Charles Sumner


Brooks and Sumner
Charles Sumner was born in Boston and shared his name with his father, a progressive lawyer and abolitionist. Also like his father, Sumner graduated from Harvard College with a degree in law, and after being admitted to the bar he entered a private practice with George Stillman Hillard. From 1836 to 1837, he lectured at Harvard Law School, after which he traveled to France, where he mastered the French language in six months and attended the Sorbonne for several classes. He also visited Britain for a short time before returning to the U.S. in 1840. He continued to practice law but also devoted much of his time to giving lectures and contributing to law journals with historical themes. In 1845, he delivered a rousing Independence Day oratory, in which he spoke out against the Mexican-American War and petitioned for freedom and peace. Sumner worked with Horace Mann to improve the public education system in Massachusetts, and his continued opposition of the war in Mexico earned him leadership of the Conscience Whigs faction of the Whig party. He was offered a nomination for the House of Representatives in 1848, but he declined, angered that the Whigs had nominated slave-owning Zachary Taylor for president. Instead, he helped organize the Free Soil Party. He ran for U.S. Representative but lost.

In 1851, Sumner was nominated for Senator as a Democrat, and he won the election by a one-vote majority. His predecessor, Daniel Webster, had been a proponent of the Fugitive Slave Act—a movement stipulating that any runaway slave should be returned to his owner—and Sumner’s first effort as senator was to call for the Act’s repeal, declaring it a violation of the Constitution and offense against divine law. In 1856, Sumner also denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, personally insulting the authors of the Act. A member of the House, Preston Brooks, was also the nephew of one of the perpetrators, and he retaliated by beating Sumner senseless with a can while he sat alone in the senate office. After the incident, Sumner became a figurehead for the abolitionist North, and Brooks, a hero of the South.

Head trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder kept Sumner from returning to work for nearly two years, and he spent much of that time touring Europe as prescribed by his doctors. Sumner returned, fully recovered, in 1859, and he continued to speak on behalf of the anti-slavery movement. During the Civil War, he worked directly with President Lincoln and his cabinet, advocating immediate emancipation and equal rights for black slaves. He argued in several Supreme Court cases concerning segregation and was a leader of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, but his uncompromising attitude won him more enemies than allies. During the post-war Reconstruction, he proposed a strict punishment for the formerly seceded stated and opposed Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s more lenient policies. Later, when Grant became president, Sumner turned against him, decrying the corruption in his administration. Sumner later went on to carry out several controversial decisions, which were later rescinded, and he championed for equal rights until his death in 1974.

Key events during the life of Charles Sumner:

Graduated from Harvard College.
Lectured at Harvard Law School.
Travelled to France and Britain.
Delivered an Independence Day oration denouncing the Mexican-American War.
Ran for U.S. Representative but lost.
Elected to the U.S. Senate.
Beaten severely by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks.
Returned to the Senate.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Charles Sumner  in  Heroes of Progress in America  by  Charles Morris

Image Links

Brooks and Sumner
 in Story of the Great Republic

Short Biography
Daniel Webster Influential Senator from New England. Promoted protective tariffs. Favored compromise on slavery.
Horace Mann Advocate of Public education. Induced Massachusetts to adopt the Prussian model of state sponsored education.
Zachary Taylor Military leader who served in various Indian Wars and the Mexican-American War. Twelfth U.S. President.
Abraham Lincoln President of the United States during the American Civil War.
Ulysses Grant Commander and Chief of the Union forces in the Civil War, and President of the United States.