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We shall now turn to the role he played in the more subordinate sphere of State politics. Just at this time there loomed up in Mississippi a subject of vast magnitude,—the ordaining of a new constitution. The old constitution of 1817 did not suit the progressive spirit of the people. It was modelled after the old constitution of Virginia. It was a real, in contradistinction to a personal, constitution. It required electors to pay taxes; representatives to the lower house to own one hundred and fifty acres of land, or interest in real estate to five hundred dollars' value; senators to own three hundred acres, or thousand dollars' value in real estate ; the governor to own six hundred acres, or two thousand dollars' value in real estate. All officers, except some enumerated, were appointed by joint vote of both houses. Judges held office during good behavior. The only elective offices were governor, lieutenant-governor, and members of the upper and lower houses of the Legislature. From the above brief synopsis of some of its features, it will be seen that the old constitution was behind the age.
The canvass of the candidates for the convention to frame the new constitution was now going on. On this vital matter there were, of course, two parties, irrespective of their opinions on national questions. The progressive was in favor of giving the people the largest libe ty in their governmental affairs, making the government as near to a pure democracy as possible. This party was in favor of electing all officers, from governor down to constable, from supreme judge down to justice of the peace. They were also in favor of abolishing all property qualifications for office. The other party was more conservative, and while they were willing to amend the constitution in some particulars, they were utterly opposed to an elective judiciary.
In the midst of the conflict that was then raging through the State, Prentiss happened to be in attendance upon court at Princeton, the then county-seat of the large county of Washington, situated on the Mississippi River. His views had been freely ventilated among his friends. General Foote too was at Princeton; it was known that he belonged to the ranks of the progressive party. Inasmuch as there was present a goodly assemblage of citizens, a debate was improvised, and these two antagonists, Foote and Prentiss, met for the first time on the hustings. Here again is it to be regretted that there is no full report left of this debate.
Captain Jas. S. Johnston, now of Church Hill, Jefferson County, then a young lawyer, has given me his impressions, which are, however, now but faintly remembered. The value of Captain Johnston's opinion is enhanced from the fact that he was a thoroughly-posted politician of the straitest sect of the school of “States' Rights.” Like all Virginians, he swore by the resolutions of '98-'99, which are, in their politics, what the Bible is to Christians and the Koran is to the Mohammedans. Not only had he heard, but studied also, all the arguments of the great men of Virginia on this very subject of the true principles upon which a government should be organized, and yet, with all this pre-existing knowledge and light in his own mind, he says that when Prentiss was speaking he was perfectly entranced by the magnificence of his argument in favor of conservatism, especially of an independent judiciary. New arguments, new ideas, new tropes, new figures, fell from his lips and dazzled as they fell, but in the midst of all this pyrotechnic display his logic always kept his argument in full view to the front. He got away from his competitor, he eclipsed, he demolished him. Captain Johnston, who often heard Prentiss afterward, thinks this Princeton speech one of the greatest efforts of his life; but, alas! there is no spot upon which to erect even the epitaph of Ilium fuit,--the remorseless maw of the Mississippi has long since swallowed up the site, and even the name of the little village has been erased from the family record of the State of Mississippi. In spite of the most strenuous efforts of the conservatives, the progressives carried the election and revolutionized the constitution.
There is a tradition that some of the conservatives, seeing themselves in the minority, determined to support some of the most radical changes in the hope and expectation that the new constitution would necessarily have to be submitted to the people; they would then go before them and defeat the instrument in toto. The majority were too many to allow this, and, after three several efforts to carry it, the proposition to submit it to the people for ratification was voted down. It is a singular fact that the date of its ratification nowhere appears on the face of the constitution. We shall hereafter see how profoundly Prentiss was impressed with the necessity of its vindication, how nobly he struggled to preserve it when it was ruthlessly trampled under foot in the house of its creators and friends.
EVERY clime, I believe, has its peculiar local scourge. The Alps have the goitre; the northern climes, consumption; the South, the scourge of the tropics; but there is one epidemic disease which is cosmopolitan, and leaps from city to city, all over the world, irrespective of clime or season; and that fell disease is-cholera. The young city of Vicksburg did not escape. In 1832, Prentiss writes that it had swept over the place. He had stood in the midst of it a monument of perfect health, but the scenes he witnessed were terrible. The chief horror was its suddenness, as he says he had seen men walking about the streets, apparently in perfect health, and in four or five hours they were dead. The panic was awful, and people fled in wild precipitation from the doomed city. The rumble of the dead-cart took the place of the rattling car, and a deathly solitude reigned instead of the hum of the once busy multitude. This was the effect in the largest cities as well as in the smaller villages. I once heard the Rev. Dr. Hawks describing an epidemic of cholera in New York. He said that he once stood upon the front steps of his church on Broadway at noon, and, upon looking up and down the street, he only saw some ten or twelve people. The city seemed to be hushed into the stillness of the cemetery. It was raging in New Orleans while it was desolating Vicksburg.
The cholera in one respect is, fortunately, like a whirlwind; it makes no long tarrying, and therefore, for lack of food, it rapidly passed over the little town. Health once more returned, but a hundred new-made graves told the sad story of the havoc it had made in human life. Death was not the only disastrous effect of this epidemic: here and there a commercial house fell before the storm, and the business of the people was sadly crippled. A contemporary says that at such times Prentiss was active in giving relief to the distressed, and his countenance was like a ray of sunshine to the desponding.
As yet the young lawyer had no partner in law in Vicksburg. Although he had not yet realized the extraordinary success which he subsequently achieved, still he accomplished enough to satisfy his young ambition. He had work on band, and was at least self-supporting. Young as he was, he was the recipient of what we conceive to be a distinguished honor,--he was employed to conduct a cause before the Supreme Court of the United States. He accordingly went on to Washington City, and was admitted to practice in that court at the January terni, 1833.
His first appearance before that court was in the case of Sampeyreac & Stewart v. United States. It seems that this Sampeyreac, under the act of Congress, 24th May, 1824,"enabling the claimants of land within the limits of the State of Missouri and Territory of Arkansas to institute proceedings to try the validity of their title,” filed his bill v. United States in the Superior Court of Arkansas on the 21st of November, 1827. In this he stated that, being an inhabitant of Louisiana, he, on the 6th of October, 1789, addressed a letter to the then governor of Louisiana asking for ten arpents of land fronting on Strawberry Creek, etc.; that the governor did order a survey upon said petition, which would have been completed into good title, etc., had not the sovereignty been transferred to the United States; it was, therefore, protected by the French-American treaty of 1803. On this petition the United States was cited. The district attorney denied the allegation, and alleged that Sampeyreac was a fiction, or a foreigner, and then dead. On the 19th of December, 1827, the district attorney moved a continuance for various reasons, but the court overruled the motion, tried the cause, and, upon the deposition of one John Heberard, entered a decree against the United States for the
locus in quo.
On the 14th of February, 1828, a deed, purporting to be a decree executed by Sampey reac, transferring his claim to the clerk's certificate of the existence of this decree, and all his right, title, and interest in said decree, to John J. Bowie, was recorded