Name:  Charles Sumner

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Born:  January 6, 1811
Died:  March 11, 1874
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Charles Sumner was a U.S. senator (1851-1874), abolitionist, and civil rights advocate.  He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Relief Jacob Sumner and Charles Pinckney Sumner, a sheriff and lawyer.  In 1830, he graduated from Harvard and entered Harvard Law School, studying under U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, who became his legal mentor.  Sumner practiced law during 1835-1837, but, although he loved the intellectual aspect of the law, he had no affinity for its everyday practice. He also became an opponent of slavery at that time. In the late 1830s, he spent almost two-and-a-half years in Europe, studying its languages, cultures, and governments.

In 1840, Sumner returned to Boston where he became involved in several reform movements:  public education, prisons, and antiwar (including opposition to the Mexican War).  Most of all, he lent his time and considerable talents to the antislavery movement. In politics, he sided first with the “Conscience” Whigs, who opposed both slavery and the accommodating views of the “Cotton” Whigs, and then he helped form the Free Soil Party in the 1848 election year. He spoke out against “the lords of the lash and lords of the loom”; that is, the financial ties between Southern slaveowners and Northern industrialists. He also worked to defeat racial discrimination in the North. In 1849, he represented in court a group trying (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to integrate the public schools in Boston.

In 1851, a coalition in the Massachusetts legislature of Free Soilers and Democrats elected Sumner to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Daniel Webster, who had resigned to become secretary of state. An opponent of the Compromise of 1850, Sumner tried to repeal its Fugitive Slave Act.  He argued that the intention of the constitutional framers had been to leave the states as the “guardians of Personal Liberty”; therefore, forcing state governments to cooperate in the return of runaway slaves was unconstitutional.  His talent for oratory quickly made him the major antislavery voice in the Senate.  After Congress opened the Western territories to the possibility of slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Sumner joined other Free-Soil Democrats and Conscience Whigs to establish the antislavery Republican Party.

When Kansas became embroiled in violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces, Sumner delivered a stinging attack from the floor of the Senate.  His speech—“The Crime against Kansas”—used vitriolic rhetoric, focusing particular venom on fellow-Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina who was tarred as “mistress” to the “harlot Slavery.”  In retaliation, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, found Sumner seated at his desk on the Senate floor and beat the senator unconscious with his cane. The incident raised Sumner to the status of antislavery martyr. He was absent from the Senate for over three years, yet Massachusetts refused to fill his position. Butler, meanwhile, became a hero to many in the South for upholding the honor of his family and region. Returning to the Senate in 1859, Sumner continued where he left off with a four-hour antislavery harangue, “The Barbarism of Slavery.”

At the onset of the Civil War Sumner began pushing for emancipation of the slaves. While lobbying President Abraham Lincoln for sweeping action, he drafted legislation that undermined the institution incrementally. The senator also helped convince the president to use black troops in the Union war effort.  As chair of the important Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sumner sparred with Secretary of State William Henry Seward for control of the administration’s foreign policy.  On the issue of Reconstruction, Sumner was a radical who pushed for treating the former Confederate territory as conquered land to which the federal government could dictate with few restrictions.  He was dissatisfied with Lincoln’s mild reconstruction proposals and later became the chief adversary of President Andrew Johnson’s policies, leading the call for the latter’s impeachment (successfully) and removal (unsuccessfully).  Sumner, a key spokesman for the African-American community, drafted or sponsored the major civil rights legislation of the period.

Sumner stood firm against the expansionist and interventionist foreign policy of Republican President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877).  He used his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee to stop the Grant administration’s planned annexation of Santo Domingo and its formal recognition of the Cuban faction rebelling against Spanish rule.  In response, the Grant administration orchestrated Sumner’s removal as the committee’s chair. Previously a harsh critic of Britain’s pro-Confederate policies, the Senator sought retribution through a forced cession of Canada from Britain to the United States. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish blocked that effort, compelling the senator to accept the (1870) Washington Treaty’s stipulation of monetary damages extracted from Britain.

Disgruntled not only by Grant’s foreign policy, but by the president’s hesitancy on desired liberal reforms, such as a merit bureaucracy, and by the administration’s apparent corruption, Sumner reluctantly joined the Liberal Republican movement in 1872.  In May a convention of Liberal Republicans nominated maverick newspaper editor Horace Greeley for president. A few months later, the desperate Democrats also endorsed Greeley, who was soundly defeated by Grant that November. After the election, Sumner continued to use his Senate seat to work for racial equality. In every session of Congress since 1870 he had introduced a civil rights bill to outlaw racial discrimination in public accommodations. Finally, shortly after his death, the outgoing Republican Congress passed a watered-down version of his bill as the Civil Rights Act of 1875.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1883. 

Sumner had married Alice Mason Hopper in 1866, when he was 55 years old; the couple had no children and divorced less than two years later.  Charles Sumner died at his Washington, D.C., home on March 11, 1874.

Source consulted:  American National Biography.





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