So Newt Wants To Use Animals? Why Not, It Worked For Seargent Prentiss-A Hayride History Lesson

While reading some political news this morning, I ran across a story about a new campaign strategy from Newt Gingrich, in which he is going to use animals and music to showcase his “lighter-side” to win votes.

Gingrich is launching a “Pets With Newt” website, revealing his love for critters, and is releasing a music education video starring his wife Callista, who is a classically trained musician and signer.

I’m kind of a history buff and Newt using animals and music in a campaign reminded me of a story of Seargent S. Prentiss doing the same thing and I decided to use it as an opportunity to share a little local history with a light-hearted story leading into the Christmas weekend.

For those of you who don’t know, Prentiss was a 19th congressman from antebellum Natchez, Miss. who also had strong ties to Louisiana. Toward the end of his short life, he lived in New Orleans where he was one of the old city’s most prominent citizens.

He died in 1850 at the age of 42 from tuberculosis.

Today, a major thoroughfare in Natchez, Seargent S. Prentiss Drive —also Highway 61–is named for him and he is buried a short drive across the Mississippi River from where I live in Concordia Parish.

Prentiss was a hard drinker who sometimes settled disputes with pistols in duels.

One was fought with Sen. Henry S. Foote, who would later go on to become governor of Mississippi. Foote, for is part, once pulled a pistol on another senator during a debate on the Senate floor–those were different times.

While he was a little rough around the edges, Prentiss had the gift of gab and is remembered of one of the most remarkable orators of his day, an era filled with remarkable speech givers. Daniel Webster, foremost among American orators, said that he had never beheld a speaker as powerful as Prentiss.

Too bad that we can’t somehow resurrect him to give Rick Perry a few pointers, but I digress.

Prentiss was upstaged once when he was first running for Congress and that’s where this little story begins.

He was canvassing Mississippi in 1837, giving outdoor stump speeches when he ran into a problem. No matter how eloquently he spoke, he noticed that the crowd kept peeling away the longer he talked. This had never happened to him before, so he knew something was amiss.

He eventually learned that workers from a traveling circus down the road had infiltrated the crowd and were luring people away.

Most of the country folk who came to hear Prentiss had never seen anything like the circus, which was filled with exotic animals like lions and elephants as well as a musician troupe. Prentiss couldn’t compete, so he just made a few jokes about the situation and packed it up.

This is how it all went down, from an account given by Joseph Dunbar Shields, a contemporary of Prenitss:

Prentiss saw that for once he was doomed, so, gracefully bowing to the audience, he said in substance, ” Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am beaten, but I have the consolation of knowing that it is not by my competitors. I will not knock under to any two-legged beast, but I yield to the elephant.” This, of course, caused a great laugh, and the meeting broke up in a good humor.

Prentiss’ troubles didn’t end that day, however.

It soon became apparent that the circus was following the famed orator around to steal his crowd. He felt that if he couldn’t beat them, he might as well join them and Prentiss soon worked out a deal with the circus manager.

The next time the circus raised it’s curtain, it featured Prentiss at center stage with music playing as he perched on top of a hyena cage, surrounded by other caged animals that he used as props to make political points:

On went Prentiss, and every now and then he would thrust his cane through the holes of his rostrum. This would bring a yell from the hyena. Above the din he once raised his voice to the highest pitch, and cried, “Listen, fellow-citizens! Hark, how the very beasts of the forest utter their condemnation of this great Loco-foco outrage upon your dearest and most cherished rights!”

Meanwhile the lion, who had been quietly airing himself, walking to and fro in his prison, caught the infection, and, shaking his mane, threw his terrible roar into the chaos of sound. Here ladies shrieked, and even the men for a moment were appalled by the uproar. Prentiss turned to the noble beast, and continued: “We bid you welcome, sir, to our holy alliance, and right gladly hail the applause of such a representative of the brute creation.” In a moment he changed his tone and manner, and began in a playful strain to describe a political convention of his opponents: “There was the wily fox, the shrewdest trickster of his day; there sat the jackal, the office-seeker; there the hyena, the destroyer of men’s good names. This motley crew was presided over by his illustrious highness the baboon.”

Prentiss and the crowd had the most fun with the baboon, which he compared to a political opponent who reportedly had an uncanny resemblance to the monkey.

He later offered a public apology to the baboon for having made the comparison.

The crowd loved the act and Prentiss was able to keep using it beat up on the “Loco-focos” In case you were wondering, Prentiss was a Whig and Loco-foco was the name they used to make fun of the Democratic party of the time. It seems then, as now, Democrats were rather easy to lampoon.

If not for the circus act, Prentiss might have never made it to Congress since he was ushered into office with a slim margin of victory.

So, Gingrich might be onto something by working animals and music into his campaign. I doubt that he will go all the way and join a circus like Prentiss did.

On second thought, with the prospect of going up against Obama next year he might have joined one already.

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