Sumner (January 6, 1811–March 11, 1874) was an American politician
and statesman from the U.S. state of Massachusetts. A noted lawyer
and orator, Sumner was at various times a Whig, a Free Soiler, a
Republican and a Liberal Republican. He devoted his enormous energies
to the destruction of what he considered the Slave Power, that is
the conspiracy of slave owners to seize control of the federal government
and block the progress of liberty.
served in the U.S. Senate for twenty-three years, from 1851 to
his death, gaining fame as one of the most powerful Radical Republicans,
and being notoriously beaten close to death on the Senate floor
by a pro-slavery South Carolina congressman.
life, education, and law career
Sumner was born in Boston on Irving Street on January 6, 1811.
He attended the Boston Latin School. He graduated in 1830 from
Harvard College (where he lived in Hollis Hall), and in 1834 from
Harvard Law School where he studied jurisprudence with his friend
1834, Sumner was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-three,
and entered private practice in Boston, where he partnered with
George Stillman Hillard. A visit to Washington, D.C. filled him
with loathing for politics as a career, and he returned to Boston
resolved to devote himself to the practice of law. He contributed
to the quarterly American Jurist and edited Story's court decisions
as well as some law texts. From 1836 to 1837, Sumner lectured
at Harvard Law School.
From 1837 to 1840, Sumner traveled extensively in Europe. There
he learned fluent French, German and Italian, with a command of
foreign languages equalled by no American then in public life.
He met with many of the leading statesmen in Europe, and secured
a deep insight into Continental law and government.
visited England in 1838 where his knowledge of literature, history,
and law made him popular with leaders of thought. Henry Peter
Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux declared that he "had
never met with any man of Sumner's age of such extensive legal
knowledge and natural legal intellect." Not until many years
after Sumner's death was any other American received so intimately
into British intellectual circles.
of political career
In 1840, at the age of thirty, Sumner returned to Boston to practice
law but devoted more time to lecturing at Harvard Law School,
to editing court reports, and to contributing to law journals,
especially on historical and biographical themes.
turning point in Sumner's life came when he delivered an Independence
Day oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations," in Boston
in 1845. He spoke against war, and made an impassioned appeal
for freedom and peace.
was sought after as an orator in the North. His lofty themes and
stately eloquence made a profound impression; his platform presence
was imposing (he stood six feet and four inches tall, with a massive
frame). His voice was clear and of great power; his gestures unconventional
and individual, but vigorous and impressive. His literary style
was florid, with much detail, allusion, and quotation, often from
the Bible as well as ancient Greece and Rome. Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow wrote that he delivered speeches "like a cannoneer
ramming down cartridges," while Sumner himself said that
"you might as well look for a joke in the Book of Revelations."
cooperated effectively with Horace Mann to improve the system
of public education in Massachusetts. He advocated prison reform
and opposed the Mexican-American War. He viewed the war as imperialist
aggression and was concerned that captured territories would expand
slavery westward. In 1847, the vigor with which Sumner denounced
a Boston congressman's vote in favor of the declaration of war
against Mexico made him a leader of the "conscience Whigs,"
but he declined to accept their nomination for the House of Representatives.
took an active part in the organizing of the Free Soil Party,
in opposition to the Whigs' nomination of a slave-holding southerner
for the presidency. In 1848, he was defeated as a candidate for
the U.S. House of Representatives. On December 4, 1849, Sumner
argued unsuccessfully before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial
Court in Roberts v. Boston that segregated public schools were
1851, control of the Massachusetts General Court was secured by
the Democrats in coalition with the Free Soilers. However, the
legislature deadlocked on who should succeed Daniel Webster (who
had accepted Millard Fillmore's appointment as Secretary of State)
in the U.S. Senate. After filling the state positions with Democrats,
the Democrats refused to vote for Sumner (the Free Soilers' choice)
and urged the selection of a less radical candidate. An impasse
of more than three months ensued, which finally resulted in the
election of Sumner by a single vote on April 24.
in the Senate
career and attack by Preston Brooks (Bully-Brooks Affair)
Sumner took his seat in the Senate on December 1, 1851. For the
first few sessions Sumner did not push for any of his controversial
causes, but observed the workings of the Senate. On August 26,
1852, Sumner delivered, in spite of strenuous efforts to prevent
it, his first major speech. Entitled "Freedom National; Slavery
Sectional" (a popular abolitionist motto), Sumner attacked
the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and called for its repeal.
conventions of both the great parties had just affirmed the finality
of every provision of the Compromise of 1850. Reckless of political
expediency, Sumner moved that the Fugitive Slave Act be forthwith
repealed; and for more than three hours he denounced it as a violation
of the Constitution, an affront to the public conscience, and
an offense against the divine law. The speech provoked a storm
of anger in the South, but the North was heartened to find at
last a leader whose courage matched his conscience.
1856, during the Bloody Kansas crisis when "border ruffians"
approached Lawrence, Kansas, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska
Act in the "Crime against Kansas" speech on May 19 and
May 20, two days before the sack of Lawrence. Sumner attacked
the authors of the act, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew
Butler of South Carolina, comparing Douglas to Don Quixote and
speech contained several mocking references to a speech impediment
of Butler ("with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose
expectoration of his speech, now upon her representative, and
then upon her people") who had suffered a stroke causing
the disability. Sumner said Douglas (who was present in the chamber)
was a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal...not a proper
model for an American senator," while he said Butler (who
was not present) took "a mistress who, though ugly to others,
is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world,
is chaste in his sight—I mean, the harlot, Slavery."
This slur on Butler's sexual mores would have been considered
a deadly insult.
days later, on the afternoon of May 22, Preston Brooks, a congressman
from South Carolina and Butler's nephew, confronted Sumner as
he sat writing at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber,
attaching his postal frank to copies of his speech. Preston said
"Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully.
It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative
of mine—" As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks began
beating Sumner on the head with a thick gutta-percha cane with
a gold head.
was trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor),
but Brooks continued to bash Sumner until he ripped the desk from
the floor. By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood,
and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness.
Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane, then
quietly left the chamber.
was helped to a room outside and was taken home, where he said,
"I could not believe that a thing like this was possible."
He did not attend the Senate for the next three years, recovering
from the attack; Sumner suffered from nightmares, headaches, and
post-traumatic shock in addition to the head trauma. The Massachusetts
General Court reelected him, in the belief that in the Senate
chamber his vacant chair was the most eloquent pleader for free
speech and resistance to slavery. Sumner's chair was later purchased
by Bates College, an abolitionist leaning school with which Sumner
act revealed the increasing polarization of the Union in the years
before the American Civil War, as Sumner became a hero in Massachusetts
and Brooks a hero in South Carolina. Northerners were outraged,
with the editor of the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant,
South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it
in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are
now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.
Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the
presence of our Southern masters?... Are we to be chastised as
they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life,
a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves
to please them?"
The outrage heard across the North was loud and strong, and historian
William Gienapp later argued that the success of the new Republican
party was uncertain in early 1856; but Brooks’s "assault
was of critical importance in transforming the struggling Republican
party into a major political force."
the act was praised by Southern newspapers; the Richmond Enquirer
editorialized that Sumner should be caned "every morning,"
praising the attack as "good in conception, better in execution,
and best of all in consequences" and denounced "these
vulgar abolitionists in the Senate" who "have been suffered
to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission."
After years of medically assisted recuperation Sumner returned
to the Senate in 1859. He delivered a speech entitled "The
Barbarism of Slavery" in the months leading up to the 1860
presidential election. In the critical months following the election
of Abraham Lincoln, Sumner was an unyielding foe to every scheme
of compromise with the Confederate States of America.
the withdrawal of the Southern senators, Sumner was made chairman
of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March 1861,
a position for which he was well-qualified owing to his years
and background of European political knowledge, relationships,
and experiences. While the war was in progress, Sumner's letters
from Richard Cobden and John Bright, from William Ewart Gladstone
and George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, were read by
Sumner at Lincoln's request to the Cabinet, and formed a chief
source of knowledge on the political situation in Britain.
the turmoil over the Trent affair, it was Sumner's word that convinced
Lincoln that James M. Mason and John Slidell must be given up.
Again and again Sumner used the power incident to his chairmanship
to block action which threatened to embroil the U.S. in war with
England and France. Sumner openly and boldly advocated the policy
of emancipation. Lincoln described Sumner as "my idea of
a bishop," and used to consult him as an embodiment of the
conscience of the American people.
was a longtime enemy of United States Chief Justice Roger Taney,
and attacked his decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case.
In 1865, Congress rejected a proposal to commission a bust of
Taney to be displayed with the four Chief Justices who preceded
him. Sumner said:
speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of
the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly
abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts.
Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You
have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous
judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course,
the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty
was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also..."
hearing the news of Taney's passing, Sumner wrote Lincoln in celebration
declaring that "Providence has given us a victory" in
Civil War had hardly begun when Sumner put forward his theory
of reconstruction, that the South had by its own act become felo
de se, committing state suicide via secession, and that they be
treated as conquered territories that had never been states. He
resented the loose Reconstruction policy taken by Lincoln, and
later by Andrew Johnson, as an encroachment upon the powers of
the war, Sumner had constituted himself the special champion of
blacks, being the most vigorous advocate of emancipation, of enlisting
the blacks in the Union army, and of the establishment of the
Freedmen's Bureau. A friend of Samuel Gridley Howe, he was also
a guiding force for the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission.
Sumner was one of the most prominent advocates for suffrage, along
with free homesteads and free public schools for blacks.
years and death
Sumner was strongly opposed to the Reconstruction policy of Johnson,
believing it to be far too generous to the South. Johnson was
impeached by the House, but the Senate failed to convict him (and
thus remove him from office) by a single vote.
Grant became a bitter opponent of Sumner in 1870 when the president
mistakenly thought that he had secured his support for the annexation
of San Domingo.
had always prized highly his popularity in England, but he unhesitatingly
sacrificed it in taking his stand as to the adjustment of claims
against England for breaches of neutrality during the war. Sumner
laid great stress upon "national claims." He held that
England's according the rights of belligerents to the Confederacy
had doubled the duration of the war, entailing inestimable loss.
therefore insisted that England should be required not merely
to pay damages for the havoc wreaked by the Confederate Ship Alabama
and other cruisers fitted out for Confederate service in her ports,
but that, for "that other damage, immense and infinite, caused
by the prolongation of the war," the withdrawal of the British
flag from this hemisphere could "not be abandoned as a condition
or preliminary of such a settlement as is now proposed."
(At the Geneva arbitration conference these "national claims"
pressure from the president, on the ground that Sumner was no
longer on speaking terms with the Secretary of State, he was deposed
in March 1871 from the chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign
Relations, in which he had served with great distinction and effectiveness
throughout the critical years since 1861. Whether the chief cause
of this humiliation was Grant's vindictiveness at Sumner's opposition
to his San Domingo project or a genuine fear that the impossible
demand, which he insisted should be made upon England, would wreck
the prospect of a speedy and honourable adjustment with that country,
cannot be determined. In any case it was a cruel blow to a man
already broken by racking illness and domestic sorrows. He broke
with the Republican party and campaigned for the Liberal Republican
last years were further saddened by the misconstruction put upon
one of his most magnanimous acts. In 1872, he introduced in the
Senate a resolution providing that the names of battles with fellow
citizens should not be placed on the regimental colors of the
United States. The Massachusetts legislature denounced this battle-flag
resolution as "an insult to the loyal soldiery of the nation"
and as "meeting the unqualified condemnation of the people
of the Commonwealth."
more than a year all efforts– headed by the poet John Greenleaf
Whittier– to rescind that censure were without avail, but
early in 1874 it was annulled. His last words uttered around his
closest collegues and friends was noted to be "save my civil
rights bill", a bill which in varied forms would finally
pass not until almost 100 years after his death.
lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda and was buried in Mount
was the scholar in politics. He could never be induced to suit
his action to the political expediency of the moment. "The
slave of principles, I call no party master," was the proud
avowal with which he began his service in the Senate. For the
tasks of Reconstruction he showed little aptitude. He was less
a builder than a prophet.
was the first clear program proposed in Congress for the reform
of the civil service. It was his dauntless courage in denouncing
compromise, in demanding the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act,
and in insisting upon emancipation, that made him the chief initiating
force in the struggle that put an end to slavery. In St. Louis,
Missouri there is a famous high school named after Charles Sumner.
The Sumner High school in St. Louis is the first black high school
west of the Mississippi.