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The Encyclopedia Americana (1912)/Sumner, Charles

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Sumner, sŭm'nėr, Charles, American statesman: b. Boston 6 Jan. 1811; d. Washington, D. C., 11 March 1874. His grandfather was an officer in the Continental army and his father was a lawyer and the sheriff of Suffolk County. He himself was educated in the public schools of Boston and graduated at Harvard in 1830. Adopting the law as his profession, he was admitted to the bar in 1834, and the next year became the reporter of Judge Story's decisions. After some years of practice, in December 1837 he visited Europe where he remained for more than two years, traveling on the Continent, becoming acquainted with many distinguished men, and spending much time in England where he made many friendships which were of great value to him and to his country during the Civil War.

His entrance into public life was made on 4 July 1845 when he delivered in Boston the oration against war which was published under the title ‘The True Grandeur of Nations.’ In November 1845 he made his first political speech at a meeting held to oppose the admission of Texas as a slave State, and he was conspicuous among the opponents of the Mexican War.

In September 1846 at the Whig Convention in Massachusetts he made a speech in which he took the position that the Whigs should “express themselves openly, distinctly and solemnly against slavery — not only against its further extension but against its longer continuance under the Constitution and laws of the Union,” and urged that “Emancipation should always be presented as the cardinal object of our national policy.” This gave him a recognized position as a leader among the anti-slavery men of Massachusetts and thenceforward he never wavered. During the years 1846 and 1847 he spoke and wrote in opposition to slavery and the Mexican War, and at the Massachusetts Whig convention in the latter year announced that he and many others would never “support any candidate for presidency or vice-presidency who is not known to be against the extension of slavery even though he have received the sacramental unction of a ‘regular nomination.’ ”

When Taylor was nominated by the Whigs on a platform which ignored the issue of slavery, he and his associates at once made their declaration good. Sumner was active at every stage in the movement which culminated in the nomination of Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams at Buffalo, and was himself nominated for Congress against Robert C. Winthrop, but was defeated. He continued to be a Free-Soil leader and was especially prominent in opposing the compromise measures of 1850 including the Fugitive Slave law. The feeling which this law excited led to a coalition against slavery between the Free-Soilers and the Democrats in Massachusetts which elected George S. Boutwell, a Democrat, to be governor and chose Sumner to the Senate of the United States, where he took his seat in December 1851. In the last days of this session he delivered a powerful speech in favor of repealing the Fugitive Slave law which brought him at once to the front in the Senate and in the country as the representative of the moral forces opposed to slavery.

During the next Congress occurred the great struggle over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Sumner vigorously opposed this measure and spoke eloquently against it. A riot in Boston over the return of Anthony Burns as a fugitive slave occurring soon after his last speech upon the bill was by Sumner's opponents attributed to his words, and as a result he was attacked sharply in the Senate. He met the attacks with spirit, and his replies were greatly applauded in the North, but they increased the bitterness of his opponents. After the repeal of the Missouri Compromise Sumner was active in forming and supporting the Republican party. The rise of the “Know Nothing party” for a while diverted public attention from the slavery question, and Sumner opposed this movement, saying in a public address, “A party which beginning in secrecy interferes with religious belief and founds a discrimination on the accident of birth, is not the party for us.”

The Thirty-fourth Congress met on 3 Dec. 1855, and was at once confronted by the situation in Kansas, where the attempt to force a pro-slavery government upon the people of Kansas had created a dangerous situation. Sumner naturally espoused the cause of the free settlers, and in May 1856 presented the facts with great clearness and arraigned the men who were responsible for the “crime against Kansas” with conspicuous severity in a carefully prepared speech in which he attacked Stephen A. Douglas and Senator Butler of South Carolina with sharp personalities. A bitter debate followed which left on both sides a feeling of deep exasperation. On 22 May, after the Senate adjourned, Preston S. Brooks, a representative from South Carolina, attacked Sumner while he was writing at his desk and beat him over the head with a heavy cane until he fell senseless. This outrage was applauded all over the South and excited intense feeling against slavery throughout the North. So far as Sumner was concerned the consequences of the assault were serious and lasting. He was obliged to retire from all active participation in public affairs, and though he was enthusiastically re-elected to the Senate and took the oath for the second time 4 March 1857, he immediately sailed for Europe and remained abroad until November 1857. His trip did not restore his health and though he returned to the Senate in December he was unable to remain, and after some time went again to Europe where he remained till November 1859, when he returned to this country and resumed his place at Washington. He took little part in the debates until June when he delivered an elaborate oration on the “Barbarism of Slavery” in which he portrayed its nature and its results with unsparing severity. It was the last speech in Congress on the slavery question before the election of Lincoln. The next session was spent in attempts to prevent secession, but to all proposals of compromise Sumner was absolutely opposed because he would not tolerate any concession to disunion or slavery.

After the Civil War began he was among the first to recognize the necessity of emancipation. He urged it upon the President immediately after the defeat at Bull Run and continued to press it in conferences with him, in the Senate and in public speeches, until the Emancipation proclamation was issued. He devoted himself successfully to removing from the statute book of the United States every law discriminating against the negro. From the beginning of the struggle he contended that there could be no reconstruction of the Union unless slavery was abolished, and in aid of this policy insisted that reconstruction must be controlled by Congress. He became the most influential man in the Senate because he had the support of the anti-slavery sentiment everywhere, and because his policy was consistently addressed to the final extirpation of slavery.

As chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations he rendered equally valuable service in the conduct of our foreign affairs during the war. When Mason and Slidell were taken from the British mail steamer Trent in November 1861 and war with England seemed probable, Sumner urged the administration to surrender the prisoners, and by letters to Cobden, Bright and others in England sought to prevent any hostile action by that country. After the surrender he soothed the irritation of the North by a judicious speech in the Senate, pointing out that the government had acted in strict accord with the position we had always maintained as to the rights of neutrals. During the critical period of the war when the danger of foreign intervention was great his influence prevented injudicious action by our government, and by constant correspondence with prominent Englishmen he did much to prevent English intervention.

When the death of Lincoln brought Andrew Johnson into power, Sumner expected much of him, but when he found that Johnson proposed to restore the Southern States to the Union under their former leaders, he took his stand in opposition. At first he found little support even among the Republican leaders, but as the consequences of Johnson's policy became apparent, they gradually accepted his views. He led in the contest with the President which followed the vetoes of the Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Bills. When the House under the lead of Thaddeus Stevens proposed an amendment to the Constitution providing that where the elective franchise was denied in any State on account of race or color all persons so disfranchised should be excluded from the basis of representation. Sumner opposed it with all his power, demanding instead an absolute prohibition of such disfranchisement. His opposition defeated the resolution and led to the adoption of the 14th and 15th Amendments. In February 1867 he finally persuaded a majority of the Republican senators to decide that no seceding State should be admitted to the Union unless its constitution guaranteed equal political rights to white and colored citizens. When President Johnson's intemperate speeches, his apparent purpose to carry out his policy at any cost, and his attempt to remove Secretary Stanton led to his impeachment, Sumner took strong ground in favor of conviction.

Sumner's last term in the Senate began when General Grant was inaugurated 4 March 1869. Early in his administration Sumner as chairman of his committee reported against the Johnson-Clarendon treaty for the settlement of the Alabama claims, and made a speech in which he dwelt upon the enormous injury which England's course had done us and insisted that no adjustment was possible unless the magnitude of the case was appreciated and all our claims were submitted to arbitration. This speech caused great resentment in England, but paved the way for the later treaty which ended the dispute and which Sumner warmly supported. His relations with the new administration were cordial until a difference arose in regard to the treaties for the annexation of Santo Domingo and a lease of Samana Bay. Sumner opposed them for reasons which satisfied the Senate and the country but the President considered his opposition personal and the day after the treaties were rejected Mr. Motley, who was a friend of Mr. Sumner, was removed from the English mission. The result was a breach between Sumner and the administration which led to Sumner's removal from the chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations.

At the session of Congress which began in December 1871 Sumner began a contest to secure by law to the colored race absolute equality of civil rights, which he pressed with all his power until his death. The attitude of the administration on various questions, the nepotism attributed to General Grant, and certain scandals which had been exposed, brought Sumner more and more into opposition, and when the Democratic party nominated Horace Greeley for President in 1872, Sumner decided to support him. His health was now failing so that he took no part in the campaign, and though he took his seat in the Senate in December 1872, he was at his own request excused from service on committees and after 18 December took no part in the business of the session. From that time on he suffered from attacks of angina pectoris, but while his strength permitted he continued to press the civil rights bill, until a final attack of his malady resulted in his death.

No man among American statesmen was ever of purer life, showed more absolute devotion to the public service or greater courage, nor was any animated by a higher moral purpose than he. He believed in the absolute equality of men before the law, and to him more than to any other single man was due the legislation by which that equality was for a while established in this country.

Moorfield Storey,
Author ‘Life of Charles Sumner’.


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HON. CHARLES SUMNER