The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Sumner, Charles

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Sumner, Charles
Edition of 1920. See also Charles Sumner on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SUMNER, Charles, American statesman: b. Boston, 6 Jan. 1811; d. Washington, D. C, 11 March 1874. His family was English in origin, Charles being a descendant in the seventh generation from William, who came to America about 1635 and settled at Dorchester, Mass. The Sumners lived in the same vicinity for the next 200 years and more, generally as farmers. The father, Charles Pinckney Sumner (b. 1776; d. 1839), graduated from Harvard in 1796. He was a lawyer, was married to Relief Jacob of Hanover, N. H., in 1810 and had nine children, of whom Charles was the eldest. The father took an active interest in politics, was clerk of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1806-07 and 1810-11 and from 1825 to 1839 was sheriff of Suffolk County. He was interested in the temperance movement and was strongly anti-slavery in feeling. He was fond of books, conscientious, earnest, grave and stern. It was not strange, then, that he brought up his son in the old Puritan style and the latter's career shows that he was greatly influenced by his father's training, views and character.

Charles was educated at the famous Boston Latin School, having as schoolmates Robert C. Winthrop and Wendell Phillips. His tastes were those of the scholar and he read widely and became proficient in the classics. He entered Harvard College in 1826, where he continued to excel in the classics, but also devoted much time to history and literature and perfected himself in oratory or “declaiming.” After a year spent in private study and diligent attendance on the lectures and orations of the great Boston orators, Webster, Everett, Choate and Channing, he entered the Harvard Law School in 1831 and received the personal attention and teaching of Judge Story, an old friend of Sumner's father. His plan of study was thus described in a letter to a friend: “Six hours, namely, the forenoon, wholly and solely to law; afternoon, classics; evening, history, subjects collateral and assistant to law, etc. Recreation must not be found in idleness or loose reading.” In January 1834 he entered the law office of Benjamin Rand in Boston. In February he made a journey to Washington, where he received his first impressions of slavery in the South. His first subscription for a newspaper was for Garrison's Liberator. While in Washington he heard Webster, Clay and Calhoun speak in the Senate, but he still thought he preferred law to politics. During the next three years, 1834-36, he practised law in Boston, but without remarkable success. His arguments were in the nature of learned essays rather than forcible presentations of the case in a manner to convince juries.

In 1837 he went abroad and spent three years traveling in France, England, Italy and Germany. In Paris, where he lived five months, at attended university lectures, visited the museums, galleries and historic places, attended the Chamber of Deputies and law courts, went into society and met many eminent persons. He next spent 10 months in England and met the famous men of the day, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Macaulay, etc. In Italy he studied Italian literature. Then he spent several months in Germany and finally returned to America in May 1840. His foreign travel unfitted him for his chosen profession, to some extent, and still further intensified his longings for the scholar's career.

During his absence abroad the slavery question had become a burning issue, though up to this time he had but slight interest in politics or in the great public questions of the period. From 1841, however, his letters commence to show evidence of more positive views on the slavery question and more determination to oppose the further spread and influence of this institution. His humanitarianism showed itself in his interest in popular education and in the support of Horace Mann, in the work for the blind, in that for the improvement of prison discipline and in his opposition to war under all circumstances. In 1843 he commenced to write against slavery, and contended, in opposition to many, that it was a national rather than merely a local evil: that the nation was responsible and that it might to a large extent remove the evil by abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia and in the Territories, by compelling the rendition of fugitive slaves, by preventing the slave trade, by remedying the laws of slave States which abridged the right of free negroes in free States, by stipulating the conditions of admitting new States and by amending the Constitution so as to abolish slavery. Sumner made his real debut in public life by a Fourth of July oration in Boston, 1845, on the “True Grandeur of Nations,” in which he bitterly denounced wars of all kinds as dishonorable. Four months later he made his first anti-slavery speech at a meeting in Faneuil Hall to protest against the annexation of Texas.

In 1846-47 Sumner made several speeches in favor of the Whig party adopting an anti-slavery attitude. He wrote for the newspapers against the Mexican War; declared that it was unconstitutional, unjust and detestable, opposed further expenditures for it, called for the withdrawal of troops and opposed the opening of the territory to be acquired from Mexico to slavery. He joined the Free Soil party of 1848 and was nominated for Congress in October, but failed of election. When Webster, in his speech of 7 March 1850, refused to vote to exclude slavery from California and New Mexico, he became, in the eyes of many in Massachusetts, an apologist of slavery and this situation opened the door of the Senate to Sumner.

In Massachusetts the autumn campaign hinged on the question whether the State should approve the Compromise of 1850 and the course of Webster in supporting it. There was bitter opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law and the manner of its enforcement. Sumner made an important speech in Faneuil Hall 6 November against the Fugitive Slave law and demanded its repeal. This speech made possible his election as senator in January 1851, for in the State election the combined Democrats and Free Soilers had a majority of the legislature and chose Sumner rather than Winthrop, the Whig candidate, as senator.

With the entrance of Sumner into the Senate in December 1851 a new force for anti-slavery agitation was present. He was an uncompromising, fiery, earnest and persistent antagonist of slavery. He was the spokesman of the anti-slavery forces in the Senate as Calhoun had been for the pro-slavery interests. Although the leaders of both parties were for peace, Clay and Webster on one side and Cass, Buchanan and Douglas on the other, nevertheless Sumner believed that the Compromise of 1850 was wrong and that “nothing can be settled which is not right.” It was not until August 1852, after both the Whig and Democratic National Conventions had declared their support of the Compromise of 1850, that Sumner spoke of the great question, viz., “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.” His argument was to the effect that slavery was not recognized in the Constitution, that Congress had no power to establish it and that, therefore, it could not legally exist where the jurisdiction of the national government was exclusive; that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional and, therefore, should not be obeyed. This speech made Sumner the leader of the anti-slavery party and his doctrines were accepted as sound by its rank and file.

The next Congress, that commencing 5 Dec 1853, was made famous by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which was designed to repeal the Missouri Compromise. It was on 23 Jan. 1854 that Senator Douglas introduced a bill dividing the Nebraska Territory into Kansas and Nebraska. This bill declared that the Missouri Compromise “was superseded on the principle of the legislation of 1850, commonly called the compromise measure, and is hereby declared in operation.” Sumner spoke against the bill 15 Feb. 1854 and declared that the Missouri Compromise was a binding contract. His speech on 26 June in reply to an attack on Boston and Massachusetts by Southern senators, particularly Senators Butler of South Carolina and Mason of Virginia, aroused great feeling.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the formation of the Republican party. A Republican convention, composed mostly of Free Soldiers, was held at Worcester, Mass., 7 Sept. 1854 and Sumner spoke for the new party. He advocated resistance to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and advised the passage of personal liberty laws to nullify its workings. He justified his position by denying that the provision of the Constitution touching the rendition of “persons held to service or labor,” conferred any power on the national government “to establish uniform rules for the rendition of fugitives”; that therefore, each State had the right to determine for itself the extent of the obligation assumed. In consequence the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional and the States had a right to act so as to secure for their citizens claimed as fugitive slaves the right of trial by jury and the privilege of habeas corpus. This view would give the States liberty to construe the Constitution and pass laws which their construction of the Constitution permitted. In case there was a conflict between the Supreme Court and the States in the construction of the Constitution, then no man “will voluntarily aid in enforcing a judgment which in conscience he believed wrong.” This was preaching revolutionary doctrine and was the most violent and extreme position which Sumner had taken up to this date.

In the second session of the 33d Congress, that commencing December 1854, Sumner endeavored to secure a repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, but was defeated. In the spring of 1855 he prepared an address entitled “The Anti-Slavery Enterprise, its Necessity, Practicability, and Dignity, with Glances at the Special Duties of the North.” This was delivered in Boston, New York and other places. It was in this address that he prophesied the downfall of slavery because of a “moral blockade” against it “With the sympathies of all Christendom as allies, already it (Anti-Slave movement), encompasses the slave masters by a moral blockade, invisible to the eye, but more potent than navies, from which there can be no escape except in final capitulation.”

Two of the great events of the session of Congress that met 3 Dec 1855, were Sumner's speech of 19 and 20 May 1856, on “The Crime against Kansas,” and the assault on him by Representative Brooks of South Carolina. It was on 12 March 1856 that Senator Douglas reported a bill for organizing a State government in Kansas. This provided that the steps taken should be prescribed by the territorial legislature. This was the pro-slavery legislature which had been elected in March 1855 as a result of fraudulent votes of Missourians who had entered Kansas for this purpose. Congress had to decide whether it would recognize this legislature or admit Kansas as a free State under the Topeka constitution, which had been formed by the free-state men in the convention which met at Topeka 23 Oct. 1855. The debate on the subject began 20 March and continued for some months. Conditions in Kansas had been going from bad to worse and pro-slavery troops had been disarming free-state settlers, and finally, on 21 May, they made an attack on Lawrence, demanded the surrender of all arms, broke the presses of the newspapers, burned the Free State Hotel and plundered houses and dwellings.

It was under such circumstances that Sumner delivered his famous and carefully prepared speech which he meant to be “the most thorough philippic ever uttered in a legislative body.” In this speech he reviewed the whole case from the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill up to the time of the attack on Lawrence. He criticized the administration and attacked his opponents in the most bitter language, especially Senators Butler of South Carolina and Douglas of Illinois. The former had “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.” Douglas had used language in denouncing Sumner that brought forth the reply that “no person with the upright form of a man” could be allowed “to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal to which I refer is not the proper model for an American senator. Will the senator from Illinois take notice?” These bitter personalities led to the assault on Sumner on 22 May by Preston S. Brooks, a representative from South Carolina, and a cousin of Senator Butler. The Senate had adjourned and Sumner was seated at his desk writing letters, when Brooks entered and said, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech carefully and with as much impartiality as was possible, and I feel it my duty to tell you that you have libeled my State and slandered a relative who is aged and absent, and I am come to punish you for it.” He then struck Sumner a series of blows on the head with a gutta percha cane, until he fell bloody and senseless to the floor. An effort to expel Brooks from the House failed because of lack of two-thirds majority. While a resolution of censure was pending Brooks resigned, but was immediately re-elected by his constituents. His action was generally upheld by the Southern leaders and press. The indignation in the North was intense, and the incident crystallized sentiment against slavery more, perhaps, than any other single event had done up to this time.

Sumner was re-elected to the Senate in January 1857, but owing to the state of his health he spent nearly four years abroad, returning in time to resume his seat in the Senate 5 Dec. 1859. It was not until June 1860, however, that he delivered an important speech on “The Barbarism of Slavery.” It was intended as a reply to numerous assertions recently made to the effect that slavery was a moral, social and political blessing, and “ennobling to both races, the white and black.” The speech was a reservoir of facts drawn largely from Southern sources, and an appeal to the great moral sentiment of the North to help abolish the system.

In the session of Congress which opened 3 Dec. 1860, Sumner devoted himself to preventing any compromise between the slave and the free States; for his object was the destruction of slavery. When the Southern senators withdrew as a result of secession, the committee was reorganized, and Sumner was made chairman of the committee on Foreign Relations. In this capacity he rendered the country signal service during the war. He was largely instrumental in the surrender of the captured Confederate commissioners, Slidell and Mason, who had been taken from the English mail steamer Trent by Captain Wilkes while on the high seas. He showed the President that this would be in accordance with our doctrines and an abandonment of claims made by England to which we had always objected. He used all his influence to prevent foreign intervention, and opposed the use of force in an attempt to get the French troops out of Mexico, as it might result in war. He was opposed to the issuing of letters of marque, and when the bill was passed used every effort to prevent the law going into effect, in which he was successful. His argument was that it would embroil us with foreign nations. His speech in New York, 10 Sept 1863, was a strong statement of the American position. He raked England for her unfriendly acts with respect to neutrality and for allowing Confederate cruisers to be fitted out in English ports, and called France to account for her intervention in Mexico. The speech had an important effect in putting a check on England. He made an exhaustive report on the French Spoliation Claims. He argued vigorously for the treaty for the purchase of Alaska in 1867. He was in favor of settling all questions of dispute with England and in bringing the two nations into relations of harmony and good will, and hence supported the efforts to settle the Alabama claims. Owing to a disagreement with President Grant and Republican senators over the acquisition of Santo Domingo, which Sumner opposed, he was removed from his chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Relations, 10 March 1871.

Sumner supported the policy of emancipation and wished to take the step before Lincoln finally acted because he thought that it would prevent foreign intervention. He made the first public demand for emancipation by a responsible statesman on 1 Oct. 1861, before the State Republican Committee of Massachusetts, and repeated his demand in a number of cities in the next few months. In the session of Congress which met in December 1861, he spoke in favor of legislation to prevent the surrender of fugitive slaves by the Union army, and in favor of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the first public word on the subject since the Republican party came into power.

During the war and after he was active in furthering the interests of the negro. He was influential in getting ratified the treaty with England for the more effectual suppression of the slave trade. He proposed bills allowing colored persons to become mail carriers, for enlisting negroes freed by Confiscation Act and for receiving colored volunteers. He proposed and carried legislation preventing the exclusion of witnesses in the courts of the District of Columbia on account of color. He voted against the bill to admit West Virginia, because the Senate refused to amend it so that after 4 July 1863 slavery should cease in that State. He was continually urging Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He introduced a bill in the Senate to repeal all fugitive slave laws, and succeeded in getting' a similar bill, which had been passed in the House, through the Senate. He began the contest for negro suffrage, was a leader in his effort to prevent the exclusion of colored persons from street cars in the District of Columbia, supported a bill to secure for colored soldiers equal pay with the white and was energetic in getting the bill passed to establish the Freedman's Bureau, which Sumner called “a bridge from slavery to freedom.” He also aided in forcing a repeal of the law which excluded colored testimony in the United States courts, and was largely responsible for the admission of a colored man to the bar of the Supreme Court, the privilege being granted by Chief Justice Chase on motion of Sumner. He offered an amendment to one of the reconstruction measures to the effect that “every constitution in the rebel States shall require the legislature to establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all without distinction of race or color.”

On the question of reconstruction, Sumner felt that the conditions must be faced by Congress and the President together, and hence opposed the policies of Lincoln and Johnson, viz., reconstruction by the executive. He considered this policy unconstitutional while the Constitution supported the authority of Congress — its duty “to guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government.” He voted for the conviction of President Johnson in his impeachment trial.

After his removal as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sumner exerted little influence in the Senate, and occupied his time mainly in pressing civil rights bills for negroes. He supported Horace Greeley for President in the election of 1872, on the ground that he was an “unswerving” Republican, that principles must be preferred to party and that Grant was unfaithful to the Constitution and Republican principles.

The character of Sumner and his services to his country were both based on fidelity to great moral principles. He was sincere, unselfish, simple, kind, conscientious, honest and pure and without envy or personal animosity. He was also energetic, uncompromising, courageous and fearless, and indomitable in his purpose. On the other hand, while not entirely a man of one idea, his intense convictions on slavery often helped to defeat his desires, because of his inability to give sufficient weight to other important interests. He became egotistical, dogmatic, irritable, and was lacking in a sense of humor. Next to Lincoln he undoubtedly did more to win freedom for the colored race than any other man. His other great service was in keeping the country out of war with England and France during the period of the Civil War, when such a catastrophe might easily have led to a permanent dissolution of the Union.

Bibliography. — The best short life of Sumner is that by Moorfield Storey (‘American Statesmen Series,’ Boston 1900). Other biographies are those by Edward Lillie Pierce, ‘Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner’ (4 vols., Boston 1877-93); by Anna L. Dawes, ‘Charles Sumner’ (‘Makers of America Series,’ New York 1892); by George H. Haynes (‘American Crisis Biographies,’ Philadelphia, Copyright, 1909); by G. H. Grimke, ‘Life of Charles Sumner, the Scholar in Politics’ (New York 1892). The “Works” of Sumner were published in 15 volumes, Boston 1874-83. A famous oration on Sumner is that by L. Q. C. Lamar, 27 April 1874. Consult also Shotwell, W. G., ‘Life of Charles Sumner’ (New York 1910), and Whipple, E. P. ‘Recollections of Eminent Man.’ Some of Sumner's most famous speeches have been printed separately, viz., “Report on the War with Mexico,” and “Speech on the Crime against Kansas” (Directors of Old South Work, Boston); “Address on War, containing True Grandeur of Nations”; “War System of Nations”; “Duel between France and Germany” (Boston).

Marcus W. Jernegan,
Associate Professor of History, University of Chicago.


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CHARLES SUMNER