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Chapter 97: To Stay or To Go?

September 18, 2015
The American University
Bender Library

Source: The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 29 June 1905. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

During the Summer of 1905, Emmett had a decision: To stay in Marianna with Cephas in the law firm, or to move to Sterling, Illinois, to work as Nicholas Van Sant’s law partner.

Emmett wasn’t someone who made significant decisions without careful deliberation; I believe it was when he was in Pensacola at the end of June, 1905, away from the distractions and pressures of work with Cephas, that he told his family and best friend about Van Sant’s offer.

Nick Van Sant celebrating his 92nd birthday. Image source:

What we know from the research so far is that Emmett and Van Sant were in correspondence with each other about the job offer for at least several months. Emmett trusted Van Sant, who (arguably) was another father-figure in his life.

Both Emmett and Van Sant were completely honest with their plans in regular correspondence for about a year leading up to this point in 1905, and it makes sense that Emmett showed at least some of the letters to his father, brothers, and particularly Paul Carter, Emmett’s best friend.

This seems rational. But here’s the thing that’s bothering me:

Yeah, Emmett was careful about big decisions. But we also know Emmett was hugely ambitious — so this feels like an internal tug-of-war between Emmett the patient grown-up and Emmett the impatient kid — he was desperate to show the world he was good enough, smart enough to be his own man, and yet, he feared making the huge change that would catapult him into full-fledged, complete personal responsibility.

It wasn’t just that he had to persuade his family and friends that Van Sant’s offer was a good idea.

He was actually trying to persuade himself to accept Van Sant’s offer.


I can imagine the conversation Emmett had with Dr. Wilson and Paul Carter around his older brother Meade’s dining room table in Pensacola: Dishes from supper cleared away, the room is hazy with cigar smoke as the men lounge back in their seats smoking cigars. Meade passes a bottle of wine around the table. It is here, amidst the camaraderie of these men that Emmett tells them his plans. Perhaps this is where he takes out the most recent letter from Van Sant; passes it to his father first, who scans the document while Emmett narrates to the group its contents:

He’s going to visit Van Sant in a month or so, to find out the details about the offer. Emmett tells his family that he trusts Nick Van Sant, that the offer isn’t a fantasy, and he’s not making up his mind based solely on the letter. But, he wants to go in person to Illinois, to see exactly what Van Sant is offering.

Emmett gestures over to Paul; Paul knew Van Sant when they were all at Stetson University Law School together. Paul can speak to Van Sant’s professional and personal reputation just as easily as he can. Paul probably nods in agreement; tells the group that yes, Nick’s essentially a self-made man with excellent connections, particularly the fact that Nick’s brother is the Governor of Minnesota.

Governor Samuel R. Van Sant. Nick’s brother, and Governor of Minnesota (1901-1905). The Van Sant family had interests in real estate, as well as shipping and timber. Source: Wikipedia

Meade perhaps asks about Nick’s plans to open the law firm given the fact he also wants to start a new bank at the same time — isn’t that taking on too much for Nick?

Emmett says no, not with an able partner to run the firm — which he intends to do. “I would be responsible for the entire law practice. Nick says he will need to be focused on the bank, and will be hands-off for at least the first six months of the practice. That way, he can get established and I’ll be handling significant cases.” 

Perhaps there are dubious looks exchanged around the table. Meade then asks:

“It isn’t that we doubt your abilities, Emmett, but you’d be the most senior member of that law firm as far as experience goes. Has he taken the bar examination for Illinois yet? And you haven’t taken the examination for Illinois yet, have you? You’d have to wait before you could actually do any legal practice, which might take months. In the meantime, what could you do to support yourself?”

Emmett would assure his brother that Nick would cover for him, plus it wouldn’t take long until he passed the bar, which he would take right away.

Dr. Wilson, who has a completely different perspective, says:

“No one doubts your ability and potential, Emmett. But how effective do you think you’ll actually be?”

Emmett, defensively, replies:

“What do you mean, Father?”

“Think about it, son. Illinois is an all-Republican legal arena. You’ll be a minority, a lone Democrat.”

Emmett might shrug at this, but Dr. Wilson says it is important to understand.

“Most of the attorneys — the older ones, the political folks you’ll need to make friends with — were with the Grand Old Party, and may not think so positively with the son of a Confederate Veteran as their colleague. There’s a lot of history there; I’m surprised Van Sant didn’t mention it to you in his letters, what with his serving in the Union Army. You’ll be the only fellow in town with a Southern accent, I imagine. You’re going to stick out. People will say you talk funny — trust me, they will —  and they’ll likely judge you on that first before they even get to know you.” 

Emmett asks, “So?”

“So, it will be a tough environment to endure.”

Emmett says, “I don’t think it is such endurance. Besides. It has been almost 40 years since the War. Surely people have moved beyond that.” 

Dr. Wilson looked dubious. “People haven’t forgotten or moved on much since the War, son.”

Paul Carter, from the 1899 Argo, the yearbook of the West Florida Seminary (now Florida State University). The original valedictorian of the 1904 Stetson University Law Class. He didn’t finish at Stetson; rather, he took classes at Georgetown University while he was private secretary to William Bailey Lamar.

Paul nods. “And it might be pretty lonely because of it, Emmett. Think about that.”

Emmett shrugs. He says he likes being alone. He never gets any time by myself, not even when he’s not at work, just to think about the law, or even just to think. Frankly, he says he’d relish the idea.

“And I’d get to know people in Sterling.” He sits forward at the table, hands open, an almost-beseeching pose. “Look, Paul, Father. I think I can do this. It may be my big break, you know; and I’m never going to know unless I try. Look at you,” I said, turning to Paul. “You went up to Washington on your own; you walked away from Stetson to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; you really didn’t know a lot of people up there at first — the Congressmen and their assistants don’t count — and you’ve done just fine.”

Paul nods. “All right. You have a point. I tell you what.  Go see Van Sant; see what he has to say. On the way back, why not come out to see me in Washington for a few days? We’ll go out on the town; I’ll introduce you around, we’ll go to dinner, catch a show. And we can talk about whatever the offer is.” 

“Whatever happens, I would like to stop in Washington to visit with you,” Emmett says. 

Paul gives Emmett one of his tense smiles, and nods. Father hands the letter back to Emmett, which he puts in his coat pocket. 

The men sat quietly together the rest of the evening at Meade’s dining room table, sipping wine, smoking cigars.

Categories: Book Congressman Family Florida History In Emmett's Words In Paul's Words


Communication, Arts, and the Humanities
The University of Maryland Global Campus

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