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THE LIFE AND TIMES
SEARGENT SMITH PRENTISS.
On the last day of September, 1808, in the town of Portland, Maine, Seargent Smith Prentiss was born. His parents on both sides were of a noble New England stock, and from them he inherited the talents and virtues for which he was in after-life so eminently distinguished. Casco Bay, upon which Portland is situated, has one of the finest harbors in the United States, and this gave the bent to the genius of her people. The father of Seargent was the master of a merchant ship, and drew his living by the sea.
" They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters ;
" These men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.
"For at his word the stormy wind ariseth, which lifteth up the waves thereof.
" They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep; their soul melteth away because of the trouble.
“They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end.
“So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, he delivereth them out of their distress.
" For he maketh the storm to cease, so that the waves thereof are still.
" Then are they glad, because they are at rest; and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be."
Through the vicissitudes of the seafaring life—whose epitome is so beautifully described in the above quotation from the Psalms--the father passed the prime of his life, and expe
rienced in its sublimity the poetic description in all its phases : the terror of the storm ; the joy in its lull; the oft-repeated felicity of the return to the peaceful haven of his home. The life itself begets a habit of courage in the midst of danger, unselfishness, nobleness of feeling, and reckless generosity.
The maiden name of Prentiss's mother was Abigail Lewis. She was of a week and humble Christian spirit; her portraiture is best given in tlie last chapter of the Proverbs of Solomon, from the tenth verse to the close. A sailor's wife,“ like her own merchants' ships from afar," her life was freighted with blessings to her household and friends.
Seargent seems to have inherited the virtues of his parents blended into harmony,—the self-reliant courage of the father with the most tender affections of the mother. When he was born he was perfect in his physical proportions, but while he was yet an infant he was attacked with a violent fever ; days, weeks, and months of weary watching passed, while his little life hung suspended in a balance. His naturally strong constitution triumphed; but, alas! the disease left its life-long mark in a lameness which followed him like a shadow to the grave. This misfortune was at once a bane and a blessing : it cast its shadow over his sensitive nature in retarding his progress through the world, but it forced him as a boy-debarred as he was from the athletic sports in which other children revelled-to seek amusement in intellectual cultivation. While his companions were playing he was studying, and the consequence was that in his tender years he acquired a vast amount of information, which he never seemed to forget and which he utilized in after-life.
Maternal love, like latent heat, permeates the mother's soul for all her offspring alike: sometimes it may become more visibly developed by peculiar circumstances, and it was thus with this mother and her afflicted child. Her constant and unremitting care and devotion for years after the disease had left him restored his strength. This care was requited on his part by an unwavering affection which amounted almost to idolatry.
He passed the days of his childhood in his native town. He was sent to the district public school, held about an eighth of a mile from his home. The manner in which he attended that school was truly unique, and perhaps the like of it was never seen before. After his illness had subsided, he first began to move about on crutches; but of course it was too fatiguing for him to travel any distance, and so his elder brother, William, hauled him to school in a little hand-cart. It must have been a touching sight, this youthful act of fraternal devotion. The little cart, the little scholar, and the pony of a brother, would, it seems to me, make a pretty picture for a child's book to illustrate the rise of genius from an apparently unpropitious dawn.
When the war of 1812 with England broke out, the family moved back some eight or ten miles to near the village of Gorham. Here Seargent was sent to school to the Rev. Mr. Nasen, whose character as a tutor can be briefly summed up,—a Puritan in faith, a martinet in discipline, and an encyclopædia in knowledge. Under the tutelage of such a teacher it is no wonder the scholar grew rapidly in knowledge.
It is a great mistake to suppose that the boy achieved his greatness alone by intuition, for he was a close student. The difference between him and others of his age was the marvellous rapidity with which he acquired knowledge and his wonderfully retentive memory. This latter faculty in ordinary minds receives the impression of what is heard, read, or seen like the blur upon blotting-paper, but it was not so with him, the impression came out clear and distinct in his memory as a letter-press copy ; nor was this his only extraordinary mental endowment, for he had, so to speak, a wonderful power of mental “ assimilation”; he seemed at once to digest what he read, and it became a part and parcel of his being. Besides these two leading powers, he was gifted with a brilliant and fervid imagination that moulded his thoughts into visions of beauty. He had great logi. cal powers, and, as we shall hereafter see, he always, in speaking, presented his propositions very clearly, and, though they were lit up with the coruscations of his imagination, he never lost sight of them.
He began school, as we have said, on wheels, but, as time moved on, the go-cart was abandoned and he hobbled upon (rutches, these in turn gave way to a cane, and this was his support for the remainder of his life. Traditions have come down to us of his sprightliness as a school-boy, and one old neighbor told the brother of Prentiss—after his fame as an orator began to spread—that he had heard the first stump-speech of the wonderful youth in an apple-orchard hard by to a mass-meeting of his playmates. It was so striking that it gave a presage of his future brilliant career.
When nearing the close of his school-boy days, his father determined to give him a collegiate education. His physical defect unfitted him for the life of a farmer, and there was no other way open for him but a professional career. Had he been a dullard his father would have cheerfully borne him along the journey of life to its close, but he saw that there was that spark of genius within which only needed development to insure success.
The boy of sixteen had so improved his time in the Gorham school under Tutor Nasen that, with a bound, he overleaped the Freshman and Sophomore classes of Bowdoin College and applied to enter the Junior class. This application to enter the advanced class was based upon the score of a double economy, that of the purse and of time. The limited resources of the father required him to husband with care the means with which to rear and educate a large family; and Necessity whispered to the youth that he must get to work within the shortest possible time.
When he presented himself for the advanced class, his extremely youthful appearance and his physical infirmity excited the sympathy of the examiners. Professor Packard, upon whom the duty of examining him fell, began very gently, so as to put the youthful neophyte at ease; years afterward he told the story to the younger brother of Prentiss, who has embodied it in the " Memoirs."
The boy of sixteen who enters college has a perilous voyage before him, and none but he who has tried it can fully appreciate its dangers. Freed from the restraints of home influence, and unsuspecting in his nature, he is the more easily tempted, and often led astray; more especially is this the case with a boy of genius. His very brilliancy attracts boon companions, and his very hilarity sometimes insensibly glides into dissipation.
Fortunately, Seargent passed safely the crucial test; le fully realized, though but a youth, the responsibility of his position.