Seargent Smith Prentiss, a lawyer and politician, was born on 30 September 1808 in Portland, Maine, the third of nine children of Abigail Lewis Prentiss and William Prentiss. Two of his sisters died young, and before he was a year old, Seargent contracted a severe illness and fever that left him an invalid for ten years. He forever had a limp, and in later life he needed a cane. Raised in a strict Congregationalist household, Prentiss attended Bowdoin College, graduating in 1826.
A voracious reader well versed in the classics, Prentiss decided that a practical career lay in the law and that the best opportunities were in the West. He read law in Gorham, Maine; in Cincinnati; and finally with Robert J. Walker in Natchez. Admitted to the bar in June 1829, Prentiss practiced briefly with Felix Huston before relocating to Vicksburg in 1832. Partnering with John Guion and later William C. Smedes, Prentiss had great success. Possessed with natural oratorical gifts, he repeatedly changed jurors’ minds.
A great admirer of the ideas and oratory of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Prentiss sided with the Whigs in the developing political party conflict of the 1830s. In 1835 Warren County elected Prentiss to the State House of Representatives. While visiting family in Maine, Prentiss halfheartedly competed to represent Mississippi in a special September 1837 session of the US Congress. He did not win, although he and Thomas J. Word won the regular November election. The Democratic incumbents, John F. H. Claiborne and Samuel Gholson, then claimed that their summer victory entitled them to the full two-year term. Permitted to present his claim to Congress, Prentiss made his reputation for oratory a national one. For three days he inspired the Whigs and skewered the Democrats, speaking so effectively that the House narrowly reversed its decision to seat the Democrats and returned the matter to Mississippi for a new election. Prentiss’s relentless campaigning then led the Whig ticket to victory in April 1838. His political stands were consistent with the national Whig platform. He favored railroads, other internal improvements, and the national bank while vigorously opposing the repudiation of Mississippi’s bonds in the early 1840s. Prentiss ran for the US Senate in January 1840 but suffered a difficult loss to Robert J. Walker. Later that year Prentiss spoke on behalf of William Henry Harrison’s presidential campaign at well-attended Whig rallies from Mississippi to Ohio to Maine, efforts he repeated in support of Henry Clay in 1844.
The last decade of his life was largely dedicated to his law practice and land speculation. On 2 March 1842 Prentiss married Mary Jane Williams of Natchez, and the couple had two daughters and two sons. Prentiss gambled and drank excessively, and his real estate speculation proved ill conceived, especially in Vicksburg. After the 1844 presidential campaign Prentiss relocated to New Orleans to practice law, attracting one controversial case after another. Debilitated by cholera and hard drinking and desperate to overcome his debts, Prentiss died on 1 July 1850 at Longwood, outside Natchez.
- Dallas C. Dickey, Seargent S. Prentiss: Whig Orator of the Old South (1945)
- George Lewis Prentiss, ed., A Memoir of S. S. Prentiss (1855)
- Joseph D. Shields, The Life and Times of Seargent Smith Prentiss (1883)