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Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner



Charles SumnerMassachusetts has always honored herself by sending to the Senate of the United States statesmen of the highest type, and in this imposing list Charles Summer will ever stand pre-eminent. He was probably the most profound and polished scholar that ever occupied a seat in that distinguished body, and was regarded by his colleagues as an intellectual giant, hut his memory will be cherished chiefly because all his splendid endowments were dedicated to the cause of human emancipation. The crusade against American slavery drew into its ranks representatives of all classes. The Puritan settlers had not believed in the equality of all men, but when their descendants accept it as a fact, their conscience compelled them to put it in practice- to abolish slavery in their own community, to oppose it as far as their influence reached. In the second quarter of this century, when slavery took a firmer hold of the South, the Abolition movement began in the North in the third it reached its triumph, and no man was more effective in it than Summer, the scholarly lawyer, who was but slowly dragged from professional work and delightful studies to enter the political arena, and urge an unrelenting fight against the evil which threatened the national life.


Charles Sumner was born in Boston, on the 6th of January, 1811. He was descended from one of the earliest settlers of Dorchester. His father, a lawyer and sheriff of Suffolk county, was a man of good local repute. Charles, entering Harvard College at the age of fifteen, showed special Rondness for the classics, general literature and oratory. After graduating he studied law, but continued to extend his general reading, being always noted for seriousness, industry, purity of life, and thirst for knowledge.


In 1835 Judge Joseph Story appointed Sumner a commissioner of the circuit court and reporter. He also engaged in lecturing and writing on literary and legal topics, and edited the" American Jurist. n His friendships were chiefly with persons of scholarly tastes. In December, 1837, he went to France, where he spent five months in diligent observation or society and in attendance on lectures by the most noted professors. 'fen months were devoted to England, where he was well received by the best classes i six months were given to Italy, its art and literature; five to Germany; and then, after a further visit to England, he returned to ·Boston to enjoy and contribute to the culture of its best society. He did not neglect his duty to his country, but wished to take John Quincy Adams as his model. In 1842 Webster, being Secretary of State, demanded from the British government the return of the slaves who had obtained freedom by rising against t he officers of the Coasting vessel "Creole," and putting into Nassau. Sumner publicly criticized Webster' s action, as contrary to the principles of international law. In other instances he showed sympathy with movements against slavery ; but h is time and attention were chiefly devoted to professional work. On the 4th of July, 1845, he delivered his memorable oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations." Though addressed to an audience largely composed of military organizations, it was a severe denunciation of war as always wrong, and an elaborate, eloquent plea for peace and international arbitration. In the following November, at a meeting in Fanenil Hall presided overly Charles Francis Adams, and called to protest against the admission of Texas, Sumner formulated the idea which governed his entire career, pronouncing slavery sectional, and not national and that the Federal Constitution was always to be interpreted in the interest of human freedom. Sumner had thus far been a Whig in politic and in r846, when the Mexican war was imminent, he urged upon Webster and other leaders the duty of directing that party to open opposition to slavery. The first result was a division in Massachusetts between the "Conscience ,Whigs ., and the Cottan Whigs, who wished to retain close relation with the South. When the Whig national convention nominated General Zachary Taylor for the presidency, the anti-slavery men organized the Free-Soil Party, and Summer was made secretary of its State committee. He was also nominated for Congress, but defeated by Robert C. Winthrop. Summer continued his public activity in opposition to the pro-slavery policy of Congress, and especially denounced the 'Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, as a retrograde step.


In Massachusetts the little band or Free-Sailors now united with the Democrats, and succeeded in electing a majority of the legislature. Democratic candidates were elected for the governorship and other offices, but the struggle over the election of Summer to the United States Senate lasted three months. Personally no man was better fitted to represent a sovereign commonwealth in that august body tall, graceful, majestic in appearance, with a mind stored with ancient and modern learning, full of noble pride, free from envy or vanity. In that body Sumner appeared as the uncompromising foe of slavery and advocate of human freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution. His views were first fully set forth in August, 1852, in his speech on "Freedom National, Slavery Sectional." The tendency in Congress was still in favor of concession to the increasing demands of the slave-power. In 1854 the ancient landmark of the Missouri Compromise was removed by Senator Douglas's Kansas Nebraska bill, against which Sumner, after a course of determined opposition, uttered a solemn protest. This fearless assailant of slavery now became the target for all the missiles of the dominant party. In March, 1856, Douglas proposed the admission of Kansas as a slave state; and in ]Hay Sumner spoke on " The Crime against Kansas." It was a prophetic warning against fratricidal war as an inevitable result of the action of the slavery-propagandists, and called forth severe replies. Among those censured in the speech was Senator Butler, of South Carolina. Two days later, while Sumner was sitting writing at his desk after the adjournment Of the Senate, he was assaulted with a heavy cane by Preston Brooks, a nephew of Butler and representative from South Carolina. Sumner, who had been shut in by his desk and chair, fell senseless to the floor. The outrage was fiercely denounced through the Northern States, but a motion to expel Brooks from the House of Representatives failed for lack of a two-thirds vote. Brooks, however, resigned his seat and appealed to his constituents, by whom he was unanimously re-elected. Sumner's spine had been injured, and he was long incapacitated for public service but when, in November, he returned to Boston, he was greeted with the highest honors by the people. In January, 1857, he was reelected senator, though still unable to take his place, and in March he sailed for Europe to undergo severe medical treatment. Six times he endured the moxa without taking chloroform.


After more than three years' absence Sumner, still enfeebled, returned to the Senate in December, 1859, and ill the following June he delivered another powerful speech on "The Barbarism of Slavery," which his opponents allowed to remain unanswered. The election in the following November resulted in the triumph of the Republican Party, and the Southern senators were busy in carrying out their projects of secession. When President Lincoln was inaugurated the Senate had a Republican majority, and Sumner was made chairman of the committee on foreign affairs. His special fitness for this place at a most critical juncture was shown when he advocated the release of the Confederate envoys captured on the British mail-steamer "Trent." In spite of his farmer views in regard to the unwisdom of war, he concurred ill all measures for suppressing the Rebellion he steadily urged the confiscation and emancipation of the slaves of owners who fought against the Union; he prol1loted the abolition of slavery ill the District of Columbia, and the recognition of the negro republics of Hayti and Liberia j he introduced the bill for employing negro soldiers in the Union army. President Lincoln acknowledged his indebtedness to Sumner for wise advice and efficient support. After the war came the serious problem of reconstruction.


Charles Sumner



Sumner took the extreme ground that the seceding States had divested themselves of statehood, and were therefore in the condition of Territories, to be restored as States at the pleasure of Congress. This view was finally rejected by the Supreme Court, and though it was never fully adopted by Congress, it bad much effect upon legislation.. It was altogether opposed by President Andrew Johnson, and Sumner, therefore, was urgent for his impeachment and removal from office. Sumner materially assisted Secretary Seward's purchase of Alaska from the Russian government. He opposed the treaty with Great Britain, which had been negotiated by Reverdy Johnson because it made no provision for settling the claims growing out of British violations of neutrality during the Civil War. He supported the subsequent Treaty of Washington 1870, which arranged for an international tribunal to hear and adjust the so-called "Alabama claims Sumner had urged strenuously the American demand for" indirect damages, but these were eventually thrown out by the tribunal at Geneva.


President Grant earnestly desired the annexation of San Domingo to the United States, and, without taking Sumner into his confidence, made arrangements for its purchase i hut the Senator, fearing the effect of its occupation on the adjacent republic of Hayti, opposed the scheme. This led to entire estrangement between Sumner and the President and his Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. As the relations between the secretary and the chairman of the committee on foreign affairs should be easy and confidential, the Senate thought it expedient to remove Sumner from the chairmanship which he had held for ten eventful years. They assigned him another chairmanship, but he declined the place. There. after, in company with Trumbull, Schurz and others, he indulged freely in criticisms on Grant's administration for selling arms to the French government during the Franco Prussian war, and for other faults. Notwithstanding Sumner's bitter speech against Grantism, shortly before the Republican Convention met in 1872, the President was re-nominated with practical unanimity. Sumner advised his friends to vote for Horace Greeley, who had been nominated by a convention of Liberal Republicans and endorsed by the Democratic Convention. Before the election he had gone to Europe for further medical treatment on account of his former injuries. On his return to the Senate be offered a resolution for removing from regimental colors the names of battles won over fellow-citizens. Not only was this rejected, but the Massachusetts legislature passed a vote of censure upon him for the proposal; yet, upon a better understanding of his magnanimity, rescinded it shortly before his death. The chief labor of the last years of his life was in preparing and forwarding a Civil Rights bill to enforce the latest Amendments of the Constitution, and to secure for the freedmen equality with the whites so far as law could provide. Although the bills he prepared for this purpose were rejected mote than once, a modified measure of that kind was passed soon after his death, but was finally declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Sumner died in Washington, on the 11th of March, 1874. He had been married to Mrs. Hooper in 1866, but on account of incompatibility they separated in the next year, and were divorced in 1873.


Sumner was a man of fine personal presence, six feet four inches tall, with the constitution of all athlete, before the murderous assault upon him. He was the most widely cultivated man in the Senate, and ranked high among its orators. He made a practice of preparing his speeches with great care for delivery on selected occasions. They were adorned with appropriate quotations from the classics and from foreign tongues, and were intended to be read rather than merely listened to. Though prominent from his very entrance into the Senate, be never was popular. His high self.esteem, his scholarly habits, unremitting industry, and disdain for Compromises, prevented his cultivating close acquaintance with his associates. In his struggles against the slave-power, he was entirely free from personal animosity. Utterly careless and fearless for himself, he worked on with an indomitable will. His quarrel with Grant was partly due to a prejudiced feeling that, as a military man, he was unfitted for civil office and high statesmanship, and partly to an intense, overweening anxiety for the interests of the black race. He was domiDated by a vigorous conscience to labor for the welfare of humanity.




Mr. President, with unspeakable delight I hail this measure and the prospect of its speedy adoption. It is the first installment of that great debt which we all owe to an enslaved race, and will be recognized in history as one of the victories of humanity. At home, throughout our own country, it will be welcomed with gratitude, while abroad it will quicken the hopes of all who love freedom. Liberal institutions will gain everywhere by the abolition of slavery at the National Capital. Nobody can read that slaves were once, sold in the markets of Rome, beneath the eyes of the sovereign Pontiff, without cop .. fessing the scandal to religion, even in a barbarous age; and nobody can hear that slaves are now sold in the markets of Washington, beneath the eyes of the President, without confessing the scandal to liberal institutions. For the sake of our good name, if not for the sake of justice, let the scandal dissappear.


Slavery, beginning in violence, can have no legal or Constitutional existence, unless through positive words expressly authorizing it. As no such positive words can be found in the Constitution, all legislation by Congress supporting slavery must be the constitutional and void, while it is made still further impossible by positive words of prohibition guarding the liberty of every person within the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress. But the question is asked, Shall we vote money for his purpose? I cannot hesitate mid I place it at once under the sallction of that commanding charity proclaimed by prophets and enjoined by apostles, which all history recognizes and which the Constitution cannot impair. From time immemorial every government has undertaken to ransom its subjects from captivity and sometimes a whole people has felt its resources well bestowed in the ransom of its prince. Religion and humanity have both concurred in this duty, as more than usually sacred. The ransom of captives is a great and excelling office of justice," exclaims one of the early fathers. The power thus commended has been exercised by the United States under important circumstances with the cooperation of the best names of our history, so as to be without question. If slavery be unconstitutional in the national Capital, and if it be a Christian duty, sustained by constitutional examples, to ransom slaves, then your swift desires cannot hesitate to adopt the present bill, and it becomes needless to enter upon other questions, important perhaps, but irrelevant. Of course, I scorn to argue the obvious truth that the slaves here are as much entitled to freedom as the white slaves that enlisted the early energies of our Government. They are men by the grace of God, and this is enough. There is no principle of the Constitution, and no rule of justice, which is not as strong for the one as for the other. In consenting to the ransom proposed, you will recognize their manhood, and, if authority be needed, you will find it in the example of Washington, who did not hesitate to employ a golden key to open the house of bondage.


Let this bill pass, and the first practical triumph of freedom, for which good men have longed, dying without the sight-for which a whole generation has petitioned, and for which orators and statesmen have pleaded-will at last be accomplished. Slavery will be banished from the national Capital. This metropolis, which bears a venerated name, will be purified j its evil spirit will be cast out; its shame will be removed j its society will be refined; its courts will be made better; its revolting ordinances will be swept away; and even its loyalty will be secured. If not moved by justice to the slave, then be willing to act for your own good and in self-defense. If you hesitate to pass this bill for the blacks, then pass it for the whites. Nothing is clearer than that the degradation of slavery affects the master as much as the slave; while ·recent events testify, that wherever slavery exists, there treason lurks, if it does not flaunt. From the beginning of this rebellion, slavery has been constantly manifest in the conduct of the masters, and even here in the national Capital, it has been the traitorous power which has encouraged and strengthened the enemy. This power must be suppressed at every cost, and if it's suppression here endangers slavery elsewhere, there will be a new motive for determined action.


Amidst all present solicitudes the future cannot be doubtful. At the national Capital slavery will give way to freedom; but the good work will not stop here. It must proceed. What God and nature decree rebellion cannot arrest. And as the whole wide-spreading tyranny begins to tumble, then, above the din of battle, sounding from the sea and echoing along the land, above even the exultations of victory on welt-fought fields, will ascend voices of gladness and benediction, swelling from generous hearts wherever civilization beats sway, to commemorate a sacred triumph whose trophies, instead of tattered banners, will be ransomed slaves.-C. SUMNER.


Charles Sumner

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