Charles Sumner

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Portrait of Sumner by Walter Ingalls, oil on canvas, 1873

Charles Sumner (January 6, 1811 – March 11, 1874) was an American politician from Massachusetts who played a major role in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. An academic lawyer but a powerful orator, Sumner was the leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans in the U.S. Senate during the American Civil War and Reconstruction. He jumped from party to party, gaining fame as a Republican. One of the most learned statesmen of the era, he specialized in foreign affairs, working closely with Abraham Lincoln. He devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what he considered the Slave Power, that is the conspiracy of slave owners to seize control of the federal government and block the progress of liberty. His severe beating in 1856 by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on the floor of the United States Senate helped escalate the tensions that led to war. After years of therapy Sumner returned to the Senate to help lead the Civil War. Sumner was a leading exponent of abolishing slavery to weaken the Confederacy. Although he kept on good terms with Abraham Lincoln, he was a leader of the hard-line Radical Republicans.

As a Radical Republican leader in the Senate during Reconstruction, 1865-1871, Sumner fought hard to provide equal civil and voting rights for the freedmen, and to block ex-Confederates from power. Sumner, teaming with House leader Thaddeus Stevens defeated Andrew Johnson, and imposed hard-line views on the South. In 1871, however, he broke with President Ulysses Grant; Grant's Senate supporters then took away Sumner's power base, his committee chairmanship. Sumner supported the Liberal Republicans candidate Horace Greeley in 1872 and lost his power inside the Republican party.

Early life, education and law career

Sumner was born to a wealthy upper-class Boston family and attended the Boston Latin School. He graduated in 1830 from Harvard College and in 1834 from Harvard Law School where he studied jurisprudence with Joseph Story.

In 1834, Sumner was admitted to the bar; a visit to Washington filled him with loathing for politics as a career, and he returned to Boston resolved to devote himself to the practice of law. He contributed to the quarterly American Jurist and edited Story's court decisions as well as some law texts. From 1836 to 1837, Sumner lectured at Harvard Law School.

Travels in Europe

From 1837 to 1840, Sumner traveled extensively in Europe. There he became fluent in French, German and Italian, with a command of languages equaled by no American then in public life. He met with many of the leading statesmen in Europe, and secured a deep insight into civil law and government.

Sumner visited England in 1838 where his knowledge of literature, history, and law made him popular with leaders of thought. Henry Brougham declared that he "had never met with any man of Sumner's age of such extensive legal knowledge and natural legal intellect." Not until many years after Sumner's death was any other American received so intimately into British intellectual circles.

Beginning of political career

In 1840, at the age of 29, Sumner returned to Boston to practice law but devoted more time to lecturing at Harvard Law School, to editing court reports, and to contributing to law journals, especially on historical and biographical themes.

A turning point in Sumner's life came when he delivered an Independence Day oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations," in Boston in 1845. He spoke against war, and made an impassioned appeal for freedom and peace.

He became a sought-after orator for formal occasions. His lofty themes and stately eloquence made a profound impression; his platform presence was imposing (he stood six feet and four inches tall, with a massive frame). His voice was clear and of great power; his gestures unconventional and individual, but vigorous and impressive. His literary style was florid, with much detail, allusion, and quotation, often from the Bible as well as classical Greek and Roman authors. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that he delivered speeches "like a cannoneer ramming down cartridges," while Sumner himself said that "you might as well look for a joke in the Book of Revelations."

Sumner cooperated effectively with Horace Mann to improve the system of public education in Massachusetts. He advocated prison reform and opposed the Mexican-American War. He viewed the war as a war of aggression but was primarily concerned that captured territories would expand slavery westward. In 1847, the vigor with which Sumner denounced a Boston congressman's vote in favor of the declaration of war against Mexico made him a leader of the "conscience Whigs," but he declined to accept their nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sumner took an active part in the organizing of the Free Soil Party, in opposition to the Whigs' nomination of a slave-holding southerner for the presidency. In 1848, he was defeated as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1851, control of the state legislature was won by the Democrats in coalition with the Free Soilers. However, the legislature deadlocked on who should succeed Daniel Webster in the U.S. Senate. After filling the state positions with Democrats, the Democrats refused to vote for Sumner (the Free Soilers' choice) and urged the selection of a less radical candidate. An impasse of more than three months ensued, which finally resulted in the election of Sumner by a single vote on April 24.

Biographer David Donald has probed Sumner's psychology:[1]

Distrusted by friends and allies, and reciprocating their distrust, a man of "ostentatious culture," "unvarnished egotism," and "'a specimen of prolonged and morbid juvenility,'" Sumner combined a passionate conviction in his own moral purity with a command of nineteenth-century "rhetorical flourishes" and a "remarkable talent for rationalization." Stumbling "into politics largely by accident," elevated to the United States Senate largely by chance, willing to indulge in "Jacksonian demagoguery" for the sake of political expediency, Sumner became a bitter and potent agitator of sectional conflict. Carving out a reputation as the South's most hated foe and the Negro's bravest friend, he inflamed sectional differences, advanced his personal fortunes, and helped bring about national tragedy.

Service in the Senate

Antebellum career and attack by Preston Brooks

John L. Magee of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania created Southern Chivalry—Argument Versus Clubs, a lithograph that shows Northern outrage over Preston Brooks's attack on Sumner.

Sumner took his seat in the Senate in late 1851. For the first few sessions Sumner did not push for any of his controversial causes, but observed the workings of the Senate. On August 26, 1852, Sumner delivered, in spite of strenuous efforts to prevent it, his first major speech. Entitled "Freedom National; Slavery Sectional" (a popular abolitionist motto), Sumner attacked the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and called for its repeal.

The conventions of both the great parties had just affirmed the finality of every provision of the Compromise of 1850. Reckless of political expediency, Sumner moved that the Fugitive Slave Act be forthwith repealed; and for more than three hours he denounced it as a violation of the Constitution, an affront to the public conscience, and an offense against the divine law. The speech provoked a storm of anger in the South, but the North was heartened to find at last a leader whose courage matched his conscience.

In 1856, during the Bloody Kansas crisis when "border ruffians" threatened abolitionists there, Sumner denounced the Kansas Nebraska Act in the "Crime against Kansas" speech on May 19 and May 20, two days before the sack of Lawrence. Sumner attacked the authors of the act, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, comparing Douglas to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. He ridiculed Butler for a speech defect caused by his heart condition.

Sumner said Douglas (who was present in the chamber) was a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal...not a proper model for an American senator." Most serious was his extreme insult of Butler as having taken "a mistress 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."

Two days later, on the afternoon of May 22, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina and Butler's nephew, confronted Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber. Brooks said "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks began beating Sumner on the head with a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. Sumner was trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to bash Sumner until he ripped the desk from the floor. By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane, then quietly left the chamber. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Brooke's accomplice who was holding a pistol.

Sumner did not attend the Senate for the next three years, while recovering from the attack. In addition to the head trauma, he suffered from nightmares, severe headaches and (what is now understood to be) post-traumatic shock). During that period, his enemies subjected him to ridicule and accused him of cowardice for not resuming his duties in the Senate. Nevertheless, the legislature reelected him in November 1856, believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery.

The attack revealed the increasing polarization of the Union in the years before the American Civil War, as Sumner became a hero across the North and Brooks a hero across the South. Northerners were outraged, with the editor of the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant, writing:

The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.
Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters?... Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?" The outrage heard across the North was loud and strong, and historian William Gienapp later argued that the success of the new Republican party was uncertain in early 1856; but Brooks’s "assault was of critical importance in transforming the struggling Republican party into a major political force."

Conversely, the act was praised by Southern newspapers; in Virginia the Richmond Enquirer editorialized that Sumner should be caned "every morning," praising the attack as "good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences" and denounced "these vulgar abolitionists in the Senate" who "have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission."

American Civil War

After three years Sumner returned to the Senate in 1859. He delivered a speech entitled "The Barbarism of Slavery" in the months leading up to the 1860 presidential election. In the critical months following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Sumner was an unyielding foe to every scheme of compromise with the so-called Confederate States of America.

After the withdrawal of the Southern senators, Sumner was made chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March 1861, a powerful position for which he was well-qualified owing to his years and background of European political knowledge, relationships, and experiences.

As chair of the committee, Sumner renewed his efforts to gain diplomatic recognition of the only black-controlled nation, Haiti by the United States, which Haiti had sought since winning its independence in 1804. With Southern senators no longer standing in the way, Sumner was successful in 1862.

While the Civil War was in progress, Sumner's letters from Richard Cobden, John Bright, William Ewart Gladstone and George Douglas Campbell, were read by Sumner at Lincoln's request to Cabinet, and formed a chief source of knowledge on the delicate political balance pro- and anti-Union in Britain.

In the war scare over the Trent affair (where the U.S. Navy illegally seized high-ranking Confederates from a British Navy ship), it was Sumner's word that convinced Lincoln that James M. Mason and John Slidell must be given up. Again and again Sumner used his chairmanship to block action which threatened to embroil the U.S. in war with England and France. Sumner openly and boldly advocated the policy of emancipation. Lincoln described Sumner as "my idea of a bishop," and consulted him as an embodiment of the conscience of the American people.

Sumner was a longtime enemy of Chief Justice Roger Taney, and attacked his decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. In 1865, Sumner said:

I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also..."

As soon as the Civil War began when Sumner put forward his theory of Reconstruction, that the South had by its own act become felo de se, committing state suicide via secession, and that they be treated as conquered territories that had never been states. He resented the much more generous Reconstruction policy taken by Lincoln, and later by Andrew Johnson, as an encroachment upon the powers of Congress. Throughout the war, Sumner had constituted himself the special champion of blacks, being the most vigorous advocate of emancipation, of enlisting the blacks in the Union army, and of the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Civil rights

Sumner was unusually far-sighted in his advocacy of voting and civil rights for blacks. His father hated slavery and told Sumner that freeing the slaves would "do us no good" unless they were treated equally by society.[2] Sumner was a close associate of William Ellery Channing, a minister in Boston who influenced many New England intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Channing believed that human beings had an infinite potential to improve themselves. Expanding on this argument, Sumner concluded that environment had "an important, if not controlling influence" in shaping individuals.[3] By creating a society where "knowledge, virtue and religion" took precedence, "the most forlorn shall grow into forms of unimagined strength and beauty."[4] Moral law, then, was as important for governments as it was for individuals, and laws which inhibited a man's ability to grow — like slavery or segregation — were evil. While Sumner often had dark views of contemporary society, his faith in reform was unshakeable; when accused of utopianism, he replied "The Utopias of one age have been the realities of the next."[5]

The annexation of Texas — a new slave-holding state — in 1845 pushed Sumner into taking an active role in the anti-slavery movement. He helped organize an alliance between Democrats and the newly created Free-Soil Party in Massachusetts in 1849. That same year, Sumner represented the plaintiffs in Roberts v. Boston, a case which challenged the legality of racial segregation. Arguing before the Massacusetts Supreme Court, Sumner noted that schools for blacks were physically inferior and that segregation bred harmful psychological and sociological effects — arguments that would be made in Brown v. Board of Education over a century later.[6] Sumner lost the case, but the Massachusetts legislature eventually abolished school segregation in 1855.

A friend of Samuel Gridley Howe, Sumner was also a guiding force for the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission. The senator was one of the most prominent advocates for suffrage, along with free homesteads and free public schools for blacks. Sumner's outspoken opposition to slavery made him few friends in the Senate; after delivering his first major speech there in 1852, a senator from Alabama rose and urged that there be no reply to Sumner, saying "The ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm."[7] His uncompromising attitude did not endear him to moderates and sometimes inhibited his effectiveness as a legislator; he was largely excluded from work on the Thirteenth Amendment, in part because he did not get along with Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and did much of the work on the law. Sumner did introduce an alternate amendment that would have abolished slavery and declare that "all people are equal before the law" — a combination of the Thirteenth Amendment with elements of the Fourteenth Amendment. During Reconstruction, he often attacked civil rights legislation as too weak and fought hard for legislation to give land to freed slaves; unlike many of his contemporaries, he viewed segregation and slavery as two sides of the same coin.[8] He introduced a civil rights bill in 1872 that would have mandated equal accommodation in all public places and required suits brought under the bill to be argued in federal courts.[9] The bill ultimately failed, but Sumner still spoke of it on his deathbed.[10]

Taylor (2001) Argues that Sumner was deeply influenced by the republican principles of duty, education, and liberty balanced by order, as well as by Moral Philosophy, the dominant strain of American Enlightenment thinking, which embraced cosmopolitanism and the dignity of man's intellect and conscience. As a young lawyer, Sumner was greatly attracted by the related principles of Natural Law, which since ancient times had conjoined law and ethics. These influences are symbolized by Sumner's closeness to John Quincy Adams, William Ellery Channing, and Joseph Story. Sumner, with many early nineteenth-century American intellectuals, desired to build an American culture that would combine the principles of American liberty with European culture. He thus eschewed law for reform--including education, promotion of the arts, prison discipline, international peace, and anti-slavery--and eventually politics, not from rashness or ambition, but from the belief in each individual's duty to work for the public good and in the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment. Sumner grew increasingly disillusioned as the controversy surrounding these reforms divided Boston and the nation over the significance of that Enlightenment legacy, but he devoted his entire public career to the realization of the Enlightenment's vision of a civilized nation, both cultivated and just.

Personal life and marriage

Sumner was serious and somewhat prickly, but he developed friendships with several prominent Bostonians, particularly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose house he visited regularly in the 1840s. Longfellow's daughters found his stateliness amusing; Sumner would ceremoniously open doors for the children while saying "In presequas" in a sonorous tone.[11]

A bachelor for most of his life, Sumner began courting Alice Mason Hooper, the daughter of Massachusetts congressman Samuel Hooper, in 1866 and the two were married that October. It proved to be a poor match: Sumner could not respond to his wife's humor, and Hooper had a ferocious temper she could not always control. That winter, Hooper began going out to public events with Friedrich von Holstein, a German nobleman. While the two were not having an affair, the relationship caused gossip in Washington, and Hooper refused to stop seeing him. When Holstein was recalled to Prussia in the spring of 1867, Hooper accused Sumner of engineering the action (Sumner always denied this) and the two separated the following September.[12] News of the situation quickly leaked out, to the delight of Sumner's enemies, who referred to him as "The Great Impotency" and claimed (without proof) that Sumner could not perform his marital duties. The situation depressed and embarrassed Sumner; the two were finally divorced on May 10, 1873.[13]

Reconstruction years and death

Sumner was strongly opposed to the Reconstruction policy of Johnson, believing it to be far too generous to the South. Johnson was impeached by the House, but the Senate failed to convict him (and thus remove him from office) by a single vote.

Ulysses Grant became a bitter opponent of Sumner in 1870 when the president mistakenly thought that he had secured his support for the annexation of the Dominican Republic.

Sumner had always prized highly his popularity in Great Britain, but he unhesitatingly sacrificed it in taking his stand as to the adjustment of claims against Britain for breaches of neutrality during the war. Sumner laid great stress upon "national claims." He held that Britain's according the rights of belligerents to the Confederacy had doubled the duration of the war, entailing inestimable loss. He therefore insisted that Britain should be required not merely to pay damages for the havoc wreaked by the Alabama and other cruisers fitted out for Confederate service in her ports, but that, for "that other damage, immense and infinite, caused by the prolongation of the war," Sumner wanted Britain to turn over Canada as payment. At the Geneva arbitration conference these "national claims" were abandoned.)

Under pressure from President Grant, he was deposed in March 1871 from the chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Relations]], in which he had served with great effectiveness since 1861. The chief cause of this humiliation was Grant's vindictiveness at Sumner's blocking Grant's plan to annex Santo Domingo. Sumner broke with the Republican party and campaigned for the Liberal Republican Horace Greeley in 1872.

In 1872, he introduced in the Senate a resolution providing that the names of Civil War battles should not be placed on the regimental colors of army regiments. The Massachusetts legislature denounced this battle-flag resolution as "an insult to the loyal soldiery of the nation" and as "meeting the unqualified condemnation of the people of the Commonwealth." For more than a year all efforts– headed by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier– to rescind that censure were without avail, but early in 1874 it was annulled. His last words uttered around his closest colleagues and friends was noted to be "save my civil rights bill".

He lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sumner was the scholar in politics. He could never be induced to suit his action to the political expediency of the moment. "The slave of principles, I call no party master," was the proud avowal with which he began his service in the Senate. For the tasks of Reconstruction he showed little aptitude. He was less a builder than a prophet. His was the first clear program proposed in Congress for the reform of the civil service. It was his dauntless courage in denouncing compromise, in demanding the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, and in insisting upon emancipation, that made him the chief initiating force in the struggle that put an end to slavery.


  • Donald, David, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), Pulitzer-prize-winning scholarly biography to 1860; Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), biography from 1861.
    • see Paul Goodman, "David Donald's Charles Sumner Reconsidered" in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3. (Sep., 1964), pp. 373-387. online at JSTOR
  • Foner, Eric, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (1970), history of ideas online edition
  • Gienapp, William E. "The Crime against Sumner: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Rise of the Republican Party." Civil War History 25 (September 1979): 218-45. in JSTOR
  • Pfau, Michael William. "Time, Tropes, And Textuality: Reading Republicanism In Charles Sumner's 'Crime Against Kansas.'" Rhetoric & Public Affairs 2003 6(3): 385-413.
  • Louis Ruchames. "Charles Sumner and American Historiography," Journal of Negro History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Apr., 1953), pp. 139-160 online at JSTOR
  • Sinha, Manisha. "The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War" Journal Of The Early Republic 2003 23(2): 233-262.
  • Storey, Moorfield, Charles Sumner (1900) older biography, replaced by Donald (1960, 1970)' online edition online at
  • Taylor, Anne-Marie. Young Charles Sumner and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811-1851. U. of Massachusetts Press, 2001. 422 pp.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1911) for parts of the text

Primary Sources

  • Palmer, Beverly Wilson, ed. The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner 2 vol (1990)
  • The Works of Charles Sumner 15 vol (1870-1883) online
  • Edward L. Pierce, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner 4 vols., 1877-93. vol2 1838-45, vol 3 1845-60


  1. Goodman's paraphrase of Donald in Goodman (1964) p 374
  2. Donald, (1970), p.130.
  3. Donald, p.104.
  4. Donald, 1:105
  5. Donald, p.106
  6. Donald, 1:180-1
  7. Donald, 1:236
  8. Donald, 2: 532
  9. Donald, Rights of Man, 532
  10. Donald, 587
  11. Donald, 1:174
  12. Donald, 2:293
  13. Donald, 2:571