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."
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.
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
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.