Sumner, Charles (1811–1874)

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SUMNER, CHARLES (1811–1874)

In 1833 Charles Sumner, a protege of joseph story, graduated from Harvard Law School. Until 1851 he practiced law, taught at Harvard Law School, annotated Vesey's Chancery Reports, and became a well-known lecturer advocating, among other reforms, world peace and abolition of slavery. In 1848 Sumner was an unsuccessful Free Soil candidate for Congress, campaigning against the "lords of the lash and the lords of the loom." In roberts v. boston (1849) Sumner unsuccessfully challenged government compulsion of segregation in Boston schools, arguing that racially separate schools denied equality. In upholding segregation, Massachusetts Chief Justice lemuel shaw enunciated, for the first time, the doctrine of separate but equal.

In 1851 Sumner won the senate seat once held by daniel webster. In his first speech, "Freedom National, Slavery Sectional," Sumner attacked the fugitive slave law and congressional support of slavery for nearly four hours. In an 1856 speech, "The Crime Against Kansas," Sumner vilified senators who had supported the kansas-nebraska act. He described stephen a. douglas as "the squire of slavery, its very Sancho Panza, ready to do all its humiliating offices." South Carolina's Andrew Butler was, in Sumner's view, the Don Quixote of slavery who had "chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others … is chaste in his sight; I mean the harlot slavery." Two days later Congressman Preston Brooks, a relative of Butler, repaid Sumner for these remarks by beating him insensible with a cane. Many Northerners viewed this incident as a symbol of a violent slavocracy which threatened the Constitution and the nation. After a three-anda-half-year convalescence Sumner returned to the Senate in 1860, renewing his crusade against bondage with a four-hour oration, "The Barbarism of Slavery." This speech became a Republican campaign document in 1860.

From the beginning of the civil war Sumner urged the abolition of slavery. He argued that secession was state suicide, that the Confederate States had reverted to territorial status, and that, despite the decision in dred scott v. sandford, Congress had the power to end slavery in these territories. On a less theoretical level Sumner successfully sponsored legislation to repeal the fugitive slave laws and to allow black witnesses to testify in federal courts. Sumner was unsuccessful, however, in his attempts to gain congressional support for the integration of Washington's street railroads and other facilities. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sumner was constantly at odds with Secretary of State william seward, and often served as President abraham lincoln's unofficial adviser on foreign policy. Sumner exploited that position to gain diplomatic recognition for Haiti and Liberia and to secure a passport for a black constituent. As chairman of the Select Committee on Slavery and Freedmen, Sumner laid the groundwork for the freedmen ' sbureau.

During Reconstruction, Sumner was the Senate's most vociferous advocate of black rights and an early opponent of andrew johnson. Sumner's increasingly moralistic and uncompromising posture undermined his legislative effectiveness during Reconstruction. Sumner initially opposed the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments because they failed to give blacks enough rights. He gave little support to the fifteenth amendment because he believed the Constitution embodied the highest moral principles and thus enabled Congress under existing constitutional powers to enfranchise blacks. After 1870 Sumner devoted himself to a comprehensive civil rights bill, which would give the freedmen complete equality. Its passage, in a somewhat truncated form, as the civil rights act of 1875 was a posthumous tribute to Sumner's integrity and his passionate devotion to racial equality.

Paul Finkelman


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

——1970 Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man. New York: Knopf.

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Sumner, Charles (1811–1874)

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