Charles Sumner

Portrait of Charles Sumner
War & AffiliationCivil War / Union
Date of Birth - DeathJanuary 6, 1811 – March 11, 1874

Famous for his scathing criticism of the Kansas-Nebraska Act that provoked an attack upon himself in the Senate Chamber, Charles Sumner was a prominent voice of the anti-slavery North. Charles was born in Boston, on January 6, 1811, the son of a Harvard educated lawyer and abolitionist, Charles Pinckney Sumner. The younger Charles followed a similar path, graduating Harvard College and Harvard Law School in the 1830s. He developed a zeal for law but a visit to Washington, D.C. soured his taste for politics. Sumner practiced law in Boston and then studied in Europe for the rest of the decade. After he returned home in the 1840s, Sumner primarily became an editor and lecturer. On July 4, 1845, he delivered an oration on “The True Grandeur of Nations” that redefined his career. Sumner’s passionate address demonstrated his talents. His physical appearance at six feet and four inches matched his powerful voice and outspoken opinions.

Sumner assisted Horace Mann with reforming public education in their native state, advocated prison reform, and opposed war with Mexico. Though initially against pursuing a political career, Sumner rallied northern Whigs, known as the “Conscience Whigs,” together when their parent party split following the nomination of Zachary Taylor, a slaveholding southerner, for president. This schism ultimately produced the Free Soil Party. Though unsuccessful in carrying a single state in the 1848 presidential election, Sumner expressed satisfaction that their efforts brought the issue of slavery to the forefront of American politics.

Three years later, a coalition between the Free Soilers and Massachusetts Democrats pushed Sumner through to the United States Senate, representing his native state. Sumner had opposed the Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act and continued to campaign against slavery once he became a senator. Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, immediately drawing Sumner’s rebuke. When, two years later, the effects of the bill produced violence in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery proponents, Sumner monitored the situation from afar and gathered his thoughts into an address titled “The Crime Against Kansas.” He delivered this speech for two days on May 19-20, 1856.

Sumner particularly singled out Andrew P. Butler, a United States Senator from South Carolina who co-authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act with Stephen Douglas. Two days later, Preston Brooks, a United States Representative from South Carolina and cousin to Butler, approached Sumner while he was alone in the Senate chamber and beat him with a cane. His traumatic injuries kept Sumner absent through most of the next four years as a congressman, but he was nevertheless reelected to a second term and continued to oppose any compromise with the south in the years leading up to the Civil War.

During the war, he served as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. In this role, he diplomatically handled the Trent Affair, in which two captured Confederate diplomats were captured from a British ship. Sumner worked to convince President Abraham Lincoln to release the diplomats to calm tensions with the British government and prevent their interference in the Civil War. Overall, his, however, his platform was more radical for the time, actively pushing for emancipation, the use of black soldiers, the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau, and a punitive approach to Reconstruction. In his mind, the southern states had committed “state suicide” and had devolved to the legal status of territories seeking to enter the United States.

Opposition to his vision for Reconstruction frustrated Sumner. Abraham Lincoln had not shared his radical view, and Andrew Johnson did not carry out the stringent policies for Reconstruction and southern readmission in the United States sought by Sumner. In 1871, Ulysses S. Grant removed Sumner from the Committee on Foreign Relations and a reconciliatory gesture by Sumner toward the south to remove names of battles from regimental flags only produced censure from the Massachusetts legislature. A campaign to repair Sumner’s name resulted in the legislature rescinding their remarks on March 10, 1874. Sumner listened as the resolution was presented that day in the Senate and returned to his Washington, D.C. home. That night he had a heart attack and died the following day, his legacy restored as a man who devoutly advocated for the union and his fellow man.