A portrait hangs near Doric Hall and the State Library of Massachusetts cares for his Haitian Medal, but the name of Charles Sumner is not nearly as well-known to most modern day Massachusetts residents as his friends and contemporaries might be: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Samuel Gridley Howe, Horace Mann, and Frederick Douglass. However, Sumner became one of the most outspoken and controversial politicians in the mid-1800’s and paid a heavy price for his politics.
Charles Sumner was born in Boston in 1811. In fact, the home where he was born and lived as an adult in Beacon Hill is marked by a plaque and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His father was an early abolitionist, and Sumner shared these beliefs with a fiery passion. As a young man, he stood about 6 foot 4 inches tall and his voice was clear and loud, and his impressive stature coupled with his talent for speaking made him a sought-after orator. After attending Harvard, he became a lawyer and took on a more active role in the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts. During one of his cases, he represented the plaintiffs of the Roberts v. City of Boston
case which sought to end racial discrimination in Boston public schools. His arguments would later be cited in Brown v. Board of Education
|Charles Sumner circa 1850|
In 1851, Charles Sumner was elected to the U.S. Senate, replacing famous orator and politician Daniel Webster. Webster, while also anti-slavery, had been supportive of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, and Sumner’s first speech in the Senate made it clear that he was taking a very different stand than his predecessor. He attacked both the institution of slavery as well as these recent pieces of legislation, specifically stating that the Fugitive Slave Act was a violation of the Constitution. He continued to be an aggressive opponent of any sort of compromise regarding slavery and slaveholders, a stance which culminated into violence in 1856.
That year, the Kansas territory was seeking statehood, and the political decision regarding whether it would be either a slave or free state had erupted into the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis characterized by raids, assaults, and electoral fraud in and around the territory. On May 19th and 20th, Charles Sumner gave a speech arguing for the admission of Kansas as a free state, during which he verbally attacked the writers of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Representative Preston Brooks, who was Butler’s cousin, heard Sumner’s vicious attacks and confronted Sumner two days later on the floor of the Senate. Before Sumner could defend himself, Brooks beat him severely with his cane, causing Sumner to lose consciousness. The “Caning of Charles Sumner” nearly killed him, sparking intense outrage in the North and transforming Sumner into a martyr for the abolitionist movement.
|A lithograph portraying the Brooks’ attack of Charles Sumner in 1856|
People gathered in cities throughout the North to attend rallies and denounce the attack, but Sumner was not present. He suffered both physical head trauma as well as what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder and was not able to return to his seat in the Senate until the next year. Despite his absence, the people of Massachusetts re-elected him, confident that his empty chair served as a powerful reminder of his brutal beating, anti-slavery sentiment, and free speech rights. He attempted to resume his duties in 1857 but was still too unwell. He would not be able to return to the Senate until 1859.
Understandably, many of his friends in Congress advised him to be less aggressive now that he was back in the Senate, but Sumner would not abandon his beliefs. His first speech following his return continued to attack slavery and its impact on the South’s economy. If anything, he appeared even more passionate, perhaps even vindictive, after his return, even to his allies. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sumner and several other like-minded senators repeatedly visited Abraham Lincoln to discuss emancipation, which was eventually granted two years later. During this time, Sumner and Mary Todd Lincoln became lifelong friends.
During and after the Civil War, Charles Sumner would continue to support the rights of freedmen and those of African descent both in and outside of the United States. He fought for American diplomatic recognition of Haiti following their independence, and the country was finally recognized in 1862. Haiti awarded his efforts with the Haitian Medal, which is currently cared for as part of the State Library of Massachusetts’ collection. Sumner also introduced a motion that allowed John Rock of Boston to become the first African-American lawyer to be admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1865. After the Civil War ended, he supported the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau and fought to provide rights for freed slaves. Many of his ideas were deemed too radical for his moderate allies, and he was largely excluded from the creation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Many of the legislation he subsequently introduced aimed to ameliorate the inadequacies of Reconstruction laws, such as ensuring equal access to education, equal accommodation in public places, and removing the term “White” from naturalization laws. He was unsuccessful.
|The Haitian Medal awarded by the Haitian |
government to U.S. Senator Charles Sumner,
now part of the State Library of Massachusetts’ collection.
After Reconstruction, Sumner lost much of his previously held prestige. He stood in opposition to President Grant’s plan to annex the Dominican Republic, inspiring bitter contention between himself and the new president. His unwillingness to abandon his beliefs and steadfast morals lost him many friends and allies during his late political career. Still a U.S. Senator, he died in 1874 at the age of 63, and his death revived the widespread respect and fondness for his unwavering work in the North. He lay in state in the U.S. Capitol and is currently buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sumner’s stubborn career in politics was divisive during his life time, and his legacy remains divided and complicated depending on who you ask. However, upon examining both his anti-slavery work, in addition to many of his views on the rights of women, Native Americans, and immigrants, many of them seem particularly progressive for his time. Being brutally attacked in the Senate may have cemented his place in American history textbooks, but his whole career deserves to be revisited in the modern day.