Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Charles Sumner,
the Champion of Political Honor

In Boston, on the 6th of January, 1811, was born Charles Sumner, one who in his later years was to play a very prominent part in that era of agitation when the Union itself was in danger of overthrow. As he grew up he began early to show an ambitious desire for learning. Alert in mind, studious by nature, he wanted to know all there was to know. His father was a lawyer, learned in his profession, but with little power of making money, and he wished to confine his son to practical studies, those that would help him to earn a living and do his share towards supporting the family. So he was put to study the common school branches.

This did not satisfy little Charles. He had heard that an educated man must know Latin and Greek, so, saving his pennies, he bought a second-hand Latin grammar and a Latin reader. These he studied in spare moments when out of school and his father was utterly surprised one day to hear his son quote Latin. Finding what the boy was at, he thought it a shame to check such an ambition, and he let him enter the Latin and Greek classes in the school. When he was eleven his father sent him to the Boston Latin School, where his quickness and anxiety to learn greatly pleased his teachers. As for his schoolmates, while somewhat too much of a bookworm for them, he made friends of them by his kindly disposition.

No one could say that young Sumner was the brightest boy in the school. He was never a wonder in that way. Many of the boys left him behind in the classes. But he lived among school-books; he was always at them; he loved reading as much as the other boys loved playing, and when it came to general knowledge he was ahead of them all. Bright and quick and with a good memory, he stored his mind with facts. He loved history above all, reading it slowly and carefully, with maps spread before him, so that he impressed it on his mind in a way that made it stay. Many years after, when be was one of the leading legislators of the land, the knowledge of history gained in these early days was always ready for his use. He not only read many books, but he talked much with older people, if be found they could tell him anything new. Of course a boy like this had not much time for the play-field, and the only sport he cared for was swimming.

He remained in the Latin School for five years, expecting then to leave it and go to work instead of to college. But luckily his father at this time was made a county sheriff, in which position he earned more money, so at sixteen the studious boy was sent to Harvard College.

Here was the chance he had longed for. He studied hard and was a model college boy, except in the field of sport, for which he seemed to have no time or inclination. Every pleasure he took he tried to make in some way profitable. Thus he won high rank in his classes, especially in history and the languages. As for mathematics, he had no taste nor talent for them, so he paid little attention to this class of studies.

He graduated in 1830, and then entered the Law School, where he made the same satisfactory record as a student, and also as a refined and courteous classmate. His studies in the law went beyond the demands of his teachers, and he needed only a little practice in a Boston law office to gain admission to the bar. He was then twenty-three years of age.

It cannot be said that Charles Sumner made a good lawyer. His tastes did not run that way. He was engaged in some important cases, but he was not successful as a legal orator: and did not get a paying practice. He liked better to lecture on the law and to write for law journals. He edited The American Jurist, wrote three volumes of law books, called "Sumner's Reports;" and occasionally lectured to the Harvard students in place of the regular professors.

After three years of this, Mr. Sumner went to Europe, where he spent three more years in study. Thus he added much to his knowledge, and he also became acquainted with many prominent men, about whom he had much to say in his letters. These were published after his death, and contain many graphic sketches and lively anecdotes, showing that he was a quick observer.

But Sumner was never a favorite in society. He was greatly esteemed for his learning, sincerity, and earnestness, his stainless character and cheerful and kindly disposition, but he lacked the elements of wit, humor, and playful fancy, and was quite unfitted for the social small talk on which the wheels of society run. No doubt the Boston circles of that day voted him erudite but heavy, courteous but not stimulating.

The year of 1840 found the roving lawyer back again in Boston, where he took up his practice once more, though he liked its drudgery even less than before. He was much fonder of discussion and lecturing, and he became one of the regular teachers in the Law School.

Up to this time Sumner had taken little part in politics, but now was a time when it was next to impossible for thoughtful men to keep out of the political field. The slavery agitation was becoming bitter, and the country gradually dividing into two hostile camps. Boston had for years been the centre of the anti-slavery agitation, and Sumner's father had been a bold speaker against the slave system at an early date. Now the agitation had spread throughout the North, and numbers of ardent speakers were keeping it alive. It was impossible for a man of active public spirit to keep out of the fray, and Sumner threw his strength in favor of the cause which his father had sustained.

Up to 1845 the name of Charles Sumner was little known beyond the precincts of Boston, and there he was simply regarded as a law lecturer of wide information. But on the 4th of July of that year he made a public oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations "which was intently listened to by a large audience, and when published was read far and wide, even attracting a great deal of attention in Europe. It was simply an ardent denunciation of war, as the deadly foe of true greatness in nations, but its able arguments for the cause of peace, and its forcible and polished language, gave it a compelling power. From that time people began to speak of Charles Sumner as one of the coming men.

Sumner had hitherto voted with the Whigs, the party of Henry Clay and Webster, but in 1848, when those who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories organized the Free-Soil party, he joined their ranks. He did not believe, like Wendell Phillips, that the Constitution supported slavery, but he looked upon it as a sectional institution that could be dealt with politically and restricted by law until it would gradually dwindle and die away.

The efforts to widen its territory, therefore, called him into the political field, and he strongly combated them, making speeches against the annexation of Texas and on similar subjects. He had now become so well known as an able public speaker that the Free-Soil party made him one of its first candidates for Congress. He was easily defeated by his Whig opponent, but in 1851, when Webster left the Senate to become Secretary of State, Sumner was elected to succeed him in this elevated post of duty, being supported by the combined Free-Soil and Democratic members of the legislature of Massachusetts. He had now found the true field for his energies, and he was kept in the Senate during the remainder of his life.

When he entered the Senate Sumner stood alone in his attitude as an uncompromising opponent of slavery. The speeches he made, elaborately prepared and bristling with facts and arguments, were notable for the boldness of their denunciation of the slave system, and excited universal attention, winning him support and admiration on the one side, and bitter hostility on the other.

During the first year of his term he took his stand as a firm opponent of the Fugitive Slave Bill, an act which made it lawful for United States officers to arrest runaway slaves wherever found in the Northern States. The passage of this bill, and the attempts to enforce it, greatly increased the anti-slavery sentiment in the North, and was one of the leading steps towards the Civil War.

But the event that brought Sumner into startling prominence and had a far deeper effect upon the North than any speech could have had was an act of violence which took place in 1856. It was an outcome of the Kansas-Nebraska discussion, in which Sumner was one of the leading speakers. On the 19th and loth of May, 1856, he made an exhaustive and splendid oration in favor of admitting Kansas into the Union, and in denunciation of the growing power and arrogance of slavery. It led to what was almost a tragedy.

The boldness and vigor of Sumner's language excited many of the Southern members of Congress to a high pitch of rage, and one of the representatives from South Carolina, Preston S. Brooks by name, entered the Senate chamber after the close of the session of May 22, intent on violence. He found Sumner sitting alone at his desk, busily engaged. Treacherously approaching from behind, Brooks struck him fiercely on the head with a heavy cane, the force of the blow being such as to knock him over, stunned. The cowardly assailant continued his attack, striking blow after blow, until he was stopped by two men who ran in from an ante-room.

They were barely in time to save the Senator's life, for he was so nearly slain that for several days he was in imminent peril of death. Even after he began to grow better, his injuries were so severe that he was obliged to go abroad for treatment, and it was nearly four years before he was able to return to his place in the Senate. He never fully recovered from the effects of the dastardly assault.

During these years his vacant chair spoke for him more eloquently than any words of his own could have done. It was a constant reminder to the advocates of freedom of the violence of the animosity with which they had to contend. The conduct of South Carolina added to this feeling, for, on the resignation of Brooks in consequence of the censure of the. House, he was re-elected and sent back. He died in Washington eight months after the date of his assault.

It was near the close of Buchanan's term that Sumner appeared in his old place in the Senate and resumed his former position as leader of the anti-slavery forces in that body. In June, 1860, he made a speech on the question of the admission of Kansas, in which he spoke with his old strength against the slave customs of the South. It was published under the title of "The Barbarism of Slavery," and had a telling effect.

While not agreeing with Lincoln in his views on the slavery question, he was his warm friend and supported him firmly in the coming election. Lincoln afterwards so frequently took counsel with Sumner, and so respected his wisdom and judgment, that he was looked upon in the light of a Minister of State outside the Cabinet. He was urgent for the emancipation of the slaves, and after the war equally urgent in seeking to gain for them full civil and political equality with the whites. He also secured the organization of the Freedmen's Bureau, to look after the needs of the hosts of poor and ignorant blacks who had been set free by the war. At the same time he was influential in having the seceded States readmitted to the Union upon fair and just principles.

During Grant's term as President, he and Sumner more than once came into conflict. When Grant sought to make the republic of San Domingo a part of the United States in 1871 Sumner fought bitterly against it, on the ground that the consent of the people of San Domingo had not been obtained. He carried the public strongly with him in his opposition, and the bill was killed. His continued censure on the policy of Grant's administration, and the strong feeling that ensued, led him in 1872 to oppose Grant's re-election and to support Horace Greeley as a candidate. On the other hand, Grant removed Motley the historian, Sumner's warm friend, from the post of Minister to Great Britain, and at last forced Sumner out of the chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, which he had held for years.

Sumner's breach with the administration did not lose him the esteem with which he was very widely regarded, and the breach was slowly closing when death came to put an end to all animosities. He died on the 11th of March, 1874, his old hurt in the Senate chamber having a share in bringing on the illness that carried him off.

Sumner was a man of great force and strength of will. When sure of the justice of his position nothing could change him. He was never a party man, but from first to last independent in his views. He was never the man to submit to any one's dictation, and he lacked the powers of persuasion and the dexterity in management that raise men to leadership. No one dared accuse him of dishonesty or trickery of any sort, his nature being too open to admit of misconstruction, and Longfellow, his intimate friend, spoke of him as the whitest soul he had ever known.

During his more than twenty years in the Senate his influence over the people of his way of thinking was immense. No hope of favor or popularity could make him swerve from any course which he deemed right, and even if he took the unpopular side of a question, his rectitude and the strength of his arguments often brought the people to look upon it with favor. No man that ever sat in the Congress of the United States left it with a cleaner record for courage, consistency, and integrity than Charles Sumner.