Charles Sumner 1811-1874


Charles Sumner 1811-1874

Charles Sumner was born in Boston and died in Washington D.C.

He was Massachusetts' senator from 1852 until 1874.



Image above:

Senator Charles Sumner, c. 1861. Library of Congress.

Alongside Webster and Everett, Sumner is viewed as one of the three most remarkable New England statesmen and orators of the nineteenth century.

Experts even feel that Sumner had "a mind of such force and dignity that it would have made him a power in his generation, even if he had never attempted oratory at all."

He was "at all times greatly admired for his moral courage and for the strength of his intellect."

The following article and details on Charles Sumner, his life and career, are provided courtesy of Charles Hanson Sumner, director of the Sumner Family Association. Thank you!


So much has been written about Senator Charles Sumner that only highlights can be given in this brief space.

Excerpts from the preface to The Life and Times of Charles Sumner, by Elias Nason, "the biography of a champion of human rights," seem to provide a starting place.

This book presents

"... the life, character, and public career of an accomplished scholar, an incorruptible statesman, and an eloquent defender of human freedom.

In every age men have arisen, and, by the force of an original genius and a lofty aspiration, have come to stand as heralds in the fore-front of national progress. Their high mission has been to point with a prophetic finger to the coming issues; to sway and elevate with a commanding eloquence the public mind; to meet the exigencies of the times; and to pursue, unterrified by power and above the reach of bribery, their own elected course with an unfaltering steadiness to the end ...

He stood forth pre-eminent as a prophet, as a leader, as a counsellor, as an unflinching friend of the oppressed; and to his brave outlook over the whole field of contest, to his extensive knowledge of political history, to his grand ideal of a perfect commonwealth, and to his impassioned eloquence, must be in part ascribed the ardor which inspired our Union army, and the success which crowned the contest.

Others grandly spoke and fought for freedom: but none more eloquently, more learnedly, more effectively, enunciated its eternal principles than he; nor more profoundly and persistently instilled into the public mind its justice, grandeur, and necessity."


Charles Sumner — Early Years

Charles Sumner was born in Boston, Mass., 6 January 1811.

He entered the Boston Latin School at ten.

At fifteen he entered Harvard, and he was graduated at 19 in the class of 1830.

He then attended law school and spent three years in Europe.


Charles Sumner — Family

On October 27, 1866, Charles Sumner married Alice Mason Cooper, daughter of Jonathan Mason of Boston and widow of William Sturgis Cooper.

They were divorced 10 May 1873. There were no children.


Charles Sumner — Political Career

Sumner's eloquent oration against war, The True Grandeur of Nations, made him famous. He delivered this speech before the authorities of the city of Boston on July 4, 1845.

The Free Soil Party nominated him for Congress in 1848, but he was defeated.

In 1851 he was elected to the Senate of the United States.

He crusaded for prison reform and Horace Mann's public school program.

In his first session of Congress, on August 26, 1852, he delivered his  Freedom National; Slavery Sectional speech, which set the course for his future. He was the sole member who consistently spoke out against slavery.

His denunciation of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill (Sumner's  The Crime Against Kansas speech on May 19, 1856) and its authors, Stephen A. Douglas and Andrew P. Butler, resulted in the cowardly attack on him in the Senate in 1856 which caused his Senate chair to remain vacant for three years as a symbol pleading for free speech and resistance to slavery. (The Senate desk is or was in the possession of Mrs. G. Lynn Sumner, Pawling, New York. It is believed the desk is now in the Sumner School Museum in Washington, D.C.)

The bitter debate with Douglas and Butler, which resulted in the assault on Sumner by Congressman Brooks, had almost, if not quite, as much to do with forcing the Civil War as the John Brown raid itself.

Upon the admission of Kansas as a state, Sumner delivered a great speech, The Barbarism of Slavery.

His foreign experience resulted in his being appointed chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations in 1861 when our relations with England were critical to the outcome of the Civil War.

He was a confidant of President Lincoln, and his advice was influential in the Trent Affair 1861.

He was probably the one individual most responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation.

He was instrumental in establishment of Freedmen's Bureaus and enlistments of Negroes into the Union Army.

During the dark days of the Civil War he was a pillar of strength for the North.

Probably more than any other person he was responsible for keeping England and France from intervening, and thus it could be said that he saved the Union. Later he set forth an indictment against England for its actions during our Civil War.

He chided the North for its failure to give Negroes the vote in the North while forcing suffrage upon the South. He spoke against President Andrew Johnson in the impeachment hearings and opposed President Grant's attempt to annex Santo Domingo.


Charles Sumner — Death

His death occurred on March 11, 1874, at 63 in Washington, D.C. Sumner was buried in a family plot at Mt. Auburn Cemetery near Boston. His last words were reported to be an admonition to work for the passage of a civil rights bill.

John Greenleaf Whittier composed a poem in his honor. He was eulogized by Senator Carl Schurz.

One of the trustees of his estate was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Poet
The Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a dear friend, said of him, "Sumner had the whitest soul of any man I knew."

The funeral was attended by the Vice President, the Justices of the Supreme Court, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the Governor of Massachusetts, and innumerable other friends and officials, plus a contingent of two thousand Colored citizens.

Charles Sumner left money to Harvard for an annual prize for the best dissertation on universal peace.

What he said in his first Senate address was particularly true of his life:

"The slave of principles, I call no party master."


On April 25, 1874, Lucius Q.C. Lamar delivered his speech On Sumner and the South in the House of Representatives.


February 14, 2011 - And speaking of the infamous caning, here is CNN's podcast introducing in a telephone interview modern-day descendants of the two parties involved.

Here is the CNN link for the entire podcast.

And here is more on Human Rights in History




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