The New International Encyclopædia/Sumner, Charles

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The New International Encyclopædia
Sumner, Charles
Edition of 1905. See also Charles Sumner on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SUM'NER, Charles (1811-74). An American statesman. He was born in Boston, Jan. 6, 1811; graduated at Harvard in 1830; entered the Harvard Law School the following year, and was admitted to the bar in 1834. Throughout his early years he maintained an extraordinary literary activity, writing chiefly upon legal topics, and occasionally appearing on the platform. His strength becoming overtaxed from the labor of editing an American edition of Vesey's Reports, he sailed for Europe in 1837, where he traveled for three years, devoting much of his time to the study of languages, literature, and history. Returning to America in 1840, he began to take an active interest in the anti-slavery movement, and in 1845 he delivered a notable Fourth of July oration at Boston, on “The True Grandeur of Nations,” which Cobden pronounced “the noblest contribution ever made by any modern writer to the cause of peace,” but it gave offense to the leaders of the Whig Party and led eventually to his withdrawal from that party. This oration was soon followed by others of great force, mainly on anti-slavery topics. He was a leader of the ‘Conscience Whigs’ of Massachusetts, who helped to form the Free-Soil Party. In 1851, through a combination of Free-Soilers and Democrats, he was elected to the United States Senate, of which body he was a member until his death. Here he waged a vigorous and uncompromising war on slavery. His first important speech was entitled “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.” This was followed in 1856 by another on “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he reflected severely upon Senator Butler of South Carolina. This arraignment led to an assault in the Senate Chamber upon Sumner by Preston Brooks (q.v.), a Southern Representative and a relative of Butler, with the result that Sumner was so injured that he was incapacitated for Senatorial service for nearly four years. The attack led, indeed, to the disease to which Sumner finally succumbed. In December, 1859, he resumed his seat, but took little part in the debates until the middle of 1860, when he delivered a speech on “The Barbarism of Slavery.” From the beginning he was recognized as one of the leading men in the Republican Party. In 1861 he became chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and made a number of able speeches on questions of foreign concern during the war, notably on the Trent Affair (q.v.).

He held the chairmanship of this important committee during ten years of a critical period. He took an active part in the debates on reconstruction measures and allied questions, ably advocating what came to be known as the ‘suicide theory’ of the status of the Southern States at the close of the war. (See Reconstruction.) He supported the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson and secured the enactment of a civil rights law to secure equality of treatment to negroes in hotels, theatres, etc., which was subsequently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. He broke with the Grant administration, and in 1872 joined the Liberal Republican movement in advocating the election of Greeley for President. Sumner's Works were published in 15 volumes (Boston, 1874-83). Consult an elaborate Memoir by his friend E. L. Pierce (4 vols., Boston. 1877-93), and a short biography by Moorfield Story (Boston, 1900), in the “American Statesmen Series.”