Robert H. Adams and William B. Griffith, who were considered the ablest members of the Bar in the State, died young, and in the opening of their political career. Adams was a man of remarkable ability. He was a native of East Tennessee, and was a mechanic, with limited education, and without one single advantage save his talents. He came a stranger to Natchez, and in a few years was eminent in his profession, and intellectually one of the first men in the State—a man of fine appearance, with large head, and intellectual features. He was sent by the city of Natchez to the Legislature of the State, and such was the impression upon the members of his great abilities, that they, at the ensuing session, elected him to the United States Senate. He served but one session, but made, in that short period, a high reputation with the first minds of the nation. Returning home, he resumed his profession; and, after severe fatigue during the heated period of summer, he imprudently drank too freely of ice-water, and died from its effects.
There was, at this time, no man of more promise in all the country. He was but thirty-eight years of age, and, without patronage or patrimony, had risen from the cooper's shop to a distinguished position in the Senate of the United States.
Griffith preceded him to the grave one or two years, a victim of yellow fever.
Quitman and Walker came now prominently before the people. They resided in Natchez, and there was a strong prejudice in the east and the north of the State against the people of that city and the County of Adams. There were quite a number of families, in the city and county, of large fortunes. These were exclusive in their associations. With one or two exceptions they belonged to the Whig party, but none of them aspired to political preferment.
There was but one bank in the State—this was located in Natchez, and was under the control of these men of fortune. It had at the time of obtaining its charter paid an extravagant bonus to the State, upon condition no other bank should be chartered for the period granted to this. It was a monopoly, and was charged with great partiality in its management. Its accommodations were for the few, and these only granted for the purpose of enhancing the already bloated wealth of the stockholders, directors, and their special pets. This exclusive aristocracy was odious to the fierce democratic feelings of the masses. They counted their wealth by millions; their homes were palaces; their pleasure-grounds Edens; and all this was the fruit of an odious and oppressive monopoly. This fallacious and most ridiculous idea fastened itself upon the minds of the masses, and was fostered and encouraged by many who knew better, but who were willing to pander to the popular taste for popular preferment. R.J. Walker seized hold upon this popular whim, and leading the multitude, succeeded in procuring charters for several other banks, in defiance of the vested rights of the Bank of Mississippi.
Stephen Duncan was the president of the bank, and, under his advice, the directors surrendered the charter, and wound up the business of the bank. Duncan was one of the best business-men in the Union. From very small beginnings he had amassed an immense fortune—was a man of rare sagacity and wonderful energy. He was the cousin of Walker, but was always opposed to him in politics. This was the commencement of the era which culminated in the repudiation of the State's obligations and the general ruin of her people. It was about this period that Jefferson Davis first made his debut as a public man in the State, with William M. Gwinn, and Henry S. Foote, McNutt, J.F.H. Claiborne, and Albert Gallatin Brown. Quitman was made chancellor of the State, and disappointed sadly his friends. His administration of this branch of the judiciary was weak and wild; a vast number of his decisions, or awards in chancery, were overruled, and, in disgust, or from a consciousness that a chancery judgeship was not his speciality, resigned. His mind was greatly overrated: it was neither strong, logical, nor brilliant. His classical attainments were of the first order, and I doubt if the Union furnished two better or more finished linguists than John A. Quitman and H.S. Foote.
Walker and Davis were the leading minds of the period. They were both men of education, extended reading; both men of fine oratorical powers; both men of strong will, ripe judgment, and exceedingly tenacious of purpose. Walker was many years the senior of Davis, and was in advance of him some years as a successful politician. Foote, as an orator, was greatly the superior of all of these; but there was in him want of judgment, want of fixed principles and fixity of purpose. When first appearing before the people of the State, he carried the multitude with him as a tempest drives a feather. In a contest for Governor he came out in opposition to Quitman, drove him from the canvass, and triumphed over Davis, who was placed by his party in nomination to fill the place of Quitman. This triumph was evanescent: he left the position, perhaps, the most unpopular man in the State.
Quitman's abilities were almost exclusively military. This proclivity of mind manifested itself in very early life. He organized a volunteer company, the Natchez Fencibles, soon after he came to the Bar, and took great pride in its drill and soldierly bearing and appearance. He seized with avidity the opportunity the Mexican war presented, and there greatly distinguished himself. After the termination of this war, he was engaged (very little to the honor of his sagacity) in endeavoring to organize a filibustering expedition against the Island of Cuba. In this he signally failed. He was elected to Congress, where he was principally distinguished by his extreme Southern views, but gained little or no reputation as a politician or statesman.
In the qualities of heart, Quitman was surpassed by no man; his moral character was unstained. In sincerity and devotion to his friends, no man was his superior. He had acquired large wealth by his marriage—this he had increased by judicious management, and none more freely used it for the benefit of his friends or the public interest. He was especially generous toward poor, enterprising young men; such instances of assistance rendered are innumerable. His friends never deserted him. To his command, during the Mexican war, he was exceedingly profuse with his means in aiding their necessities and supplying their wants. He was universally commented upon as the most munificent officer of the army. He was ambitious and courageous; and this ambition knew no bounds.
Upon his return from Mexico, I met him in New Orleans, in company with that ill-starred man, General Shields, of Illinois, and who, Irishman as he was, fell fighting to fasten upon the South the fetters she now wears. We had not conversed ten minutes before, taking my arm, he walked apart from his visitors and Shields, and commenced to converse upon the consequences of the war. Turning to me, he remarked: "General Scott is greatly wanting in ambition, he has no daring aspirations; he has thrown away the finest opportunity ever presented to man for aggrandizement. Had I commanded the army, and accomplished this great success, I would have established an empire, and made of Mexico a great nation. He had only to say so, and the Mexicans were ready to crown him emperor. He could have made dukes, marquises, lords, and barons of his officers, and endowed them with principalities; the soldiers would have remained with him; and in six months, enough from the United States and Europe would have joined his standard, to have held in check the lawless brigands who make anarchy for the country. The spoils of the Church would have rewarded the soldiers; immigration would have poured into the country, and his name and fame have been commensurate with time. Everything invited him to the act; he could not or would not see it—he had but one idea, 'This will make me President!' and a lifetime of glory and power was sacrificed for the empty hope of four years filling the Presidential chair."
It was a grand conception, but he seemed to take no account of the difficulties which would have interposed. He assumed that the United States would have been content with the great outrage, and have sanctioned the act; and that European nations would have immediately recognized the new empire. I knew him well enough to know that he would have attempted the enterprise and braved the consequences; but doubt whether he or Scott had the talent for the accomplishment of such an undertaking. General Quitman was one of the unfortunates who received a portion of the poison prepared for some victim or victims at Washington upon the inauguration of Mr. Buchanan. It was not immediately fatal, but he never fully recovered from it, and in a few months after sank into the grave.
No man ever died more regretted by his personal friends than John A. Quitman. He was in every relation of life a true man, chivalrously brave, nobly generous, and sternly faithful to all that ennobles human nature. Had his brain been equal to his soul, he had been the world's wonder. It was said of him by one who knew and loved him:
"His spirit has gone to the Spirit that made him, The rest of the virtuous, chivalric, and brave; He sleeps where the friends of his early youth laid him, And green grows the laurel that springs by his grave."
Duncan Walker practised law with his brother until elevated to the Bench of the criminal court for the city of Natchez and County of Adams. He served with distinguished capacity for only one or two years, when he was prostrated by a severe attack of yellow fever. From this he never entirely recovered. Retiring from the Bench, he directed his attention to planting in Lower Louisiana; but his health continuing to decline, he was induced to try for the winter the climate of Cuba. It was but a few weeks after reaching there that he died at St. Jago de Cuba. Judge Walker was distinguished for great purity of character as well as superior legal attainments. His modesty was almost feminine; yet he was a man of remarkable firmness and decision. By many he was thought superior intellectually to his more distinguished and prominent brother. Few men may be truthfully termed superior to R.J. Walker.
In 1826, there came to Natchez, from Maine, a youth who was a cripple. He was without acquaintances or recommendations, and also without means. He was in search of a school, and expressed his intention of making the South his future home. His appearance was boyish in the extreme, for one who professed to be twenty years of age. At that time most of the planters in the region of Natchez employed private teachers in their families, who resided with the family as one of the household. A lady near Natchez, the widow of Judge Shields, was desirous of employing a teacher, and tendered the situation to the young Yankee. Mrs. Shields had grown-up sons, young men of fine attainments, and who subsequently distinguished themselves as men of sterling worth. They were soon delighted with the young stranger, who was busily employed in his new vocation with their younger brothers. I remember to have heard Mr. Thomas Shields say the young man teaching at his mother's was a most remarkable man, and narrate some instances of his great powers of memory, accompanied with facts which came within his own knowledge. These were so very extraordinary, that notwithstanding the high character for integrity borne by Shields, there were many who doubted them.
There lived at no great distance from Mrs. Shields, a planter, Mr. Thomas Hall. This man was a coarse and illiterate overseer for some years in the county, but having carefully husbanded his earnings, was enabled, in company with James C. Wilkins, to commence planting upon an extensive scale. At the time this young man was teaching at Mrs. Shields', Hall had accumulated quite a fortune, and was a man of comparative leisure. His mind was good, and now that he had an abundance of the world's goods, and was becoming a man of consideration in the community, he felt, in his intercourse with his educated neighbors, the want of that cultivation which would make him their equal. This had made him morbidly sensitive, and whenever an opportunity presented, he improved it in acquiring all the information possible.
On Saturdays the young schoolmaster would frequently ride over and converse with Hall. The strong mind and coarse but cordial manners of Hall pleased him. He was a specimen of the Southerner possessing salient points, and was a study for the Down-Easter. Never before had he met such a specimen, and it was his delight to draw him out, little deeming he was filling the same office for his friend. They were mutually agreeable the one to the other, and their association grew into intimacy. Each to their friends would speak of the other as a remarkable man. Assuredly they were; for neither had ever met such specimens as they presented to each other. They sometimes joined in a squirrel-hunt about the plantation of Hall. The schoolmaster's lameness compelled him to ride, while Hall preferred to walk. After a fatiguing tramp upon one occasion, they sat down upon the banks of Cole's Creek, where Hall listened with great delight to the conversation of his companion. Suddenly Hall started up, and exclaimed, with more than his usual warmth:
"You have taught me more than I ever knew before meeting with you; but I ought not to say what I am going to say. You, sir, were never made for a schoolmaster. By the eternal God!"—Hall was a Jackson man—"you know more than any man in the county, and you have got more sense than any of them, though you are nothing but a boy. Now, sir, go to town and study law with Bob Walker; he's the smartest of any of them. In two years you will be ahead of him. If you haven't got the money to pay your way, I have, and you shall have it."
The term for which he had engaged was now expiring, and, as Hall had requested, he went into the office of Robert J. and Duncan Walker, and commenced the study of law.
This Yankee youth was Sargent S. Prentiss. Prentiss remained in the office of Walker for one year, and was a close student. When admitted to the Bar, he went to Vicksburg and opened an office. At that time Vicksburg was a new place, and presented peculiar inducements to young professional men. The country upon the Yazoo River—and indeed the entire northern portion of the State—had but recently been quit of its Indian population, and was rapidly filling up with an active and enterprising people. The soil was fertile, and the production of cotton, to which it is so eminently suited, was daily growing in importance. Vicksburg was the market-point. Trade was increasing daily, and rapidly filling up the town with mercantile men. The young and enterprising were hurrying thither, and in a few years there was met here more talent and more enterprise than at any other point in the State. The Bar had Prentiss, John Guion, McNutt, Sharkey, the three Yergers, Anderson, Lake, Brook, Burwell, and many others of distinction, including the erratic H.S. Foote.
The entire population was a live one, and every branch of business was pushed with a vim commensurate with the abilities and enterprise of the population. The planters of the immediately adjacent country were men of intelligence and character, and were animated with the spirit of the people of the town, forming on the whole a community of almost reckless enterprise. It was at such a time and in the midst of such a people that young Prentiss had made his selection of a home, and a field for the future exercise of his professional abilities.
Young, ardent, and ambitious, he sought to rival his seniors at the Bar. Unwilling to wait on time, he aspired to leap at once to this equality. It was the daring of genius, and of a genius which counted as only a stimulant the obstacles intervening. To grapple with giants, such as he found in Guion, Yerger, Sharkey, McNutt, and Lake, would have intimidated a less bold and daring mind; but Prentiss courted the conflict con amore, and applying all his herculean powers with the vigor of youth and the ardency of enterprise, he soon found himself quite equal to any competitor.
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. Like Byron, he was sensitive upon the subject of this physical defect. It was a serious obstacle to his locomotion, and in speaking compelled a sameness of position injurious to the effect of his oratory. Scarcely had two years elapsed from the time of his admission to the Bar before his fame as a lawyer and advocate was filling the State. His business had increased to such an extent as to require his undivided attention, as he was employed in almost every important suit in that section of the State. His qualities of heart were as conspicuous as those of his brain, which had endeared him to the people of Vicksburg perhaps more than any other citizen. This social and professional popularity caused him to be elected to the Legislature of the State. He belonged to the Whig party, which was largely in the minority in the Legislature, but was powerful in talent.
Before this time, Colonel Adam L. Bingaman, of Adams County, had been the acknowledged leader of this party. He was a man of rare qualifications for a popular leader—highly gifted by nature in mind and personal appearance, which was most splendid and commanding, with a polished education and fascinating manners, and by nature an orator. Added to these advantages, he was a native of the State, the representative of great wealth, and with extensive family influence. These two met as friends personally and politically in the Legislature.
Prentiss—though known as a great lawyer and a powerful advocate at the Bar—had until now taken but little part in politics. None knew of his proficiency as a politician or as a popular political orator, and, long accustomed to the eloquence and the debating abilities of Bingaman, the lead was accorded to him as usual. Party excitement was fierce, and involved every one. The Democracy, armed with numbers and men of great abilities, felt secure in their position. They had no fears that any powers possessed by any man or set of men could operate a change in public opinion dangerous to their supremacy in the State.
Socially, Prentiss knew no party distinction. With all who were gentlemen he mingled, not as a partisan, but as a man. The kindness of his nature won upon all equally, and it was soon discovered that a personal favor to Prentiss would sometimes override party allegiance. His personal friends were all gentlemen, and once within the magic influence of his social circle was enough to bind him to the heart of every one. The session had made but little progress before his powers as an orator were beginning to be felt.
During an exciting debate, in which Bingaman had, as usual, taken the lead, when all the ablest of the Democracy had, as they supposed, exhausted the argument and demolished the position of their adversaries, and the House seemed impatient for the question, Prentiss rose, and claimed the attention of the chair. His clear and succinct statement of the pending question put a new phase upon it, and the House seemed surprised.
He proceeded then to debate the question; and very soon he was in medias res, and his bold and lucid argument won the attention of every one. The position of the Democracy was dissected to the separation of every fibre; its character and future effects denounced and exposed in a strain of invective eloquence which thrilled to every heart. Turning from this to the national policy of the Democracy, then in power, and which the measure under consideration was intended to aid and sustain, his powers seemed to expand with the magnitude of the subject, as he went on to analyze the policy and the measures of the Government, and to demonstrate the disastrous consequences which must follow these remotely, if not immediately, corrupting, undermining, and ultimately destroying the Constitution, and, of consequence, the Government. He spoke for three hours; his peroration was so grandly eloquent as to bring down the House and galleries in a round of applause.
From that day forward, Prentiss was the great man of the House and of the State. A fire in a prairie never spread or ran faster than his fame; it was on every tongue, in every newspaper. Such fame from one speech had never been won by any man in America, save Patrick Henry. Single-speech Hamilton, of the British Parliament, astonished England; but he was never afterward heard of, and is known to this day as "single-speech Hamilton." As with Henry, this was but the beginning of a fame which was to grow and expand into giant proportions. Prentiss was now a national man. Soon after this, he visited Boston and New York during an exciting political campaign. Throughout the North, wherever he appeared and spoke, he bore the palm from every rival.
The speech of Prentiss in Faneuil Hall will long be remembered as perhaps the finest specimen of oratory ever listened to in that venerable hall. It was at the time said by the men of the North to surpass the best efforts of Fisher Ames. Subsequently he spoke in New York, and for three hours held spell-bound an immense audience.
The writer was informed by a venerable judge, of New Jersey, that he had never believed any man possessed such powers of oratory as to interest him and chain his attention for that length of time. Hearing this young man from the wilds of Mississippi could do so, he embraced the first opportunity of hearing him. When he reached the place, he found the assemblage very great, and with difficulty he succeeded in reaching a point where he might hear well. He was unable to procure a seat, and was compelled to stand, thoroughly jammed by the crowd. He took out his watch to time him, as he commenced, and noting the minute, he essayed to replace his watch: something said arrested his attention and his hands from their work of putting the watch in its fob.
"There was something, sir, in his eye," said he, "which startled me, and then the words came bubbling up spontaneously as spring water, so full of power, so intensely brilliant, and his figures so bold, original, and illustrating, and the one following the other in such quick succession; 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. I perceived that his physical man was failing under his effort, and so intense was my sympathy that I found myself breathing rapidly and painfully; and yet, when he exclaimed, 'My powers fail!' and sank into his seat completely exhausted, I regretted the necessity which compelled him to stop. 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. I looked, and I had been standing unmoved in the same position and intently listening for three hours and fifteen minutes. Near me stood one old as myself—a friend, a neighbor, and a minister of the gospel; he was livid with excitement, and his lips trembled as he said to me: 'Will you ever doubt again that God inspires man?'"
Notwithstanding the immense Democratic majority in the State, the Whigs determined to run Prentiss for Congress: the election, at that time, was by general ticket, and there were two members to be elected: the Whig nomination was Prentiss and Wood; the Democratic, Claiborne and Gholson.
Claiborne was a native of the State, and the son of General Ferdinand Claiborne, a young man of very superior abilities, and at the time a member of Congress. McNutt was the Democratic candidate for Governor. The campaign was a most animated one, and Prentiss addressed the people in very nearly every county in the State; the people, en masse, flocked to hear him, and his name was in every mouth. The Democratic nominees did not attempt to meet him on the stump. His march through the State was over the heads of the people, hundreds following him from county to county in his ovation. McNutt alone attempted to meet him and speak with him, and he only once. McNutt was a Virginian, and was a man of stupendous abilities; he was a lawyer by profession, and was Governor of the State. Next to Poindexter, he was the ablest man who ever filled the chair. Unfortunately, like most of the young and talented of that day in the West, he was too much addicted to the intoxicating bowl. Upon the only meeting of these, Prentiss and McNutt, the latter, in his speech, urged as a reason for the rejection or defeat of the former his dissipated habits, admitted his great abilities, his masterly genius, pronounced him the first man of the age intellectually, but deplored his habits, which were rendering him useless, with all his genius, learning, and eloquence.
Prentiss, in reply, said: "My fellow-citizens, you have heard the charge against my morals, sagely, and, I had almost said, soberly made by the gentleman, the Democratic nominee for the chief executive office of this State: had I said this, it would have been what the lawyers term a misnomer. It would be impossible for him to do or say anything soberly, for he has been drunk ten years; not yesterday, or last week, in a frolic, or, socially, with the good fellows, his friends, at the genial and generous board—but at home, and by himself and demijohn; not upon the rich wines of the Rhine or the Rhone, the Saone or the Guadalquivir; not with high-spirited or high-witted men, whose souls, when mellowed with glorious wine, leap from their lips sublimated in words swollen with wit, or thought brilliant and dazzling as the blood of the grape inspiring them—no; but by himself: selfish and apart from witty men, or ennobling spirits, in the secret seclusion of a dirty little back-room, and on corn-whiskey!—these only, communing in affectionate brotherhood, the son of Virginia and the spirits of old Kentucky! Why, fellow—citizens, as the Governor of the State, he refused to sign the gallon-law until he had tested, by experiment, that a gallon would do him all day!
"Now I will admit, fellow-citizens, that sometimes, when in the enjoyment of social communion with gentlemen, I am made merry with these, and the rich wines of glorious France. It is then I enjoy the romance of life. Imagination, stimulated with the juice of the grape, gave to the world the Song of Solomon, and the Psalms of that old poet of the Lord—glorious old David.
"The immortal verse of wandering old Homer, the blind son of Scio's isle, was the inspiration of Samian wine; and good old Noah, too, would have sung some good and merry song, from the inspiration of the juice of the vine he planted, but having to wait so long, his thirst, like the Democratic nominee's here, became so great, that he was tempted to drink too deeply, and got too drunk to sing; and this, I fancy, is the true reason why this distinguished gentleman never sings.
"Perhaps there is no music in his soul. The glug-glug-glug of his jug, as he tilts and pours from its reluctant mouth the corn-juice so loved of his soul, is all the music dear to his ear, unless it be the same glug-glug-glug as it disappears down his capacious throat. Now, fellow-citizens, during this ardent campaign, which has been so fatiguing, I have only been drunk once. Over in Simpson County I was compelled to sleep in the same bed with this distinguished nominee—this delight of the Democracy—this wonderful exponent of the principles and practices of the unwashed Democracy—and in the morning I found myself drunk on corn-whiskey. I had lain too close to this soaked mass of Democracy, and was drunk from absorption."
This was more than the Governor could stand, and, amidst the shouts and laughter of the assembled multitude, he left the stand, and declined to meet again, before the people, the young Ajax Telemon of the Whig party.
The memory of that campaign will probably never be forgotten in Mississippi. Mothers, in stories of Prentiss, tell it now to their children, and it and he have become a tradition of the early days of Mississippi. The election terminated in the choice of Prentiss and Wood, by a small majority; but the certificate was given, through the basest fraud, to Claiborne and Gholson.
This was contested before the House of Representatives in Congress assembled, and the contestants permitted to be heard on the floor of the House. It was here, in the presence of the assembled wisdom of the nation, Prentiss was to sustain the reputation which had preceded him, and gloriously did he do it. When he rose to commence his speech, all was silent, and every face expressed deep and excited expectation. The unfortunate deformity of his leg was forgotten, in viewing the noble contour of his head and face. Young, and for the first time in such a presence—standing there the impersonation of the State of Mississippi, demanding justice for her at the hands of the nation—he seemed conscious of the responsibility, and confident of his power to sustain this. There was little preliminary in his remarks opening the matter. He went at once, and as a strong man conscious of the right, to the core. He demonstrated, beyond a doubt, his election, and proceeded in a strain of burning invective to expose the fraud of the returning officer, who had shamefully disregarded the popular voice, and shamelessly violated the law he was sworn to obey, in giving the certificate to his defeated competitors. Never did the corruption of party receive so severe an exposition, or a more withering rebuke, than in this speech.
Very soon after he commenced, the Senate chamber was deserted, and the Vice-President and Secretary were left alone. Webster, Benton, Calhoun, Clay, Wright, and Evans came in and ranged themselves near him. Every space large enough, in the chamber, lobby, and galleries, was filled with a listener, and all were still and unmoving, however painful their position, until the enunciation of the last word of that wonderful oration. The speech occupied two hours and forty minutes, and the peroration was thrilling. When exhausted, and closing, he lifted his eyes to the national flag, floating above the Speaker's chair, and said, in an almost exhausted voice, "If, Mr. Speaker, in obedience to the necessities and corrupt behest of party, you are determined to wrest from Mississippi her rights as a sister, and coequal in this union of States, and turn from their seats her representatives constitutionally chosen, and place in their stead the repudiated of her people, strike from the flag which waves above you the star which represents her there; but leave the stripes, apt emblem of your iniquity and her degradation."
An adjournment was immediately moved; the painful excitement was relieved, the spell was broken, and from every side, and from every party, came men to congratulate him. Webster was the first to stretch forth his hand, and with more animation than was his wont, said, in his deep, sonorous tones, "New England claims her own, and is proud of her son."
The House, notwithstanding the demonstrative proof, and its enforcement by the powerful and unanswerable argument of Prentiss, sent the election back to the State, to be determined by a new election. In this, Prentiss and Wood were triumphantly elected. He was not again a candidate, retiring for the time from politics, and giving his undivided attention to his profession.
It was always a matter of astonishment, to all who could never make of a political enemy a personal friend, why it was that Prentiss, so bitter in his political denunciations of political partisans, and so bitter a partisan, should yet, among the opposition, have so many warm admirers and most devoted friends. His nature was sensitive, generous, and confiding. There was no malice festering in his heart, and in his opposition, he was only so to the politics, not the personal qualities of the man. By these he judged of the man, and the character of these regulated his conduct toward him. He did not pass through life without enemies. The man to whom this is possible is one of no positive points in his character, no strength of will, no fixity of purpose, and of but little intellect. Such men never occupy the public attention—are altogether negative, as well in action as in mind. The enemies of Prentiss were such from envy, or political hatred. His great abilities, when brought in contact with those suing for popular favor, so shrivelled and dwarfed them as to inspire only fear and hatred. But men of this character were scarce in that day in Mississippi. Such was the tone of society, and such the education of her sons, that traits so dishonorable rendered odious the man manifesting them, and those of talent and education emigrating to the country soon caught this spirit as by inoculation. If there were any who were influenced by such base and degrading motives, and who felt these a part of their nature, they most generally could command policy enough to conceal them.
No community is long in discovering the genuine from the counterfeit character. It did not require months to learn all the heart, all the nature of Prentiss. Too frequently are great abilities coupled with a mean spirit, and transcendent genius underlaid with a low, grovelling nature; but these may be known by the peculiar form or development of the cranium. The high coronal developments discover the intense moral organization: the lofty and expansive forehead, the steady, unblenching eye, and the easy self-possession of manner are all indications of high moral organization, and the possession of a soul superior to envy, malice, and vindictive hatred, and one to which little meannesses are impossible. Such a head and such a soul had S.S. Prentiss. His whole character was in his face, and so legible that the most illiterate could read it. This won to him like natures, and all such who knew him were instinctively his friends.
Judge Wilkinson was such a man, and though as ardently Democratic as Prentiss was Whig, and as uncompromising in his principles, yet these two were friends in the loftiest sense of the term. Judge Wilkinson had a difficulty with a tailor in Louisville, Kentucky, who attempted an imposition upon him to which he would not submit. A quarrel ensued, and the knight of the needle and shears determined on revenge. Collecting about him his ready associates, they went to the hotel where Wilkinson lodged, and waylaid him at the door between the dining-parlor and the reception-room, and attacked him on his coming in from supper. In the rencontre three of the assailants were killed, and the remainder of the gang fled. Immediately surrendering himself, he was incarcerated and held for trial: although assaulted with murderous intent, and acting clearly in self-defence, he was denied bail. He was a stranger, and the prejudices of the court and the people of Louisville were so manifest that he demanded and obtained a change of venire.
The trial came off at Harrodsburg. Prentiss, learning the facts and the situation of his friend, volunteered immediately to defend him in court, and to befriend him in any manner possible to him. The celebrated Ben Hardin was employed to assist in the prosecution. The eyes of all Mississippi and Kentucky were turned to Harrodsburg when this trial commenced. Others volunteered—and among these was John Rowan—to assist in the defence. But the case for Wilkinson was conducted exclusively by Prentiss. It continued for some days. John Rowan—so celebrated in the State for his talents and great legal learning, as well as for his transcendent abilities as an advocate—sat by, and trusted all to Prentiss.
There were many sparrings in the course of the trial between Hardin and Prentiss upon points in the law of evidence, and as to the admissibility or rejection of testimony, as also upon many points of the criminal law of England, whether changed or not by statutory provisions of the State.
In one of these, Rowan handed an open authority to Prentiss, and was taunted by Hardin for the act, by saying: "Give your friend all the aid you can: he needs it."
"I only preserved the book open at the page where Mr. Prentiss had marked the law," said Rowan: "he requires no aid from me, brother Hardin. With all your learning and experience, he is more than a match for you."
This Hardin was not long in discovering, and especially did he feel it when Prentiss came to reply to his address to the jury. So long accustomed to defy competition as a criminal lawyer, Hardin was not only surprised at the tact and masterly talent displayed by his adversary, but he was annoyed, and felt that to maintain his prestige as the great criminal lawyer of Kentucky, he must put forth all his powers. He had done so; and in his summing up before the jury he seemed more than himself. When he had concluded there were many who deemed conviction sure.
Prentiss followed, and in his grandest manner tore to tatters every argument and every position advanced and assumed by Hardin. Towering in the majesty of his genius in one of those transcendent flights of imagination so peculiar to him, when his illustrations in figures followed each other in such quick and constant succession as to seem inexhaustible, he turned suddenly upon Hardin, and, stooping his face until it almost touched that of the stern old Kentuckian, he hissed forth: "Dare you, sir, ask a verdict of such a jury as is here sitting upon this testimony?—you, sir, who under the verdict of nature must soon appear before the awful bar to which you now strive prematurely to consign this noble, this gallant young man! Should you succeed, you must meet him there. Could you, in the presence of Almighty God—He who knows the inmost thoughts—justify your work of to-day? His mandate is not to the gibbet. Eternal Justice dictates there, whose decrees are eternal. Do you think of this? Do you defy it? If not—if you invoke it, do it through your acts toward your fellow-man. Have you to-day done unto this man as you would he should do unto you? I pause for a reply—none. Then shudder and repent, for the record even now is making up against you in that high court from which there is no appeal. You, gentlemen of the jury, are no hired advocates: you are not laboring for blood-money. Though your responsibility to your God is equal to his, you will not go to the bar of your Creator with blood—guiltless blood—upon your consciences. You will not, as he will, in that awful presence, on that eventful day, look around you for the accusing spirit of him whom you consigned to the gibbet with a consciousness of his innocence of murder. How will it be with you? (turning again to Hardin.) Ah! how will it be with you? Still silent. Despite the hardness of his features, mercy like a halo sweeps over them, and speaks to you, gentlemen, eloquently: 'Acquit the accused!' Look over yonder, gentlemen: within these walls is one awaiting your verdict in tearless agony—she who but for this untoward event would now have been happy as his bride: she who has cheered him in his prison-cell daily with her presence and lovely soul! Hers, not his fate, is in your hands. To him death is nothing: the brave defy death—the good fear it not; then why should he fear? But she! O God! it is a fearful thing to crush to death with agony the young, hopeful, and loving heart of virtuous woman. His death is only terrible in her future. Go with her, gentlemen, through life; contemplate the wan features of slow decay: see in these the one eternal, harrowing thought; list to the sigh which rives the heart; watch the tear which falls in secret; see her sink into the grave; then turn away, look up into heaven, and from your heart say: 'O God! I did it.' You will not; you cannot; you dare not."
Hardin's conclusion was tame, and without effect; the demonstrations on the part of the jury dispirited him, and his concluding speech had none of the power of his opening. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, without hesitation. Wilkinson was immediately discharged, and in company with his friends was repairing to the hotel, when, in the warmth of his emotion, he said, laying his hand on the shoulder of Prentiss: "How shall I pay you, my friend, for this great service you have done me?"
"By never mentioning pay again," was the prompt and decisive reply.
A FINANCIAL CRASH.
A WONDERFUL MEMORY—A NATION WITHOUT DEBT—CRUSHING THE NATIONAL BANK—RISE OF STATE BANKS—INFLATED CURRENCY—GRAND FLARE-UP—TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF—COMMENCING ANEW—FAILING TO REACH AN OBTUSE HEART—KING ALCOHOL DOES HIS WORK—PRENTISS AND FOOTE—LOVE ME, LOVE MY DOG—A NOBLE SPIRIT OVERCOME—CHARITY COVERETH A MULTITUDE OF SINS.
The rare combination of the elements of the mind in Mr. Prentiss is only occasionally met with in time. Judgment, imagination, and memory were all transcendent and equal in their respective powers. With such a mind, everything possible to man may be accomplished. The invention is rapid; the combining and applying responds as rapidly; the fitting and the proper wait on these in the judgment, and the emanation of the whole is perfect. The imagination conceives, the memory retains, and the judgment applies. The consummate perfection of all of these elements in one mind, assures greatness. Charles James Fox, one of England's ablest statesmen, said this combination, organized in the brain of Napoleon, was more complete than had existed with any man since the days of Julius Caesar, and would have made him transcendently great in anything to which he might have addressed his powers. As a poet, he would have equalled Homer; as a lawyer, the author of the Pandects; as an architect, Michael Angelo; as an astronomer, Newton or Galileo; as an actor, Garrick, or his beloved Talma—as he had equalled Caesar and Hannibal, and greatly surpassed Marlborough, Frederick the Great, and Charles XII.; as an orator, Demosthenes; and as a statesman, the greatest the earth ever knew.
This combination in the mind of Prentiss, with the great development of the organ of language, made him the unrivalled orator of his age. His powers of memory were so great as to astonish even those eminently gifted in the same manner. In reading, he involuntarily committed to memory, whether of prose or poetry. He seemed to have memorized the Bible, Shakspeare, Dryden, Ben Jonson, Byron, and many others of the modern poets. The whole range of literature was at his command: to read once, was always to remember. This capacity to acquire was so great that he would in a month master as much as most men could in twelve.
It appeared immaterial to what he applied himself, the consequence was the same. Scientific research, or light literature; the ordinary occurrences of the day, recorded in the newspapers, or detailed by an occasional visitor—all were remembered, and with truthful exactness. Dates, days, names, and events fastened upon his memory tenaciously, and remained there without an effort. Hence, the fund of information possessed by him astonished the best informed, who were gray with years and reading. The exuberance of his imagination continually supplied new and beautiful imagery to his conversation; and in private intercourse, such was the rich purity of his language, and his ideas so bold and original, that all were willing listeners: no one desired to talk if Prentiss was present and would talk.
The disasters which followed the commercial crisis of 1837 crushed almost every interest in Mississippi: especially was this true of the planting, the great interest of the State. On the healthy condition of him who tills the soil depends that of every other interest. The rapid rise in cotton, commencing in 1832, from the increased demand all over the world for cotton fabrics, caused a heavy immigration to the fertile cotton-lands of the West, and particularly to the extensive and newly acquired lands of Mississippi. The world was at peace, and great prosperity was universal; money was cheap, or rather its representative, bank paper. The system of finance, so wisely conceived and put in practical operation subsequently to the war of 1812, had been disturbed by being made an element in the political struggles of party. It had paid the war debt, and all the expenses of the Government—furnished a uniform currency, equal to, and at the holder's will convertible into coin. Its face was the nation's faith, and its credit equal in New York, London, and Calcutta. A surplus fund was accumulating in the United States Treasury, and the unexampled instance of a nation out of debt, and with an accumulating surplus of money in her treasury, was presented to the world by the United States.
The political economist, from this fact, would naturally infer that the people were heavily taxed: not so; there was not on earth a people who contributed, in proportion to their means, so little to the support of their Government. The tax-gatherer of the nation was never seen or known in the house of any citizen; he knew not that he contributed one dollar to the public treasury. So admirably was the source of revenue contrived, that no man knew or felt he paid a national tax. The Bank of the United States received and disbursed the moneys arising from customs, or tariffs upon imports, without one cent of expense to the Government; affording at the same time every healthy facility to the commerce of the country—holding in check and confining the local State banks to a legitimate business—and was the most complete and perfect fiscal agent ever organized. In the struggle for party ascendency, the idea was conceived of using the bank in aid of one of the factions which divided the country. The machinators of this scheme failed to accomplish it, and, being in power at the time, determined to destroy it, upon the plea of its unconstitutionality, and of having been used to overturn the Government—that is, the party in power. It was declared dangerous to the liberties of the country.
At the expiration of its charter, then approaching, it was refused a renewal. So intimately was it connected with every interest in the country, that its passing out of existence threatened universal bankruptcy. Its branches located at every important commercial point, its credit was universally employed. It furnished exchange at almost a nominal rate upon every commercial city of the world, and permeated every transaction, giving health and vigor as the circulating fluid does the animal system.
Suddenly to arrest and destroy this, was universal ruin. But to serve the behest of party in a double form, it was crushed. But a substitute was proposed by the party interested, and upon whom the responsibility rested—the creation of State banks without limit, which were recommended to discount liberally to the people, and supply the wants created by the withdrawal of the capital and accommodations of the national bank. This recommendation was literally and instantly obeyed. In every State where the dominant party held control—and they did so throughout the South and West—the legislatures made haste to create, without limit, State banks, with power to flood the country with irresponsible bank paper. Each assumed that it must supply not only its portion, but the entire amount of the banking capital withdrawn, and double or treble the circulation. The natural consequence was immense inflation of the currency, or circulating medium, and the rapid appreciation of every species of property in price. Everybody and every interest flourished most prosperously—gaunt poverty had fled the land, and bloated abundance laughed in every home. Suddenly men sprang into importance who a little while before were humble artizans or employed in the meanest capacities. A new El Dorado had been discovered; fortunes were made in a day, without enterprise or work; and unexampled prosperity seemed to cover the land as with a golden canopy—forests were swept away in a week; labor came in crowds to the South to produce cotton; and where yesterday the wilderness darkened over the land with her wild forests, to-day the cotton plantation whitened the earth—production was quadrupled—labor doubled in value, land rose to fearful prices, the wildest extravagance obtained; costly furniture, expensive equipages, ostentatious display—all were contributing to hasten the catastrophe. The wise saw what was impending, and the foolish thought it impossible. All of this was based on credit. The banks were irresponsible, for they were without capital: they had created a credit and loaned it in the shape of bank paper to every one. Finally, the hour came when all was to be paid for. The banks failed—like the fame of woman, a whisper destroys it; so a whisper blew away the banks. They could not redeem their promises to pay. These were no longer available for currency: they had driven from the country the coin, and there was no money. The merchants failed, the planters failed, money appreciated to the gold standard, and property correspondingly depreciated; and ruin—financial ruin—swept over the country as a consuming fire.
Nowhere was this destruction so complete as in Mississippi. The people of the State had been collected from all the States of the West and South. There was no common bond but interest; a healthy public sentiment, which must result from a homogeneous population, was unknown; there was no restraining influence upon the conduct of men, save only the law, and, for the want of efficient administration, this was almost powerless. Every one was making haste to be rich; speculation was wild, and everyday was witnessing transactions of doubtful morality. Society was a chaos, and sauve qui peut, or, take care of yourself, the rule. Every one who owed money, however inconsiderable the sum, was ruined. Under such circumstances, Prentiss determined on removing from Mississippi, and selected New Orleans for his future home. The civil law, or Roman Code, was the law in Louisiana, and materially differed from the common or English law, which was the law of authority in Mississippi. Very few lawyers coming from the common-law States, have ever been able to succeed in Louisiana, especially after having practised in other States for any length of time. They have not only to learn the civil law, but to unlearn the common. Some, who did not know the extraordinary powers of Prentiss's mind, feared he, like many others who had made the attempt, would fail; but, almost from the moment of his advent at the New Orleans bar, his success was complete. To realize the expectations of the public, required abilities and attainments of the highest order. Fame had heralded his name and powers to every one: all had and did expect from him more than from any other man, and none were disappointed. From this time forward he eschewed politics, and devoted himself to his profession.
Some years before leaving Mississippi, Prentiss had married Miss Williams, of Adams County. This lady was the daughter of James C. Williams, a large planter; her mother was a Percy, descended from the proud Percys of Northumberland, and was a most accomplished and intellectual woman. Her position was the first among the first, and her birth, blood, and attainments entitled her to the distinction. Her daughter, grown up under her eye and training, was the mother's equal, and fit companion for the man of her choice.
Prentiss had lost everything in the general crash, and was commencing anew, with a growing family to provide for. His business rapidly increased, and his displays at the Bar were frequent and wonderful. Some of these, recited here, might, if such a necessity existed, serve to illustrate his wonderful powers; but there are parties living whose feelings might suffer, and hence I forbear. It is my earnest wish, in recording these recollections, to offend no one; nor will I "set down aught in malice."
The ardent and excitable temperament of Prentiss, combined with his social qualities, required constant excitement. When employed with the duties of his profession, or engaged in any matter of business pertaining to politics, or his relations in any capacity with the world, requiring attention, he was sufficiently excited to afford escape for the restlessness of his mind; nor did this man seem fatigued in such occupations sufficiently to require repose and rest. On the contrary, it seemed to whet his desire for fiercer and more consuming excitement. Whenever he went abroad, the crowd followed him, and the presence of the increasing mass stimulated his feelings to mild, social delight, and this led him too frequently to indulge beyond a proper temperance in the exhilaration of wine. This, superadded to the fire of his genius, was wearing fearfully his vigorous physique.
For the first time, in the case of fraud against James Irwin, in which he made one of the most powerful efforts of his life, he manifested mental as well as physical fatigue. It was my good fortune to listen to that speech made to a New Orleans jury. I had listened many times to his speeches, and had thought some of these could never be surpassed by any man, not even by himself, and especially that delivered in Faneuil Hall, Boston, and the one delivered from the steps of the court-house at Vicksburg, after returning from his political campaign when a candidate for Congress. But this one was even grander and more powerful than any I had ever heard from him. Returning from the court-house with him upon that occasion, I remarked a flagging in the brilliancy of his conversation. For a moment he sat silent in the carriage, and then remarked: "I was never so much fatigued; I am afraid I am getting old. I have not an idea in my brain."
"Certainly, you have poured out enough to-day to empty any brain," was my reply; "and you should be content not to have another for a month. But I am sorry your invective was so severe."
"Ah! my old friend," he continued, "he deserved it all! From my heart I feel he deserved it all! The magnitude of his iniquities inspired the rebuke, and I exhausted my quiver in the attempt to pierce his shame; but I failed. The integuments of his sensibility are armor against the shafts from my bow; and I feel the failure, but I don't regret the attempt: the intention was as sincere as the failure has been signal."
"Why, what do you mean?" I asked; "for, assuredly, you have to-day made the most powerful and telling speech of your life."
"Yes, telling upon the audience, perhaps, but not upon the victim—he escapes unscathed. I care nothing for the crack of the rifle, if the bullet flies wide of the mark. I wanted to reach his heart, and crush it to remorse; but I have learned his moral obtusity is superior to shame. I have failed in my attempt."
This speech was followed by a challenge to Prentiss from the son of Irwin. This was promptly accepted, and a meeting was only prevented by the interference of parties from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The settlement was honorable to both parties. Soon after, young Irwin died by his own hand. He was a youth of brilliant parts, and promised a future of usefulness and distinction.
The habits of Prentiss were daily growing worse—the excitement he craved he found in the intoxicating bowl. The influence of his lovely and loving wife greatly restrained him; but when she was away, he was too frequently surrounded by his friends and admirers, and in social conviviality forgot the prudence of restraint, and indulged to excess. The more this indulgence was tolerated, the more exacting it became. The great strength of his nervous system had successfully resisted the influence of these indulgences, and after potations deep and long, it was remarked that they had no inebriating effect upon him. This nervous strength by degrees yielded to the power of alcohol, and as he advanced in life it was apparent the poison was doing its work.
Now it was that he found it necessary, in order to stimulate his genius to its wonted activity and vigor, on occasions demanding all his powers, to resort to artificial stimulants. His friends urged upon him temperance, to forbear altogether, to visit his mother and friends in Maine, recreate amidst the scenes of his childhood, and to do so in company with his wife and his lovely children, for they were all a parent could wish them to be. He promised to do so. Sad memory brings up our last meeting, and when the subject of his intemperance was the theme of our parting conversation. We stood together upon the portico of the St. Charles Hotel; he was preparing to leave for Maine; I was leaving for my home in the country.
"You still keep the old cane," he said, taking from my hand his gift many years before.
"I shall do so, Prentiss, while I live."
He continued to view the head, upon which our names were engraved, and a melancholy shade gathered upon his features. "Oh, were I," said he, "to-day, what I was the day I gave you this!" and he paused many minutes; still the shade darkened, and his voice trembled as he proceeded: "We were both young then, and how light our hearts were! We have gathered about us household gods, and we worship them; how sad to think we shall have to leave them! You married long before I did. Your children will grow up while yet you live; I shall never see mine other than children."
"Say not so, Prentiss. You are yet young. You have but one thing to do, and you will live to see those boys men; and what may you not expect of them, with such a mother to aid you in rearing them!"
"I know what you mean, and I know what I will; but, like Laocoon in the folds of the snake, the serpent of habit coils around me, and I fear its strength is too powerful for mine. Perhaps, had my angel of to-day been my angel when first a man, I had never wooed the scorpion which is stinging me to death; but all I can do I will. This is all I can promise. Keep this stick to remember me: it will support you when tottering with the weight of years, and with strength will endure. When age has done her work, and you are in the grave, give it to your son to remember us both. Farewell."
With a clasp of the hand we parted, never to meet again. Not long after, he died at Natchez, and, in the family cemetery of the Sargents, sleeps near the city.
But few of the speeches of Prentiss were ever reported, and though they are like and have the ring of the true metal, yet not one of them is correctly reported. The fragment given in a former chapter is the report of one who heard it, and who wrote it the very hour of its delivery, to myself, that the information of the acquittal might be communicated to the friends of the lady Judge Wilkinson was about to be married to, who resided in my immediate neighborhood. There is not a word of it in the reporter's speech, which was some time after written out from notes. These speeches, with the traditions of his fame, will serve to perpetuate his memory as perhaps the most gifted man, as an orator, that adorned his generation.
In stature he was below the ordinary standard, and his lameness seemed to dwarf even this. His head was large, round, and high; his forehead expansive, high, and rising almost perpendicularly above his eyes, which were gray, deep set, and brilliant; his nose was straight and beautifully chiselled, thin, and the nostrils large, and swelling and expanding when excited. In speaking, his eyes blazed with a most peculiar expression. His chin was broad, square, and strong. His mouth was the most striking feature of his face—large and flexible, with a constant twitching about the corners. The entire contour of the face indicated humor, combined with firmness. This latter trait was also indicated in the large, strong under jaw—no trait was more prominent in his character than this. Yet he was slow to anger, and always conciliatory in language and manners. He was charitable in the extreme toward others for any laches in principle; always ready to find an excuse for the short-comings of others. Yet no man adhered more closely and more steadily to his principles and opinions. He never gave an insult, unless greatly provoked, but never failed to resent one; always loath to quarrel, but, once in, bore himself like a man, and a brave one. The high oval crown of his head confessed high moral qualities; here the moral organs were in wonderful development. Too generous to be malicious, he was ever ready to forgive, and too noble to permit his worst enemy to be slandered in his presence.
There was once a quarrel between Prentiss and that erratic man of wonderful genius, H.S. Foote. This culminated in a hostile meeting, in which Foote was wounded. In their impulsiveness these two were very like, as also in the generosity of their natures. Neither bore the other malice beyond the conflict, and neither ever permitted an insult to be offered to the name of the other in his absence. A short time after this affair, Prentiss was with some friends in Cincinnati. There is always to be found men who swell their importance by toadying men of character and eminence. Such are as frequently found in Cincinnati as elsewhere.
One of these had sought out Prentiss, and was attempting to make himself agreeable to him by abusing Foote: this abuse wound up by denouncing the distinguished Mississippian as a dog. Prentiss turned sharply upon him with the exclamation: "If he is a dog, sir, he is our dog, and you shall not abuse him in my presence!" The discomfiture of the toady may be easily imagined; he slunk away, nor did he again obtrude his unwanted presence upon Prentiss during his stay.
Few men have ever so fastened themselves upon the affections of their friends as did Prentiss: his qualities of heart and head were fascinating, almost beyond humanity; none ever met him for a day and went away unattached; strangers, who knew him not, listening to him, not only admired, but loved him. He never lost a friend; and all his enemies were political, or from envy. In the society of ladies he was extremely diffident and unobtrusive, and always apprehensive lest he should be unable to entertain them agreeably.
On one occasion, not long before our final parting, he said he had committed two great errors in his life: leaving his native home to find one in the South, and not marrying when he first commenced the practice of law. "My constitution was strong and suited to a northern climate, and there home-influences would have restrained propensities that have grown with indulgence, and are threatening in their consequences. I feel this: I am not the strong man I was; mind and body are failing, and the beautiful lines of our friend Wild are constantly recurring to my mind:
"'My life is like the autumn leaf, Which trembles in the moon's pale ray: Its hold is frail, its date is brief, Restless, and soon to pass away.'
"Why did not Wild give his life to literature, instead of the musty maxims of the law. Little as he has written, it is enough to preserve his fame as a true poet; and though he has been a member of Congress, and a distinguished one, a lawyer, and a distinguished one, his fame and name will only be perpetuated by his verse, so tender, so touching, and so true to the feelings of the heart. It is the heart that he lives in. Ah! it is the heart only which forms and fashions the romance of life; and without this romance, life is scarcely worth the keeping.
"'Tis midnight—on the mountains brown The cold round moon shines deeply down; Blue roll the waters, blue the sky Spreads like an ocean hung on high, Bespangled with those isles of light, So wildly, spiritually bright; Who ever gazed upon them shining, And turned to earth without repining, Nor wished for wings to flee away, And mix with their eternal ray?'
"We feel as Byron did when he imagined these lines. I see him with upturned eyes gazing on the blue expanse above, watching the stars; thinking of heaven; feeling earth, and hating it, and his soul flying away from it, to meet and mingle in the firmament above him with the spiritually bright and heavenly pure brilliants sparkling on her diadem. How mean—how miserably mean this earth, and all it gives! One diamond in a world of dirt. The soul that loves and contemplates the eternal—shall it shake off at once the miserable clod, and in a moment glisten among the millions, pure, bright, and lovely as these? There is but one idea of hell—eternal torture! But every man has his own idea of heaven: yet, with all, its chiefest attribute is eternal happiness. The wretch craves it for rest; he who never knew care or suffering, desires it for enjoyment; and the wildest imagination sublimates its bliss to love and beauty. And God only knows what it is, or in what it consists. But we shall know, and I, in a little time. On Him who gave me being I confidently rely for all which is destined in my future."
His spirit was eminently worshipful. The wisdom and goodness of God he saw in every creature; he contemplated these as a part of the grand whole, and saw a union and use in all for the harmony of the whole; he saw all created nature linked, each filling and subserving a part, in duties and uses, as designed, and, his mind filled with the contemplation, his soul expanded in love and worship of the great Architect who conceived and created all.
With all this might of mind and beauty of soul, there lurked a demon to mar and destroy. It worked its end: let us draw a veil over the frailties of poor human nature, and, in the admiration of the genius and the soul, forget the foibles and frailties of the body.
ACADIAN FRENCH SETTLERS.
SUGAR vs. COTTON—ACADIA—A SPECIMEN OF MISSISSIPPI FRENCH LIFE—BAYOU LA FOURCHE—THE GREAT FLOOD—THEOLOGICAL ARBITRATION—A RUSTIC BALL —OLD-FASHIONED WEDDINGS—CREOLES AND QUADROONS—THE PLANTER—NEGRO SERVANTS—GAULS AND ANGLO-NORMANS—ANTAGONISM OF RACES.
Forty years ago, there was quite an excitement among the cotton-planters, in the neighborhood of Natchez, upon the subject of sugar-planting in the southern portion of Louisiana. At that time it was thought the duty (two and a half cents per pound) on imported sugars would be continued as a revenue tax, and that it would afford sufficient protection to make the business of sugar-planting much more profitable than that of cotton. The section of country attracting the largest share of attention for this purpose was the Teche, or Attakapas country, the Bayous La Fourche, Terre Bonne, and Black. The Teche and La Fourche had long been settled by a population, known in Louisiana as the Acadian French. These people, thus named, had once resided in Nova Scotia and Lower Canada, or Canada East as now known. When peopled by the French, Nova Scotia was called Acadia. Upon the conquest by the English, these people were expelled the country, and in a most inhuman and unchristian manner. They were permitted to choose the countries to which they would go, and were there sent by the British Government. Many went to Canada, some to Vincennes in Indiana, some to St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Viedepouche, and Kaskaskia in Mississippi, and many returned to France.
Upon the cession, or rather donation to Spain of Louisiana by France, these, with many others of a population similar to these, from the different arrondissements of France, were sent to Louisiana, and were located in Opelousas, Attakapas, La Fourche, and in the parishes of St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, and St. James (parishes constituting the Acadian coast on the Mississippi). On the La Fourche they constituted, forty years ago, almost the entire population. They were illiterate and poor. Possessing the richest lands on earth, which they had reclaimed from the annual inundations of the Mississippi River by levees constructed along the margins of the stream—with a climate congenial and healthful, and with every facility afforded by the navigation of the bayou and the Mississippi for reaching the best market for all they could produce—yet, with all these natural advantages, promising to labor and enterprise the most ample rewards, they could not be stimulated to industry or made to understand them.
They had established their homes on the margin of the stream, and cleared a few acres of the land donated by the Government, upon which to grow a little corn and a few vegetables. With a limited amount of stock, which found subsistence upon the cane and grass of the woods, and with the assistance of a shot-gun, they managed to subsist—as Peake's mother served the Lord—after a fashion.
Their houses were unique: a slender frame, often of poles cut from the forest, and rudely squared, served the purpose. Into the studding were placed pins, extending from one to the other, horizontally, and about ten inches apart. The long gray moss of the country was then gathered and thrown by layers into a pit dug for the purpose, with the soil, until the pit was full, when water was added in sufficient quantities to wet the mass through; this done, all who are assisting in the construction of the house—men, women, boys, and girls—jump in upon it, and continue to tramp until mud and moss are completely intermingled and made of proper consistence, when it is gathered up and made into rails about two feet long. These rolls are laid over the pins, commencing at the bottom or sill of the building, when each roll is bent down at the ends, covering the intervals between the pins, pressed hardly together, and smoothed with the hands, inside and out, forming a wall some five inches in thickness, with a perfectly smooth surface. The roof is first put on, and the floors laid. When this mud dries thoroughly it is white-washed; the house is then complete, and presents quite a neat appearance. It will continue to do so if the white-washing is annually continued. If, however, this is neglected, the lime falls off in spots, and the primitive mud comes out to view: then the appearance is anything but pleasant. No pains are taken to ornament their yards, or gather about them comforts. There is a pig or two in a pen in the corner of the yard, a hen-roost immediately at the house, a calf or two at large, and numerous half-starved, mangy dogs—and innumerable ragged, half-naked children, with little, black, piercing eyes, and dishevelled, uncombed hair falling about sallow, gaunt faces, are commingling in the yard with chickens, dogs, and calves. A sallow-faced, slatternly woman, bareheaded, with uncared-for hair, long, tangled, and black, with her dress tucked up to her knees, bare-footed and bare-legged, is wading through the mud from the bayou, with a dirty pail full of muddy Mississippi water.
A diminutive specimen of a man, clad in blue cottonade pants and hickory shirt, barefooted, with a palm-leaf hat upon his head, and an old rusty shot-gun in his hands, stands upon the levee, casting an inquiring look, first up and then down the bayou, deeply desiring and most ardently expecting a wandering duck or crane, as they fly along the course of the bayou. If unfortunately they come within reach of his fusee, he almost invariably brings them down. Then there is a shout from the children, a yelp from the dogs, and all run to secure the game; for too often, "No duck, no dinner." Such a home and such inhabitants were to be seen on Bayou La Fourche forty years ago, and even now specimens of the genuine breed may there be found, as primitive as were their ancestors who first ventured a home in the Mississippi swamps.
The stream known as Bayou La Fourche, or The Fork, is a large stream, some one hundred yards wide, leaving the Mississippi at the town of Donaldsonville, eighty miles above the city of New Orleans, running south-southeast, emptying into the Gulf, through Timbalier Bay, and may properly be termed one of the mouths of the Mississippi. Its current movement does not in high water exceed three miles an hour, and when the Mississippi is at low water, it is almost imperceptible. Large steamers, brigs, and schooners come into it when the river is at flood, and carry out three or four hundred tons of freight each at a time.
The lands upon the banks of this stream are remarkably fertile, entirely alluvial, and decline from the bank to the swamp, generally some one or two miles distant. This Acadian population was sent here during the Spanish domination, and with a view to opening up to cultivation this important tract of country. It was supposed they would become—under the favorable auspices of their emigration to the country, and with such facilities for accumulating money—a wealthy and intelligent population. This calculation was sadly disappointed. The mildness of the climate and the fruitfulness of the soil combined to enervate, instead of stimulating them to active industry, without which there can be no prosperity for any country. A few acres, though half cultivated, were found sufficient to yield an ample support, and the mildness of the climate required but little provision for clothing. Here, in this Eden upon earth, these people continued to live in a simplicity of primitive ignorance and indolence scarcely to be believed by any but an actual observer. Their implements of agriculture were those of two centuries before. More than half the population wore wooden shoes, when they wore any at all. Their wants were few, and were all supplied at home. Save a little flour, powder, and shot, they purchased nothing. These were paid for by the sale of the produce of the poultry-yard—the prudent savings from the labor of the women—to the market-boats from the city.
There were, at the period of which I write, but half a dozen Americans upon the bayou. These had found the country illy adapted to the growth of cotton, and some of them had commenced the planting of sugar-cane. The results from this were very satisfactory, and consequently stimulating to the enterprise of men of means, who felt they could be more profitably employed in this new culture than in cotton, even in the very best cotton regions.
There was one man of high intelligence and long experience who denied this—Stephen Duncan, of Natchez—and the subsequent experience of many brought bitter regret that they had not yielded to the counsels of Dr. Duncan.
The great flood of 1828 had not touched the La Fourche or Teche, while the entire alluvial plain above had been covered many feet, and for many months. This was the most terrible inundation, perhaps, ever experienced in that region; and every one appeared to be now satisfied that to continue to cultivate lands already reduced to man's dominion, or to open and prepare any more, subject to this scourge, was madness. Hence the emigration from this chosen section to the new El Dorado. Lands rose rapidly in South Louisiana as an effect of this, while above, in the flooded district, they were to be bought for almost a nominal price. Those who ventured to purchase these and reduce them to cultivation realized fortunes rapidly; for there was not a sufficient flood to reach them again for ten years. The levees by this time had become so extended as to afford almost entire immunity against the floods of annual occurrence. The culture of sugar received a new impetus and began rapidly to increase, and capital came flowing in. Population of an industrious and hardy character was filling up the West, and the demand from that quarter alone was equal to the production, and both were increasing so rapidly as to induce the belief that it would be as much as all the sugar lands in the State could accomplish to supply this demand. Steam power for crushing the cane was introduced—an economy of labor which enhanced the profits of the production—and a new and national interest was developed, rendering more and more independent of foreign supply, at least that portion of the Union most difficult of access to foreign commerce—the great and growing West.
The Americans, or those Americans speaking English alone, immigrating into these sections of Louisiana, so far as the language, manners, and customs of the people were concerned, were going into a foreign land. The language of the entire population was French, or a patois, as the European French term it—a provincialism which a Parisian finds it difficult to understand. The ignorance and squalid poverty of these people put their society entirely out of the question, even if their language had been comprehensible. They were amiable, kind, law-abiding, virtuous, and honest, beyond any population of similar character to be found in any country. Out of some fifty thousand people, extending over five or six parishes, such a thing as a suit for slander, or an indictment for malicious mischief, or a case of bastardy was not known or heard of once in ten years. This will seem strange when we reflect that at this time schools were unknown, and not one out of fifty of the people could read or write, and when it was common for the judge of the District Court to ask, when a grand jury was impanelled, if there was a man upon it who could write, that he might make him foreman. And not unfrequently was he compelled to call from the court-room one who could, and trump him on the jury for a foreman, as the action was termed. There was not upon the La Fourche, which comprised three large parishes, but one pleasure carriage, and not half a dozen ladies' bonnets. The females wore a colored handkerchief tastily tied about their heads, when visiting or at church; and when not, not anything but blowzed, uncombed hair.
The enterprise of the new-comers did not stimulate to emulation the action of these people. They were content and unenvious, and when kindly received and respectfully treated, were social and generous in their intercourse with their American neighbors. They were confiding and trustful; but once deceived, they were not to be won back, but only manifested their resentment by withdrawing from communicating with the deceiver, and ever after distrusting, and refusing him their confidence. They were universally Catholic; consequently, sectarian disputes were unknown. They practised eminently the Christian virtues, and were constant in their attendance at mass. The priest was the universal arbiter in all disputes, and his decision most implicitly acquiesced in. They had a horror of debt, and lawsuits, and would sacrifice any property they might have, to meet punctually an obligation. Fond of amusements, their social meetings, though of most primitive character, were frequent and cordial. They observed strictly the exactions of the Church, especially Lent; but indulged the Carnival to its wildest extent. Out of Lent they met to dance and enjoy themselves, weekly, first at one, and then at another neighbor's house; and with the natural taste of their race, they would appear neatly and cleanly dressed in the attire fabricated by their own hands in the loom and with the needle.
The method of invitation to these reunions was simple and speedy. A youth on his pony would take a small wand, and tie to its top end a red or white flag, and ride up and down the bayou, from the house where the ball was intended, for two or three miles; returning, tie the wand and flag to flaunt above the gate, informing all—"This is the place." All were welcome who came, and everything was conducted with strict regard to decent propriety. Nothing boisterous was ever known—no disputing or angry wrangling, for there was no cause given; harmony and happiness pervaded all, and at proper time and in a proper manner all returned to their homes.
Marriages, almost universally, were celebrated at the church, as in all Catholic countries. The parsonage is at the church, and the priest always on hand, at the altar or the grave; and almost daily, in this dense population, a marriage or funeral was seen at the church. It was the custom for the bride and groom, with a party of friends, all on horseback, to repair without ceremony to the church, where they were united in matrimony by the good priest, who kissed the bride, a privilege he never failed to put into execution, when he blessed the couple, received his fee, and sent them away rejoicing. This ceremony was short, and without ostentation; and then the happy and expectant pair, often on the same horse, would return with the party as they had come, with two or three musicians playing the violin in merry tunes on horseback, as they joyfully galloped home, where a ball awaited them at night, and all went merry with the married belle.
These people are Iberian in race, are small in stature, of dark complexion, with black eyes, and lank black hair; their hands and feet are small, and beautifully formed, and their features regular and handsome; many of their females are extremely beautiful. These attain maturity very early, and are frequently married at thirteen years of age. In more than one instance, I have known a grandmother at thirty. As in all warm countries, this precocious maturity is followed with rapid decay. Here, persons at forty wear the appearance of those in colder climates of sixty years. Notwithstanding this apparent early loss of vigor, the instances of great longevity are perhaps more frequent in Louisiana than in any other State of the Union. This, however, can hardly be said of her native population: emigrants from high latitudes, who come after maturity, once acclimated, seem to endure the effects of climate here with more impunity than those native to the soil.
The Bayou Plaquemine formerly discharged an immense amount of water into the lakes intervening between the La Fourche and the Teche. These lakes have but a narrow strip of cultivable land. Along the right margin of the La Fourche, and the left of the Teche, they serve as a receptacle for the waters thrown from the plantations and those discharged by the Atchafalayah and the Plaquemine, which ultimately find their way to the Gulf through Berwick's Bay. They are interspersed with small islands: these have narrow strips of tillable land, but are generally too low for cultivation; and when the Mississippi is at flood, they are all under water, and most of them many feet. The La Fourche goes immediately to the Gulf, between Lake Barataria and these lakes, affording land high enough, when protected as they now are, for settlement, and cultivation to a very great extent. Its length is some one hundred miles, and the settlements extend along it for eighty miles. These are continuous, and nowhere does the forest intervene.
At irregular distances between these Acadian settlements, large sugar plantations are found. These have been extending for years, and increasing, absorbing the habitats of these primitive and innocent people, who retire to some little ridge of land deeper in the swamp, a few inches higher than the plane of the swamp, where they surround their little mud-houses with an acre or so of open land, from the products of which, and the trophies of the gun and fishing-line and hook, and an occasional frog, and the abundance of crawfish, they contrive to eke out a miserable livelihood, and afford the fullest illustration of the adage, "Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise."
The contrast between these princely estates, and the palatial mansions which adorn them, and make a home of luxuriant beauty, and the little log huts, their immediate neighbors, tells at once that the population is either very rich or very poor, and that under such circumstances the communication must be extremely limited; for the ignorance of the poor unfits them for social and intelligent intercourse with their more wealthy and more cultivated neighbors. This is true whether the planter is French or American. The remarkable salubrity of the climate, combined with the comforts and luxuries of home, causes the planter to spend most of his time there, where he can give his attention to his business and mingle with his brother planters in a style and manner peculiar to Louisiana and the tastes of her people. Intercommunication is facilitated by steamboat travel, and as every plantation is located upon a navigable stream, the planter and family can at any time suiting his business go with little trouble to visit his friends, though they may be hundreds of miles apart. Similarity of pursuit and interest draw these together. There is no rivalry, and consequently no jealousy between them. All their relations are harmonious, and their intercourse during the summer is continuous, for at that season the business of the plantation may be safely trusted to a manager, one of whom is found on every plantation.
This social intercourse is highly promotive of a general amity, as it cultivates an intimacy which at once familiarizes every one with the feelings, situation, and intentions of the other. Sometimes the contiguity of plantations enables the families of planters to exchange formal morning and evening calls, but most generally the distance to be overgone is too great for this. Then the visiting is done by families, and extends to days, and sometimes weeks. Provisions are so abundant that the extra consumption is never missed, and the residences are always of such dimensions that the visitors seem scarcely to increase the family—never to be in the way; and the suits of apartments occupied by them were built and furnished for the purpose to which they are then devoted. The visitor is at home. The character of the hospitality he is enjoying permits him to breakfast from seven till ten, alone, or in company with the family if he chooses. Horses, dogs, and guns for the gentlemen—billiards, the carriage, music, or promenading, with cards, chess, backgammon, or dominos for the ladies, to pass away the day until dinner. At this meal the household and guests unite, and the rich viands, wines, and coffee make a feast for the body and sharpen the wit to a feast of the soul. This society is the freest and most refined to be found in the country.
Upon the coast of the Mississippi, from Baton Rouge to many miles below the city, the proximity of the large plantations presents an opportunity of close and constant intercourse. A very large majority of these are the property and habitations of the cultivated and intelligent Creoles of the State. And here let me explain the term Creole, which has led to so many ludicrous, and sometimes to painful mistakes. It is an arbitrary term, and imported from the West Indies into Louisiana. Its original meaning was a native born of foreign parents; but universal use has made it to mean, in Louisiana, nothing more than simply "native;" and it is applied indiscriminately to everything native to the State—as Creole cane, Creole horse, Creole negro, or creole cow. Many confound its meaning with that of quadroon, and suppose it implies one of mixed blood, or one with whose blood mingles that of the African—than which no meaning is more foreign to the word.
The Creole planters, or what are termed French Creoles, are descended from a very different race from the Acadian Creole, or Iberian. The first colonists who came to Louisiana were men of the first blood and rank in France. The Ibervilles, the Bienvilles, St. Denises, and many others, were of noble descent; and the proud prestige of their names and glorious deeds still clings around their descendants now peopling the lands they conquered from the desert, the savage, and the flood. These daring men brought with them the chivalrous spirit which descended to their sons—the open, gallant bearing; the generous hospitality; the noble humanity; the honor which prefers death to a stain, and the soul which never stoops to a lie, a fraud, or a meanness degrading to a gentleman. They have been born upon the banks of the great river of the world; they have seen all the developments of talent, time, and enterprise which have made their country great as the river through which it flows. Accustomed from infancy to look upon this scene and these developments, their souls with their ideas have been sublimated, and they are a population unsurpassed in the higher attributes of humanity, and the nobler sympathies of man, by any on the face of the earth—surrounded by wealth, tangible and substantial, descending from generation to generation, affording to each all the blessings wealth can give.
The spirit of hospitality and independence has ennobled the sons, as hereditary wealth and privilege had the sires who planted this colony. These sires laid the foundation of this wealth, in securing for their posterity the broad acres of this fat-land where now they are to be found. None have emigrated: conscious of possessing the noblest heritage upon earth, they have remained to eliminate from this soil the wealth which in such abundance they possess. As they were reared, they have reared their sons; the lessons of truth, virtue, honor have borne good fruit. None can say they ever knew a French Creole a confirmed drunkard or a professional gambler. None ever knew an aberration of virtue in a daughter of one.