Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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PRENTISS, Sergeant Smith, orator, born in Portland, Maine, 30 September, 1808; died at Longwood, near Natchez, Mississippi, 1 July, 1850. In his boyhood he was remarkable for his mental sprightliness, and for the keen appetite with which he devoured all the books on which he could lay his hand. He was a cripple all his life, and could walk until his ninth year only with crutches; but afterward he required but a cane. At the age of fifteen he entered the junior class of Bowdoin, where he was graduated in 1826. In 1827 he went to Natchez, Mississippi, in the vicinity of which he taught in a private family, and read law. In 1829 he was admitted to the bar, and removed to Vicksburg, where he rose to the front rank in reputation and the extent of his practice. In 1835 Mr. Prentiss was elected as a representative to the legislature of Mississippi, in which he made several speeches that were remarkable for wit, sarcasm, and argumentative power. In 1837 he was elected to the lower house of congress, and, finding his seat preoccupied by Colonel Claiborne, the Democratic candidate at the election, he vindicated his claim in a speech nearly three days long, which established his reputation as one of the ablest parliamentary orators in the country. His claim having been rejected by the casting vote of the speaker, James K. Polk, he went back to Mississippi, and after a vigorous canvass of the state was again elected by a large majority. His principal speech at this session was made against the sub-treasury bill. In 1838 he visited his native city, and while there accepted an invitation to attend the public dinner to be given in July to Daniel Webster in Faneuil hall. His speech on this occasion was declared many years afterward by Edward Everett to have been "the most wonderful specimen of a sententious fluency which I have ever witnessed." Mr. Webster, when asked by Mr. Everett if he had ever heard anything like it, replied, " Never, except from Mr. Prentiss himself." In 1839, on his way home from Washington, he stayed a week ill Kentucky, and defended his friend, Judge Wilkinson, who had been charged with murder, in a speech that was a masterpiece of forensic eloquence. In 1840 he canvassed the state of Mississippi as candidate for presidential elector, making a series of speeches that severely taxed his physical strength. During the next four years he delivered many speeches, marked by extraordinary energy and elevation of tone, against the repudiation by that state of its bonded debt. In 1845, regarding the state as "disgraced and degraded" by that act, he began the study of the civil law, and removed to New Orleans, Louisiana, where, in 1850, a fatal disease closed his brilliant, and brief career. As an orator Mr. Prentiss had a gift akin to that of the Italian improvisatore. When addressing a large assemblage of men, he experienced an electrical excitement, at times "almost maddening," and he seemed to himself to be rather spoken from than speaking. New thoughts came rushing into his mind unbidden, which surprised himself as much as his hearers, and which, he said, "he could no more reproduce when the excitement was over than he could make a world." The printed reports of his speeches are hardly more than skeletons, giving little idea of his eloquence. His manner of speaking was at once natural and dramatic, and he combined in a remarkable degree logical power with intense passion, keen wit, pathos, and a vivid imagination. At the bar his chief characteristics were his mastery of his subject, his readiness, adroitness, fertility of resources, and absolute command of all his mental stores. In a jury trial, to give him the concluding address was nearly equivalent to giving him the verdict. With all his readiness he was indefatigable in his legal studies, and spared no labor on his cases. A legal acquaintance who knew him well said that his forte was best seen in the analysis of a point of law, or the discussion of a constitutional question. "His style then became terse, simple, severe, exhibiting a mental discipline and a faculty of concentration in striking contrast with the natural exuberance of his fancy." Mr. Prentiss had fine social qualities, and his conversation sparkled with the shrewd sense, wit, and brilliant fancy that characterized his speeches. See a memoir by his brother, Reverend George L. Prentiss (2 vols., New York, 1855, new ed., 1870).--His brother, George Lewis, clergyman, born in Gorham, Maine, 12 May, 1816, after graduation at Bowdoin in 1835, was assistant in Gotham academy in 1836-'7, and studied theology at Halle and Berlin universities from 183!) till 1841. He became pastor of the South Trinitarian church, New Bedford, Massachusetts, in April, 1845, and in 1851 was made pastor of the Mercer street Presbyterian church in New York city, but owing to impaired health he resigned and travelled in Europe. On his return he established the " Church of the Covenant," New York city, of which he was pastor from 1862 till 1873, when he resigned to become professor of pastoral theology, church polity, and missionary work in Union theological seminary. Bowdoin gave him the degree of D. D. in 1854. In addition to sermons, addresses, and contributions to periodicals, he has published, besides the memoir of his brother mentioned above, "Discourse in Memory of Thomas Harvey Skinner, D. D., LL. D." (1871), and "Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss" (1882 ; new ed., 1887).--George Lewis's wife, Elizabeth Payson, author, born in Portland, Maine, 26 October, 1818; died in Dorset, Vermont, 13 August, 1878, was a daughter of the Reverend Edward Payson (q. iv.). She was educated in Portland and Ipswich, and taught in Portland and Richmond in 1840-'3. In 1845 she married Mr. Prentiss, and after the loss of her two children devoted herself to writing. She was the author of numerous books, which include the "Little Susy Series" (New York, 1853-'6) ; " The Flower of the Family" (1854); "Only a Dandelion, and Other Stories" (1854); " Fred, Maria, and Me" (1868); " The Percys" (1870) ; " The Home at Greylock" (1876) ; "Pemaquid ; a Story of Old Times in New England" (1877); and "Avis Benson, with Other Sketches" (1879). Her chief work, " Stepping Heavenward," which was first published in the "Chicago Advance" (1869), has been translated into various languages, and it is estimated that 100,000 copies have been sold.
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