The Bench and Bar of Mississippi

EVEN AS a child, Seargent S. Prentiss was known as an eloquent speaker. Once while in his grandfather’s apple orchard, Prentiss stood atop a stump and informed the men and boys on how to properly pick apples. As a man, he electrified audiences across the country and toured Mississippi and the nation during political campaigns, drawing crowds so large they were measured in acres. This 19th century drawing depicts a political candidate stumping for votes. (Credit: George Caleb Bingham, Saint Louis Art Museum) 

Seargent Smith Prentiss, who arrived in Natchez from Maine at the age of 19 in 1827, was destined to become one of the most popular leaders of Mississippi during his era and one of the most powerful orators in the country’s history. 

During his early months in Mississippi, Prentiss earned his living teaching the children of plantation owners, a job he didn’t like. All the while he studied to become a lawyer. 

“A fire in a prairie never spread or ran faster than his fame,” William H. Sparks (The Memories of Fifty Years) wrote of Prentiss. There would come a day, Sparks wrote, when Prentiss’ name “was on every tongue, in every newspaper.” 

A New Jersey judge told Sparks that he had heard Prentiss give a stump speech. The young man attracted so many to his speaking engagements that the crowds were measured in acres, not people. 

“There was something, sir, in his eye,” said the judge, “which startled me, and then the words came bubbling up spontaneously as spring water, so full of power … the flights of imagination, so new, so eloquent, and so heart-searching – that I found it impossible to take my eyes from his face, or my ears from drinking in every word. 

“At one time, so intense were my feelings under the effect of his words and the powerful impression they were making on my mind, that I thought I should faint. I forgot the presence of the crowd, and though seventy years of age, felt no fatigue from my standing position. 

“In truth, sir, I was unconscious of the time – equally so of the presence of any one but the speaker.” 

A childhood illness left Prentiss’ right leg lame. He could neither stand nor walk without the use of a cane. Sparks noted: “When an infant, a fever settled in his leg, causing it to wither from the knee to the foot, and doomed him through life to lameness … he was sensitive upon the subject of this physical defect.” 

The judge who heard Prentiss speak told Sparks that the young man threw every ounce of his energy into his message before exhaustion left him near collapse. “My powers fail!” Prentiss exclaimed before taking a seat and gasping for breath. 

“I regretted the necessity which compelled him to stop,” the judge recalled. “It was not until then that I found my hand still holding my watch at the opening of its pocket, where, in my excitement, I had forgotten to deposit it and I had been standing unmoved in the same position and intently listening for three hours and fifteen minutes.” 

A preacher friend of the judge’s standing beside him “was livid with excitement.” 

As his lips trembled, the preacher asked the judge: “Will you ever doubt again that God inspires man?” 

 

A $250 WATCH 

 

For seven months in 1828, Prentiss taught school at the plantation of the widow Mrs. William Bayard Shields along Fairchild’s Creek in southern Jefferson County, not far from Church Hill or Washington. One the five Shields children was a few months older than Prentiss. Other children in the neighborhood also attended school at Mrs. Shields’ Rokeby Plantation. 

When not teaching, Prentiss hunted and fished, studied law in the extensive library of Mrs. Shield’s late husband, the first federal judge in Mississippi, and developed lifelong friendships. 

“It was one of the delights of the boys to bathe in the swimming-holes of Fairchild’s Creek,” wrote Joseph Dunbar Shields, one of the pupils, who later wrote a book about Prentiss (The Life and Times of Seargent Smith Prentiss). “These ‘holes’ were deep and narrow, but the water therein was pellucid and of very pleasant temperature.” 

At Rokeby, Prentiss and three of the Shields boys stayed in an upstairs room where they slept, studied and occasionally singe mosquitoes to death with the flames of candles. 

As he studied law, Prentiss periodically attended circuit court in the county seat of Fayette to “learn the routine of practice.” On one visit, he joined the lawyers after court one day in a card game called “Brag.” 

“The peculiar feature of the game,” wrote Shields, “is that, no matter how small the amount of the ‘ante’ – that is, the amount each player is required to put up at the beginning of the game – yet thousands may be won and lost at a single sitting. 

“Its name indicates its character, for a player with a weaker {hand} may bluff off and win from another with a stronger hand. This is done by staking a heavy sum, which the timid player is afraid to meet; he failing to do so, the bragger wins, and takes the pile upon the table.” 

Prentiss immediately became a master of the game: “His coolness and nerve never deserted him, while his quickness and perception of memory gave him skill.” At the completion of his first game of Brag, Prentiss headed back to Rokeby with several hundred dollars in his pocket. 

Comprehending his influence over the young men he taught, Prentiss rode into Natchez, visited a jeweler and paid $250 for the most expensive watch in the store. He returned to Rokeby where, despite great protest from the recipient, he gave the watch to one of the brothers -- Gabriel Benoist Shields – “with the solemn injunction that he was never to throw a card in gambling, and upon the condition that if he did so the watch was to be forfeited.” 

Joseph Shields wrote: “That pupil wore it for forty-five years, and until he went to join his friend in the spirit-land. Today it is an heirloom in the family, and his initial letters engraved on the back – S.S.P. to G.B.S. – are as distinct as though cut but yesterday. The watch itself still faithfully notes the fleeting hours as they pass – a memento of the solemn injunction and of its having been faithfully obeyed.” 

 

DEEP FITS OF GLOOM 

 

 Three miles from Rokeby along the Natchez Trace, on a high ridge separating Fairchild’s and Cole’s Creek was Pleasant Hill Church. The church rested in a fork where the road to Church Hill branched off the trace path. The community used the building for meetings and events. 

Prentiss and the local boys met there to debate issues of the day and it was during those Saturday meetings that Prentiss’ great ability as an orator was first witnessed in Mississippi. 

In June 1828, he completed his work for Mrs. Shields and closed school. 

“The leaving of ‘Rokeby’,” wrote Joseph Shields, “was to Prentiss like an exodus from a second home, for he seemed ‘to be one of us,’ and we loved him as though he were a member of the family … His seven months of teaching was not lost time even to himself. He had imbibed deeply and profitably from the law library. He had paid all his debts … had fifteen or twenty dollars in his pocket, and was square with the world.” 

Soon, wrote Shields, Prentiss “took charge of a large academy at ‘Dunbarton,’ the country residence of Mrs. Martha W. Dunbar, ten miles from Natchez. The place … was a pleasant spot, at least in one respect: it was shaded by the native trees of the forest.” 

The school house was three-quarters of a mile from the plantation dwelling and located across Second Creek. The pupils crossed a log bridge to get to the building. 

There, Prentiss, despite his handicap, tussled with an unruly student and won. Because of his limp right leg, he compensated by developing powerful arms. No one could beat him at chin-ups. 

Months of teaching, however, convinced him of one thing – he hated the job. But he benefited from the discipline he developed in handling pupils in the classroom. 

Yet he went through “deep fits of gloom lasting for weeks,” wrote Joseph Shields. “Wrapt in the solitude of his own feelings, I have known him to walk for hours, at night, back and forth upon the gallery. At such times he was treated with great tenderness, and none sought to intrude on his hidden sorrow.” 

Obviously, one reason for his gloom was his homesickness for Maine and his beloved mother, who loved and nursed him through his childhood illness. He missed his sisters and brothers, too, and in every letter home he asked about neighbors and friends. 

 

LETTER TO ABBY 

 

“I have no news to tell you,” he wrote his sister Abby in 1829. “My health continues good, and my spirits are also pretty good. But now let’s talk a little about home – which is a much more interesting subject to me than any other. 

“How do you do” and “all the good people at the village? … Everything is fresh in my recollection; I know how all the houses and yards and trees stand; and if I should return tomorrow, I could tell in a moment every alteration that had taken place, even to the nailing-on of a single shingle.” 

(To Be Continued)

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