Sumner, Charles

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Charles Sumner

Born January 6, 1811
Boston, Massachusetts

Died March 11, 1874
Washington, D.C.

U.S. senator

"This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers [and] the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway.… Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again."

Charles Sumner led the causes of abolition (ending slavery) and civil rights for over two decades in the U.S. Senate. Uncompromising and often intolerant of opinions different than his own—Sumner once stated, "Nothing against slavery can be unconstitutional!"—he pursued immediate and absolute human equality. During the Reconstruction era (1865-77), Sumner was the Senate leader of the Radical Reconstructionists. These congressmen advocated an aggressive policy for securing the social and economic equality for freedmen (former slaves) and sought to set the terms by which Confederate states and their supporters would return to the Union. Radical Reconstructionists ensured that Congress, not the president, would lead the Reconstruction program, and when they were challenged by President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69; see entry), the Radical Reconstructionists impeached the president and tried to remove him from office. Sumner clashed as well with the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77; see entry). When Sumner died in office in 1874, the influence of the Radical Reconstructionists passed as well.

Slowly finding his way

Charles Sumner was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 6, 1811, to Charles Pinckney Sumner and Relief (Jacob) Sumner. Sumner's father, a graduate of Harvard College (later called Harvard University), was a lawyer and served briefly as county sheriff. Independent-minded and outspoken, especially against slavery, Sumner's father promoted equal rights and racially integrated schools and opposed a law prohibiting intermarriage of blacks and whites. Sumner attended the Boston Latin School from ages ten to fifteen, then tried but was unsuccessful in securing an appointment to enter the West Point Military Academy. He went instead to Harvard College, excelling in history and literature.

After graduating from college, Sumner attended Harvard Law School from 1831 to 1833. He was mentored (advised) by the law school's distinguished professor, Joseph Story (1779–1845), a Supreme Court justice who encouraged Sumner to take a teaching position at the college following the completion of his studies. Sumner preferred to begin a law practice, but first traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend sessions of the Supreme Court.

As a respected student of Story, Sumner enjoyed many privileges in Washington, D.C. He had conversations with the justices, including Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835); he heard a case in which the opposing attorneys were the famed Massachusetts congressman Daniel Webster (1782–1852) and Francis Scott Key (1799–1843), the writer of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and leader of a flourishing law practice. Sumner also attended sessions in the U.S. Senate.

Upon returning to Boston, Sumner soon felt uninspired by the daily routine of practicing law. He returned to Harvard Law School as a lecturer, wrote essays for American Jurist, a law journal, and reviewed and revised textbooks used in law classes. He was friends with William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), a Unitarian clergyman who organized groups to eliminate slavery and promote temperance. Sumner was in a social circle that included famous poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).

Feeling restless and making little progress in his profession, Sumner borrowed money in 1836 and traveled to Europe. He spent two years, primarily in England, France, and Germany, observing and studying politics and law and meeting famous leaders and writers of the day. Upon his return, he maintained a lively social life, but was again miserable in the daily practice of law. After failing to secure a position as reporter of the Supreme Court, he spent long hours adding notes to a twenty-volume collection on law, Reports of Cases … in the High Court of Chancery, published in 1844.

The speech that changed Sumner's life

A major turning point in Sumner's life occurred on July 4, 1845. Sumner had been chosen to be the main speaker at an Independence Day celebration in Boston. Facing a large crowd for the first time, Sumner gave an impassioned address on peace, demanding, "Can there be in our age any peace that is not honorable, any war that is not dishonorable?" The speech was controversial, occurring on Independence Day and in front of a crowd that included military personnel. But the power in his voice and his words, and his animated appearance (especially since he stood six-feet, four inches), made Sumner a lively and commanding orator. He was quickly inundated with invitations to speak at other venues.

During that time, many New Englanders were concerned about war and the spread of slavery. Texas was entering the Union as a slave state, and the Mexican-American War (1846–48) was viewed by some Americans as an aggressive action against a weaker nation. Sumner railed against slavery and war, winning over supportive crowds, but also drawing criticism for his unsparing attacks and uncompromising approach to what he believed was right.

In 1848, Sumner called a convention in Massachusetts to oppose the two presidential candidates, Democrat Lewis Cass (1782–1866) and Whig Zachary Taylor (1784–1850; served 1849–50), neither of whom pledged to abolish slavery. Sumner was among many in the Whig Party who left their party to back the Free Soil Party in the 1848 election ("Free Soil" referred to a position against expanding slavery to new states). Sumner was unsuccessful in his bid for Congress that year, but he was nominated in 1850 as a candidate for the U.S. Senate and won the office (see box).

Firebrand senator

Sumner entered the Senate at an especially turbulent time. The Compromise of 1850, intended to settle national unrest about the spread of slavery, was being debated. As part of the compromise, California was admitted to the Union as a free state; the territories of New Mexico and Utah (encompassing present-day Utah and Nevada) would determine for themselves whether or not to permit slavery; and the Fugitive Slave Law permitted slave owners to enter nonslave states to pursue, capture, and return fugitive (runaway) slaves. With only five days before the end of a nine-month session of Congress, Sumner earned the right to speak after having proposed an amendment to the Compromise. He used the occasion to lecture for more than three hours about the evils of the Fugitive Slave Law. Many Southern senators expressed their anger toward Sumner, and only four senators voted for Sumner's amendment. Sumner had entered the debate too late, but he became a notable new voice in the Senate to speak for those unwilling to accept anything less than the abolishment of slavery.

The Compromise of 1850 only increased national disruption over slavery. With abolition sentiments spreading quickly and impatience with the Whig Party's willingness to compromise, many Whigs and Northern Democrats left their parties to join the Republican Party, formed in 1854. Sumner played an important part in the organization of the party.

Sumner Becomes Senator

Until passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1912, U.S. senators were voted into office by their state congress. The state legislatures were charged with acting on the will of the people but did not always elect the candidate who had received the most votes. In 1850, Sumner did not have enough support in the state congress to be elected, but no other candidate was able to win the two-thirds vote necessary to become senator. Town meetings were called in several communities in Massachusetts, where the law legally authorized communities to call for a vote and then instruct the local representative to support the candidate who received the most votes. Sumner won the popular support needed to overcome reluctance by the Massachusetts state legislature to elect him to the U.S. Senate. The state congress was concerned about Sumner's brash outspokenness.

Meanwhile, the Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854 came up for debate in Congress. The bill prepared those territories to petition for statehood and allowed them to decide by popular sovereignty whether or not to be free or slave states. This potential expansion of slavery brought more wrath from Sumner, who even threatened to support a Northern antislavery sentiment for seceding from (leaving) the Union. Sumner outraged supporters of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, many of whom urged his expulsion (ejection) from the Senate.

Sumner only became more vocal. He made his impassioned Senate speech, "The Crime against Kansas," at a time when many feared violence would erupt between pro-and antislavery factions in Kansas. Sumner abandoned all politeness in his speech: He singled out supporters of the bill and insulted them. Some abolitionists praised the speech, and within a few weeks over a million copies of it were distributed. Some of the interest, however, was spurred by news about violence—not in Kansas, but in the U.S. Senate instead. Two days after his speech, Sumner was brutally attacked by U.S. representative Preston S. Brooks (1819–1857) of South Carolina, who beat Sumner with a cane. In his speech, Sumner mocked Brooks's uncle, proslavery U.S. senator Andrew Butler (1796–1857) of South Carolina, accusing him of taking "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 [prostitute], Slavery."

An Excerpt from Sumner's "Crimes Against Kansas" Speech

Charles Sumner's speech "Crimes Against Kansas" led to a violent incident in which Sumner was attacked with a cane by U.S. representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Sumner had made inflammatory remarks about Brooks's uncle, U.S. senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Brooks was present for Sumner's speech; Butler was not.

[The] Senator in the unrestrained chivalry of his nature, has undertaken to apply opprobrious [insulting] words to those who differ from him on this floor. He calls them "sectional and fanatical"; and opposition to the usurpation [seizure by force] in Kansas he denounces as "an un-calculating fanaticism." To be sure these charges lack all grace of originality, and all sentiment of truth; but the adventurous Senator does not hesitate. He is the uncompromising, unblushing representative on this floor of a flagrant sectionalism, which now domineers over the Republic, and yet with a ludicrous ignorance of his own position unable to see himself as others see him—or with an effrontery [boldness] which even his white head ought not to protect from rebuke, he applies to those here who resist his sectionalism the very epithet which designates himself.…

The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and 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.

Sumner's wounds left him unable, despite two attempts, to return to his work in the Senate. He tried powerful and painful cures and traveled to spas in Europe, but he did not return to regular duty in the Senate for over three years. Meanwhile, he was reelected by the almost unanimous (un-opposed) vote of the Massachusetts legislature.

Sumner resumed work just as the Union began to dissolve. Southern leaders were being even more aggressive: Congress easily passed resolutions introduced by U.S. senator Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see Confederate Leaders entry) of Mississippi to approve slaves as property in territories not yet states. Sumner responded by a complete assault on the institution of slavery. As Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) took office and the Civil War (1861–65) began, Sumner urged complete abolishment of slavery and expressed frustration, respectfully, as Lincoln pursued a more gradual policy of emancipation (freedom).

When the Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time after the elections of 1860, Sumner became chairman of the committee on foreign relations, a position he filled admirably during the war and in the early years of the Reconstruction era. He helped ensure that there would be no significant international interference with the Union's war effort.

By 1862, he began the struggle to secure for all citizens of the United States, regardless of race or color, absolute equality of civil rights. He was insistent that the initiation and the control of postwar America should be by Congress, not by the president. Meanwhile, on October 17, 1866, at the age of fifty-five, Sumner married Alice (Mason) Hooper, a young widow. They separated within a year and were later divorced.

Radical Reconstructionist

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, Sumner and U.S. representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868; see entry) of Pennsylvania, became the Senate and House leaders, respectively, of opposition to President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policies. The congressional leaders and their supporters are known, historically, as Radical Republicans or Radical Reconstructionists because their policies were both more progressive and punishing than those proposed by President Lincoln and pursued by his successor, President Johnson. Sumner fought for immediate enfranchisement (freedom) for freemen as well as free schools and farmsteads for African Americans. He vigorously supported Republican legislative proposals for establishing the Freedmen's Bureau, passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, and civil rights legislation to protect freed slaves from Black Codes (laws that placed severe restrictions on freed slaves).

Sumner's more progressive proposals were not enacted, but the Radical Reconstructionists were successful in controlling the Reconstruction program. A struggle between Congress and President Johnson ensued, and when Johnson attempted to exert his power it led to angry confrontations that culminated in a vote for impeachment (dismissal from office). Impeachment proceedings begin in the House of Representatives, where a committee considers charges and votes whether or not to present an impeachment proposal to the entire House. If the House votes by two-thirds majority that the president has committed impeachable acts, based on committee evidence and recommendations, an impeachment trial is conducted in the Senate. The Senate then votes on whether or not to remove the president from office.

President Johnson's impeachment trial began on March 30, 1868. Sumner led the prosecution, as noted on the "Famous American Trials: The Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial" Web site: "This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it."

However, impeachment was questionable and seemed politically motivated to doubters. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson failed in the Senate. There were fifty-four senators at the time, and thirty-six votes were needed to remove Johnson. The Senate voted 35–19 to impeach Johnson. The measure failed by one vote.

Sumner also failed to get along with President Ulysses S. Grant, who succeeded Johnson, though Sumner and Grant were from the same party. Grant wanted to annex (make part of U.S. territory) Santo Domingo, and Sumner led the opposition. The Sumner-Grant relationship became so strained that Sumner lost his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Sumner's criticism of Grant's civil rights policies, which Sumner judged as too little and too ineffective, contributed to his loss of the chairmanship. Fellow Republicans had become wary of Sumner's attacks on Grant and were fearful of losing control of the presidency to Democrats.

Sumner vs. Presidents

Charles Sumner clashed with all six presidents who served while he was senator. Three preceded Abraham LincolnMillard Fillmore (1800–1874; served 1850–53), Franklin Pierce (1804–1869; served 1853–57), and James Buchanan 1791–1868; served 1857–61). They were vilified (talked and written about negatively) by Sumner because they allowed states to decide the issue of slavery. Presidents Johnson and Grant, according to Sumner, proceeded too slowly on civil rights legislation. Sumner also clashed with Lincoln, although much more respectfully, over the president's gradual approach to emancipation.

In August 1861, John C. Frémont (1813–1890), commander of the Union army in Missouri, proclaimed freedom for all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri. Lincoln asked Frémont to pursue gradual emancipation, freeing only those slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the Confederacy. When Fré-mont refused, Lincoln replaced him. Sumner wrote a protest letter to Lincoln over his gradual emancipation policy, stating how sad it was "to have the power of a god and not use it godlike."

In the presidential election of 1872, in fact, Sumner supported Grant's rival, newspaper editor Horace Greeley (1811–1872; see entry). Grant won reelection easily. By this time, the Republican Party had grown more conservative, and Radical Republicans were on the wane. Sumner continued to fight for the interests of Southern freedmen, but legislation and federal action in their favor always proved to be weaker than Sumner advocated.

Sumner fell ill in 1874 and was advised against continuing his Senate work. Nevertheless, he attended the Senate session of March 10, 1874. That evening, he suffered a heart attack; Sumner died the next day. His body lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol, and the funeral services were held in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For More Information


Blue, Frederick J. Charles Sumner and the Conscience of the North. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1994.

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

Web Sites

"The Caning of Charles Sumner." U.S. Senate. (accessed on June 25, 2004).

"Charles Sumner." Spartacus Schoolnet. (accessed on June 25, 2004).

Linder, Douglas O. "Famous American Trials: The Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial." University of Missouri–Kansas School of Law. (accessed on June 25, 2004).

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