title of the story may be derived from the phrase, "Lo the poor Indian!" from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man.