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Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner Portrait, oil on canvas
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On 6 January 2011, we marked the bicentennial of the birth of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874), an outspoken advocate of the antislavery movement, gifted orator, ardent reformer, respected scholar, and fervent supporter of human rights.

This 1877 posthumous portrait by Darius Cobb was based on a photograph of Sumner by James Wallace Black taken in 1866, and shows Sumner at the hour of the great victory over slavery and at the height of his senatorial powers as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, but still with cane in hand, having never fully recovered from the severe beating he suffered ten years before when he was attacked by a fellow member of Congress, Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina.

Who was Charles Sumner?

When he died in 1874, Sumner was one of the most prominent figures in Massachusetts politics and in the United States Senate where he had served for 23 years, but his life and works are not well known today.The son of lawyer Charles Pinckney and Relief (Jacob) Sumner, he was born in Boston in 1811. Raised in a family committed to reform, during his school years he excelled in literature and history, and graduated from Harvard College in 1830 and Harvard Law School in 1834. After practicing law for three years, he moved to Paris where he continued his legal studies. When he returned to Boston in 1840, he plunged into a range of reform movements.

He gained prominence as a public speaker after he was asked to deliver the 1845 Independence Day address in Boston. Sumner's argument in "The True Grandeur of Nations" was that war was "utterly and irreconcilably inconsistent with True Greatness," and that government used patriotism to provoke war--hardly a staple of typical Fourth of July speeches. A tall, imposing figure, Sumner impressed audiences, even those not sympathetic to his radical views on social reform and human rights.

In the aftermath of the Mexican War, Sumner became active in the moral crusade against slavery, joining the new Free Soil Party that resisted the western expansion of slavery and attacked the alliance between "the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom" (Southern slave owners and Northern cotton manufacturers). Sumner's zeal for the antislavery cause had no bounds and he was known for his vehement attacks on political foes--and friends who were not equally zealous for the cause.Sumner fought against slavery everywhere, and for racial integration at home in Boston where in 1849 he participated in the unsuccessful attempt to integrate Boston's public schools.The Free Soil Movement catapulted Sumner to political prominence, and in 1851 a coalition of Massachusetts Freesoilers and Democrats elected him to the Senate. Washington would never be the same.

In Congress, Sumner attempted to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, and although his inaugural four-hour speech did not win over the majority, it established him as the voice of antislavery in the Senate. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened an ongoing and vituperative debate over slavery in the territories, and moved Sumner and his antislavery colleagues to create the Republican Party. On 26 May 1856 Sumner gave his most famous antislavery oration, "The Crime against Kansas."  The speech attacked supporters of the extension of slavery, and specifically Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.  According to Sumner, Butler had "chosen a mistress"--the "harlot of slavery," while Douglas was "the squire of Slavery...its very Sancho Panza...ready to do its humiliating offices." Two days later, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina (Butler's cousin) attacked Sumner at his desk, nearly beating him to death with a cane.  The nation was jolted by the attack: most Southerners applauded Brooks for taking revenge for an attack on his family's honor; most Northerners saw in the caning a true indication of the mentality of all slave owners. Sumner never fully recovered from his injuries, but the Massachusetts legislature almost unanimously re-elected him to his office, even though he remained an invalid for three years.  Sumner returned to the Senate late in 1859 and continued his crusade with the address, "The Barbarism of Slavery."

The outbreak of the Civil War gave Sumner the opportunity to launch his final attack on slavery.  He became a close ally of President Lincoln, and pressed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to allow African-Americans to enlist in the fight for their own freedom. After Lincoln's death, Sumner turned his efforts to securing full civil and economic rights for former slaves.  His efforts brought him into conflict with President Johnson, whom he attempted to impeach. If anything, Sumner's relations with Johnson's successor, President Grant, were even more tumultuous.  Sumner used his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block a treaty for the annexation of Santo Domingo and attacked the pervasive public corruption of the age wherever he found it. In revenge, he was stripped of his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.  A brief and unhappy marriage to Alice Mason Hooper in 1866 also darkened what should have been the happiest years of his life.

Throughout his long public career, Sumner persevered in the fight for racial justice and equality, even when the country and congress grew weary. He fought for full civil rights for African-Americans, including the prohibition of discrimination in public accommodations, transportation, schools and jury selection--a full century before many of his proposals were enacted.

Darius Cobb, the Artist

Darius Cobb (1834-1919), was born in Malden, Massachusetts.  He and his twin brother Cyrus served together in the Civil War and both later became celebrated Boston artists.  Darius primarily painted landscapes, portraits, and historical paintings, including many of Charles Sumner's Massachusetts political allies--and enemies--while his brother, Cyrus, is best known as a sculptor.

Charles Sumner and the Massachusetts Historical Society

In spite of his importance as a Massachusetts and national political figure, the collection of Charles Sumner's papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society is surprisingly small. The Historical Society also holds a collection of the papers of Sumner's father, Charles Pinckney Sumner, that includes some of his son's papers, including a college diary, and the personal papers of almost 50 individuals who corresponded with Sumner. The reason for this gap is political and personal. Even though they had been boyhood classmates at the Boston Latin School, Charles Sumner had a lengthy and bitter political feud with Robert C. Winthrop, a former Massachusetts congressman--and, more to the point, the president of the Historical Society from 1855 to 1885--who had fallen out with Sumner over the Mexican War (according to Sumner, the most wicked act in American history) in 1849.  Winthrop blocked all efforts to elect Sumner a member of the Historical Society until they finally reconciled in 1873, the year before Sumner's death. The following year, along with many of the most important Massachusetts literary and political figures of his generation, Winthrop was one of the pallbearers at Sumner's funeral. Before his funeral in Cambridge, all business in Boston stopped for a day in Sumner's honor.

Sources for Further Reading

Donald, David H. Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1960.

Donald, David H. Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Palmer, Beverly W., ed. The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990.

Sumner, Charles. The Works of Charles Sumner. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1870-83.


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