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Charles Sumner



CHARLES SUMNER was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on the 6th of February, 1811. His father, Charles Pinckney Sumner, a graduate of Harvard College, a lawyer by profession, and for fourteen years, during the, latter part of his life, sheriff of Suffolk county, was a gentle-man of eminent probity, literary taste and ability, of whom it has been said that "the happiness of mankind was his controlling passion."  These graces of disposition, as well as his noble and sympathetic character were inherited by his son; who, at an early age, developed uncommon powers of intellect and an intense thirst for knowledge. He prepared for college at the Boston Latin school, where he manifested a peculiar fondness for the classics and for the study of history; winning at the close of his course, the prizes for English composition and Latin poetry, besides the Franklin medal. In 1830, Mr. Sumner graduated from Harvard college, and in the following year entered the law school at Cambridge, where he enjoyed the friendship as well as the teachings of that eminent jurist, Judge Story ; pursuing his studies with an indomitable energy and assiduity. "He never relied upon text-books," we • are told, "but sought original sources, read all authorities and references, and made himself familiar with books of the common law, from the year-books, in uncouth Norman, down to the latest reports.

 It was said that he could go into the law-library, of which he was the librarian, and find, in the dark, any volume, if in its proper place." While a student of law, he became an esteemed contributor to the " American Jurist," a quarterly journal of extensive celebrity and circulation among the profession, of which he soon assumed the editorial charge. In 1834, he was admitted to the bar at Worcester, and commenced practice in his native city. Being, soon after, appointed reporter to the Circuit Court, he published three volumes, known as " Sumner's Reports ;" and for three successive winters after his admission to the bar, lectured to the students of the Cambridge law school, in the absence of Professors Greenleaf and Story; having, also, for some time, the sole charge of the Dane school. 

 These and other labors were performed in such a manner as to rapidly advance him to the front rank of his profession, and to attract to him the admiration of Chancellor Kent, Judge Story, and other distinguished lawyers. In 1833, he edited, with a judiciousness and scope of learning which surprised even the highest legal authorities, Andrew Dunlap's "Treatise on the practice of the Courts of Admiralty in civil causes of maritime jurisdiction,"—his valuable comments forming an appendix which contained as much matter as the original work.  In 1837, Mr. Sumner set sail for Europe, with the highest reputation as a young lawyer of exalted talent, brilliant genius, and commanding eloquence, and bearing with him valuable letters of introduction from our highest legal dignitaries to their friends of the English bar. " When be reached England, he was received with marked distinction by eminent statesmen, lawyers, and scholars. During his stay in England, which was nearly a year, he closely attended the debates in Parliament, and heard all the great speakers of the day, with many of whom he became intimately acquainted. His deportment was so gentlemanly, his mind so vigorous and accomplished, and his address so winning, that he became a favorite with many in the best circles of English society. The most flattering attentions were shown Mr. Sumner by distinguished members of the English bar and bench, and while attending the courts at Westminster Hall, he was frequently invited by the judges to sit by their side at the trials. At the meeting of the British Scientific Association, he experienced the same courteous attentions. In town and country, he moved freely in circles of society, to which intelligence and refinement, wealth and worth, lend every charm any grace. Nor did the evidence of such, respect and confidence pass away with his presence. Two years after his return from England, The Quarterly Review, alluding to his visit, stepped aside to say: " He presents, in his own person, a decisive proof that an American gentleman, without any official rank or wide-spread reputation, by mere dint of courtesy, candor, an entire absence of pretension, an appreciating spirit, and a cultivated mind, may be received on a perfect footing of' equality in the best circles—social, political, and intellectual ; which, be it observed, are hopelessly inaccessible to the itinerant note-taker, who never gets beyond the outskirts of the show-house."

Eight years later yet, he received a compliment which, from an English bench, is of the rarest occurrence. On an insurance question, before the Court of Exchequer, one of the counsel having cited an American case, Baron Parke, the ablest of the English judges, asked him what book he quoted. He replied Sumner's Reports. Baron Rolfe said, " Is that the Mr. Sumner who was once in England?" On receiving a reply in the affirmative, Baron Parke observed, " We shall not consider it entitled to the less attention, because reported by a gentleman whom we all knew and respected." Some years ago, some of Mr. Sumner's estimates of war expenses were quoted by Mr. Cobden, in debate, in the House of Commons. In Paris he was received with the same cordiality as in England, and was speedily admitted to a, familiar intercourse with the highest intellectual classes. He attended the debates of the Chamber of Deputies, and the lectures of all the eminent professors in different departments, at the Sorbonne, at the College of France, and particularly in the law schools. He attended a whole term of the Royal Court at Paris, observing the forms of procedure; received many kindnesses from the judges, and was allowed to peruse the papers in the cases. While residing in Paris, he became intimately acquainted with General Cass, the American minister, at whose request he wrote a masterly defence of the American claim to the northeastern boundary, which was received with much favor by our citizens, and re-published in the leading journals of the day. In Italy, Mr. Sumner devoted himself, with the greatest ardor, to the study of art and literature, and read many of the best works of that classic land, on history, politics, and poetry. In Germany, he was also received with that high regard which is justly paid to distinguished talent and transcendent genius. Here he formed an intimate acquaintance with those eminent jurists, Savigny, Thibaut, and Mittermaier. He was kindly received by Prince Metternich, and became acquainted with most of the professors at Heidelberg, and with many other individuals distinguished in science and literature, as Humboldt, Ranke, Ritter, etc.

With his mind thus enriched by travel, and by additional stores of varied knowledge, Mr. Sumner returned to his native land in 1840, and resumed the practice of his profession. His principal attention, however, was given to the leisurely study of the science and literature of law, rather than to its active prosecution in the professional arena. In 1843, he again resumed the position of lecturer at the Cambridge law school, and in 1844-'46, edited an edition of Vesey's Reports, in twenty volumes---a great enterprise, conceived and executed in the happiest spirit—which elicited from the Boston Law Reporter the truthful estimate of Mr. Sumner's abilities, that "in what may be called the literature of the law—the curiosities of legal learning—he has no rival among us."

On the 4th of July, 1845, Mr. Sumner delivered an oration before the municipal authorities and citizens of Boston on The True Grandeur of Nations, an admirable production, advocating the doctrine of universal peace among nations. This oration, by its ennobling sentiments, its beautiful imagery, classic allusions and elegant diction, not only produced a profound impression upon those who listened to it, and fully established his reputation as an orator, but led to prolonged controversy upon the subject of war in general and of the Mexican war in particular.

When the eminent Judge Story died, in 1845, Mr. Sumner was universally conceded to be the fittest person to succeed him in the professorship of the law school. Story himself had frequently remarked, "I shall die content, so far as my professor-ship is concerned, if Charles Sumner is to succeed me ;" while Chancellor Kent declared the young man "the only person in the country competent "to wear the mantle of his departed friend." But Sumner had chosen to enter upon the arena of political life; and, indeed, had already boldly planted there the banner, under whose folds he bad elected to fight, viz.: the cause of human freedom and universal liberty. On the 4th of November, 1845, when it was proposed to annex Texas to the Union as a slave State, he had delivered a thrillingly eloquent protest, at a public meeting in old Faneuil Hall, against such an extension of the slave power. Within the same venerable walls, consecrated by so many memories of revolutionary patriotism, he again, on the 23d of September, 1846, addressed the Whig State Convention on the Anti-slavery Duties of the Whig Party, and, not long after, published a letter of rebuke to Hon. Robert C. Winthrop for his vote in favor of the war with Mexico. On the 17th of February, 1847, he delivered, before the Boston Mercantile Library Association, a brilliant lecture on White Slavery in the Barbary States, a production of rare scholarship and research, possessing great interest to every philanthropist and lover of liberty. At Springfield, September 29, 1847, he made a powerful speech, before the Massachusetts Whig State Convention, on Political Action Against the Slave Power and the Extension of. Slavery ; and, at a mass convention at Worcester, Massachusetts, on the 28th of June, 1848, he gave another of his eloquent and able speeches, For Union among Men of all Parties against the Slave Power and the Extension of Slavery, in which he forcibly characterized the movement of the day, as a revolution, "destined to end only with the overthrow" of the tyranny of the slave power of the United States. Mr. Sumner, meanwhile, had withdrawn from the Whig party, and had associated himself with the "Free-soil" party, who favored the claims of Mr. Van Buren for the presidency in 1848. On the 3d of October, 1850, he delivered, before the Free-soil State Convention, at Boston, a masterly and glowing speech on Our Recent Anti-slavery Duties, which was a most exalted triumph of genuine oratory, and produced the profoundest impression upon those who heard it. It bore with terrible severity upon the Fugitive Slave bill, then recently passed, and upon President Fillmore, who had signed it, of whom he said, " Other Presidents may be forgotten; but the name signed to the Fugitive Slave bill can never be forgotten. There are depths of infamy, as there are heights of fame. I regret to say what I must; but truth compels me. Better for him had he never been born. Better far for his memory, and for the good name of his children, had he never been President." 

On the 24th of April, 1851, Mr. Sumner was elected by a coalition of the Free-soilers and Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature, to occupy the seat in the United States Senate, previously occupied by Daniel Webster, who had recently accepted a position in Mr. Fillmore's cabinet. He took his seat in the national council, fully and firmly pledged to " oppose all sectionalism, whether it appear in unconstitutional efforts by the North to carry so great a boon as freedom into the Slave States, or in unconstitutional efforts by the South, aided by northern allies, to carry the sectional evil of slavery into the free States; or in whatsoever efforts it may make to extend the sectional domination of slavery over the national Government." Soon after his introduction to the Senate, he appeared as the able advocate of aid to railroads through the new Western States. His first grand effort, however, in the Senate, was his speech, on the 26th of August, 1852, on his motion to repeal the Fugitive Slave bill, entitled, Freedom National, Slavery Sectional. He had been for a long time deprived—through the action of the pro-slavery members of the Senate, who were determined to trample upon the freedom of speech on the question of slavery—of the chance of speaking on this question; but when, seizing a parliamentary opportunity, he at length. gained the floor, he rebuked, in terms of lofty but scathing rebuke, the attempt to muzzle public debate ; and, with indignant eloquence, denounced the Fugitive Slave bill as cruel, tyrannical, and unconstitutional. His next great effort was his speech before the Senate, February, 21, 1854, entitled, The Landmark of Freedom; Freedom National; against the repeal of the Missouri prohibition of slavery south of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes, in the Kansas and Nebraska bill. Speaking of that " Question of questions,—as far above others as liberty is above the common things of life—which it opens anew for judgment," he said, " Sir, the bill which you are now about to pass, is at once the worst and the best bill on which Congress has ever acted. Yes, sir, WORST and BEST at the same time. It is the worst bill, inasmuch as it is a present victory of slavery. In a Christian land, and in an age of civilization, a time-honored statute of freedom is struck down, opening the way to all the countless woes and wrongs of human bondage. Among the crimes of history, another is about to be recorded, which no tears can blot out, and which, in better days, will be read with universal shame. Do not start. The tea tax and stamp act, which aroused the patriotic rage of our fathers, were virtues by the side of your transgression ; nor would it be easy to imagine, at this day, any measure which more openly and perversely defied every sentiment of justice, humanity, and Christianity. Am I not right, then, in calling it the worst bill on which Congress ever acted?

"But there is another side to which I gladly turn. Sir, it is the best bill on which Congress ever acted; for it annuls all past compromises with slavery, and makes all future compromises impossible. Thus it puts freedom and slavery face to face, and bids them grapple. Who can doubt the result ? It opens wide the door of the future, when, at last, there will really be a North, and the slave power will be broken ; when this wretched despotism will cease to dominate over our Government, no longer impressing itself upon every thing at home and abroad ; when the national Government shall be divorced in every way from slavery ; and, according to the true intention of our fathers, freedom shall be established by Congress everywhere, at least beyond the local limits of the States. Slavery will then be driven from its usurped foothold here in the District of Columbia, in the national territories and elsewhere beneath the national flag; the Fugitive Slave bill, as vile as it is unconstitutional, will become a dead letter; and the domestic slave trade, so far as it can be reached, but especially on the high seas, will be blasted by Congressional prohibition. Everywhere, within the sphere of Congress, the great Northern hammer will descend to smite the wrong; and the irresistible cry will break forth : `No more slave States.'

"Thus, sir, now standing at the very grave of freedom in Nebraska and Kansas, I lift myself to the vision of that happy resurrection, by which freedom will be secured, not only in these territories, but everywhere under the national Government. More closely than ever before, I now penetrate that " All-hail hereafter," when slavery must disappear. Proudly I discern the flag of my country, as it ripples in every breeze, at last become in reality, as in name, the flag of freedom--undoubted, pure, and irresistible. Am I not right, then, in calling this bill the best on which Congress ever acted ?

"Sorrowfully, I bend before the wrong you are about to commit; joyfully, I welcome all the promises of' the future."

On the 26th and 28th of June, 1854, Mr. Sumner, on the Boston memorial for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave bill, replied to Messrs. Jones of Tennessee, Butler of South Carolina, and Mason of Virginia, in eloquent speeches, full of interesting facts, and fine oratory. These were followed, July 31st, by his memorable speech on the " struggle for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave bill," in support of a motion for repeal of said bill, the introduction of which the Senate finally refused, although, in so doing, they overturned two undoubted parliamentary rules.

After the close of the Congressional session, he addressed the Republican State Convention, at Worcester, Massachusetts, on the 1st of September, 1854, on the duties of Massachusetts at. the present` crisis; and during the following Congressional session of 1854-5, he was again found at the front, stoutly battling for human rights. When, in February, 1855, Mr. Toucey, of Connecticut, moved his "bill to protect officers and other persons acting under the authority of the United States," Mr. Sumner took the floor with his masterly speech on the Demands of Freedom—Repeal of the Fugitive Slave bill. Again, on the 9th of May, 1855; in the Metropolitan theatre of New York, he delivered a public address on the Anti-slavery Enterprise, which produced a profound impression upon the community. On the 2d of November, 1855, he spoke before a public meeting in Faneuil Hall, Boston, on the Slave Oligarchy and its Usurpations—the Outrages in Kansas—the Different Political parties—the Republican party—a concise, forcible and eloquent presentation of the history of the great American question.

On this question, indeed, Mr. Sumner had now become the recognized leader of the anti-slavery party in the Senate. Favored with a commanding and attractive person, a dignified and captivating delivery, a strong and melodious voice, a mind endowed with rare capabilities and still rarer acquired graces of education, and treasures of knowledge; and, beyond all, a truthfulness of character which gives additional emphasis to every word which he utters, Charles Sumner was a representative of whom the Old Bay State had every reason to be proud; a champion of freedom, justice, and humanity, whose influence and integrity were undoubted. The moment was now at hand when the eloquent orator was to become a bleeding witness, and well nigh a martyr to that "barbarism of slavery," which he had so often denounced with unsparing tongue. On the 19th and 20th of May, 1856, during the animated and protracted debate or the admission of Kansas as a State of the Union, Mr. Sumner delivered in the Senate a speech of surpassing eloquence and power on the Crime against Kansas—the Apologies for the Crime—the True Remedy. In the course of this speech, which has been well esteemed as "one of the grandest efforts of modern oratory—one of the most commanding, irresistible, and powerful speeches ever made in the Senate of the United States," he vindicated, in fervid terms, the fair fame of his native State, and with keen sarcasm, severe invective, and irresistible argument, traced the course of slavery arrogance and domination in Kansas, concluding with the following feeling peroration : " In just regard for free labor in that territory, which it is sought to blast by unwelcome association with slave-labor ; in Christian sympathy with the slave, whom it is pro-posed to task and sell there; in stern condemnation of the crime which has been consummated on that beautiful soil ; in rescue of fellow-citizens, now subjugated to a tyrannical usurpation; in dutiful respect for the early fathers, whose inspirations are now ignobly thwarted ; in the name of the Constitution, which has been outraged—of the laws trampled down—of justice banished—of humanity degraded—of peace destroyed—of freedom crushed to earth ; and in the name of the Heavenly father whose service is perfect freedom, I make this last appeal." This speech greatly incensed the southern members in Congress, and was the alleged provocation for the cruel and cowardly assault made upon him.
On Thursday, May 22d, two days after this speech, as Mr. Sumner was sitting at his desk in the Senate chamber, busied with his correspondence, after the adjournment of the day, he was suddenly attacked by Preston S. Brooks, a member of the House, from South Carolina, a nephew of Senator Butler, to whom Mr. Sumner had replied, who felled him to the floor with a heavy cane, with which he continued to belabor his unconscious victim over the head, while Mr. Keitt, another South Carolina Congressman, stood by, with arms in hand, to prevent any interference on the part of Mr. Sumner's friends. The few gentlemen who were present in the Senate chamber, were at first apparently paralyzed by the scene, but Messrs. Morgan and Murray of New York, and Mr. Chittenden, rushed to his aid, and finally succeeded in wresting the infuriated scions of "chivalry" from the object of their fiendish malevolence; and they were subsequently censured by the House, and resigned their seats, both ultimately dying miserable and dishonorable deaths. The brutal attack thoroughly aroused the citizens of the Northern States to the realization of the true character of slavery as manifested in its advocates. Large indignation meetings were held in many towns and cities of the land, from the east to the west ; and this attempt to stifle freedom of speech resulted in a concentration of public sentiment in regard to the assumptions of the South, which tended greatly to diffuse and , promote the spirit of true liberty.

The injuries inflicted upon Mr. Sumner were of the severest character, and resulted in a long continued and alarming disability, which obliged him to seek recreation and medical advice and treatment in Europe. For more than three years, he was a great and constant sufferer, and his final recovery was due, under God, to the skill of the eminent French surgeon, Dr. Brown-Sequard, and to his own remarkably vigorous and healthy constitution. In 1860, having recovered his health, he took an active part in the presidential canvass, which resulted in the election of Abraham Lincoln.

During this year, also, he delivered his great oration on the "Barbarism of Slavery," the complement of the one for which he was so brutally assaulted.

During the discussions in the Senate, which were finally terminated by the seccession of the Southern States, he earnestly opposed all concession and compromise; and was one of the earliest advocates of emancipation as a speedy mode of bringing the war to an end. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1863, and again in 1869, his present term ending March 4th, 1875.

At the reorganization of the Senate Committee in March, 1861, Mr. Sumner was placed at the head of the Committee on Foreign Relations, a position for which his great attainments and his ability as a statesman eminently qualified him. He continued to be chairman of this important committee, rendering conspicuous service to the nation, until the assembling of the XLIId Congress in March, 1871, when, in consequence of his hostility to the Santo Domingo Scheme, his denunciation of the course of the Government in regard to Hayti, and his aversion to Secre tary Fish, he was, by a majority vote of the Senate, at Secretary Fish's prompting, removed from that committee and made chairman of the less important one " On Privileges and Elections."

As Mr. Sumner had deemed it his duty to speak in terms of considerable severity of some of the measures of the administration, though not in general hostile to it, some members of both houses of Congress, and especially of the Senate, claiming to be the special friends of the President, retorted with gross personal abuse of Mr. Sumner, denouncing him as a traitor and denying. that he had any claims to be regarded as a Republican. It might have been well for these men, several of whom had themselves belonged to the Democratic party till within a short time, to compare their own record with that of Mr. Sumner, and they might have found that as the founder and father of the Republican party, and always true to its great principles amid evil report and good report, he might with the utmost propriety have read them out of the party, as having only come in when office and place were to be the rewards of their fealty.

Mr. Sumner, at length wearied 'with their constant assaults upon him, replied in a speech of considerable length, in which he reviewed with the most trenchant severity President Grant's administration, arraigning it for nepotism, favoritism, and a lack of perception of the sacredness and dignity of the great trusts confided to it. The charges, made with that reiteration and variety of indictment which characterize the Senator's speeches, and which perhaps he derives from his legal studies, were sup ported by a vast array of proofs, and quotations from history. In one point of view, he made out his case, the particulars charged were mostly true, but the inference of evil and wicked intent was not so clearly demonstrated, and the Senator might be justly charged with some degree o4' malice in his labored indictment. Several replies were attempted, but none of them were very satisfactory, even to the speakers themselves. The result will undoubtedly be that for some time to come he will be in a minority in the Senate, but in his long Senatorial career he has been before now declared " outside of any healthy political organization," when slavery lifted its lash and bludgeon against him in the Senate chamber; and though the injuries of those who have been professed friends are harder to bear than the assaults of enemies, yet he is too valuable a man in the Senate to be very long "sent to Coventry," and meanwhile may console himself as did an ancient Roman Statesman :

" And more true joy Marceline exiled feels than Caesar with a Senate at his heels."

Mr. Sumner is not faultless; a certain imperiousness of man ner, an over-consciousness of his own really great powers, and an intolerance of difference from him of opinion, are infirmities which those who love him most heartily can but deplore, but these when set off against his long faithful and consistent service, his intense patriotism and his broad and comprehensive views on all subjects of statesmanship, may well be regarded as but slight and inconsiderable blemishes in a character otherwise spot-less. It is a fact creditable in the highest degree to both men, that Mr. Sumner and Mr. Wilson, though differing widely at present in their political views, are personally very warm friends, and each has the utmost confidence in the integrity and sincerity of the other. When Mr. Wilson was nominated for Vice-President in June, Mr. Sumner was among the first to congratulate him, and would doubtless vote for him could he do so without voting for President Grant at the same time.

Personally Mr. Sumner is a man of fine and commanding presence, and of great dignity and courtesy of manner, and out-side of the political arena, ^very popular. In the extent and profundity of his culture, in his wide range of knowledge on all questions of national and international law, history and political economy, and the breadth and comprehensiveness of his views as a statesman, Mr. Sumner has few equals and no superior.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872   

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