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American Statesman:
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 Charles Summer

 Sir John Alexander Macdonald, G. C. B.


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Charles Summer

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Charles Sumner was reared in comfort, if not in affluence, studied law and literature until he was 40 years old, and was then elected to the United States Senate, in which he served to his death, twenty-three years later. He was brutally assaulted by the slaveholders, whom he had angered, and the effects of this assault upon him shortened his life.

He was born with a twin sister at Boston, January 6, 1811. His father was Sheriff of Boston (Suffolk) for fourteen years, and was enabled to send Charles, his oldest son, to Harvard College. The son graduated, and studied at home for a year. While he was ardent in the pursuit of knowledge, and neglected all youthful games in order to maintain his studies, he was not a brilliant scholar. Yet he was a person of great "approbativeness," and had a deep sense of the obligations that education and training imposed on him as a member of society. He soon entered the Dane Law School at Cambridge, where he studied under Justice Story and Professors Ashmun and Greenleaf, and was librarian of the law library. He graduated in 1833 and entered the law office of Benjamin Rand, in Boston. "Of all men I ever knew at his age," says Mr. Story, "he was the least susceptible to the charms of women. Men he liked best, and with them he preferred to talk." This devotion to learning, and indifference to one-half of humanity, undoubtedly had its ill effects upon the usefulness of the great Senator.

In the winter of 1834 he went to Washington, D. C., to study legal procedure in the Supreme Court. He rode on a railroad train and was delighted with the experience. Like Chase, young Sumner thought General Jackson was "an old tyrant." Daniel Webster gave his scholarly young friend a card to the floor of the Senate, and Mr. Sumner was everywhere received with civility. He wrote to his father : "Nothing that I have seen of politics has made me look upon them with any feeling other than loathing." This is his own language. Between Baltimore and Washington he saw slaves for the first time. "My worst preconception of their appearance and ignorance did not fall as low as their actual stupidity." Nor did he ever overcome his natural aversion for the black man as an actual brother. "My friend," he said, many years later to the colored applicant for a loan, "I am engaged in benefiting you as a race, not as an individual." Wherefore it was stated with some justice that the slave-holders themselves really liked colored men better than some of the Abolitionists who would not live with colored people on any terms whatever.

In 1835 Sumner took Justice Story's place at the law school while Story was on the Supreme Bench, and edited three volumes of Story's opinions. The Justice also appointed Sumner Commissioner of the United States Circuit Court. In 1836 he became an associate editor of the American Jurist. He already read Garrison's Liberator, and was inclined to attack slavery, tooth and nail.

Charles Sumner, as a young man, was very tall and thin, and a rapid walker. He had a thick "head of hair." He was so full of "eagerness, energy, enthusiasm," that everybody noticed it. He was extremely well liked by elderly men. He had now, in his own language, "fallen in love with Europa." He must travel and study abroad.

He therefore settled in Paris, and learned to talk French. In Paris he was ashamed of his country when he was asked to defend its barbaric institution of slavery. "Dissolve the Union, I say," he wrote home.

In England he was received as the best specimen of Young America so far seen. Judges let: him travel with them on their circuits. He met Hallam, Grote, Sydney Smith, Macaulay, Landor, Jeffrey, and Carlyle. He thought Wordsworth the greatest of the Englishmen.

He returned to Paris. "I again entered the Louvre with a throb, and rejoiced as I ascended its magnificent stairway, to think that it was no fee-possession, set apart to please the eyes of royalty." His impressions of Europe strengthened his democratic principles.

He went to Rome, and evened up all that he had learned about it at Harvard. This gave him extreme delight. He mastered the Italian language and studied a good share of its literature, working many hours a day. He then traveled for five months in Germany, and met Metternich, Ranke, Savigny, and Raumer. He studied German in Heidelberg. He arrived in New York in May, 1840, 29 years old.

He was now a welcome member of "The Brahma caste" at Boston. He was a friend of Longfellow, Prescott, Bancroft, Sparks, Greenleaf, Story, Mann, Dr. Howe, Macready, Allston, Emerson, Wendell Phillipps, Felton, Channing, and Parker. This coterie felt the need of providing for the young student, and they narrowly missed obtaining for him the lucrative post of reporter for the Supreme Court. He agreed to edit Versey's Reports in twenty volumes, at the rate of two volumes a month, broke down at the fourth volume, and a swift consumption seized him. He had been keenly disappointed regarding the affair at Washington, and did not desire to recover. His sister, similarly attacked by the disease, died, while he got well.

July 4, 1845, he was orator of the day at Boston. John Quincy Adams was making his anti-Slavery fight all alone in the House of Representatives, and aroused the admiration of Sumner, who wrote many articles for the newspapers. Sumner blamed Mr. Adams for calling the slaveholders names, but in time himself learned that it was a very natural thing to do. When Massachusetts attempted to protect her free colored seamen against the indignities of the laws in South Carolina and Louisiana, he was a prominent contributor to the argument of the day on that question, and always on the side of the slave. The life of Charles Sumner offers one of the best proofs that the slaves were freed because their subjection traversed the development and happiness of the Caucasian race, and not from motives of charity and mercy t0 others at the expense of the ones doing the charity and mercy. In 1845, he declined to lecture at New Bradford because colored people were not admitted on an equal footing with white people. In Movember of that year, he made his first political speech at a meeting in Faneuil Hall, to protest against the admission 0f Texas as a slave State. That night he declared the equality and brotherhood of all men. In September, 1846, in Faneuil Hall, he outlined the anti-Slavery duties of the Whig party. Thereupon arose the factions 0f Cotton Whigs and Conscience Whigs. In June, 1848, Sumner formally left the Whig party and became a Free Soiler. In August, 1848, he presided at the Faneuil Hall ratification of Van Buren's nomination for President, at Buffalo. In a fusion of Free Soilers and Democrats, Sumner was elected to the United States Senate by a majority of one vote, on the twenty-sixth ballot, April 24, 1851, and thus practically entered politics at the ripe age of 40 at the latest point in life of all the other parliamentary characters noticed in this volume. Hale and Chase were in the Senate before him, and the anti-Slavery battle had long been fought alone by John Quincy Adams in the House. On August 26, 1852, Sumner escaped from the toils laid about him by parliamentary intrigue, and made a speech in the Senate against the Fugitive Slave law. By the time the Missouri Compromise was repealed, he was able to speak at will, and the Southern newspapers denounced him as an Abolition fanatic who was encouraging assassination. Threats of a personal character began to be made, and the friends of Sumner feared that harm would befall him. He was, by this time, a man of one idea. He wanted Slavery abolished.

In the debate of June 26, 1854, Senator Butler, turning on Senator Sumner, asked if he would return a fugitive slave. "Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?" asked Sumner in return. "Why, sir," said Mason, another Senator (Mason and Slidell, afterward), "I am speaking of a fanatic, one whose reason is dethroned," and of "his vapid, vulgar declamation." Sumner never neglected an opportunity to taunt the slave-holders about their bloodhounds, their auction-blocks, and the partings of mother and child in slavery.

July 31, 1854, Sumner contended one hour for the right to present a bill to repeal the Fugitive Slave law. The slaveholders, refused him the permission. It was then proved that Slavery, and nothing else, was the order of the day in the Senate of the United States.

On May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner delivered the speech entitled "The Crime against Kansas," which led to the principal event in his career. The address was usually called "an unparalleled philippic against Slavery." He had blamed John Quincy Adams for heat and licentious speech. He now not only hurled a vast stock of epithets at the institution of Slavery, but he spoke of Senator Atchison stalking like Catiline into the Senate, reeking with conspiracy, and then like Catiline skulking away to join and provoke the conspirators, "murderous robbers from Missouri, hirelings, picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization"; he spoke of Butler as one "with incoherent phrases, discharging the loose expectoration of his speech"; of Douglas, as one "switching out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality." Mason replied that he could not acknowledge that Sumner possessed manhood in any form.

After a short session of the Senate, on the 22d, Mr. Sumner sat writing at his little desk in the Senate, in a posture that made it impossible for him to rise suddenly, when a strange man appeared before him, stick in hand, and began beating him over the head. Sumner's hair was thick, but the blows cut open his scalp. In his endeavor to rise out of the trap in which he found him-self, he wrenched the little desk from its fastenings to the floor, and then fell unconscious, while the assailant still continued to beat the prostrate form. Morgan and Murray, two Mew York Congressmen, at last seized the ruffian and led him away. Two fellow-ruffians, Congressmen Keitt and Edmundson, prevented Simonton, a reporter, from going to the rescue. Senator Slidell after-ward said that he and his friends heard, "without any particular emotion," "that somebody was beating Mr. Sumner." Douglas, a day or two before, had asked Mr. Sumner if it was his intention to provoke some of them to kick him "as they would a dog in the street."

The ruffian was Congressman Preston S. Brooks, known in history as "Bully Brooks." The Senate formally complained of his act to the House. Brooks resigned, and Keitt was censured. Brooks was fined $300 in the criminal courts of the District. He became a hero in the South, and his "knock-down argument" was recommended for all "Northern fanatics." In the Senate Mr. Wilson denounced the assault as "brutal, murderous, and cowardly." "You are a liar !" cried out Senator Butler from his seat. In the House Anson Burlingame said : "A member from this House, who had taken an oath to sustain the Constitution, stole into the Senate, that place which had hitherto been held sacred against violence, and smote him (Sumner) as Cain smote his brother." "That is false!" cried Keitt from his seat.

The result of this passage was an arrangement for a duel with rifles at twenty paces, from which Keitt retreated. Within eight months Brooks, the ruffian, died a dreadful death from membraneous croup.

The history of Sumner's sufferings is almost as long as the chronicle of his education. Beside his wounds, there was "a grave and formidable lesion of the brain and spinal cord." When, months afterward, he was able to travel to Boston, he was received with extraordinary honors. He was reelected Senator without opposition, although it was not certain he could serve, and sailed for Paris, where he was seven times treated by the moxa, at the hands of Dr. Brown-Sequard, who pronounced it "the greatest suffering that could be inflicted on mortal man." At Havre, Aix, and Montpellier, he was cupped, bathed, and otherwise attended, and in December, 1859, he returned to his seat in the Senate, which had remained empty all the time intervening. If he had been a fanatic before, the planters might well abhor him now, and he was not so weakly supported as when Douglas was the chief cup-bearer of the Southern oligarchy. June 4, 1860, he delivered his celebrated speech on "The Barbarism of Slavery," which was a far more effective and pitiless tirade against Slavery than the address that had maddened Brooks and his fellow-assailants. Breckinridge, Jefferson Davis, Hunter, Mason, and others of their ilk, heard the entire address, and even Keitt had the audacity to be present. The South was appalled by the popularity of Sumner, growing out of his misfortunes. This may be seen in the reply which was made to his speech. Apparently that reply had been carefully planned, and was delivered by Mr. Chestnut, of South Carolina, speaking for all the slaveholders: "After ranging over Europe, crawling through the back door to whine at the feet of British aristocracy, craving pity, and reaping a rich harvest of contempt, the slanderer of States and men reappears in the Senate. We had hoped to be relieved from the out-pouring of such vulgar malice. We had hoped that one who had felt, though ignominiously he failed to meet, the consequences of a former insolence, would have become wiser if not better by experience. In the heroic ages of the world men were deified for the possession and the exercises of some virtue wisdom, truth, justice, magnanimity, courage. In Egypt, also, we know they deified beasts and reptiles; but even that bestial people worshiped their idols on account of some supposed virtue. It has been left for this day, for this country, for the Abolitionists of Massachusetts, to deify the incarnation of malice, mendacity, and cowardice. Sir, we do not intend to be guilty of aiding in the apotheosis of pusillanimity and meanness. We do not intend to contribute, by any con-duct on our part, to increase the devotees at the shrine of this new idol. We know what is expected and what is desired. We are not inclined again to send forth the recipient of punishment howling through the world, yelping fresh cries of slander and malice. These are the reasons which I feel it due to myself and others to give to the Senate and the country, why we have quietly listened to what has been said, and why we can take no other notice of the matter."

In other words, the slaveholders had learned that the bludgeon was a poor argument, and they refused to use it further; but still they considered it necessary to explain why.

As the Civil War bore down fast, Sumner wrote t0 Governor Andrew, of Massachusetts : "In God's name stand firm ! Don't cave, Andrew !" "More than the loss of forts, I fear the loss of our principles."

It may well be imagined that a man of one idea like Senator Sumner was an uncomfortable ally of Abraham Lincoln, who did not wish to fight the Union men of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky, East Tennessee, or Missouri. Sumner would have had war with them all. Sumner cared little about the Union, and all about Slavery; Lincoln saw that Slavery was surely doomed of itself. Sumner could not wait; Lincoln was patient. Sumner was not bellicose, except in words; Lincoln was never wrathful. Lincoln had the fighting to do, the recruits to raise, the noisy Copperheads to imprison; he felt himself to be the best judge in laying out more of the same kind of work. "Do you know," asked Sumner, "who, at this moment, is the largest slaveholder in this country? Abraham Lincoln; for he holds all the three thousand slaves of the District, which is more than any other person in the country holds." It is not improbable that the man who emancipated the slaves, could have spared all the aid Senator Sumner gave him after April, 1861. In fact, Mr. Sumner's greatest work was done, when he sank unconscious under the blows of Bully Brooks, in 1856. He busied himself with arranging the United States statutes to meet the progress of the war, wherever the black race was involved, and made the country pay black soldiers as much as white ones.

John Sherman prevented the passage of the repeal of the Fugitive Slave law as late as February, 1864, and the odious statute was not abolished until June of that year. Mr. Sumner secured to negroes the right to ride on street cars in Washington.

Mr. Sumner's celebrated theory of State suicide, while it was not acknowledged, was nevertheless the basis of Reconstruction. According to this theory, a State on failing to secede, relapsed into a territorial condition, the same as any region that had never enjoyed Statehood. The dominant party of the North learned that it was necessary to realize this theory in order to perpetuate the ordinances growing out of the war.

Many of the Abolitionists who were out of Congress found life heavy on their hands after the constitutional amendments of 1865, 1866, and 1869; but there remained much legislative work for Sumner to do in the way of securing civil rights for his wards of the black race. At the same time, as Andrew Johnson hesitated in servilely following the programme of Ben Butler, Sumner entered on the President-hunt along with the rest, and would have deprived the Chief Magistrate of his appointive power. This diversion was the prelude to other political missteps. When General Grant attempted to annex San Domingo, Sumner joined with Schurz in the extraordinary Senatorial philippics that were hurled at their "Caesar." This attitude put him in the inglorious wing of the Republican party which split away and nominated Greeley against Grant. An unhappy marriage late in life contributed to increase the disappointments of the celebrated Abolitionist. The Legislature of Massachusetts censured him for a bill he had presented in the Senate to remove the names of victories on Northern battle-flags, in order to sooner heal the wounds of war.

In 1872 the health of the lonely man began to fail, and declined through the years 1873 and 1874. While he was very ill, a committee came from Massachusetts, to notify him that the resolution of censure had been annulled and expunged. Almost his last words were : "Take care of my Civil Rights bill." He died at his home in Washington, without descendants or attendant relatives, March 11, 1874.

He was the earliest of the "scholars in politics." He possibly had far more learning than he could digest. The pompous quotation of other men's phrases does not carry conviction. He did not have the eloquence of Clay or Webster; probably it would be erroneous to call him eloquent at all. Beside a thinker like Jefferson, he suffers in comparison. But he was Freedom's alter-ego 0f Slavery's Calhoun, and met Calhoun on his own ground, and the surviving slaveholders, deprived by death of their great logician, could not answer Sumner.

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