Skip to main content
Select Source:

Charles Sumner

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

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. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Charles Sumner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Charles Sumner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/charles-sumner

"Charles Sumner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/charles-sumner

Sumner, Charles

SUMNER, CHARLES

Charles Sumner served as U.S. senator from Massachusetts for 23 years starting in 1851. His career in the Senate was a turbulent one, marked by much controversy.

Sumner was born January 6, 1811, in Boston, Massachusetts. Sumner graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts degree in 1830 and a bachelor of laws degree in 1833.

After his admission to the bar in 1834, Sumner traveled through Europe from 1837 to 1840 to analyze foreign judicial systems. When he returned to the United States, he became interested in reform issues and emerged as a reform leader and an abolitionist. He was instrumental in the development of the Free-Soil Party in 1848 and endorsed martin van buren, the candidate of that party, in the presidential election of 1848.

Sumner staunchly opposed slavery and advocated the revocation of the fugitive slave act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462). He vehemently attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 (10 Stat. 277), which allowed residents of new territories to determine the slavery issue for their areas. In 1856, in a speech known as "The Crime Against Kansas," Sumner attacked stephen a. douglas, the originator of the bill, and South Carolina senator Andrew Pickens Butler, who strongly supported slavery. After the scathing oration, Sumner was beaten with a cane by Representative Preston Smith Brooks, who was

related to Senator Butler. The injuries Sumner sustained prevented him from actively participating in senatorial affairs for the next three years.

In 1861 Sumner became the presiding officer of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He held that position until 1871, when his radical behavior resulted in his removal from that office.

During the Reconstruction period, Sumner was a member of the radical Republican faction. He opposed President Andrew Johnson's conservative policy toward the South and advocated a policy that would allow freed men to own land that was previously a part of their owner's estates. Sumner also believed that the state legislatures should control the school system, and

that all races should be allowed to attend public schools. Sumner and Johnson were often at odds over their conflicting policies, and Sumner supported the impeachment of the president in 1868.

Sumner did not fare any better with the new administration of President ulysses s. grant. He opposed Grant's policy to annex Santo Domingo and demanded large reparations from Great Britain because that country had aided the Confederacy during the Civil War by supplying ships. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish spoke against Sumner's policy toward the British, saying that it interfered with current relations with that country. In 1871 Sumner was asked to leave his post as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, but he remained in the Senate until his death March 11, 1874, in Washington, D.C.

further readings

Barnico, Thomas A. 2000. "Massachusetts Lawyers and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson." Massachusetts Legal History 6.

Donald, David Herbert. 1996. Charles Sumner. New York: Da Capo Press.

Taylor, Anne-Marie. 2001. Young Charles Sumner and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811–1851. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.

cross-references

Abolition; Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sumner, Charles." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sumner, Charles." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumner-charles

"Sumner, Charles." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumner-charles

Sumner, Charles

Charles Sumner, 1811–74, U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1851–74), b. Boston. He attended (1831–33) and was later a lecturer at Harvard law school, was admitted (1834) to the bar, and practiced in Boston. He spent the years 1837 to 1840 in Europe. Later he became involved in several reform movements, including antislavery, and in 1851 a combination of Free-Soilers and Democrats sent him to the Senate. An aggressive abolitionist, Sumner attacked the fugitive slave laws, denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and on May 19–20, 1856, delivered his notable antislavery speech called "The Crime against Kansas." A master of invective, he singled out as his special victim Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, who was not there to reply. Two days later he was assaulted in the Senate chamber by Preston S. Brooks, Butler's nephew. It took Sumner more than three years to recover from the attack, but Massachusetts reelected him, and he resumed his seat in Dec., 1859. He had been important in organizing the new Republican party and in 1861 was made chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. In the Trent Affair he favored the release of the captured Confederate commissioners. Sumner highly approved Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; indeed he had been impatient at the long delay. Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House led the radical Republicans in their Reconstruction program for the South. He held that the Southern states had "committed suicide" by their secession and thus had lost any rights under the Constitution. Reconstruction he considered the function of Congress alone and he was most active in trying to secure the conviction of President Andrew Johnson on the impeachment charges. During the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Sumner's excessive demands regarding Civil War claims against Great Britain hampered the administration's negotiations with that country. His relationship with Grant deteriorated further when Sumner denounced Grant's questionable scheme to annex Santo Domingo; this led to his removal (Mar., 1871) from the chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations. Humiliated, Sumner helped organize (1872) the short-lived Liberal Republican party. Sumner wrote and spoke widely, and there are two editions of his works (15 vol., 1870–83; 20 vol., 1900).

See E. L. Pierce, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner (4 vol., 1877–93); D. H. Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960, repr. 1970) and Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sumner, Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sumner, Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumner-charles

"Sumner, Charles." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumner-charles

Sumner, Charles

Sumner, Charles (1811–74) US political leader. A passionate abolitionist, he was senator from Massachusetts (1851–74) and a leading Radical Republican during Reconstruction, supporting the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Sumner, Charles." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sumner, Charles." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumner-charles

"Sumner, Charles." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sumner-charles