Page:Southern Historical Society Papers volume 25.djvu/32

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28 Smiiln rn /fi'xf<>r>'<-<il Nor/r/v Papers.

times turn towards them in an impassional appeal, as if looking for a larger audience than court and jury; and the excitement of the outsiders, especially in criminal cases, was thrown with great effect into the jury box.

" Mr. Prentiss was never thrown off his guard or seemingly taken by surprise. He kept his temper, or if he got furious, there was ' method in his madness.'

"With these allowances, however, truth requires the admission that Mr. Prentiss did, when at the seat of government, occupy the hours usually allotted by the diligent practitioner to books or clients in amusements not well suited to prepare him for those great efforts which have indissolubly associated his name with the judicial history of the State.

"As an advocate, Mr. Prentiss attained a wider celebrity than as a jurist. Indeed, he was more formidable in this than in any other department of his profession. Before the Supreme, or Chancery, or Circuit Court, upon the law of the case, inferior abilities might set off, against greater native powers, superior application and research \ or the precedents might overpower him; or the learning or judg- ment of the bench might come in aid of the right, even when more feebly defended than assailed. But what protection had mediocrity, or even second-rate talent, against the influences of excitement and fascination let loose upon a mercurial jury, at least as easily impressed through their passions as their reason ? The boldness of his attacks, his iron nerve, his adroitness, his power of debate, the overpowering fire broadside after broadside which he poured into the assailable points of his adversary, his facility and plainness of illustration, and his talent of adapting himself to every mind and character he ad- dressed, rendered him on all debatable issues next to irresistible. To give him the conclusion was nearly the same thing as to give the verdict.

' ' He had a faculty in speaking I never knew possessed by any other person. He seemed to speak without any effort of the will. There seemed to be no governing or guiding power to the particular faculty called into exercise. It worked on, and its treasures flowed spontaneously. There was no air of thought, no elevation, frowning or knitting of the brow, no fixing up of the countenance, no pauses to collect or arrange his thoughts. All seemed natural and unpre- meditated. No one felt uneasy lest he should fail; in his most bril- liant flights, the ' empyrean heights ' into which he soared seemed to be his natural element, as the upper air the eagle's.