Orator and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874) was known for his deep commitment to the cause of civil rights and emerged as an antislavery leader in the late 1840s. The Harvard-educated lawyer had previously engaged in disarmament efforts and prison and school reforms. In 1849, in the Roberts case, Sumner argued for integrated public schools in Massachusetts. He also became active in political protests against Texas’s annexation and the Mexican War. In 1848, he joined with other disenchanted Whigs and Democrats to form the Free-Soil party, which opposed the extension of slavery into newly acquired territories.
Despite the Free-Soil defeat in 1848, and especially after the passage of the odious Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, Sumner persevered in his antislavery activities. In 1851, he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Free-Soiler, where he campaigned against what he saw as southern aggression on the slavery issue. In 1855 he endorsed the Republican party, which had been organized primarily to oppose slavery interests.
As North-South tensions heightened, so did Sumner’s rhetoric. In his Crime against Kansas speech, delivered in May 1856, he lambasted southern efforts to extend slavery into Kansas and attacked his colleague, Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. Shortly after that speech, Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks, assaulted Sumner on the Senate floor. He spent three and a half years recovering from the beating.
When Sumner returned to the Senate in 1859, the North-South rift had intensified, but he, like most other Republicans, did not realize or perhaps care that Republican ascendancy would bring on civil war. From the war’s beginning Sumner argued that it should be waged to abolish slavery, not solely to preserve the Union. He regularly pressed President Abraham Lincoln to sponsor legislation to free the slaves, grant them civil rights, and enlist them in the Union army. He also argued for stringent conditions for readmission of Confederate states to the Union.
Throughout Reconstruction Sumner urged that Congress play a predominant role in the process. He saw Reconstruction as the opportunity to establish civil rights for blacks, first in the South where Congress had explicit authority and gradually in the North. In 1865 he insisted that suffrage be granted to all black males. At the time of his death, Sumner was still vainly agitating for federal legislation repealing all discriminatory laws.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 1861-1871, Sumner sought to control U.S. foreign policy. He blamed Great Britain for the prolongation of the Civil War, because he thought Britain had favored the Confederacy. His strong stand on the Alabama claims issue created a rift with Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. When Sumner refused to support Grant’s treaty to annex the Dominican Republic (1870), the rift widened. Finally, in 1871, Senate leaders removed him from his powerful chairmanship.
Sumner’s determination and drive, when devoted to a cause like that of antislavery, were admirable; yet his self-righteous, unyielding personality led to conflicts not only with presidents but with friends and family (his wife left him after eight months of marriage). Sumner believed in the power of his words, and their power often yielded results. He also believed in what he uttered, so much so that he could rarely see another side to the argument.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.