Charles Sumner

American senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874), an uncompromising opponent of slavery, worked to arouse the nation against it. He was a staunch supporter of African American rights legislation and stringent Reconstruction in the South.

Charles Sumner was born on Jan. 6, 1811, in Boston, Mass. His father was a lawyer and, briefly, a sheriff. Sumner attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard University in 1830. He obtained a law degree in 1833 from the Harvard Law School, where he was greatly influenced by the legal scholar Joseph Story. Although a brilliant student of the law and a frequent contributor to legal journals, Sumner disliked the routine of actual practice, preferring the life of Boston's intellectual community.

Through his Boston friends, particularly Samuel Gridley Howe and William Ellery Channing, Sumner became involved in the humanitarian reform movements currently blossoming in New England, especially movements to improve education and prisons and for universal peace and the abolition of slavery. The reformers were influenced by evangelical Protestantism as well as by secular commitments to change. They believed that mankind's progress was inevitable if men lived by true and inflexible moral principles and worked assiduously, without hesitation or considerations of expediency, to destroy corrupting influences still present in society. Sumner shared their ideals and became noted for his particularly inflexible principles and idealistic oratory against the evils of war.


Antislavery Politics

Sumner had always viewed slavery as one of the basic moral evils in the United States. When the annexation of Texas revealed to him the unscrupulous greed and expansionism of the slaveholders, he joined the Conscience Whig faction in its efforts to challenge slavery by political means. The Massachusetts Whig party was controlled by the Cotton Whigs, who opposed antislavery agitation as divisive and pointless; many Conscience Whigs left their party, therefore, to form the Free Soil party in 1848. Sumner unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Free Soiler that year. In 1851 when the Free Soilers gained the balance of power in the Massachusetts Legislature, they joined with the Democrats to elect Sumner to the Senate.

Sumner arrived in Congress at an inopportune moment for an antislavery agitator, for both parties had accepted the Compromise of 1850 as the final solution of the slavery question. As a representative of a party that was fast losing support, Sumner seemed headed for political oblivion. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 reintroduced slavery into politics, and slavery and other issues soon led to the formation of the Republican party, committed to halt further expansion of slavery. Sumner quickly became a leading Republican. In the renewed debates over slavery the uncompromising absolutism of his sppeeches brought much attention. Ignoring the fact that his views were more radical than those of most Republicans, Southerners used his speeches to demonstrate to their constituents the fanaticism of the new party and its violent hostility to Southern interests.

In 1856 Sumner delivered his "Crime against Kansas" speech, vehemently attacking the introduction of slavery into that territory and bitterly assailing three involved Democratic leaders, Senators Stephen A. Douglas, Andrew Pickens Butler, and James Murray Mason. Two days later, at his Senate desk Sumner was beaten unconscious with a cane by Butler's nephew, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The brutal assault helped fire up Northern opinion against the South as few other things had, especially since many Southerners praised Brooks's action. Sumner was unable to return to the Senate for almost 4 years because of persistent problems with his injuries. His empty chair became a noted symbol of Southern viciousness against their opponents.


Civil War

Returning to the Senate on the eve of the 1860 election, Sumner renewed his assaults on the South. His inflexibility worried and alienated conservative Republicans and kept Sumner out of key party policy-making positions. He opposed any compromise with slavery in the secession crisis of 1860-1861. On the outbreak of war he became a vigorous advocate of a strong military policy to force the South into submission. He also was among the first to accept the war's revolutionary potential, calling for military emancipation, the use of black troops, and all measures promising equal rights for African Americans, including suffrage. Fearing the consequences if the South was restored to power before the rights of emancipated slaves had been guaranteed, Sumner argued that the Southern states, by seceding, had deprived themselves of their status under the Constitution. Before they could reenter the Union, therefore, Congress must restore and ensure their "republican form of government, " in which Sumner wanted political rights for freedmen included.

Sumner was also active in foreign affairs during the war. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he strove to maintain friendly relations with Europe, which were vital to Northern success. Realizing that European intervention would immeasurably aid the South, he helped kill offensive resolutions directed against France and England.


Reconstruction Period

After the war Sumner led in opposing President Andrew Johnson's conservative Reconstruction policies. He supported the various Radical Republican legislative proposals: establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau, the 14th Amendment, and the various civil rights and Reconstruction acts, although he thought most of them overly conservative. Sumner wanted more extensive aid to the freedmen, land distribution to ensure economic survival, and free schools, for example; but the nationwide antipathy toward African Americans, and Republican fears of a white political backlash, ultimately prevented such radical action. Sumner himself was denied a seat on the potent Joint Committee on Reconstruction, where less intransigent members were favored.

Sumner enthusiastically supported Johnson's impeachment in 1868 but was no happier under President Ulysses S. Grant. He strongly opposed Grant's pet project for annexing Santo Domingo in 1870. He also opposed administration plans for settling, on moderate terms, disputes with England stemming from the Civil War. In retaliation, he was deprived of his Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship by the administration. From then on Sumner carried on a fierce war against the administration. "No wild bull, " Secretary of State Hamilton Fish wrote of Sumner in 1871, "ever dashed more violently at a red rag than he goes at anything that he thinks the President is interested in."

Sumner joined the Liberal Republicans in 1872 in order to continue his opposition to Grant. Unlike many of the Republicans in the movement, however, he did not give up his interest in the Southern freedmen. At the time of his death of a heart attack in Washington on March 11, 1874, he was trying to secure the passage of a civil rights bill. (It passed the following year.) With his death passed much of the idealism of Radical Reconstruction.


Further Reading on Charles Sumner

Sumner's Works (15 vols., 1870-1883) contains what he considered to be his most important writings. Edward L. Pierce, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner (4 vols., 1877-1893), is a sympathetic biography by a friend. An excellent biography in two volumes is by David Donald: volume 1: Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1961; and volume 2: Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), deals with the remainder of Sumner's life.