Saturday, January 06, 2007

Charles Sumner


"Where Slavery is there Liberty cannot be; and where Liberty is there Slavery cannot be." -- C. Sumner.

Abolitionist leader Charles Sumner was born on this day in 1811 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Our 21st century view of Charles Sumner is marked by distinctly contrasting indications. Having had the pleasure of working one summer for editor Beverly Wilson Palmer on the Charles Sumner Papers, I have some additional insights about the man. Sumner was an expert on the arcanities of American jurisprudence and probably among the most brilliant men in politics in his day, but he could come off personally as a marshmallowy romantic schoolboy, remaining a shy bachelor all his life; a living martyr to the anti-slavery cause, he was an American hero, yet his bloodthirsty conduct during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson was anything but heroic -- although it may have been perceived that way by some of his contemporaries.

Sumner attended Harvard and studied with Justice Joseph Story, and later he served as a reporter for the U.S. Circuit Court and published 3 volumes of Story's decisions. After an extended stay in Europe, he returned to the U.S. in 1840 to edit a 20-volume set of Supreme Court reports.

His opposition to the Mexican War drew him into the public arena, where he distinguished himself as a passionate, highly literate orator. In 1851, he was selected to fill the large shoes of Daniel Webster as Webster's successor to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. There he quickly became the leader of the hardcore anti-slavery caucus, and during the 1856 debates over the question of permitting slavery in the new state of Kansas, Sumner delivered his classic two day-long speech, "The Crime Against Kansas," in which he spared no literary excess in denouncing the Southern advocacy of the slavery system.

Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina thought he detected in Sumner's marathon speech an insult against his uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, and in retaliation tracked Sumner down at his desk on the Senate floor and beat him into unconsciousness with his cane. Sumner survived the attack badly injured, and was hailed as having given his body to the abolitionist cause. The North saw in Brooks' attack symptoms of generic Southern brutality -- although Brooks himself was championed as a hero in the South.

Sumner kept his seat in the Senate, but spent much of his time in Europe and elsewhere, recuperating. Yet he was energetic in his Senate appearances, calling for the emancipation of the slaves by President Lincoln, introducing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1864, and initiating the bill which became the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places until it was nullified by Justice Bradley in the Civil Rights Cases (1883).

As President Johnson's program for a lenient Reconstruction of the South began to emerge, Sumner loudly led the charge for Johnson's impeachment and removal, and even called for Johnson's impeachment again after Johnson was acquitted at trial before the U.S. Senate in June 1868. He later attempted to show compassion for the South by proposing that Civil War battles should not be listed on the regimental colours of Union regiments. For his efforts, he was censured by the Massachusetts legislature, but the censure was later repealed.

Much of Sumner's later career in the Senate concerned foreign relations, backing the American claims against the British for providing ships to the Confederacy during the Civil War and opposing President Grant's proposed annexation of Santo Domingo. Having turned down the Liberal Republican nomination for governor of Massachusetts, Sumner died on March 11, 1872, while still serving in the Senate.

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