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SEARGENT S. PRENTISS.
IN reviewing the career of this eloquent lawyer and statesman, it can but be regretted that so much genius, intellectual worth and promise, should have so prematurely passed away. Marked as his life was by great performances, which of themselves have rendered his name familiar throughout the length and breadth of his country, it is reasonable to suppose that had it been prolonged, his maturity would have been crowned with still greater and growing glories.
He was the son of a highly respectable and prosperous shipmaster, and was born at Portland, in Maine, on the last day of September, 1808. A severe illness during infancy deprived him for several years of the use of his limbs, but by the kind attention of his mother, who watched him with unwearied devotedness and care, he in a few years recovered from his infirmities, with the exception of a partial lameness in one of his legs, which clung to him until the day of his death. Denied the privilege of walking, the greater part of his childhood was passed in the house, in the company of his mother, who taught him to read. Before he was ten years old he mastered all the books "he could lay his hands on," and thus stored his mind with a knowledge of history, poetry and select literature. The Bible was his favorite, and in the palaces, the castles, the deep vales, the quagmires, and the sunny pastures of the Pilgrim's Progress, he found an irresistible charm and the deepest gratification.
As soon as he was able to move about with the aid of a cane, he spent much of his time in the woods and fields, engaged in hunting and fishing. The latter diversion was his "greatest delight," says his brother. "Old Isaac Walton could hardly have excelled him in devotion to this 'treacherous art,' or in the skill with which he pursued it. Many and many a long summer's day did he spend in wandering slowly up and down the Great Brook; and never, in after life, was the subject mentioned without reviving some of the pleasantest memories of his youth."
As he advanced in years, his parents began to consider the subject of his mode of life in the future. His lameness rendered him incapable of severe physical duties, and the early development of his remarkable intellectual qualities, convinced them that he ought to be educated. To this end he was prepared at Gorham Academy; and in the autumn of 1824, entered the junior class of Bowdoin College. His course was marked and brilliant: "one of the few instances, in college life, of decided indications of future success and eminence." On leaving college he commenced the study of law, and in the summer of 1827, started for the west in "quest of fortune." He intended to establish himself at Cincinnati, but, soon after arriving at that place, inducements of a more lucrative character than he enjoyed at his new home, were offered, in the situation of a tutor in a private family at Natchez, Mississippi. He left Cincinnati a few months after his arrival from Maine, and in November took upon himself the duties of the tutorship. In this position he was enabled to devote much of his time to the study of his profession. His patroness was the widow of an eminent lawyer, and the entire use of his library was at Mr. Prentiss's disposal. It hardly need be said that to these great advantages he was fully awake, and that he made the best use of them.
In June, 1829, he was admitted to practice, and soon after formed a partnership with General Felix Huston. His first appearance at the bar is thus described in the recent interesting biography by his brother:-" He was a slight-made, beardless boy, extremely youthful look
ing, by no means physically imposing, and a stranger to all at the court. It was a case he was appearing in for Mr. Huston; and when it was called, he responded to it, and stated the nature of the case, and that it stood on demurrer to some part of the proceedings which he desired to argue. The Judge, with some nonchalance, told him he did not wish to hear argument on the subject, as he had made up his mind adversely to the side Mr. Prentiss appeared for; upon this, Mr. P. modestly, but firmly, insisted on his client's constitutional right to be heard, by himself or counsel, before his cause was adjudged against him. The right was recognized—and he was heard, and made a speech that astonished both court and bystanders: and the Judge, to his honor be it spoken, was not only convinced of the error of his previous opinion, but had the manliness to acknowledge it. Few young men, in a strange place, with a cause prejudged and the decision announced, would have so boldly asserted and maintained their client's rights."
During his residence at Natchez he continued to devote much of his leisure to general reading and the pursuits of literature. He prepared many pieces in prose and verse, for the periodicals in his locality, among which a poetical effusion entitled The Ice Palace, "yet lives in the recollection of his friends in the south-west." An essay on Toasting, written at this time, is preserved in the life of him, lately published.
Early in 1832, after having spent four years in Natchez, he removed to Vicksburg, where he at once rose to a conspicuous place in his profession. The case in which he was first engaged at this place "was one involving the power of the corporation to cut off by quarantine, a public hotel from all intercourse with the rest of the town. The hotel stood alone on a square, and was infested with the small pox. The Mayor and Council had passed an ordinance forbidding all persons out of it from going to it, and all persons in it, from coming out of it. Without any previous notice or preparation, except the examination of testimony, Mr. Prentiss spoke for two hours, and by an argument replete with metaphor, satire, and logic, he gained his cause and induced an immediate repeal of the obnoxious ordinance." About this time he made his appearance as a political orator, and seems to have gained for the patriotism of his sentiments not only the unbounded applause of his supporters, but even that of his bitterest adversaries.
In 1833, he appeared before the Supreme Court of the United States, and "made a speech three or four hours long."* His pleadings, in spite of his youthful fire and highly wrought fancy, were so happily fortified by deep reading and deep thought, as to instantly attract the notice of Chief Justice Marshall, and call forth from that master-mind involuntary praise. During the same year he formed a business connexion with John J. Guion, an experienced and well-known practitioner of law in Vicksburg; and a few weeks after, his duel with General H. S. Foote occurred. Of the latter event Mr. Prentiss thus wrote in a letter to his youngest brother, who had strongly remonstrated with him respecting the course he had pursued:-"I am very sorry you heard at all of my foolish scrape. I regretted the occurrence as much as any one. I neither sought the difficulty, nor sent the challenge; but having received it under the circumstances that existed, I could not have acted differently from what I did. If I had, I should have lost my own self-respect, and life itself would have had no further objects for me. I know that with your principles, no excuse will be sufficient in such a case. I am no advocate of duelling, and always shall from principle avoid such a thing, as much as possible; but when a man is placed in a situation where if he does not fight, life will be rendered valueless to him, both in his own eyes and those of the community, and existence will become a burden to him; then, I say, he will fight, and by so doing, will select the least of two evils. I know you will say that such a case as I have supposed, cannot occur; but, brother, I think you are mistaken, and such cases may occur, but not often. However, I trust I shall never again have occasion to act in such a matter. You may rest assured, that I shall never seek a quarrel, and shall always avoid one, so long as I can do so, and retain my self-respect.”
At this period Mr. Prentiss was enjoying a very large and lucrative practice. Business pressed upon him from all quarters, and his fame as an advocate was widely spread. His geniality, wit,
Memoir of S. S. Prentiss, vol. I., page 122.
T. B. Thorpe's Reminiscences. American Whig Review, September 1851.
and humor attracted every body to him. "Every body liked him, and he was disposed to like every body." A reference to his letters written at this time will afford a just estimate of the extensive and laborious duties of his profession. In August of this year (1834) he delivered at Jackson, Mississippi, an address, commemorative of the life and services of Lafayette.
After an absence of eight years, he visited his home in Maine, where he spent a short time amid the scenes of his boyhood; fished at the old brook, and went out to meet old faces and friends. On his return to Vicksburg, he entered upon his practice with renewed vigor, and soon after was elected to the State Legislature to represent his adopted town. In this station he remained, with occasional intervals, ardently engaged in the toil and strife of politics, for the next eight years. In the great questions of the day he evinced the warmest interest, was an ardent admirer of Henry Clay, and an active opponent of General Jackson. His political speeches at this time have not been preserved, but his cotemporaries refer to them as containing great strength, wit, and powerful argumentation. An anecdote relating to one of his earliest stump speeches, given by his biographer, will show the readiness and self-possession he displayed under trying circumstances. His speech "was a powerful invective against General Jackson, for his removal of the members of his first Cabinet. While he was summing up the excuses of the Democratic party alleged for the act, he was suddenly confronted by a fellow holding up a large flag, with nothing on it but the words "Hurrah for Jackson !" inscribed with large letters. The man advanced slowly towards the speaker, whose eye no sooner caught the pennant than he exclaimed, without the slightest perturbation-"In short, fellow-citizens, you have now before you the sum and substance of all the arguments of the party-Hurrah for Jackson!" The effect was electrical, and the poor man slunk away, trailing his banner after him."
Mr. Prentiss was untiring and diligent in the discharge of his legislative duties. He was appointed Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and in the course of the session delivered several speeches advocating the system of internal improvement. Hardly one complete speech, however, is preserved; but such as remain display great political intelligence, wisdom, and straightforwardness; "they sparkle, like dust of gold, amidst the rubbish of ordinary legislative verbosity." In the following session, which met in January, 1837, he delivered a masterly speech on the question of admitting the delegates from the new counties. This effort is extant, and is sterlingly illustrative of its author's reverence for law and constitution. At the end of the session he resigned his seat; resumed his profession and the cultivation of general literature.
In the fall of 1837, he took an active part in the political campaign; canvassed his State, and was elected a representative to Congress. On his arrival at Washington, his seat was contested, and a day was set apart for him to address the House in support of his claims. On that day, says his biographer, "nearly all the members were in their seats, the galleries were crowded, and every eye and ear were fixed in eager expectation. His first sentence riveted the attention of the whole audience, and each succeeding sentence increased the surprise and pleasure awakened by the first. Some, anticipating an outburst of fervid but unpolished declamation, were charmed to find themselves listening to an orator, whose logic was as accurate and subtle as that of a schoolman, while the fairest gems of literary culture adorned his rhetoric. Others, expecting a violent party harangue, were no less astonished to find themselves in the presence of a statesman and jurist discussing, with patriotic zeal, a great principle of constitutional law. His peroration was short, but it thrilled the immense assemblage like an electric touch. Much of its force was owing to the tones of his voice, the glow of his eye and countenance, his peculiarly earnest manner, and the high-wrought feelings of his hearers; but no one can read it even now, without admiring its skill and beauty.
The moment he had finished, his friends flocked around him with their enthusiastic congratulations, in which they were joined by not a few of his political opponents. As Mr. Webster left the Hall, he remarked to a friend, with comprehensive brevity: "Nobody could equal it!" And this may suffice as a sample of the innumerable compliments elicited by his speech. It is still remembered with wonder by all who heard it. Few members of the House were less likely to be misled by false oratory than Ex-President Fillmore. In a letter, dated Buffalo, Nov. 28, 1853, he writes: "I can never forget that speech. It was, certainly, the most brilliant that I ever
SEARGENT S. PRENTISS.
heard, and, as a whole, I think it fully equalled, if it did not exceed, any rhetorical effort to which
When the vote was taken on the question of his right to a seat, it was a tie, and the vote of the Speaker, James K. Polk, being cast against him, Mr. Prentiss returned to Vicksburg. His second canvass was distinguished for the excitement it produced. Every where he was met with enthusiasm and delight. Among many anecdotes of this canvass, illustrative of the power he displayed as an orator, is the following. On one occasion, while he was speaking in his most fascinating manner, an old Democrat present became so charmed and excited, that, at the conclusion of the address, he walked towards him, and ripping his coat open behind, as he did so, cried out: "Well, they may call me a turn-coat, if they choose; but I won't be that-I shall just back out of my coat, and vote for S. S. Prentiss." In this election Mr. Prentiss was successful, and in May, 1838, he took his seat in Congress. But he had no taste for congressional life, and, after serving a brief term, he returned to the bar and to his extended practice. His representative career, however, short as it was, was of unusual brilliancy and success. His speech on the Defalcations of Public Officers, the Sub-Treasury Bill, and that on the Navy, gained him great applause throughout the country, and firmly established his reputation as a parliamentary orator. On his return from Washington, he stopped for some time at Louisville, to assist in the defence of Judge Wilkinson, who was indicted for murder. The limits of this sketch will not permit a detail of this affair. Mr. Prentiss's argument, (reported some time after its delivery,) which was regarded, by all who heard it, as a masterpiece of forensic eloquence, is now before the world.
In the Presidential campaign of 1840, Mr. Prentiss was constant and untiring in the advocacy of the Whig policy. His speeches, some of which were reported, are now fresh in the recollection of many.
Mr. Prentiss's opposition to the Mississippi Repudiation was firm and uncompromising. In his speeches, which were among the ablest he ever made, he denounced the measure as alike ruinous and wicked; every where he lifted up his voice against it; it mattered not whether he was addressing a polished audience at Natchez, a knot of idlers at the corner of the street in Vicksburg, a gathering of backwoodsmen, or a crowd well sprinkled with repudiating legislators at the capital; he never varied his speech, except to lash the iniquity with rebukes still more scathing when he saw its authors or abettors before him.
In 1845, he removed from Vicksburg to New Orleans, where he soon mastered the system of jurisprudence of Louisiana, which greatly differed from that under which he had been so long practising; became thoroughly conversant with the principles of civil law, and took a position foremost at the bar. His practice was extensive, and continued so until he became broken down by ill health. In the midst of his professional labors he always took an active part in the politics of the day. In truth, he is generally better known as a political orator, than a lawyer. Nor did he confine himself to these duties alone. He was distinguished for his fondness and thorough knowledge of literature. Besides rendering the most important services in the political campaigns, he was often called upon to appear as the popular orator of anniversaries, and, with his pen as well as his tongue, he was a ready advocate in the cause of philanthropy and the elevation of his fellow-men. During the few last years of his life, he suffered severe illness; yet he continued to labor assiduously in his profession, and only relinquished it a short time prior to his death. He died at Longwood, near Natchez, on the first day of July, 1851.
As a lawyer, Mr. Prentiss was distinguished for the remarkable rapidity and analytical power of his mind. His memory was singularly retentive. His logical faculty was very acute and discerning. "It was often the complaint of the court and his brother lawyers," says one of his cotemporaries, "that he would argue a case all to pieces. He would penetrate to the very bottom of a subject, as it were, by intuition, and lay it bare in all its parts, like a chemist analyzing
any material object, or a surgeon making a dissection. His reading was full and general, and every thing he gathered from books, as well as from intercourse with his fellow-men, clung to his memory, and was ever at his command. But his most striking talent was his oratory. We have never known or read of a man who equalled Prentiss, in the faculty of thinking on his legs, or of extemporaneous eloquence. He required no preparation to speak on any subject, and on all he was equally happy. We have heard from him, thrown out in a dinner-speech, or at a public meeting, when unexpectedly called on, more brilliant and striking thoughts than many of the most gifted poets and orators ever elaborated in their closets. He possessed a rare wit. His garland was enwreathed with flowers culled from every shrub or plant, and from every clime. And if at times the thorn lurked beneath the bright flower, the wound it inflicted was soon assuaged and healed by some mirthful and laughter-moving palliative." In his social relations, he was courteous, affectionate, and generous. Of a brilliant imagination, sparkling wit, and rare convivial talents, he was always a welcome guest wherever he went. In his death, the American bar lost one of its brightest ornaments, and the human race a steadfast, loving, and disinterested friend.
Those who desire a full insight into the character and genius of Mr. Prentiss, would do well to consult the interesting memoir lately published by his brother, to which the editor here acknowledges his indebtedness for the material of this sketch.
THE NEW ENGLAND ADDRESS.
Mr. Prentiss delivered the following address, | till reason becomes confused, and at last start before the New England Society of New Or- back in fear, like mariners who have entered leans, on the twenty-second of December, 1845: rents, and quicksands they are wholly ignorant. an unknown ocean, of whose winds, tides, curThen it is we turn for relief to the past, that mighty reservoir of men and things. There we have something tangible to which our sympathies can attach; upon which we can lean for support; from whence we can gather knowledge and learn wisdom. There we are introduced into Nature's vast laboratory and witness her elemental labors. We mark with interest the changes in continents and oceans by which she has notched the centuries. But our attention is still more deeply aroused by the great moral events, which have controlled the fortunes of those who have preceded us, and still influence our own. With curious wonder, we gaze down the long aisles of the past, upon the generations that are gone. We behold, as in a magic glass, men in form and feature like ourselves, actuated by the same motives, urged by the same passions, busily engaged in shaping out both their own destinies and ours. We approach them, and they refuse not our invocation. We hold converse with the wise philosophers, the sage legislators and divine poets. We enter the tent of the general, and partake of his most secret counsels. We go forth with him to the battle-field, and behold him place his glittering squadrons; then we listen with a pleasing fear to the trumpet and the drum, or the still more terrible music of the booming cannon and the clashing arms. But most of all, among the innumerable multitudes who peopled the past, we seek our own ancestors, drawn towards them by an irresistible
This is a day dear to the sons of New England, and ever held by them in sacred remembrance. On this day, from every quarter of the globe, they gather in spirit around the Rock of Plymouth, and hang upon the urns of their Pilgrim Fathers the garlands of filial gratitude and affection. We have assembled for the purpose of participating in this honorable duty; of performing this pious pilgrimage. To-day we will visit that memorable spot. We will gaze upon the place where a feeble band of persecuted exiles founded a mighty nation: and our hearts will exult with proud gratification as we remember that on that barren shore our ancestors planted not only empire but Freedom. We will meditate upon their toils, their sufferings, and their virtues, and to-morrow return to our daily avocations, with minds refreshed and improved by the contemplation of their high principles and noble purposes.
The human mind cannot be contented with the present. It is ever journeying through the trodden regions of the past, or making adventurous excursions into the mysterious realms of the future. He who lives only in the present, is but a brute, and has not attained the human dignity. Of the future but little is known; clouds and darkness rest upon it; we yearn to become acquainted with its hidden secrets; we stretch out our arms towards its shadowy inhabitants; we invoke our posterity, but they answer us not. We wander in its dim precincts