The Dial/Volume 15/Number 170/The Public Career of Charles Sumner

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The Dial, Volume 15, Number 170 (July 16, 1893)
The Public Career of Charles Sumner



The Public Career of Charles Sumner.[1]


 Mr. Pierce has brought to a successful conclusion, in the third and fourth volumes of his "Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner," the story of the life of an eminent statesman, whose career was singularly useful in promoting moral ideas in the realm of politics. If Charles Sumner failed to realize the full measure of his ambition no one ever does it could not be said of him that he put his manhood in the balance upon the chance of winning the Presidency. Herein is a lesson for those who choose a public career with honorable aspirations.
 The volumes before us cover the period from 1845 to 1874 twenty-nine years of agitation and human activity of profound significance to mankind, during a portion of which it was uncertain whether civilization would be advanced or retarded. The year 1845 finds Sumner in the prime of manhood, fairly launched upon a professional career at the bar, which one cannot but believe, if no other claims had intervened, would have won high distinction. He was a favorite in society, the friend and associate of Longfellow, Hillard, and other literary men at home, and a correspondent of men of distinction abroad. His broad culture and oratorical gifts made him a man of mark, concerning whom there was much prophetic speculation. Conservatism, controling commerce, manufacturing, and finance, wooed him with assiduity. His abilities exerted to maintain the established order of things would have "strengthened the bulwarks of society," and he would have been rewarded with her richest gifts. The temptation was great, but conservatism failed. Charles Sumner elected to be an agitator for moral and political reform. When society became frigid, when the doors of the best houses were closed to him, he grieved and wondered much. Disfavor was manifested even before he became an Antislavery leader ; while he was advocating prison reform and promoting the aims of the Peace Society. Antislavery was only the last straw. The antagonism that resulted was bitter, unyielding, and far-reaching in its effects. At that day the refinement of Boston social life was most attractive, and charmed all who came under its influence.

 "Such a society was like that of ancient Athens more

than any other modern city can show, intellectual, consolidated, despotic over individual thought, insisting on uniformity of belief in matters which were related to its interests, and frowning upon novelties which

struck at its prestige."

During the Mexican War controversy Sumner criticised the course of Mr. Winthrop in Congress, and further widened the breach that had already been made in the ranks of the Whig party in Massachusetts. We are told by Mr. Pierce that it cost him friendships which he valued dearly, and secluded him almost entirely from general society.

 "It ended his visits at Nathan Appleton's. Ticknor's door was closed to him; and when a guest at a

party there inquired if Mr. Sumner was to be present, the host replied, ' He is outside of the pale of society.' The feeling became so pervasive in Boston's ' Belgravia ' that a lady living on Beacon street, who had invited Sumner with other guests to dinner, received a withdrawal of an acceptance from one of them when he found Sumner was to be present, although he was not at all in politics, and had no personal grievance. Prescott, of gentler mood than his neighbors, though with no more sympathy than they in Sumner's themes, still welcomed him in his home on Beacon street and to his summer retreat ; but the tradition is that he was obliged to select his guests with care when Sumner was invited, lest the feast should be marred by unseemly behavior on their part. Longfellow and his wife, made of far finer mould than their kin or their class, were, in spite of their connection with Mr. Appleton, as devotedly attached to Sumner as ever, and kept a chamber at his service; but even they sometimes found it necessary to send him a warning from Cambridge that some one was with them whom it was not best for him to meet.

Even his triumphant career—his election to the Senate and his fame as an orator—did not soften this animosity."

 It was undoubtedly this conservative influence of the solid men of New England which changed Mr. Webster's political course, and prepared the way for the fatal seventh of March speech. Because of his uusoundness on the tariff and tendency toward Antislavery views, the class represented by Lawrence and the Appletons had preferred Clay for President, much to his mortification. He strove to placate it, and succeeded so far that in 1848 they advocated his nomination. It is claimed that their support was only nominal, their real choice being General Taylor, but it is certain that their influence over him was heightened rather than lessened. Webster's opposition to the annexation of Texas led many of the Conscience Whigs to look to him as a candidate, but Sumner distrusted him and opposed his selection. He preferred Corwin, whose happy fortune it had been to speak the truth with fearlessness in the presence of a triumphant opposition—one of a half-dozen great speeches illustrating the best of American oratory. Looking back upon the past, one cannot but regret that closer relations were not established between the brilliant Ohioan and the Massachusetts reformer, as the zeal of the latter would have stimulated the former to his best work, benefitted society, and changed the story of a life.
 The campaign of 1848 is one of the most curious and instructive in American political history. That the incongruous elements—Free Soil Democrats, Conscience Whigs, and New York spoilsmen known as Barnburners led by B. F. Butler and Samuel J. Tilden which went to make up the Buffalo convention could fraternize, even for a day, was remarkable. We are told that—

 "Both the nominating body and the mass-meeting

were animated by a profound earnestness. A religious fervor pervaded the resolutions and addresses. The speakers asserted fundamental rights and universal ob- ligations, and iu their appeals and asseverations sought

the sanctions of the Christian faith."

But for once the reformers displayed common sense, and used the personal prestige of the wily old partisan of Kinderhook and his machine to promote their cause. What if Martin Van Buren had their help in revenging himself upon Cass, and what if 1852 found Butler and Tilden and John Van Buren and others of his followers turning their backs on those noble protests for freedom "which made 1848 an illustrious year in American annals" and supporting Franklin Pierce for President,[2] opposition to slavery had made substantial gains and prepared the way for the struggle that followed the passage of the Compromise Measures, what was really the death-grapple with the Oligarchy.
 We now see coming into greater prominence Sumner, Horace Mann, Charles F. Adams, Henry Wilson, and R. H. Dana, Jr., who placed Massachusetts in the van of the Antislavery movement, despite the opposition of the powerful merchants of Boston and Webster. As the glory of the latter departed, the hero of the new crusade, also a great orator, was hailed with popular acclaim thus repeating the experience of every generation.
 Sumner's career in the Senate is fresh in the recollection of our readers. His culture, industry, singleness of purpose, and perfect integrity made him a true representative of the new North. When he spoke it was with a moral force surpassing that of all others. The world listened with respect. The opposition, enraged, struck back with brute force, to the injury of its own cause. During the administration of Mr. Lincoln, Sumner was an authority on all questions affecting our foreign relations ; but his devotion to Antislavery convictions often proved an embarrassment. In common with others he misjudged the President, underrated his capacity for leadership in such a crisis, and at times became impatient and censorious. He did not, however, as did Henry Winter Davis, Wade, and Chase, actively oppose Lincoln's renomination, or seek to force him to withdraw in the midst of the campaign of 1864, as did others. He said :

 "If Mr. Lincoln does not withdraw, then all who

now disincline to him must come into his support. I have declined to sign any paper or take any part in any action, because I was satisfied that nothing could be done except through Mr. Lincoln and with his good-will. To him the appeal must be made, and on him must be

the final responsibility."

This was early in September. In a letter to Mr. Cobden, September 18, he expressed himself more at length on this theme :

 "The hesitation in the support of Mr. Lincoln disappears at the promulgation of the Chicago treason.

There was a meeting in New York of persons from different parts of the country to bring about a new convention to nominate a Union candidate. The ‘Tribune,’ ‘Evening Post,’ ‘Independent,’ and Cincinnati ‘Gazette’ were all represented in it; but as soon as they read the platform, they ranged in support of Mr. Lincoln. . . . You understand that there is a strong feeling among those who have seen Mr. Lincoln, in the way of business, that he lacks practical talent for his important place. It is thought that there should be more readiness, and also more capacity for government.
 "... Chase for a long time hesitated in the support of Mr. Lincoln; he did not think him competent. But he finds that he has no alternative; as a patriot, he must oppose Chicago. The President made a great mistake in compelling him to resign. It was very much as when Louis XVI. threw overboard Necker, and by the way, I have often observed that Mr. Lincoln resem- bles Louis XVI. more than any other ruler in history. I once said to Chase that I should not be astonished if, like Necker, he was recalled, to which he replied, 'That might be if Mr. Lincoln were king and not politician.' Thus far the President has made no overture to him

of any kind, although he has received him kindly."

 But Mr. Chase did make overtures through Governor Brough, seeking a restoration,—the relation of the particulars of which (if this were the proper place) would prove our President very unlike Louis XVI. He was in possession of evidence that the effort to create the opinion that he lacked capacity for government, and that he had lost public confidence, had been persistently made by some of the intimate friends of Mr. Chase—notably Senator Pomeroy—for months, and that the Cleveland Convention was a part of the plan to promote the ambition of that statesman. The headquarters of the faction on Vine street, Cincinnati, were not closed until it became apparent that the scheme to force Mr. Lincoln to withdraw would fail.
 Our author fails to see the motive behind this opposition to Lincoln, or the peril to the Union cause in the midst of the campaign through the factious course of party leaders, an opposition that was kept up to within eight weeks of the election. He has fallen into error as to the attitude of the Cincinnati "Gazette" and of the part taken by its able directing head at that time. The " Gazette " was not in sympathy with Mr. Chase's views, and did not further his ambition. It did not indulge in captious criticisms of the President, but gave him loyal support. Its representative at the New York conference was undoubtedly there in the interest of harmony. It is true that its distinguished Washington correspondent, Mr. Whitelaw Reid, was on terms of intimacy with Mr. Chase, sympathized with the view of the situation taken by that statesman, Governor Andrew and other earnest men, and participated in the movement having for its object the retirement of Mr. Lincoln. But Mr. Richard Smith, the editor, was not "active in the movement," as our author says. There is a letter of his in the possession of a friend, written to a gentleman on intimate terms with Mr. Lincoln, frankly telling him that in a tour he had made through northern Ohio and Michigan in August he found a condition of apathy which threatened the defeat of the Union ticket. He expressed the same views to the writer, who at that time was conducting the canvas for the Union party in Ohio, and who assured him that the people were sound. This was the measure of Mr. Smith's opposition. The majority for the State ticket in October was over 56,000, and for Mr. Lincoln, a month later, over 64,000.
 The Union successes only served to engross Mr. Sumner's time more and more in behalf of the negro race. He would not only emancipate them, but confer upon them without preparation all of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. In this regard he sharply antagonized the President and a majority of his party. Mr. Lincoln had much at heart the reconstruction of Louisiana, with white suffrage. He held that the radicals were attempting "to change this government from its original form and make it a strong centralized power." He is quoted by Mr. Welles as having said on the last day of his life, "These humanitarians break down all State rights and Constitutional rights. Had the Louisianians inserted the negro in their Constitution, and had that instrument been in all other respects the same, Mr. Sumner would never have excepted to that Constitution." The effort to carry out Mr. Lincoln's views led to an acrimonious debate in the Senate, in which Sumner appears to less advantage than on other occasions. To him belonged the responsibility of defeating the wishes of the President in the recognition of the State government of Louisiana. " Sumner's behavior," said his friend Samuel Bowles, "in preventing a vote on the Louisiana question was perfectly unjustifiable. I shall henceforth be intolerant of him, always. It was undignified, disgraceful."[3] A breach between the President and the Senator was predicted, but the former, by marked attentions to Sumner, gave public notice that he was not going to quarrel.
 Far different was his experience when Grant was President. The Motley and San Domingo episodes, and his deposition from the chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Relations, made a breach which could never be healed, and loosened the ties that bound him to his party. A satisfactory explanation of this treatment of a distinguished senator for independence of action on a public question has never been made.
 Mr. Sumner's plan of reconstruction came to be, after a struggle, the policy of his party. Theoretically it armed the emancipated negro withapower that should prove invincible against his former master,—the power of the ballot,—and it charged the general government with the responsibility of the execution of the law. To the party that adopted it, it has proved a veritable Pandora's box ; to the whole country injurious, as it has perpetuated sectional divisions, intensified race prejudices, and lessened respect for law. Wherein has the negro been benefited? What is his part in government as an elector? Clearly, his future yet lies before him. Through education — the education that trains the hand as well as the head, that gives stability to character — his real emancipation must come.
 It only remains to thank the author and publisher for this valuable contribution to American political history.

William Henry Smith.


  1. Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner. By Edward L. Pierce. Vols. III. and IV. Boston : Robert Bros.
  2. Tilden and other Barnburners, when secession was threatened, addressed the South in resolutions recognizing the right of slaveholders to carry their slaves into the territories and the justness of their grievances, which further heightens the insincerity of the Van Buren men in 1848.
  3. The Life and Times of Samuel Bowles, Vol. I., p. 419.