Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Charles Pickney Sumner, the father of Charles Sumner, was a man of an essentially veracious nature. He was high sheriff of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and when there was a criminal to be executed he always performed the office himself. Once when some one inquired why he did not delegate such a disagreeable task to one of his deputies, he is said to have replied, “Simply because it is disagreeable.” It was this elevated sense of moral responsibility which formed the keynote of his son’s character.

Charles Sumner’s mother was Miss Relief Jacobs, a name in which we distinguish at once a mixture of the Hebrew and the Puritan. She belonged in fact to a Christianized Jewish family, but how long since her ancestors became Christianized remains in doubt. Yet it is easy to recognize the Hebrew element in Sumner’s nature; the inflexibility of purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast. Sumner was an old Hebrew prophet in the guise of an American statesman. True to his mother’s name, he was at once a Puritan and an Israelite in whom there was no guile; for he was wholly exempt from covetousness and other meaner qualities of the Hebrew nature. In such respects Jews and Yankees are much alike. Either they are generous and high-minded, or they are not.

Charles was rather a peculiar boy, as great men are apt to be in their youth. He cared little for boyish games, and still less for the bright eyes of the girls. He had remarkably long arms and legs, which were too often in the way of his comrades, and from which he derived the nickname at the Latin-School of “gawky Sumner"; and it may be well to notice here that there is no better sign for future superiority than for a lad to be ridiculed in this manner; while the wags who invent such sobriquets usually come to no good end. [Footnote: More than one such has died the death of an inebriate.] There is sufficient evidence, however, that Sumner was well liked both at school and at college.

He had his revenge on declamation day, for whereas others stumbled through their pieces, he seemed perfectly at home on the platform; his awkwardness disappeared and his performance gave plain indications of the future orator. Wendell Phillips was in the class after him, and they both were excellent speakers.

Sumner’s early life was not like that of Lincoln, neither was he obliged to split rails for a living; but it was a life of good stoical training nevertheless. Sheriff Sumner had eight children living at one time, and with the natural desire to give them as good an education as his own, he could not afford to spend much on external elegances. It was not until Charles had become a distinguished lawyer that his mother dispensed with the iron forks and spoons on her dinner table; and this gives a fair idea of their domestic economy. We learn from Pierce’s biography that his college expenses did not exceed two hundred dollars a year; and this included everything.

He entered at Harvard in the class of 1830; a year after Doctor Holmes and a year before Wendell Phillips. Much more is known concerning his college life than that of other distinguished men of that time, and it is highly interesting to recognize the mature man foreshadowed in the youth of eighteen. He was a good scholar in everything but mathematics; yet, at the same time, he cared little for rank. He was an enthusiastic reader, and sometimes neglected his studies for a book in which he was more deeply interested. He also liked to converse about the books he read, and in this way acquired a reputation for loquacity which never left him as long as he lived. It was sometimes troublesome to his friends, but it was of great advantage to him as a public speaker. He lived a quiet, sober, industrious life in college, attracting comparatively little attention from either his instructors or his fellow students. Yet, he showed the independence of his character by attending a cattle-show at Brighton, a proceeding for which he would have been suspended if it had been discovered by the college faculty. There were many foolish, monkish restrictions at Harvard in those days, and among them it was not considered decorous for a student to wear a colored vest. He might wear a white vest, but not a buff or a figured one. Sumner preferred a buff vest, and insisted on wearing it. When he was reprimanded for doing so he defended his course vigorously, and exposed the absurdity of the regulation in such plain terms that the faculty concluded to let him alone for the future. [Footnote: In 1860 he still continued to wear a buff vest in summer weather.] He was exceedingly fond of the Greek and Latin authors, and quoted from them in his letters at this time, as he did afterwards in his speeches. His college course was not a brilliant one like Everett’s and Phillips’s, but seems to have been based on a more solid ground-work.

It was in the Law-School that Sumner first distinguished himself. Judge Story, who had left the United States Supreme Bench to become a Harvard professor, was the chief luminary of the school and the finest instructor in law of his time. He soon discovered in Sumner a pupil after his own heart, and in spite of the disparity of their ages they became intimate friends. This is the more significant because Phillips was also in the same class, and the more brilliant scholar of the two; but Judge Story soon discovered that Phillips was studying as a means to an end, while Sumner’s interest in the law was like that of a great artist who works from the pure love of his subject.

William W. Story, who was a boy at this time, records the fact that Sumner was always pleasant and kind to children.

At the age of twenty-four Charles Sumner was himself appointed an instructor at the Law-School; and during the two following years he edited the reports of Judge Story’s decisions in the United States Circuit Courts.

It is evident from James Russell Lowell’s “Fable for Critics” that the personalities of his contemporaries troubled him: he could not see over their heads. In 1837 Sumner went to Europe and we find from his letters to Judge Story, George S. Hillard, and others, that he had already obtained a vantage ground from which the civilized world lay before him, as all New England does from the top of Mount Washington. He goes into a French law court, and analyzes the procedure of French justice in a letter which has the value of an historical document. He noticed that Napoleon was still spoken of as l’Empereur, although there was a king in France,—a fact pregnant with future consequences. He remained in Paris until he was a complete master of the French language, and attended one hundred and fifty lectures at the university and elsewhere. He enjoyed the grand opera and the acting in French theatres; nor did he neglect to study Italian art. He was making a whole man of himself; and it seemed as if an unconscious instinct was guiding him to his destiny.

Fortunate was the old Sheriff to have such a son; but Charles Sumner was also fortunate to have had a father who was willing to save and economize for his benefit. Otherwise he might have been a sheriff himself.

Judge Story’s letters of introduction opened the doors wide to him in England. In the course of ten months he became acquainted with almost every distinguished person in the United Kingdom. He never asked for introductions, and he never presented himself without one. He was handed from one mansion to another all the way from London to the Scotch Highlands. Only twenty-seven years of age, he was treated on an equality by men ten to fifteen years his senior; and he proved himself equal to their expectations. No American except Lowell has ever made such a favorable impression in England as Sumner; but this happened in Sumner’s youth, while Lowell in his earlier visits attracted little attention.

It is perfectly true that if he had been the son of an English sheriff this would not have happened; but he encountered the same obstacles in Boston society that he would have done under similar conditions in Great Britain. The doors of Wentworth House and Strachan Park were open to him, but those of Beacon Street were closed,—and perhaps it was better for him on the whole that they were.

Sumner’s letters from Europe are at least as interesting as those written by any other American. Such breadth of vision is not often united with clearness and accuracy of detail. All his letters ought to be published in a volume by themselves. Sumner returned to America the following year and settled himself quietly and soberly to his work as a lawyer. He was not a success, however, as a practitioner in the courts, unless he could plead before a bench of judges. In the Common Pleas an ordinary pettifogger would often take a case away from him. He could not, if he would, have practised those seductive arts by which Rufus Choate drew the jury into his net, in spite of their deliberate intentions to the contrary. Yet, Sumner’s reputation steadily improved, so that when Longfellow came to live in Cambridge he found Sumner delivering lectures at the Harvard Law-School, where he might have remained the rest of his life, if he had been satisfied with a merely routine employment, and the fortunes of the republic had not decided differently.

The attraction between Sumner and Longfellow was immediate and permanent. It was owing more perhaps to the essential purity of their natures, than to mutual sympathy in regard to art and literature; although Longfellow held Sumner’s literary judgment in such respect that he rarely published a new poem without first subjecting his work to Sumner’s criticism.

Those who admired Sumner at this time, for his fine moral and intellectual qualities, had no adequate conception of the far nobler quality which lay concealed in the depths of his nature. Charles Sumner was a hero,—one to whom life was nothing in comparison with his duty.

It was in the anti-Irish riot of June, 1837, that he first gave evidence of this. Nothing was more hateful to him than race prejudice, and what might be called international malignity, which he believed was the most frequent cause of war.

As soon as Sumner was notified of the disturbance, he hastened to the scene of action, seized on a prominent position, and attempted to address the insurgents; but his pacific words only excited them to greater fury. They charged on him and his little group of supporters, knocked him down and trampled on him. Dr. S. G. Howe, who stood near by, a born fighter, protected Sumner’s prostrate body, and finally carried him to a place of safety, although twice his own size. Sumner took his mishap very coolly, and, as soon as he could talk freely, addressed his friends on the evils resulting from race prejudice.

This incident may have led Sumner to the choice of a subject for his Fourth of July oration in 1845. The title of this address was “The True Grandeur of Nations,” but its real object was one which Sumner always had at heart, and never relinquished the hope of,—namely, the establishment of an international tribunal, which should possess jurisdiction over the differences and quarrels between nations, and so bring warfare forever to an end. The plan is an impracticable one, because the decisions of a court only have validity if it is able to enforce them, and how could the decisions of an international tribunal have value in case the parties concerned declined to accept them? It would only result in waging war in order to prevent war. Yet, of all the Fourth of July orations that were delivered in the nineteenth century, Sumner’s and Webster’s are the only two that have survived; and the “True Grandeur of Nations” has recently been published by the London Peace Society as an argument in favor of their philanthropic movement.

Sumner was now in the prime of manhood, and a rarely handsome man. He had an heroic figure, six feet two inches in height, and well proportioned in all respects. His features, too large and heavy in his youth, had become strong and regular, and although he had not acquired that leonine look of reserved power with which he confronted the United States Senate, his expression was frank and fearless. As L. Maria Child, who heard him frequently, said, he seemed to be as much in his place on the platform as a statue on its pedestal. His gestures had not the natural grace of Phillips’s or the more studied elegance of Everett, but he atoned for these deficiencies by the manly earnestness of his delivery. He made an impression on the highly cultivated men and women who composed his audience which they always remembered.

The question has often been raised by the older abolitionists, “Why did not Sumner take an earlier interest in the anti-slavery struggle?” The answer is twofold. That he did not join the Free-soilers in 1844 was most probably owing to the influence of Judge Story, who had already marked Sumner out for the Supreme Bench, and wished him to concentrate his energies in that direction. His friends, too, at this time—Hillard, Felton, Liebe, and even Longfellow—were either opposed to introducing the slavery question into politics or practically indifferent to it.

On the other hand, Sumner never could agree with Garrison’s position on this question. He held the Constitution in too great respect to admit that it was an agreement with death and a government with the devil. He believed that the founders of the Constitution were opposed to slavery, and that the expression, “persons held to labor,” was good evidence of this. One of his finest orations in the Senate was intended to prove this point. Furthermore he perceived the futility of Garrison’s idea—and this was afterwards disproved by the war—that if it were not for the National Government the slaves would rise in rebellion and so obtain their freedom. He always asserted that slavery would be abolished under the Constitution or not at all. Like Abraham Lincoln he waited for his time to come.

Charles Sumner was the reply that Massachusetts made to the Fugitive Slave Law, and a telling reply it was. Unlike his legal contemporaries he recognized the law as a revolutionary act which, unless it was successfully opposed, would strike a death-blow at American freedom. He saw that it could only be met by counter-revolution, and he prepared his mind for the consequences. It was only at such a time that so uncompromising a statesman as Sumner could have entered into political life; for the possibility of compromise had passed away with the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and Sumner’s policy of “no compromise” was the one which brought the slavery question to a successful issue. For fifteen years in Congress he held to that policy as faithfully as a planet to its course, and those who differed with him were left in the rear.

Sumner’s first difference was with his conservative friends, and especially with his law-partner, George S. Hillard, a brilliant man in his way, and for an introductory address without a rival in Boston. Hillard was at heart as anti-slavery as Sumner, and his wife had even assisted fugitive slaves, but he was swathed in the bands of fashionable society, and he lacked the courage to break loose from them. He adhered to the Whigs and was relegated to private life. They parted without acrimony, and Sumner never failed to do his former friend a service when he found an opportunity.

His difference with Felton was of a more serious kind. Emerson, perhaps, judged Felton too severely,—a man of ardent temperament who was always in danger of saying more than he intended.

Sumner’s election to the Senate was a chance in ten thousand. It is well known that at first he declined to be a candidate. He did not think he was fitted for the position, and when Caleb Gushing urged him to court the favor of fortune he said: “I will not leave my chair to become United States Senator.” Whatever vanity there might be in the man, he was entirely free from the ambition for power and place.

There were several prominent public men at the time who would have given all they owned for the position, but they were set aside for the man who did not want it,—the bold jurist who dared to set himself against the veteran statesmen of his country. It reads like a Bible-tale, or the story of Cincinnatus taken from his plow to become dictator.

The gates of his alma mater were now closed to Sumner, not only during his life but even long after that. Such is the fate of revolutionary characters, that they tear asunder old and familiar bonds in order to contract new ties. In Washington he found a broader and more vigorous life, if less cultivated, and the Free-soil leaders with whom he now came in contact in his own State were much more akin to his own nature than Story, and Felton, and Hillard. Sumner was never popular in Washington, as he had been among the English liberals and Cambridge men of letters; but he was respected on all sides for his fearlessness, his ability, and the veracity of his statements. His previous life now proved a great advantage to him in most respects, but he had become accustomed to dealing and conversing with a certain class of men, and this made it difficult for him to assimilate himself to a wholly different class. Sumner’s ardent temperament required constant self-control in this new and trying position; and a man who continually reflects beforehand on his own actions acquires an appearance of greater reserve than a person of really cold nature.

Seward had thus far been the leader of the Free-soil and Republican parties, not only before the country at large but in the Senate. It was soon found, however, that Sumner was not only a more effective speaker, but possessed greater resources for debate. Judge Story had noticed long before that facts were so carefully and systematically arranged in Sumner’s mind that whatever spring was touched he could always respond to the subject with a full and exact statement. He was like a librarian who could lay his hand on the book he wanted without having to look for it in the catalogue,—and this upon a scale which seems almost incredible. Webster possessed the same faculty, but united it with a sense of artistic beauty which Sumner could not equal.

Sumner, however, was the best orator in Congress at this time, as well as the best legal authority. On all constitutional questions it was felt that he had Judge Story’s support behind him. His oration on “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional,” was a revelation, not only to the opposition, but to his own party. From that time forth, he became the spokesman of his party on all the more important questions.

It frequently happens that the essential character of a government changes while its form remains the same. In 1801 France was nominally a Republic, but its administration was Imperial. In 1853 the United States ceased to be a democracy and became an oligarchy, governed by thirty thousand slave-holders,—until the people reconquered their rights on the field of battle. Accustomed to despotic power in their own States for more than two generations, and justifying themselves always by divine right, the slave-holders possessed all the self-confidence, pretension, and arrogance of the old French nobility. They were a self-deluded class of men, of all classes the most difficult to deal with, and Sumner was the Mirabeau who faced them at Washington and who pricked the bubble of their Olympian pretensions by a most pitiless exposure of their true character.

Those men had come to believe that the ownership of slaves was equivalent to a patent of nobility, and they were encouraged in this monarchical illusion by the nobility of Europe. In Disraeli’s “Lothair” an English duke is made to say: “I consider an American with large estates in the South a genuine aristocrat.” The pretension was ridiculous, and the only way to combat it was to make it appear so. Sumner characterized Butler, of South Carolina, and Douglas, of Illinois, who was their northern man of business, as the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of an antiquated cause. The satire hit its mark only too exactly; and two days later Sumner was assaulted for it in an assassin-like manner,—struck on the head from behind while writing at his desk, and left senseless on the floor. Sumner was considered too low in the social scale for the customary challenge to a duel, and there was no court in Washington that would take cognizance of the outrage.

The following day, when Wilson made the most eloquent speech of his life in an indignant rebuke to Butler and Brooks, Butler started from his seat to attack him, but was held back by his friends. They might as well have allowed him to go, for Wilson was a man of enormous strength and could easily have handled any Southerner upon the floor.

In “The Crime against Kansas” there are two or three sentences which Sumner afterwards expunged, and this shows that he regretted having said them; but it is the greatest of his orations, and Webster’s reply to Hayne is the only Congressional address with which it can be compared. One is in fact the sequence of the other; Webster’s is the flower, and Sumner’s the fruit; the former directed against the active principle of sedition, and the latter against its consequences; and both were directed against South Carolina, where the war originated. Sumner’s speech has not the finely sculptured character of Webster’s, but its architectural structure is grand and impressive. His Baconian division of the various excuses that were made for the Kansas outrages into “the apology tyrannical, the apology imbecile, the apology absurd, and the apology infamous,” was original and pertinent.

Preston S. Brooks only lived about six months after his assault on Sumner, and some of the abolitionists thought he died of a guilty conscience. Both in feature and expression he bore a decided likeness to J. Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln. It might have proved the death of Sumner, but for the devotion of his Boston physician, Dr. Marshall S. Perry, who went to him without waiting to be telegraphed for. It was also fortunate for him that his brother George, a very intelligent man, happened to be in America instead of Europe, where he lived the greater part of his life. The assault on Sumner strengthened the Republican party, and secured his re-election to the Senate; but it produced nervous irritation of the brain and spinal cord, a disorder which can only be cured under favorable conditions, and even then is likely to return if the patient is exposed to a severe mental strain. Sumner’s cure by Dr. Brown-Sequard was considered a remarkable one, and has a place in the history of medicine. The effect of bromide and ergot was then unknown, and the doctor made such good use of his cauterizing- iron that on one occasion, at least, Sumner declared that he could not endure it any longer. Neither could he tell positively whether it was this treatment or the baths which he afterwards took at Aix-les-Bains that finally cured him. His own calm temperament and firmness of mind may have contributed to this as much as Dr. Brown-Sequard.

When Sumner returned to Boston, early in 1860, all his friends went to Dr. S. G. Howe to know if he was really cured, and Howe said: “He is a well man, but he will never be able to make another two hours’ speech." Yet Sumner trained himself and tested his strength so carefully that in the following spring he delivered his oration on the barbarism of slavery, more than an hour in length, before the Senate; and in 1863 he made a speech three hours in length, a herculean effort that has never been equalled, except by Hamilton’s address before the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

I remember Sumner in the summer of 1860 walking under my father’s grape trellis, when the vines were in blossom, with his arms above his head, and saying: “This is like the south of France.” To think of Europe, its art, history, and scenery, was his relaxation from the cares and excitement of politics; but there were many who did not understand this, and looked upon it as an affectation. Sumner in his least serious moments was often self-conscious, but never affected. He talked of himself as an innocent child talks. On all occasions he was thoroughly real and sincere, and he would sometimes be as much abashed by a genuine compliment as a maiden of seventeen.

At the same time Sumner was so great a man that it was simply impossible to disguise it, and he made no attempt to do this. The principle that all men are created equal did not apply in his case. To realize this it was only necessary to see him and Senator Wilson together. Wilson was also a man of exceptional ability, and yet a stranger, who did not know him by sight, might have conversed with him on a railway train without suspecting that he was a member of the United States Senate; but this could not have happened in Sumner’s case. Every one stared at him as he walked the streets; and he could not help becoming conscious of this. That there were moments when he seemed to reflect with satisfaction on his past life his best friends could not deny; but the vanity that is born of a frivolous spirit was not in him. He was more like a Homeric hero than a Sir Philip Sidney, and considering the work he had to do it was better on the whole that he should be so.

He carried the impracticable theory of social equality to an extent beyond that of most Americans, and yet he was frequently complained of for his reserve and aristocratic manners. The range of his acquaintance was the widest of any man of his time. It extended from Lord Brougham to J. B. Smith, the mulatto caterer of Boston, who, like many of his race, was a person of gentlemanly deportment, and was always treated by Sumner as a valued friend. As the champion of the colored race in the Senate this was diplomatically necessary; but to the rank and file of his own party he was less gracious. He had not grown up among them, but had entered politics at the top, so that even their faces were unfamiliar to him. The representatives of Massachusetts, who voted for him at the State House, were sometimes chagrined at the coldness of his recognition,—a coldness that did not arise from lack of sympathy, but from ignorance of the individual. Before Sumner could treat a stranger in a friendly manner, he wished to know what sort of a person he had to deal with. There is a kind of insincerity in universal cordiality,—like that of the candidate who is seeking to obtain votes.

A recent writer, who complains of Sumner’s lack of graciousness, would do well to ask his conscience what the reason for it was. If he will drop the three last letters of his own name the solution will be apparent to him.

The more Sumner became absorbed in public affairs the less he seemed to be suited to general society,—or general society to him. He was always ready to talk on those subjects that interested him, but in general conversation, in the pleasant give-and-take of wit and anecdote, he did not feel so much at home as he had in his Cambridge days. His thoughts were too serious, and the tendency of his mind was argumentative.

Every man is to a certain extent the victim of his occupation; and the formalities of the Senate were ever tightening their grasp on Sumner’s mode of life. One afternoon, as he was leaving Dr. Howe’s garden at South Boston, the doctor’s youngest daughter ran out from the house, and called to him, “Good-bye, Mr. Sumner.” His back was already turned, but he faced about like an officer on parade, and said with formal gravity: “Good evening, child,” so that Mrs. Howe could not avoid laughing at him. Yet Sumner was fond of children in his youth. L. Maria Child heard of this incident and made good use of it in one of her story-books.

The grand fact in Sumner’s character, however, rests beyond dispute that he never aspired to the Presidency. That lingering Washington malady which victimized Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Seward, Chase, Sherman, and Blaine, and made them appear almost like sinners in torment, never attacked Sumner. He had accepted office as a patriotic duty, and, like Washington, he was ready to resign it whenever his work would be done.

Sumner’s speech on the barbarism of slavery, timed as it was to meet the Baltimore convention, was evidently intended to drive a wedge into the split between the Northern and Southern Democrats, but it also must have encouraged the secession movement. Sumner, however, can hardly be blamed for this, after the indignity he had suffered. That a high member of the Government could have been assaulted with impunity in open day indicated a condition of affairs in the United States not unlike that of France at the time when Count Toliendal was judicially murdered by Louis XV. Washington City was an oligarchical despotism.

A dark cloud hung over the Republic during the winter of 1860-’61. The impending danger was that war would break out before Lincoln could be inaugurated. Such secrecy was observed by the Republican leaders that even Horace Greeley could not fathom their intentions. Late in December John A. Andrew and George L. Stearns went to Washington to survey the ground for themselves, and the latter wrote to William Robinson, “The watchword is, keep quiet.” He probably obtained this from Sumner, and it gives the key to the whole situation.

It demolishes Von Hoist’s finely-spun melodramatic theory in regard to that period of our history, in which he finally compares the condition of the United States to a drowning man who sees lurid flames before his eyes. In the Republican and Union parties there were all shades of compromise sentiment,—from those who were ready to sacrifice anything in order to prevent secession, to Abraham Lincoln, who was only willing to surrender the barren and unpopulated State of New Mexico to the slaveholders. [Footnote: A not unreasonable proposition.] But Sumner, Wade, Trumbull, Wilson, and King stood together like a rocky coast against which the successive waves of compromise dashed without effect. Von Hoist was notified of this fact years before the last volume of his history was published, but he disregarded it evidently because it interfered with his favorite theory.

The last of January, however, a report was circulated in Boston that Sumner had joined the compromisers for the sake of consistency with the peace principles which he had advocated in his Fourth of July oration. Boston newspapers made the most of this, although it did not seem likely to Sumner’s friends, and George L. Stearns finally wrote to him for permission to make a denial of it. Sumner first replied to him by telegraph saying: “I am against sending commissioners to treat of surrender by the North. Stand firm.” Then he wrote him this memorable letter.

WASHINGTON, 3d Feb., ’61.

My Dear Sir:

There are but few who stand rooted, like the oak, against a storm. This is the nature of man. Let us be patient.

My special trust is this: No possible compromise or concession will be of the least avail. Events are hastening which will supersede all such things. This will save us. But I like to see Mass. in this breaking up of the Union ever true. God keep her from playing the part of Judas or—of Peter! You may all bend or cry pardon—I will not. Here I am, and I mean to stand firm to the last. God bless you!

Ever yours,


The handwriting of this letter is magnificent. Sumner had a strongly characteristic hand with something of artistic grace in it, too; but in this instance his writing seems like the external expression of the mood he was in when he wrote the letter.

The question may be asked, Why then did not Sumner rise in the Senate and make one of his telling speeches against compromise during that long, wearisome session? I think the answer will be found in the watchword: “Keep quiet!” He perfectly understood the game that Seward was playing and he was too wise to interfere with it. Seward was the cat and compromise was the mouse. Whatever mistakes he may have afterwards made, Seward at this time showed a master hand. He encouraged compromise, but he must have been aware that the proposed constitutional amendment, which would forever have prevented legislation against slavery, would not have been confirmed by the Northern States. He could easily count the legislatures that would reject it. It finally passed through Congress on the last night of this session by a single vote, and was ratified by only three States!

As soon as Lincoln was inaugurated there was no more talk of compromise, and Seward was firmness itself. He declined to receive the disunion commissioners; [Footnote: At the same time he coquetted with them unofficially.] he compelled the Secretary of War to reinforce Fort Pickens; he overhauled General Scott, who proved an impediment to vigorous military operations. These facts tell their own tale.

After Seward and Chase had left the Senate Sumner was facile princeps. Trumbull was a vigorous orator and a rough-rider in debate, but he did not possess the store of legal knowledge and the vast fund of general information which Sumner could draw from. One has to read the fourth volume of Pierce’s biography to realize the dimensions of Sumner’s work during the period from 1861 to 1869. Military affairs he never interfered with, but he was Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the most important in the Senate, and in the direction of home politics he was second to none. No other voice was heard so often in the legislative halls at Washington, and none heard with more respect. A list of the bills that he introduced and carried through would fill a long column.

The test of statesmanship is to change from the opposition to the leadership in a Government,—from critical to constructive politics. Carl Schurz was a fine orator and an effective speaker on the minority side, but he commenced life as a revolutionist and always remained one. If he had once attempted to introduce legislation, he would have shown his weakness, exactly where Sumner proved his strength. Froude says that to be great in politics “is to recognize a popular movement, and to have the courage and address to lead it"; but three times Sumner planted his standard away in advance of his party, and stood by it alone until his followers came up to him.

He was always in advance of his party, but conspicuously so in regard to the abolition of slavery, the exposure of Andrew Johnson’s perfidy, and the reconstruction of the rebellious States. We might add the annexation of San Domingo as a fourth; for I believe there are few thinking persons at present who do not feel grateful to him for having saved the country from that uncomfortable acquisition.

The bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia was introduced by Wilson. Sumner did not like to be always proposing anti-slavery measures himself, and he wished Wilson to have the honor of it. Wilson would not, of course, have introduced the measure without consulting his colleague.

Lincoln evidently desired to enjoy the sole honor of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, and he deserved to have it; but Sumner thought it might safely have been done after the battles of Fort Donaldson and Shiloh, and the victories of Foote and Farragut on the Mississippi, six months before it was issued; and he urged to have it done at that time. Whether his judgment was correct in this, it is impossible to decide.

Early in July, 1862, he introduced a bill in the Senate for the organization of the “contrabands” and other negroes into regiments,—a policy suggested by Hamilton in 1780,—and no one can read President Lincoln’s Message to Congress in December, 1864, without recognizing that it was only with the assistance of negro troops that the Union was finally preserved.

In spite of the continued differences between Sumner and Seward on American questions they worked together like one man in regard to foreign politics. Sumner’s experience in Europe and his knowledge of public men there was much more extensive than Seward’s, and in this line he was of invaluable assistance to the Secretary of State.

Lowell could make a holiday of six years at the Court of St. James, but during the war it was a serious matter to be Minister to England. In the summer of 1863 affairs there had reached a climax. The Alabama and Florida were scaring all American ships from the ocean, and five ironclad rams, built for the confederate government, were nearly ready to put to sea from English ports. If this should happen it seemed likely that they would succeed in raising the blockade. As a final resort Lincoln and Seward sent word to Adams to threaten the British Government with war unless the rams were detained.

Meanwhile it was necessary to brace up the American people to meet the possible emergency. On September 10 Sumner addressed an audience of three thousand persons in Cooper Institute, New York, for three hours on the foreign relations of the United States; and there were few who left the hall before it was finished. He arraigned the British Government for its inconsistency, its violation of international law, and its disregard of the rights of navigators. It was not only a heroic effort, but a self- sacrificing one; for Sumner knew that it would separate him forever from the larger number of his English friends.

At the same time Minister Adams had an equally difficult task before him. War with England seemed to be imminent. He held a long consultation with Benjamin Moran, the Secretary of Legation, and they finally concluded to see if an opinion could be obtained on the confederate rams from an English legal authority. They went to Sir Robert Colyer, one of the lords of the admiralty, and asked him if he was willing to give them an opinion. He replied that he considered the law above politics, and that he wished to do what was right. After investigating the subject Colyer made a written statement to the effect that the United States was wholly justified in demanding detention of the rams. Adams then placed this opinion together with Lincoln’s notification before the British Cabinet, but the papers were returned to him with a refusal of compliance. “There is nothing now,” said Adams to Moran, “but for us to pack up and go home"; but Moran replied, “Let us wait a little; while there is life there is hope"; and the same evening Adams was notified that Her Majesty’s Government still had the subject under consideration. The rams proved a dead loss.

When Benjamin Moran related this incident to the Philadelphia Hock Club after his return, he added: “We owe it to our Irish-American citizens as much as to the monitors that we did not suffer from English interference.”

Seward, and also Chase, wished to issue letters of reprisal to privateers to go in search of the Alabama, but Sumner opposed this in an able speech on the importance of maintaining a high standard of procedure for the good reputation of the country; and he carried his point.

Sumner’s greatest parliamentary feat was occasioned by Trumbull’s introduction of a bill for the reconstruction of Louisiana in the winter of 1864. There were only ten thousand loyal white voters in the State; and nothing could be more imprudent or prejudicial than such a hasty attempt at reorganization of the rebellious South, before the war was fairly ended. It was like a man building an annex to one side of his house while the other side was on fire; yet it was known to be supported by Seward, and, as was alleged, also by Lincoln. It was thrust upon Congress at the last moment, evidently in order to prevent an extended debate, and Sumner turned this to his own advantage. For two days and nights his voice resounded through the Senate chamber, until, with the assistance of his faithful allies, Wade and Wilson, he succeeded in preventing the bill from being brought to a vote. It was an extreme instance of human endurance, without parallel before or since, and may possibly have shortened Sumner’s life. Five weeks later President Lincoln, in his last speech, made the significant proposition of universal amnesty combined with universal suffrage. Would that he could have lived to see the completion of his work!

Something may be said here of Sumner’s influence with Mrs. Lincoln. If Don Piatt is to be trusted, Mrs. Lincoln came to Washington with a strong feeling of antipathy towards Seward and “those eastern abolitionists.” She was born in a slave state and had remained pro- slavery,—a fact which did not trouble her husband because he did not allow it to trouble him. Fifteen months in Washington brought a decided change in her opinions, and Sumner would seem to have been instrumental in this conversion. It is well known that she preferred his society to that of others. She had studied French somewhat, and he encouraged her to talk it with him,—which was looked upon, of course, as an affectation on both sides.

At the time of General McClellan’s removal, October, 1862, Mrs. Lincoln was at the Parker House in Boston. Sumner called on her in the forenoon, and she said at once: “I suppose you have heard the news, and that you are glad of it. So am I. Mr. Lincoln told me he expected to remove him before I left Washington.”

Sumner resembled Charles XII. of Sweden in this: there is no evidence that he ever was in love. His devotion to the law in early life, surrounded as he was by interesting friends, may have been antagonistic to matrimony. The woman he ought to have married was the noble daughter of his old friend, Cornelius Felton, whom he often met, but whose worth he never recognized. The marriage which he contracted late in life was not based on enduring principles, and soon came to a grievous end. It was more like the marriages that princes make than a true republican courtship. Sumner apparently wanted a handsome wife to preside at his dinner parties in Washington, but he chose her from among his opponents instead of from among his friends.

Since there has been much foolish talk upon this subject, it may be well to state here that the true difficulty between Mr. and Mrs. Sumner was owing to the company which he invited to his house. She only wished to entertain fashionable people, but a large proportion of Sumner’s friends could not be included within these narrow limits. As Senator from Massachusetts that would not do for him at all. This is the explanation that was given by Mrs. Sumner’s brother, and it is without doubt the correct one; but women in such cases are apt to allege something different from the true reason.

Sumner’s most signal triumph happened on the occasion of President Johnson’s first Message to Congress in January, 1865. He rose from his seat and characterized it as a “whitewashing document.” That day he stood alone, yet within six weeks every Republican Senator was at his side.

Sumner knew how to be silent as well as to talk. On one occasion he was making a speech in the Senate when he suddenly heard Schuyler Colfax behind him saying, “This is all very good, Sumner, but here I have the Appropriation bills from the House, and the Democrats know nothing about them.” Sumner instantly resumed his seat, and the bills were acted on without serious opposition. He would sometimes sit through a dinner at the Bird Club without saying very much, but if he once started on a subject that interested him there was no limit to it.

Sumner’s speech on the “Alabama claims” was considered a failure because the administration did not afterwards support him; and it is true that no government would submit to a demand for adventitious damages so long as it could prevent this; but it was a far-reaching exposure of an unprincipled foreign policy, and this speech formed the groundwork for the Treaty of Washington and the Geneva arbitration. It was a more important case than the settlement of the Northeastern boundary.

Sumner died the death of a hero. The administration of General Grant might well be called the recoil of the cannon: it was the reactionary effect of a great military movement on civil affairs. Sumner alone withstood the shock of it, and he fought against it for four years like a veteran on his last line of defence, feeling victory was no longer possible. Many of his friends found the current too strong for them; his own party deserted him; even the Legislature of his own State turned against him in a senseless and irrational manner. Still his spirit was unconquerable, and he continued to face the storm as long as life was in him. It was a magnificent spectacle.

It was the last battlefield of a veteran warrior, and although Sumner retired from it with a mortal wound, he had the satisfaction of winning a glorious victory. No end could have been more appropriate to such a life. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Since Richard Coeur de Leon forgave Bertram de Gordon, who caused his death, there has never been a more magnanimous man than Charles Sumner. Once when L. Maria Child was anathematizing Preston S. Brooks in his presence, he said: “You should not blame him. It was slavery and not Brooks that struck me. If Brooks had been born and brought up in New England, he would no more have done the thing he did than Caleb Cushing would have done it,"—Cushing always being his type of a pro-slavery Yankee.

In 1871 Charles W. Slack, the editor of the Boston Commonwealth, for whom Sumner had obtained a lucrative office, turned against his benefactor in order to save his position. When I spoke of this to Sumner, he said: “Well, it is human nature. Slack is growing old, and if he keeps his office for the next six years, he will have a competency. I have no doubt he feels grateful to me, and regrets the course he is taking.” At the same time, he spoke sadly.

Sumner resembled Lord Chatham more closely than any statesman of the nineteenth century. He carried his measures through by pure force of argument and clearness of foresight. From 1854 to 1874 it was his policy that prevailed in the councils of the nation. He succeeded where others failed.

He defeated Franklin Pierce, Seward, Trumbull, Andrew Johnson, Hamilton Fish, and even Lincoln, on the extradition of Mason and Slidell. He tied Johnson down, so that he could only move his tongue.

In considering Sumner’s oratory, we should bear in mind what Coleridge said to Allston, the painter,—"never judge a work of art by its defects.” His sentences have not the classic purity of Webster’s, and his delivery lacked the ease and elegance of Phillips and Everett. His style was often too florid and his Latin quotations, though excellent in themselves, were not suited to the taste of his audiences. But Sumner was always strong and effective, and that is, after all, the main point. Like Webster he possessed a logical mind, and the profound earnestness of his nature gave an equally profound conviction to his words. Besides this, Sumner possessed the heroic element, as Patrick Henry and James Otis possessed it. After Webster’s death there was no American speaker who could hold an audience like him.

Matthew Arnold, in his better days, said that Burke’s oratory was too rich and overloaded. This is true, but it is equally true that Burke is the only orator of the eighteenth century that still continues to be read. He had a faulty delivery and an ungainly figure, but if he emptied the benches in the House of Commons he secured a larger audience in coming generations. The material of his speeches is of such a vital quality that it possesses a value wholly apart from the time and occasion of its delivery.

Much the same is true of Sumner, who would have had decidedly the advantage of Burke so far as personal impressiveness is concerned. His Phi Beta Kappa address of 1845 is so rich in material that it is even more interesting to read now than when it was first delivered, and his remarks on Allston in that oration might be considered to advantage by every art critic in the country. It should always be remembered that a speech, like a play, is written not to be read, but to be acted; and those discourses which read so finely in the newspapers are not commonly the ones that sounded the best when they were delivered.

Great men create great antagonisms. The antagonism which Lincoln excited was concentrated in Booth’s pistol shot, and the Montagues and Capulets became reconciled over his bier; but the antagonism against Sumner still continues to smoke and smoulder like the embers of a dying conflagration.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

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