Charles Sumner

views updated May 14 2018

Charles Sumner

Born January 6, 1811
Boston, Massachusetts
Died March 11, 1874
Washington, D.C.

Republican senator from Massachusetts

Abolitionist and leader in the impeachment trial
of President Andrew Johnson

"Whatever apologies may be offered for the toleration of slavery in the States, none can be offered for its extension into Territories where it does not exist."

Charles Sumner was one of America's most prominent political figures during the Civil War era. A dedicated abolitionist, he fought against laws that extended or protected the institution of slavery in any way. Sumner's views made him a hated man in the South, though. In 1856, this hatred became so intense that a Southern congressman viciously attacked him on the floor of the Senate. This physical assault immediately became famous throughout the North as a symbol of Southern wickedness. Sumner spent the following three years recovering from his injuries.

Sumner returned to the Senate, once again establishing himself as one of the nation's most influential politicians. He provided firm support to President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) and his wartime policies, and later became a vocal opponent of President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry) and his Reconstruction (1865–77) plans.

Journalist and lawyer

Charles Sumner was born in 1811 in Boston, Massachusetts. His family was wealthy, so young Sumner was able to attend the finest schools in the Boston area. In 1831, he enrolled in the law school at Harvard University. He graduated two years later, and in 1834, passed the state bar exam and became an attorney.

Sumner was both energetic and ambitious, so he spent the mid-1830s engaged in a wide range of activities. In addition to practicing law, he also edited a law review called the American Jurist, lectured at Harvard, and worked as a reporter for the U.S. Circuit Court. In 1837, he left America to go to Europe. He traveled through Europe for the next three years, exploring its museums and libraries and establishing friendships with a number of influential European politicians.

Joins abolitionist movement

After returning to the United States in 1840, Sumner became a successful attorney in the Boston area. He became best known, however, for his participation in the growing abolitionist movement (a movement to end slavery in the United States). In fact, Sumner's passionate antislavery speeches soon made him one of Massachusetts's leading abolitionist voices. In the mid-1840s, Sumner's opposition to slavery led him to oppose both America's annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican War (1846–48), which forced Mexico to give the United States thousands of square miles of territory in the West. Sumner battled against America's addition of these territories because he feared that the government would allow slavery to expand onto those lands.

In 1851, leaders of the Democratic Party and the antislavery Free-Soil Party selected Sumner to fill the vacated Senate seat of Daniel Webster (1782–1852), who had resigned to become secretary of state. As Massachusetts's newest senator, Sumner quickly established himself as one of the strongest antislavery voices in the entire U.S. Senate. He bitterly denounced the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which gave Southern slaveowners sweeping new powers to reclaim runaway slaves in the North. He also opposed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which let citizens of western territories decide for themselves whether to permit slavery based on the theory of "popular sovereignty." In fact, Sumner and many other Northern abolitionists viewed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a tragedy. After all, the 1854 law explicitly abolished the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had outlawed slavery in thousands of square miles of American territory for the previous three decades. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made those territories vulnerable to slavery once again.

Hated in the South

Certain that Southern politicians would soon try to spread slavery into the West, Sumner joined with Ohio senator Salmon P. Chase (1808–1873) and several other antislavery congressmen to issue a document called The Appeal of the Independent Democrats. This document criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act as "part . . . of an atrocious [terrible] plot [to convert the West] into a dreary region of despotism [tyranny], inhabited by masters and slaves. . . . Whatever apologies may be offered for the toleration of slavery in the States, none can be offered for its extension into Territories where it does not exist." Around this same time, Sumner helped organize the national Republican Party, which soon became the leading antislavery political party in the country. Finally, Sumner continued to deliver public speeches in which he harshly criticized the law and the morality (principles of right and wrong conduct) of Southern slaveholders. His fiery words made him a favorite of Northern abolitionists. But in America's slaveholding states, dislike for Sumner grew into outright hatred.

In May 1856, mounting Southern anger over Sumner's harsh criticism of their society and morals finally erupted into a violent incident that became one of the most famous events in U.S. Senate history. On May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner delivered a speech called "The Crime Against Kansas," in which he condemned Southern leaders for their efforts to expand slavery into Kansas and other territories. During the course of his speech, he criticized a number of Southern politicians by name, including Senator Andrew P. Butler (1796–1857) of South Carolina. At one point, for example, Sumner declared that "[Senator Butler] 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 [pure] in his sight. I mean the harlot [prostitute] slavery."

Two days later, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks, who was Butler's nephew, strode over to where Sumner was seated in the Senate chambers. Without warning, Brooks beat Sumner senseless with his cane. By the time other congressmen intervened to end the assault, Sumner lay bloody and semiconscious on the floor of the Senate.

The attack on Senator Sumner immediately became a symbol of Southern brutality and viciousness across much of the North. "Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath [cautiously or quietly] in the presence of our Southern masters?" wrote poet and editor William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) in the New York Evening Post. "Are we to be chastised [punished] as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport [behave] ourselves to please them?" Northern outrage over the incident became even greater when the South treated Brooks like a hero. Southerners praised him for defending the region's honor, and South Carolina voters reelected him to the Senate a few months after the attack. The only punishment that Brooks received for his actions was a $300 fine handed out by a district court. Sumner, meanwhile, spent the next three years recuperating from his injuries.

Sumner and the Civil War

In 1857, the voters of Massachusetts reelected Sumner to the Senate, even though he had not yet recovered from Brooks' attack. In December 1859, he returned to Washington, D.C., and resumed his place in the U.S. Senate. By 1861, when North-South disputes over slavery finally triggered the American Civil War, Sumner had regained his position as a member of the Republican leadership. In fact, he was made chairman of the Senate's important foreign relations committee that year.

Sumner generally supported fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln and his policies during the war's first two years, even though he grew frustrated with the president's refusal to emancipate (free) Southern slaves during this period. In 1863, however, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves all across the Confederacy. The declaration delighted Sumner, who later introduced a constitutional amendment formally abolishing slavery in America. This amendment—the Thirteenth Amendment—became law in December 1865.

Sumner and Reconstruction

After the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, Sumner and many other Republican leaders who had led the fight to end slavery wanted to punish the Southern states for their rebellion. Angry about the April assassination of Lincoln and the bloodshed of the war, these Republicans—called "Radical Republicans"—wanted to pass laws that would guarantee black rights, punish Confederate leaders, and change Southern institutions that promoted racism. When their ideas were criticized as unconstitutional, Sumner argued that the Southern states had "committed suicide" by their secession and thus had lost their rights under the Constitution.

Sumner's harsh stance toward the South changed somewhat after he toured the region's devastated farmlands and cities. Stunned by the widespread destruction that he saw, he began to show a greater interest in legislation designed to help the entire region recover from the war. Most of the bills that he personally introduced, however, were designed primarily to help blacks. He introduced a number of civil rights bills, for example. He also helped create the Freedmen's Bureau, an organization charged with helping former slaves build new lives for themselves. In addition, he remained hostile to the South's old political leaders and slave-holders. He held them personally responsible for starting the Civil War.

In the years immediately following the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson and the Republican-led Congress became involved in a bitter dispute about how to rebuild the South and readmit the Confederate states into the Union. For one thing, both sides disagreed about who was responsible for this process, known as Reconstruction, which took place from 1865 to 1877. Congressional leaders, for example, charged that Johnson did not have the authority to shape Reconstruction policies. Johnson, however, argued that he—not Congress—should be primarily responsible for the Reconstruction process.

This disagreement became even more heated when it became clear that Johnson and the Radical Republicans had very different approaches to Reconstruction. Johnson, for instance, pardoned many Confederate leaders and set lenient (easy) conditions for the Southern states to return to the Union. In addition, his Reconstruction plan did not give blacks the right to vote or serve as elected representatives.

Republican members of Congress thought Johnson's Reconstruction policies were too lenient toward the South. They worried that former Confederate leaders would return to power and continue to discriminate against blacks. The Radical Republicans wanted guarantees of increased black rights and other new laws. As a result, the Republican-led U.S. Congress took control of the Reconstruction process in 1866 and sent federal troops into the Southern states to enforce their policies. As Congress began implementing its own Reconstruction program, some members were willing to compromise with President Johnson. But Johnson refused to accept any changes to his policies toward the South. The battle between the two sides continued until 1868, when Sumner and other Republican leaders became so angry that they launched an effort to remove Johnson from office.

Leads impeachment efforts against Johnson

The Constitution notes that all federal officials can be impeached (brought up on legal charges) and removed from elected office if they are found guilty of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." All of the branches of the federal government have roles in an impeachment trial. The House of Representatives brings the charges and acts as prosecutor. The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial as a judge. The Senate hears the case and votes as a jury. Two-thirds of the senators present must vote to convict in order to remove the impeached official from office.

Congress began the process of impeachment on February 22, 1868. It marked the first time in history that an American president had been impeached. The trial lasted for more than two months and captured the attention of the entire country. Finally, the senators voted on the charges on May 16. Johnson was found not guilty by one vote and remained in office. The verdict deeply disappointed Sumner. In fact, Sumner disliked Johnson so much that he unsuccessfully tried to convince his fellow Republicans to impeach the president again.

In 1869, Union war hero Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) replaced Johnson as president of the United States. Sumner's relationship with Grant proved to be a difficult one as well, even though they were both Republicans. They clashed over a wide range of issues, and in 1872, Sumner broke with the Republicans and threw his support behind the candidacy of liberal Republican presidential candidate Horace Greeley (1811–1872; see entry). On March 10, 1874, Sumner suffered a heart attack in the Senate chamber. He died one day later.

Where to Learn More

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.

Donald, David Herbert. Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1960. Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

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

Charles Sumner

views updated May 17 2018

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. □

Sumner, Charles

views updated Jun 11 2018


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.


Abolition; Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Sumner, Charles

views updated May 29 2018

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.

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