Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner, the son of a lawyer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 6th January, 1811. After graduating from Harvard University in 1833 he was admitted to the bar. Sumner developed radical political opinions and after reading An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans by Lydia Maria Child he became active in the campaign against slavery. Sumner also advocated education and prison reform.

Sumner joined the Whig Party but in 1848 helped to form the Free Soil Party. The following year he made a legal challenge against segregated schools in Boston. In 1851, with the support of the Democratic Party, Sumner was elected to Congress. He now became the Senate's leading opponent of slavery. After one speech Sumner made against pro-slavery groups in Kansas in 1856 he was beaten unconscious by Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina. His injuries stopped him from attending the Senate for the next three years.

During the secession crisis in 1860-61, Sumner argued against any compromise deal and became one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans in Congress. On the outbreak of the American Civil War, he advocated the use of black troops to bring an end to slavery. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Sumner showed considerable political skill in preventing European intervention in the conflict.

Sumner clashed with Abraham Lincoln over his treatment of Major General John C. Fremont. On 30th August, 1861, Fremont, the commander of the Union Army in St. Louis, proclaimed that all slaves owned by Confederates in Missouri were free. Lincoln asked Fremont to modify his order and free only slaves owned by Missourians actively working for the South. When Fremont refused, he was sacked and replaced by the conservative General Henry Halleck. Sumner wrote to Lincoln complaining about his actions and remarked how sad it was "to have the power of a god and not use it godlike".

The situation was repeated in May, 1863, when General David Hunter began enlisting black soldiers in the occupied districts of South Carolina. Soon afterwards Hunter issued a statement that all slaves owned by Confederates in the area were free. Abraham Lincoln was furious and instructed him to disband the 1st South Carolina (African Descent) regiment and to retract his proclamation. Sumner supporting Hunter telling Lincoln that the Union could only be saved by freeing the slaves.

Sumner also disagreed with Abraham Lincoln over suffrage. Sumner wanted all African Americans to have the vote whereas Lincoln favoured partial enfranchisement. Sumner thought that universal suffrage would help the government arguing that "the only Unionists of the South are black". Despite their many disagreements, the two men remained close friends. On one occasion Lincoln told Sumner "the only difference between you and me is a difference of a month or six weeks in time."

The attack on Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks (1856)
The attack on Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks (1856)

Despite their insistance that the white power structure in the South should be removed, most Radical Republicans argued that the deated forces should be treated leniently. Even while the American Civil War was going on Sumner argued that: "A humane and civilised people cannot suddenly become inhumane and uncivilized. We cannot be cruel, or barbarous, or savage, because the Rebels we now meet in warfare are cruel, barbarous and savage. We cannot imitate the detested example."

In 1866 Sumner and the Radical Republicans advocated the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, legislation that was designed to protect freed slaves from Southern Black Codes (laws that placed severe restrictions on freed slaves such as prohibiting their right to vote, forbidding them to sit on juries, limiting their right to testify against white men, carrying weapons in public places and working in certain occupations).

Sumner also opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson and argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. They also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts. However, the Radical Republicans were able to get the Reconstruction Acts passed in 1867 and 1868. Sumner also urged an extensive programme of economic aid, land distribution and free education for freed slaves.

In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Andrew Johnson be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report written by George H. Williams contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On 30th March, 1868, Johnson's impeachment trial began. Sumner led the attack arguing that: "This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again. He is the lineal successor of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis; and he gathers about him the same supporters."

Sumner was bitterly disappointed when the Senate vote was one short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction. Sumner and other Radical Republicans were angry that not all the Republican Party voted for a conviction and Benjamin Butler claimed that Johnson had bribed two of the senators who switched their votes at the last moment.

President Ulysses S. Grant was also criticised by Sumner for not doing more for black civil rights. This upset senior members of the Republican Party and he was removed as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Sumner lost all faith in Grant and in the 1872 presidential election he supported his rival, Horace Greeley. Charles Sumner died of a heart attack on 11th March, 1874.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Charles Sumner, speech on the Mexican War (1847)

A war of conquest is bad; but the present war has darker shadows. It is a war for the extension of slavery over a territory which has already been purged by Mexican authority from this stain and curse. Fresh markets of human beings are to be established; further opportunities for this hateful traffic are to be opened; the lash of the overseer is to be quickened in new regions; and the wretched slave is to be hurried to unaccustomed fields of toil. It can hardly be believed that now, more than eighteen hundred years since the dawn of the Christian era, a government, professing the law of charity and justice, should be employed in war to extend an institution which exists in defiance of these sacred principles.

It has already been shown that the annexation of Texas was consummated for this purpose. The Mexican War is a continuance, a prolongation, of the same efforts; and the success which crowned the first emboldens the partisans of the latter, who now, as before, profess to extend the area of freedom, while they are establishing a new sphere for slavery.

The authorities already adduced in regard to the objects of annexation illustrate the real objects of the Mexican War. Declarations have also been made, upon the floor of Congress, which throw light upon it. Mr. Sims, of South Carolina, has said that "he had no doubt that every foot of territory we shall permanently occupy, south of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes, will be slave territory"; and, in reply to his colleague, Mr. Burt, who inquired whether this opinion was "in consequence of the known determination of the Southern people that their institutions shall be carried into that country, if acquired," said, in words that furnish a key to the whole project, "It is founded on the known determination of the Southern people that their institutions shall be carried there; it is founded in the laws of God, written on the climate and soil of the country: nothing but slave labor can cultivate, profitably, that region of country."

But it is not merely proposed to open new markets for slavery: it is also designed to confirm and fortify the "Slave Power." Here is a distinction which should not fail to be borne in mind. Slavery is odious as an institution, if viewed in the light of morals and Christianity. On this account alone we should refrain from rendering it any voluntary support. But it has been made the basis of a political combination, to which has not inaptly been applied the designation of the "Slave Power."

The slaveholders of the country - who are not supposed to exceed 200,000 or at most 300,000 in numbers - by the spirit of union which animates them, by the strong sense of a common interest, and by the audacity of their leaders, have erected themselves into a new "estate," as it were, under the Constitution. Disregarding the sentiments of many of the great framers of that instrument, who notoriously considered slavery as temporary, they proclaim it a permanent institution; and, with a strange inconsistency, at once press its title to a paramount influence in the general government, while they deny the right of that government to interfere, in any way, with its existence. According to them, it may never be restrained or abolished by the general government, though it may be indefinitely extended.

(2) Charles Sumner, speech on the subject of segregation of schools (1849)

The school is the little world where the child is trained for the larger world of life. It is the microcosm preparatory to the macrocosm, and therefore it must cherish and develop the virtues and the sympathies needed in the larger world. And since, according to our institutions, all classes, without distinction of color, meet in the performance of civil duties, so should they all, without distinction of color, meet in the school, beginning there those relations of equality which the constitution and laws promise to all.

As the state derives strength from the unity and solidarity of its citizens without distinction of class, so the school derives strength from the unity and solidarity of all classes beneath its roof. In this way the poor, the humble, and the neglected not only share the companionship of the more favored but enjoy also the protection of their presence, which draws toward the school a more watchful superintendence. A degraded or neglected class, if left to themselves, will become more degraded or neglected.

Happily, our educational system, by the blending of all classes, draws upon the whole school that attention which is too generally accorded only to the favored few, and thus secures to the poor their portion of the fruitful sunshine. But the colored children, placed apart in separate schools, are deprived of this peculiar advantage. Nothing is more clear than that the welfare of classes, as well as of individuals, is promoted by mutual acquaintance.

Prejudice is the child of ignorance. It is sure to prevail, where people do not know each other. Society and intercourse are means established by Providence for human improvement. They remove antipathies, promote mutual adaptation and conciliation, and establish relations of reciprocal regard. Whoso sets up barriers to these thwarts the ways of Providence, crosses the tendencies of human nature, and directly interferes with the laws of God.

(3) Salmon Chase, letter to Charles Sumner (28th April, 1851)

From the bottom of my heart I congratulate you - no, not you, but all the friends of freedom everywhere upon your election to the Senate. Now I feel as if I had a brother colleague - one with whom I shall sympathize and be able fully to act. Hale, glorious and noble fellow as he is is yet too much an off-hand man himself to be patient of consultation - while Seward, though meaning to maintain his own position as an antislavery man, means to maintain it in the Whig Party and only in the Whig Party. Wade, who has been elected to be my colleague, is not known to me personally. None of them are to me as you are.

(4) Charles Sumner, speech at a Republican Party meeting in Worcester (1st October, 1861)

It is often said that war will make an end to Slavery. This is probable. But it is surer still not overthrow of Slavery will make an end of the war.

(5) Carl Schurz wrote about Charles Sumner in his autobiography published in 1906.

Charles Sumner was strikingly unlike all the public men surrounding him - just as Lincoln was, but in the opposite sense. Sumner was a born Puritan character, an aristocrat by instinct and culture, a democrat by study and reflection, a revolutionary power by the dogmatic intensity of his determination to impose his principles upon the world at any cost. His notions of right and wrong were absolute. When someone asked him whether he ever looked at the other side of the slavery question, he answered: "There is no other side." No answer could have been more characteristic. Not that he was merely unwilling to see the other side of the question of that nature - he was unable to see it.

(6) In a speech made on 7th July, 1862, Charles Sumner attacked President Lincoln's decision to allow Black Codes to continue.

A government organized by Congress and appointed by the President is to enforce laws and institutions, some of which are abhorrent to civilization. Take for instance, the Revised Code of North Carolina, which I have before me. "Any free person, who shall teach, or attempt to teach, any slave to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave any book or pamphlet, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, if a white man or woman, shall be fined not less than one hundred nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned, and if a free person of colour, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped not exceeding thirty-nine nor less than twenty lashes.

Here is another specimen: "If any person shall willfully bring into the State, with an intent to circulate, or shall aid or abet the bringing into, or the circulation or publication, the State, any written or printed in or out of the State, the evident tendency whereof is to cause slaves to become discontented with the bondage in which they are held by their masters and the laws regulating the same, and free negroes to be dissatisfied with their social condition and the denial to them of political privileges, and thereby to excite among the said slaves and free negroes a disposition to make conspiracies, insurrections, or resistance against the peace and quiet of the public, such person so offending shall be deemed guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof shall, for the first offence, be imprisoned not less than one year, and be put in the pillory and whipped, at the discretion of the court, and for the second offence shall suffer death."

(7) Carl Schurz, Reminiscences (1906)

Lincoln regarded and esteemed Sumner as the outspoken conscience of the advanced anti-slavery sentiment, the confidence and hearty cooperation of which was to him of the highest moment in the common struggle. While it required all his fortitude to bear Sumner's intractable insistence, Lincoln did not at all deprecate Sumner's agitation for all immediate emancipation policy, even though it did reflect upon the course of the administration. On the contrary, he rather welcomed everything that would prepare the public mind for the approaching development.

(8) Charles Sumner, speech at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson (May, 1868)

This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him it lives again. He is the lineal successor of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis; and he gathers about him the same supporters.

This formal accusation is founded on certain recent transgressions, enumerated in articles of impeachment, but it is wrong to suppose that this is the whole case. It is very wrong to try this impeachment merely on these articles. It is unpardonable to higgle over words and phrases when, for more than two years, the tyrannical pretensions of this offender, now in evidence before the Senate have been manifest in their terrible heartrending consequences.

This usurpation, with its brutalities and indecencies, became manifest as long ago as the winter of 1866, when, being President, and bound by his oath of office to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, and to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, he took to himself legislative powers in the reconstruction of the Rebel states; and, in carrying forward this usurpation, nullified an act of Congress, intended as the cornerstone of Reconstruction, by virtue of which Rebels are excluded from office under the government of the United States.