An estimate of the man by a contemporary.
Sergeant Smith Prentiss
was born in Portland, Me.
, September 30, 1808, and died at Natchez, Miss.
, July 1, 1850. Forty-four eventful years have come and gone, and yet the name and fame of Prentiss
is as green in the memory of those who admire talent and love chivalry as when he was here in the flesh.
With one or two honorable exceptions, his contemporaries are all dead.
Much has been written and printed of this wonderful man. Every reminiscence, however, with which his name is connected is eagerly read, not only in Mississippi
but throughout the Union
Not one Mississippian, perhaps, in 10,000 ever saw a likeness of Prentiss
The one contained in several metropolitan papers last year was a miserable caricature—no more like Prentiss
was like Hercules
Of all the sketches written of Prentiss
, the following, from J. G. Baldwin
, a contemporary of Prentiss
, who afterwards removed to
and was elevated to the Supreme Court of that State, is believed to be the best:
The character of the bar, in the older portions of the State, of Mississippi, was very different from that of the bar in the new districts.
Especially was this the case with the counties on, and near the Mississippi river.
In its front ranks stood Prentiss, Holt, Boyd, Quitman, Wilkinson, Winchester, Foote, Henderson and others.
It was at the period first mentioned by me, in 1837, that Sergeant S. Prentiss was in the flower of his forensic fame.
He had not, at that time, mingled largely in federal politics.
He had made but few enemies, and had not “staled his presence,” but was in all the freshness of his unmatched faculties.
At this day it is difficult for anyone to appreciate the enthusiasm which greeted this gifted man, the admiration which was felt for him, and the affection which followed him. He was to Mississippi, in her youth, what Jenny Lind is to the musical world, or what Charles Fox, whom he resembled in many things, was to the Whig party of England in his day. Why he was so is not difficult to see. He was a type of his times, a representative of the qualities of the people, or rather of the better qualities of the wilder and more impetuous part of them.
The proportion of young men, as in all new countries, was great, and the proportion of wild young men, was unfortunately, still greater.
He had all those qualities which make us charitable to the character of Prince Hal, as painted by Shakespeare, even when our approval is not fully bestowed.
Generous as a prince of the royal blood, brave and chivalrous as a Knight Templar, of a spirit that scorned everything mean, underhanded or servile, he was prodigal to improvidence, instant in resentment, and bitter in his animosities, yet magnanimous to forgive when reparation had been made or misconstruction explained away.
There was no littleness about him. Even toward an avowed enemy he was open and manly, and bore himself with a sort of antique courtesy and knightly hostility, in which self respect, mingled with respect for his foe, except when contempt was mixed with hatred; then no words can convey any sense of the intensity of his scorn, the depth of his loathing.
When he thus outlawed a man from his courtesy and respect, language could scarce supply words to express his disgust and detestation.
Fear seemed to be a stranger to his nature.
He never hesitated to meet, nor did he wait for “responsibility,” but went in quest of it. To denounce meanness and villany in any and all forms, when it came in his way, was, with him, a matter of duty from which he
never shrunk; and so to denounce it as to bring himself in direct collision with the perpetrator or perpetrators—for he took them in crowds as well as singly—was a task for which he was instant, in season or out of season.
Even in the vices of Prentiss there were magnificence and brilliancy imposing in a high degree.
When he treated it was a mass entertainment.
On one occasion he chartered a theatre for the special gratification of his friends—the public generally.
He bet thousands on a turn of a card, and witnessed the success or failure of the wager with the nonchalance of a Mexican monte player; or, as was most usual, with the light humor of a Spanish muleteer.
He broke a faro bank by the nerve with which he laid his large bets, and by exciting the passion of the veteran dealer, or awed him into honesty by the glance of his strong and steady eye.
Attachment to his friends was a passion.
It was a part of the loyalty to the honorable and chivalric, which formed the subsoil of his strange and wayward nature.
He never deserted a friend.
His confidence knew no bounds.
It scorned all restraints and considerations of prudence or policy.
He made his friends' quarrels his own, and was as guardful of their reputations as of his own. He would put his name on the back of their paper without looking at the face of it, and gave his carte blanche, if needed, by the quire.
He was above the littleness of jealousy or rivalry, and his love of truth, his fidelity and frankness were formed on the antique models of the chevaliers.
But in social qualities he knew no rival.
These made him the delight of every circle; they were adapted to all, and were exercised on all. The same histrionic and dramatic talent that gave to his oratory so irresistible a charm, and adapted him to all grades and sorts of people, fitted him, in conversation, to delight all men. He never staled and never flagged.
Even if the fund of acquired capital could have run out, his originality was such that his supply from the perennial fountain within was inexhaustible.
His humor was as various as profound—from the most delicate wit to the broadest farce, from irony to caricature, from classical illusion to the verge—and sometimes beyond the verge—of coarse jest and Falstaff extravagance, and no one knew in which department he most excelled.
His animal spirits flowed over, like an artesian well, ever gushing out in a deep, bright, and sparkling current.
He never seemed to despond or droop for a moment; the cares and anxieties of life were mere bagatelles to him. Sent to jail for fighting in the courthouse, he made the walls of the prison resound
with unaccustomed shouts of merriment and revelry.
Starting to fight a duel, he laid down his hand at poker, to resume it with a smile when he returned, and went on the field laughing with his friends as to a picnic.
Yet no one knew better the proprieties of life than himself—when to put off levity, and treat grave subjects and persons with proper respect, and no one could assume more gracefully a dignified and sober demeanor.
His early reading and education had been extensive and deep.
Probably no man of his age, in the State, was so well read in the ancient and modern classics, in the current literature of the day, and —what may seem stranger—in the sacred scriptures.
His speeches drew some of their grandest images, strongest expressions, and aptest illustrations from the inspired writings.
The personnel of this remarkable man was well calculated to rivet the interest his character inspired.
Though he was low of stature, and deformed in one leg, his frame was uncommonly athletic and muscular; his arms and chest were well formed, the latter deep and broad; his head large, and a model of classical proportions and noble contour.
A handsome face, compact brow, massive and expanded, and eyes of dark hazel, full and clear, were fitted for the expression of every passion and flitting shade of feeling and sentiment.
His complexion partook of the bilious, rather than the sanguine temperament.
His skin was smooth and bloodless — no excitement or stimulus heightened his color: nor did the writer ever see any evidence in his face of irregularity of habit.
In repose his countenance was serious and rather melancholy-certainly somewhat soft and quiet in expression, but evidencing strength and power, and masculine rather than the light and flexible qualities which characterized him in his convivial moments.
There was nothing affected or theatrical in his manner, though some parts of his printed speeches would seem to indicate this.
He was frank and artless as a child, and nothing could have been more winning than his familiar intercourse with the bar, with whom he was always a favorite, and without a rival in its affection.
I come now to speak of him as a lawyer.
He was more widely known as a politician than a lawyer, as an advocate than a jurist.
This was because politics form a wider and more conspicuous theatre than the bar, and because the mass of men are better judges of oratory than of law. That he was a man of wonderful versatility and varied accomplishments is most true, and that he was a popular orator of the first class is also true, and that
all of his faculties did not often, if ever, find employment in his profession may be true likewise.
So far he appeared to better advantage in a deliberative assembly or before the people, because there he had a wider range and subjects of a more general interest, and was not fettered by rules and precedents; his genius expanded over a larger area, and exercised his powers in a greater variety and number.
Moreover a stump speech is rarely made chiefly for conviction and persuasion, but to gratify and delight the auditors and to raise the character of the speaker.
Imagery, anecdote, ornament, eloquence and elocution are in better taste than in a speech at the bar, where the chief and only legitimate aim is to convince and instruct.
It will always be a mooted point among Prentiss' admirers as to where his strength chiefly lay. My own opinion is that it was as a jurist that mostly excelled; that it consisted in knowing and being able to show to others what was the law. I state the opinion with some diffidence, and, did it rest on my judgment alone, should not hazard it at all. But the eminent Chief Justice of the high court of errors and appeals of Mississippi thought that Prentiss appeared to most advantage before that court, and a distinguished judge of the Supreme Court of Alabama, who had heard him before the chancellor of Mississippi, expressed to me the opinion that his talents shone most conspicuously in that forum.
These were men who could be led from a fair judgment of a legal argument by mere oratory, about as readily as old Playfair could be turned from a true criticism upon a mathematical treatise by its being burnished over with extracts from Fourth of July harangues.
Had brilliant declamation been his only or chief faculty, there were plenty of his competitors at the bar who, by their learning and powers of argument, would have knocked the spangles off of him and sent his cases whirling out of court, to the astonishment of hapless clients who had trusted to such fragile help in the time of trial.
It may be asked how is this possible?
How is it consistent with the jealous demands which the law makes of the ceaseless and persevering attention of her followers as a condition of her favors?
The question needs an answer.
It is to be found somewhere else than in the unaided resources of even such an intellect as that of Sergeant Prentiss.
In some form or other, Prentiss always was a student.
Probably the most largely developed of all his faculties was his memory.
He gathered information with marvelous rapidity.
The sun stroke that makes its impression upon the medicated plate is not more rapid in transcribing, or more faithful in fixing its image than
was his perception in taking cognizance of the principles, or his ability to retain them.
Once fixed, the impression was there forever.
It is true, as Mr. Wirt observed, that genius must have materials to work on. No man, how magnificently soever endowed, can possibly be a safe, much less a great, lawyer, who does not understand the facts and law of his case.
But some men may understand them much more readily than others.
There are labor-saving minds, as well as labor-saving machines, and that of Mr. Prentiss was one of them.
In youth he had devoted himself with intense application to legal studies, and had mastered, as few men have done, the elements of the law, and much of its text-book learning.
So acute and retentive an observer must, too—especially in the freshness and novelty of his first years of practice— “have absorbed” no little law as it floated through the courthouse, or was distilled from the bench and bar.
But more especially it should be noted that Mr. Prentiss, until the fruition of his fame, was a laborious man, even in the tapestring sense.
While the world was spreading the wild tales of his youth, his deviations, though conspicuous enough while they lasted, were only occasional, and at long intervals, the intervening time being occupied in abstemious application to his studies.
Doubtless, too, the supposed obstacles in the way of his success, were greatly exaggerated, the vulgar having a great proneness to magnify the frailties of great men, and to lionize genius by making it independent for its splendid achievements of all external aids.
In the examination of witnesses he was thought particularly to excel.
He wasted no time by irrelevant questions.
He seemed to weigh every question before he put it, and see clearly its bearing upon every part of the case.
The facts were brought out in natural and simple order.
He examined as few witnesses and elicited as few facts as he could safely get along with.
In this way he avoided the danger of discrepancy, and kept his mind undiverted from the controlling points of the case.
The jury were left unwearied and unconfused, and saw, before the argument, the bearing of the testimony.
He avoided, too, the miserable error into which so many lawyers fall of making every possible point of a case, and pressing all with equal force and confidence, thereby prejudicing the mind of the court and making the jury believe that the trial of a cause is but running a jockey race.
In arguing a cause of much public interest, he got all the benefit of the sympathy and feeling of the bystanders.
He would sometimes
turn towards them in an impassional appeal, as if looking for a larger audience than court and jury; and the excitement of the outsiders, especially in criminal cases, was thrown with great effect into the jury box.
Mr. Prentiss was never thrown off his guard or seemingly taken by surprise.
He kept his temper, or if he got furious, there was “method in his madness.”
With these allowances, however, truth requires the admission that Mr. Prentiss did, when at the seat of government, occupy the hours usually allotted by the diligent practitioner to books or clients in amusements not well suited to prepare him for those great efforts which have indissolubly associated his name with the judicial history of the State.
As an advocate, Mr. Prentiss attained a wider celebrity than as a jurist.
Indeed, he was more formidable in this than in any other department of his profession.
Before the Supreme, or Chancery, or Circuit Court, upon the law of the case, inferior abilities might set off, against greater native powers, superior application and research; or the precedents might overpower him; or the learning or judgment of the bench might come in aid of the right, even when more feebly defended than assailed.
But what protection had mediocrity, or even second-rate talent, against the influences of excitement and fascination let loose upon a mercurial jury, at least as easily impressed through their passions as their reason?
The boldness of his attacks, his iron nerve, his adroitness, his power of debate, the overpowering fire—broadside after broadside—which he poured into the assailable points of his adversary, his facility and plainness of illustration, and his talent of adapting himself to every mind and character he addressed, rendered him on all debatable issues next to irresistible.
To give him the conclusion was nearly the same thing as to give the verdict.
He had a faculty in speaking I never knew possessed by any other person.
He seemed to speak without any effort of the will.
There seemed to be no governing or guiding power to the particular faculty called into exercise.
It worked on, and its treasures flowed spontaneously.
There was no air of thought, no elevation, frowning or knitting of the brow, no fixing up of the countenance, no pauses to collect or arrange his thoughts.
All seemed natural and unpremeditated.
No one felt uneasy lest he should fail; in his most brilliant flights, the ‘empyrean heights’ into which he soared seemed to be his natural element, as the upper air the eagle's.
Among the most powerful of his jury efforts were his speeches against Bird for the murder of Cameron, and against Phelps, the notorious highway robber and murderer.
Both were convicted.
The former owed his conviction, as General Foote, who defended him with great zeal and ability thought, to the transcendent eloquence of Prentiss.
He was justly convicted, however, as his confession, afterwards made, proved.
Phelps was one of the most daring and desperate of ruffians.
He confronted his prosecutor and the court, not only with composure, but with scornful and malignant defiance.
When Prentiss rose to speak, and for some time afterwards, the criminal scowled upon him a look of hate and insolence.
But when the orator, kindling with his subject, turned upon him and poured down a stream of burning invective, like lava, upon his head; when he depicted the villainy and barbarity of his atrocities; when he pictured in dark and dismal colors the fate which awaited him, and the awful judgment to be pronounced at another bar upon his crimes, when he should be confronted with his innocent victims; when he fixed his gaze of concentrated power upon him, the strong man's face relaxed, his eyes faltered and fell, until at length, unable to bear up any longer, self-convicted, he hid his head beneath the bar, and exhibited a picture of ruffian audacity cowed beneath the spell of true courage and triumphant genius.
Though convicted, he was not hung.
He broke jail and resisted recapture so desperately that, although he was encumbered with his fetters, his pursuers had to kill him in self-defense, or permit his escape.
In his defense of criminals, in that large class of cases in which something of elevation or bravery in some sort redeemed the lawlessness of the act, where murder was committed under a sense of outrage, or upon sudden resentment, and in a fair combat, his chivalrous spirit upheld the public sentiment, which, if it did not justify that sort of “wild justice,” could not be brought to punish it ignominiously.
His appeals fell like flames on those
Souls made of fire and children of sun,
I have never heard of but one client of his who was convicted on the charge of homicide, and he was convicted of one of its lesser degrees.
So successful was he that the expression— “Prentiss couldn't clear him,” was a hyperbole that expressed the desperation of a criminal's fortunes.
Mr. Prentiss was employed only in important cases, and generally
as associate counsel, and was thereby relieved of much of the preliminary preparation which occupies so much of the time of an attorney in getting a case ready for trial.
In the Supreme and Chancery Courts, he had, of course, only to examine the record and prepare his argument.
On the circuit his labors were much more arduous.
The important criminal and civil causes which he argued necessarily required consultations with clients, the preparations of pleadings and proofs, either under his supervision, or by his advice and direction, and this, from the number and difficulty of the cases, must have consumed time and required application and industry.
At the time of which I speak his long vigils and continued excitement, did not enfeeble his energies.
Indeed, he has been known to assert that he felt brighter and in better preparation for forensic debate after sitting up all night in company with his friends than at any other time.
He required less sleep, probably, than any man in the State, seldom devoting to that purpose more than three or four hours in the twenty-four.
After his friends had retired at a late hour in the night, or rather at an early hour in the morning, he has been known to get his books and papers and prepare for the business of the day.
His faculty of concentration drew his energies as through a lens, upon the subject before him. No matter what he was engaged in, his intellect was ceaseless in play and motion.
Alike comprehensive and systematic in the arrangement of his thoughts, he reproduced without difficulty what he had once conceived.
Probably something would have still been wanting to explain his celerity of preparation for his causes, had not partial nature gifted him with the lawyer's highest talent, the acumen which, like instinct, enabled him to see the points which the record presented.
His genius for generalizing saved him, in a moment, the labor of long and tedious reflection upon and collection of the several parts of a narrative.
He read with great rapidity; glancing his eyes through a page he caught the substance of its contents at a view.
His analysis too, was powerful.
The chemist does not reduce the contents of his alembic to their elements more rapidly or surely than he resolved the most complicated facts into primary principles.
His statements—like those of all great lawyers—were clear, conspicuous and compact; the language simple and sententious.
Considered in the most technical sense, as forensic arguments merely, no one will deny that his speeches were admirable and able efforts.
If the professional reader will turn to the meagre reports of his arguments
on the cases of Ross v. Vertner, 5 How., 305; Vick et al, v. the Mayor and Aldermen of Vicksburg, 1 How., 381; and the Planters Bank v. Snodgrass etal, he will I think, concur in this opinion.
Anecdotes are not wanting to show that even in the Supreme Court he argued some cases of great importance without knowing anything about them till the argument was commenced.
One of these savors of the ludicrous.
Mr. Prentiss was retained, as associate counsel, with Mr. (now General) M——, at that time one of the most promising, as now one of the most distinguished, lawyers in the State.
During the sesssion of the Supreme Court at which the case was to come up, Mr. M—— called Mr. P.'s attention to the case and proposed examining the record together; but for some reason this was deferred for some time.
At last it was agreed to examine into the case the night before the day set for the hearing.
At the appointed time Prentiss could not be found.
Mr. M—— was in great perplexity.
The case was of great importance; there were able opposing counsel, and his client and himself had trusted greatly to Mr. P.'s assistance.
Prentiss appeared in the court-room when the case was called up. The junior counsel opened the case, reading slowly from the record all that was necessary to give a clear perception of its merits, and made the points and read the authorities he had collected.
The counsel on the other side replied.
Mr. P. rose to rejoin.
The junior could scarcely conceal his apprehensions.
But there was no cloud on the brow of the speaker; the consciousness of his power and approaching victory sat on his face.
He commenced, as he always did, by stating clearly the case and the questions raised by the facts.
He proceeded to establish the propositions he contended for, by their reason, by authorities and collateral analogies, and to illustrate them from his copious resources of comparison.
He took up, one by one, the arguments of the other side, and showed their fallacy; he examined the authorities relied upon in the order in which they were introduced, and showed their inapplicability and the distinction between the facts of the cases reported and those in the case at bar. Then, returning to the authorities of his colleague, he showed how clearly, in application and principle, they supported his own argument.
When he had sat down his colleague declared that Prentiss had taught him more of the case than he had gathered from his own researches and reflection.
Mr. Prentiss had scarcely passed a decade from his majority when he was the idol of Mississippi.
While absent from the State his name was brought before the people for Congress, the State then
voting by general ticket and electing two members.
He was elected, the sitting members declining to present themselves before the people, upon the claim that they were elected at the special election ordered by Governor Lynch, for two years, and not for the called session merely.
Mr. Prentiss, with Mr. Word, his colleague, went on to Washington to claim his seat.
He was admitted to the bar of the House to defend and assert his right.
He then delivered that speech which took the House and the country by storm; an effort, which, if his fame rested upon it alone, for its manliness of tone, exquisite satire, gorgeous imagery and argumentative power, would have rendered his name imperishable.
The House, opposed to him as it was in political sentiment, reversed its former judgment, which declared Gholson and Claiborne entitled to their seats, and divided equally on the question of admitting Prentiss and Word.
The Speaker, however, gave the casting vote against the latter, and the election was referred back to the people.
Mr. Prentiss addressed a circular to the voters of Mississippi, in which he announced his intention to canvass the State.
The applause which greeted him at Washington, and which attended the speeches he was called upon to make in the north, came thundering back to his adopted State.
His friends, and their name was legion, thought before that his talents were of the highest order, and when their judgments were thus confirmed—when they received the endorsements of such men as Clay, Webster and Calhoun, they felt a kind of personal interest in him; he was their Prentiss.
They had first discovered him—first brought him out—first proclaimed his greatness.
Their excitement knew no bounds.
Political considerations, too, doubtless had their weight.
The canvass opened—it was less a canvass than an ovation.
He went through the State, a herculean task, making speeches every day, except Sundays, in the sultry months of summer and fall.
The people of all classes and both sexes turned out to hear him: He came, as he declared, less on his own errand than theirs, to vindicate a violated constitution, to rebuke the insult to the honor and sovereignty of the State, to uphold the sacred right of the people to elect their own rulers.
The theme was worthy of the orator, the orator of the subject.
This period may be considered the golden prime of the genius of Prentiss.
His real effective greatness here attained its culminating point.
He had the whole State for his audience, the honor of the State for his subject.
He came well armed and well equipped for the warfare.
Not content with challenging his competitors to the
field, he threw down the gauntlet to all comers.
Party or ambition, or some other motive, constrained several gentlemen—famous before, notorious afterwards—to meet him. In every instance of such temerity, the opposer was made to bite the dust.
The ladies surrounded the rostrum with their carriages, and added by their beauty, interest to the scene.
There was no element or oratory that his genius did not supply.
It was plain to see where his boyhood had drawn its romantic inspiration.
His imagination was colored and imbued with the light of the shadowy past, and was richly stored with the unreal but life-like creations which the genius of Shakespeare and Scott had evoked from the ideal world.
He had lingered spellbound, among the scenes of mediaeval chivalry.
His spirit had dwelt, until almost naturalized, in the mystic dreamland they peopled—among paladins and crusaders and Knights Templar; with Monmouth and Percy—with Bois-Gilbert and Ivanhoe, and the bold McGregor——with the cavaliers of Rupert, and the iron enthusiasts of Fairfax.
As Judge Bullard remarks of him, he had the talent of an Italian improvisatore, and could speak the thoughts of poetry with the inspiration of oratory, and in the tones of music.
The fluency of his speech was unbroken—no syllable unpronounced—not a ripple on the smooth and brilliant tide.
Probably he never hesitated for a word in his life.
His diction adapted itself without effort to the thought; now easy and familiar, now stately and dignified, now beautiful and varied as the hues of the rainbow; again compact, even rugged in sinewy strength, or lofty and grand in eloquent declamation.
His face and manner were alike uncommon.
The turn of his head was like Byron's; the face and the action were just what the mind made them.
The excitement of the features, the motions of the head and body, the gesticulation he used, were all in absolute harmony with the words you heard.
You saw and took cognizance of the general effect only; the particular instrumentalities did not strike you; they certainly did not call off attention to themselves.
How a countenance so redolent of good humor as his, at times, could so soon be overcast, and express such intense bitterness, seemed a marvel.
But bitterness and angry passions were probably, as strongly implanted in him as any other sentiments or qualities.
There was much about him to remind you of Byron—the cast of the head, the classic features, the fiery and restive nature, the moral and personal daring, the imaginative and poetical temperament, the scorn and deep passion, the deformity of which I have spoken, the
satiric wit, the craving for excitement, and the air of melancholy he sometimes wore, his early neglect, and the imagined slights put upon him in his unfriendly youth, the collisions, mental and physical, which he had with others, his brilliant and sudden reputation, and the romantic interest which invested him, make up a list of correspondences, still further increased, alas!
by his untimely death.
With such abilities as we have alluded to, and surrounded by such circumstances, he prosecuted the canvass, making himself the equal favorite of all classes.
Old Democrats were seen with tears running down their cheeks, laughing hysterically, and some, who, ever since the formation of the parties, had voted the Democratic ticket from coroner up to governor, threw up their hats and shouted for him. He was returned to Congress by a large majority, leading his colleague, who ran on precisely the same question, by more than 1,000 votes.
The political career of Mr. Prentiss after this time is a matter of public history, and I do not propose to refer to it.
After his return from Congress, Mr. Prentiss continued to devote himself to his profession, but subsequently to 1841 or 1842, he was more engaged in closing up his old business than in prosecuting new. Some year or two afterwards the suit which involved his fortune was determined against him in the Supreme Court of the United States, and he found himself by this event, aggravated as it was by his immense liabilities for others, deprived of the accumulations of years of successful practice, and again dependent upon his own exertions for the support of himself and others now placed under his protection.
In the meantime the profession in Mississippi had become less remunerative and more laborious.
Bearing up with an unbroken spirit against adverse fortune, he determined to try a new theatre, where his talents might have larger scope.
For this purpose he removed to the city of New Orleans, and was admitted to the bar there.
How rapidly he rose to a position among the leaders of that bar, and how near he seemed to be to its first honors, the country knows.
The energy with which he addressed himself to the task of mastering the peculiar jurisprudence of Louisiana, and the success with which his efforts were crowned are not the least of the splendid achievements of this distinguished gentleman.
The danger is not that we shall be misconstrued in regard to the rude sketch we have given of Mr. Prentiss in any such matter as to leave the impression that we are prejudiced against, or have underrated the character of, that gentleman.
We are conscious of having
written in no unkind or unloving spirit of one whom, in life, we honored, and whose memory is still dear to us; the danger is elsewhere.
It is two-fold: that we may be supposed to have assigned to Prentiss a higher order of abilities than he possessed; and, in the second place, that we have presented for undistinguishing admiration, a character, some of the elements of which do not deserve to be admired or imitated—and, indeed, which are of most perilous example, especially to warm-blooded youth.
As to the first objection, we feel sure that we are not mistaken, and even did we distrust our own judgment, we would be confirmed by Sharkey, Boyd, Williamson, Guion, Quitman, to say nothing of the commendations of Clay, Webster and Calhoun, ‘the immortal three,’ whose opinions as to Prentiss' talents would be considered extravagant if they did not carry with them the imprimatur of their own great names.
But we confess to the danger implied in the second suggestion.
With all our admiration for Prentiss-much as his memory is endeared to us, however, the faults of his character and the irregularities of his life may be palliated by the peculiar circumstances which pressed upon idiosyncracies of his temper and mind almost as peculiar as those circumstances—it cannot be denied, and it ought not to be concealed, that the influence of Prentiss upon men, especially upon the young men of his time and association, was hurtful.
True, he had some attributes worthy of unlimited admiration, and he did some things which the best men might take as examples for imitation.
He was a noble, whole-souled, magnanimous man, as pure of honor, as lofty in chivalric bearing as the heroes of romance; but, mixed with these brilliant qualities were vices of mind and habit, which those fascinating graces rendered doubly dangerous, for vice is more easily copied than virtue, and in the partnership between virtue and vice, vice subsidizes virtue to its uses.
Prentiss lacked regular, self-denying, systematic application.
He accomplished a great deal, but not a great deal for his capital; if he did more than most men, he did less than the task of such a man; if he gathered much, he wasted and scattered more.
He wanted the great essential of a true, genuine, moral greatness; these were not above his intellect—above his strong array of strong powers and glittering faculties—above the fierce hosts of passion in his soul—a presiding spirit of duty.
Life was no trust to him; it was a thing to be enjoyed—a bright holiday season, a gala day, to be spent freely and carelessly, a gift to be decked out with brilliant deeds and eloquent words and all the gewgaws of fancy, and to be laid down bravely when the evening star should succeed the
bright sun, and the dews begin to fall softly upon the green earth.
True, he labored more than most men, but he labored as he frolicked, because his mind could not be idle, but burst into work as by the irrepressible instinct with which he sought occupation as an outlet to intellectual excitement, but what he accomplished was nothing to the measure of his powers.
He studied more than he seemed to study, more, probably, than he cared to have it believed he studied.
But he could accomplish with only slender effort the end for which less gifted men must delve and toil and slave.
But the imitators, the many youths of warm passions and high hopes, ambitious of distinction, yet solicitous of pleasure, blinded by the glare of Prentiss' eloquence, the corruscations of a wit and fancy through which his speeches were borne as a stately ship through the phosphorescent waves of a tropical sea—what example was it to them to see the renown of the forum, the eloquence of the hustings, the triumphs of the senate associated with the faro table, the midnight revel, the drunken carouse, the loose talk of the board laden with wine and cards?
What Prentiss effected they failed in compassing.
Like a chamois hunter full of life and vigor and courage, supported by the spear of his genius—potent as Ithuriel's—Prentiss sprang up the steeps and leaped over the chasms on his way to the mount where the “proud temple” shines above cloud and storm, but mediocrity, in essaying to follow him, but made ridiculous the enterprise which only such a man with such aids could accomplish.
And even he, not wisely or well; the penalty came at last, as it must ever come for a violation of natural or moral laws.
He lived in pain and poverty, drooping in spirit, exhausted in mind and body, to lament that wasting of life and health and genius, which, unwasted, in the heyday of existence, and in the meridian luster of his unrivaled powers, might have opened for himself and for his country a career of usefulness and just renown scarcely paralleled by the most honored and loved of all the land.
If to squander such rare gifts were a grievous fault, grievously hath this erring child of genius answered it. But painfully making this concession, forced alone by the truth, it is with pleasure we can say, that, with this deduction from Prentiss' claims to reverence and honor, there yet remains so much of force and brilliancy in the character, so much that is honorable, and noble, and generous, so much of a manhood whose robust and masculine virtues are set off by the wild and lovely graces that tempered and adorned his strength, that we feel drawn to it not less to admire than to love.
In the midst of his budding prospects, rapidly ripening into fruition, insidious disease attacked him. It was long hoped that the close and fibrous system which had, seemingly, defied all the laws of nature, would prove superior to this malady.
His unconquerable will bore him up long against its attacks.
Indeed, it seemed that only death itself could subdue that fiery and unextinguishable energy.
He made his last great effort, breathing in its feeble accents, but a more touching and affecting pathos and a more persuasive eloquence in behalf of Lopez, charged with the offence of fitting out an expedition against Cuba.
So weak was he that he was compelled to deliver in a sitting posture, and was carried, after its delivery, exhausted from the bar.
Not long after this time, in a state of complete prostration, he was taken in a steamboat from New Orleans to Natchez, under the care of some faithful friends.
The opiates given him and the exhaustion of nature had dethroned his imperial reason, and the great advocate talked wildly of some trial in which he supposed he was engaged.
When he reached Natchez he was taken to the residence of a relation, and from that time, only for a moment, did a glance of recognition fall, lighting up for an instant his pallid features, upon his wife and children weeping around his bed. On the morning of July 1, 1850, died this remarkable man in the forty-second year of his age. What he was we know.
What he might have been, after a mature age and a riper wisdom we cannot tell.
But that he was capable of commanding the loftiest heights of fame, and marking his name and character upon the age he lived in we verily believe.
But he has gone.
He died, and lies buried near that noble river which first, when a raw Yankee boy, caught his poetic eye, and stirred by its aspect of grandeur his sublime imagination; upon whose shores first fell his burning and impassioned words as they aroused the rapturous applause of his astonished auditors.
And long will that noble river flow out its tide into the gulf ere the roar of its current shall mingle with the tones of such eloquence again—eloquence as full and majestic, as resistless and sublime, and as wild in its sweep as its own sea-like flood—
With whom revenge was virtue.
The mightiest river
The tidings of his death came like wailing over the State, and we all heard them as the toll of the bell for a brother's funeral.
The chivalrous felt when they heard that “ young Harry Percy's spur was
cold” that the world had somehow grown commonplace, and the men of wit and genius, or those who could appreciate such qualities in others, looking over the surviving bar, exclaimed with a sigh:
Rolls mingling with his fame forever.
The blaze of wit, the flash of bright intelligence,
The beam of social eloquence,
Sunk with his sun.