They were standing in the midst of a knot of young men and their color seemed to be no objection to them. I was glad to see this, though with American impressions, it seemed very strange. It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sumner renewed his efforts to win U.S. diplomatic recognition of Haiti. Haiti had sought recognition since winning independence in 1804, but faced opposition from Southern Senators. In their absence, the U.S. recognized Haiti in 1862.
Sumner was born on Irving Street in Boston on January 6, 1811. He was the son of Charles Pinckney Sumner, a liberal Harvard-educated Lawyer, abolitionist, and early proponent of racially integrated schools, who shocked 19th-century Boston by opposing anti-miscegenation laws. His father had been born in poverty and his mother shared a similar background and worked as a seamstress prior to her marriage. Sumner's parents were described as exceedingly formal and undemonstrative. His father practiced law and served as Clerk of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1806 to 1807 and again 1810 to 1811, but his legal practice was only moderately successful, and throughout Sumner's childhood, his family teetered on the edge of the middle class. In 1825 Charles P. Sumner became Sheriff of Suffolk County, a position he held until his death in 1839. The family attended Trinity Church, but after 1825, they occupied a pew in King's Chapel.
The increased income Charles P. Sumner enjoyed after becoming Sheriff enabled him to afford higher education for his children. Charles Sumner attended the Boston Latin School, where he counted Robert Charles Winthrop, James Freeman Clarke, Samuel Francis Smith, and Wendell Phillips, among his closest friends. He graduated in 1830 from Harvard College, where he lived in Hollis Hall, and in 1834 from Harvard Law School where he became a protégé of Joseph Story. At Harvard, he was a member of the Porcellian Club.
In 1834, Sumner was admitted to the bar and entered private practice in Boston in partnership with George Stillman Hillard. A visit to Washington decided him against a political career, and he returned to Boston resolved to practice law. He contributed to the quarterly American Jurist and edited Story's court decisions as well as some law texts. From 1836 to 1837, Sumner lectured at Harvard Law School.
He joined other Americans who were studying Medicine on morning rounds at the city's great hospitals. In the course of three more years, he became fluent in Spanish, German, and Italian, and he met with many of the leading statesmen in Europe. In 1838, Sumner visited Britain, where Lord Brougham declared that he "had never met with any man of Sumner's age of such extensive legal knowledge and natural legal intellect". He returned to the U.S. in 1840.
Sumner developed friendships with several prominent Bostonians, particularly Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose house he visited regularly in the 1840s. Longfellow's daughters found his stateliness amusing; he would ceremoniously open doors for the children while saying "In presequas" ("after you") in a sonorous tone.
He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1843. He served on the society's board of councilors from 1852 to 1853, and later in life served as the society's secretary of foreign correspondence from 1867 to 1874.
Following the annexation of Texas as a new slave-holding state in 1845, Sumner took an active role in the anti-slavery movement. That same year, Sumner represented the plaintiffs in Roberts v. Boston, a case which challenged the legality of segregation. Arguing before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Sumner noted that schools for blacks were physically inferior and that segregation bred harmful psychological and sociological effects—arguments that would be made in Brown v. Board of Education over a century later. Sumner lost the case, but the Massachusetts legislature abolished school segregation in 1855.
Though the conventions of both major parties had just affirmed the finality of every provision of the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Act, Sumner called for the Act's repeal. For more than three hours he denounced it as a violation of the Constitution, an affront to the public conscience, and an offense against Divine law.
Anne-Marie Taylor's biography of Sumner up to 1851 provided a much more sympathetic assessment of a young man, widely respected, conscientious, cultured, courageous, and driven into political prominence by his own sense of duty. Sumner's previously critical biographer David Herbert Donald, in the second volume of his biography, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), was much more favorable to Sumner, and though critical, recognized his large contribution to the positive accomplishments of Reconstruction. It has been noted that events in the Civil Rights movement between 1960, when Donald's first volume was published, and 1970, when the second volume was published, likely swayed Donald somewhat further towards Sumner.
Sumner took his Senate seat in late 1851 as a Free Soil Democrat. For the first few sessions, Sumner did not promote any of his controversial causes. On August 26, 1852, Sumner, delivered his first major speech, despite strenuous efforts to dissuade him. This oratorical effort incorporated a popular abolitionist motto: "Freedom National; Slavery Sectional" as its title. In it, Sumner attacked the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. After his speech, a Senator from Alabama urged that there be no reply: "The ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm." Sumner's outspoken opposition to slavery made him few friends in the Senate.
In addition to the head trauma, Sumner suffered from nightmares, severe headaches, and what is now understood to be post-traumatic stress disorder or "psychic wounds." When he spent months convalescing, his political enemies ridiculed him and accused him of cowardice for not resuming his duties. The Massachusetts General Court reelected him in November 1856, believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery.
When Sumner returned to the Senate in 1857, he was unable to last a day. His doctors advised a sea voyage and "a complete separation from the cares and responsibilities that must beset him at home." He sailed for Europe and immediately found relief. During two months in Paris in the spring of 1857, he renewed friendships, especially with Thomas Gold Appleton, dined out frequently, and attended the opera several nights in a row. His contacts there included Alexis de Tocqueville, poet Alphonse de Lamartine, former French Prime Minister François Guizot, Ivan Turgenev, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sumner then toured several countries, including Germany and Scotland, before returning to Washington where he spent only a few days in the Senate in December. Both then and during several later attempts to return to work, he found himself exhausted just listening to Senate Business. He sailed once more for Europe on May 22, 1858, the second anniversary of Brooks' attack.
Sumner returned to the Senate in 1859. When fellow Republicans advised taking a less strident tone than he had years earlier, he answered: "When crime and Criminals are thrust before us, they are to be met by all the energies that God has given us by argument, scorn, sarcasm and denunciation." He delivered his first speech following his return on June 4, 1860, during the 1860 presidential election. In "The Barbarism of Slavery", he attacked attempts to depict slavery as a benevolent institution, said it had stifled economic development in the South and that it left slaveholders reliant on "the bludgeon, the revolver, and the bowie-knife". He addressed an anticipated objection on the part of one of his colleagues: "Say, sir, in your madness, that you own the sun, the stars, the moon; but do not say that you own a man, endowed with a soul that shall live immortal, when sun and moon and stars have passed away." Even allies found his language too strong, one calling it "harsh, vindictive, and slightly brutal". He spent the summer rallying the anti-slavery forces and opposing talk of compromise.
On November 8, 1861, the Union naval ship USS San Jacinto, under the command of Capt. Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British steamer RMS Trent, captured and put into U.S. port custody two Confederate diplomats James M. Mason and John Slidell. The northern people and press were in favor of the capture; however, there was concern that the British would use this as grounds to go to war with the United States. The British government dispatched 8,000 British troops on the Canada–US border and efforts were made to strengthen the British fleet. Sec. Seward believed that Mason and Slidell were contraband of war. Sen. Sumner, however, believed that the men did not qualify as war contraband, since they were unarmed, and that their release with an apology by the U.S. government was appropriate. In the Senate, Sumner suppressed open debate in order to save Lincoln's administration from embarrassment. On December 25, 1861, at Lincoln's invitation, Sumner read to Lincoln's Cabinet letters he received from prominent British political figures, including Cobden, Bright, Gladstone, and the Duke of Argyll. The letters provided critical information on political sentiment in Britain and supported the envoys' return to the British. "One war at a time" was Lincoln's response; he then quietly but reluctantly ordered the release of the Confederate captives to British custody and apologized for their capture. After the Trent Affair, Sen. Sumner's reputation improved among conservative Northerners.
Sumner never saw his support for civil rights as hostile to the South. On the contrary, he had always contended that a guarantee for equality was the one condition essential for true reconciliation. Unlike some other Radical Republicans, he had strongly opposed any hanging or imprisonment of Confederate Leaders. In December 1872, he introduced a Senate resolution providing that Civil War battle names should not appear as "battle honors" on the regimental flags of the U.S. Army. The proposal was not new: Sumner had offered a similar resolution on May 8, 1862, and in 1865 he had proposed that no painting hanging in the Capitol portray scenes from the Civil War, because, as he saw it, keeping alive the memories of a war between a people was barbarous. His proposal did not affect the vast majority of battle-flags, as nearly all the regiments that fought had been state regiments, and these were not covered. But Sumner's idea was that any United States regiment, that would in the Future enlist southerners as well as northerners, should not carry on its ensigns any insult to those who joined it. His resolution had no chance of passing, but its presentation offended Union army veterans. The Massachusetts legislature censured Sumner for giving "an insult to the loyal soldiery of the nation" and as "meeting the unqualified condemnation of the people of the Commonwealth." Poet John Greenleaf Whittier led an effort to rescind that censure the following year. He succeeded early in 1874. Sumner was able to hear the rescinding resolution presented to the Senate on the last day he was there. He died the following afternoon.
Sumner was a friend of Samuel Gridley Howe and a guiding force for the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, started in 1863. He was one of the most prominent advocates for suffrage for blacks, along with free homesteads and free public schools. His uncompromising attitude did not endear him to moderates and his arrogance and inflexibility often inhibited his effectiveness as a legislator. He was largely excluded from work on the Thirteenth Amendment, in part because he did not get along with Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and did much of the work on it. Sumner introduced an alternative amendment that combined the Thirteenth Amendment with elements of the Fourteenth Amendment. It would have abolished slavery and declared that "all people are equal before the law." During Reconstruction, he often attacked civil rights legislation as inadequate and fought for legislation to give land to freed slaves and to mandate education for all, regardless of race, in the South. He viewed segregation and slavery as two sides of the same coin. He introduced a civil rights bill in 1872 to mandate equal accommodation in all public places and required suits brought under the bill to be argued in the federal courts. The bill failed, but Sumner revived it in the next Congress, and on his deathbed begged visitors to see that it did not fail.
In February 1865, there was considerable debate over authorizing the creation of a memorial to United States Chief Justice Roger Taney. Sumner was a longtime enemy of Taney and attacked his decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case. Speaking on the Senate floor, in an argument with Sen. Lyman Trumbull, Sen. Sumner, who objected to the memorial's creation, stated:
The 1867 treaty neither formally recognized, categorized, nor compensated any native Alaskan Eskimos or Indians; only referring to them as "uncivilized tribes" under the control of Congress. By federal law, Native Alaskan tribes, including the Inuit, the Aleut, and the Athabascan, were entitled to only land that they inhabited. According to treaty, native Alaskan tribes were excluded from United States citizenship. However, citizenship was available to Russian residents. Creoles, persons of Russian and Indian descent, were considered Russian. Sumner stated the new territory be called by its Aleutian name Alaska meaning "great land." Sumner advocated for U.S. citizens of Alaska free public education and equal protection laws.
Sumner was well regarded in the United Kingdom, but after the war he sacrificed his reputation in the U.K. by his stand on U.S. claims for British breaches of neutrality. The U.S. had claims against Britain for the damage inflicted by Confederate raiding ships fitted out in British ports. Sumner held that since Britain had accorded the rights of belligerents to the Confederacy, it was responsible for extending the duration of the war and consequent losses. In 1869, he asserted that Britain should pay damages for not merely the raiders, but also "that other damage, immense and infinite, caused by the prolongation of the war." He demanded $2,000,000,000 for these "national claims" in addition to $125,000,000 for damages from the raiders. Sumner did not expect that Britain ever would or could pay this immense sum, but he suggested that Britain turn over Canada as payment. This proposition offended many Britons, though it was taken seriously by many Americans, including the Secretary of State, whose support for them nearly derailed the settlement with Great Britain in the months before the arbitration conference met at Geneva. At the Geneva arbitration conference which settled U.S. claims against Britain, the panel of arbitrators refused to consider those "constructive" or "national claims."
Sumner, opposed to American imperialism in the Caribbean and fearful that annexation would lead to the conquest of the neighboring black republic of Haiti, became convinced that corruption lay behind the treaty, and that men close to the President shared in the corruption. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sumner initially withheld his opinion on the treaty on January 18, 1870. Sumner had been leaked information from Assistant Secretary of State, Bancroft Davis, that U.S. Naval ships were being used to protect Báez. Sumner's committee voted against annexation and at Sumner's suggestion and quite possibly to save the party from an ugly fight or the President from embarrassment, the Senate held its debate of the treaty behind closed doors in executive session. Grant persisted and sent messages to Congress in favor of annexation on March 14, 1870, and May 31, 1870. In closed session, Sumner spoke out against the treaty; warning that there would be difficulty with the foreign nationals, noting the chronic rebellion that took place on the island, and the risk that the independence of Haiti, recognized by the United States in 1862, would be lost. Sumner stated that Grant's use of the U.S. Navy as a protectorate was a violation of International law and unconstitutional. Finally, on June 30, 1870 the treaty was voted on by the Senate and failed to gain the required 2/3 majority for treaty passage.
The following day, Grant, feeling betrayed by Sumner, retaliated by ordering the dismissal of Sumner's close friend John Lothrop Motley, Ambassador to Britain. By autumn, Sumner's personal hostility to the President was public knowledge, and he blamed the Secretary of State for failing to have resigned, rather than let Grant have his way. The two men, friends until then, cooled into bitter enemies. In December 1870, still fearful that Grant meant to acquire Santo Domingo somehow, Sumner gave a fiercely critical speech accusing the President of usurpation and Babcock of unethical conduct. Already Grant, supported by Fish, had initiated a campaign to depose Sumner from the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Although Sumner stated he was an "Administration man," in addition to having stopped Grant's Dominican Republic treaty attempt, Sumner had defeated Grant's full repeal of the Tenure of Office Act, blocked Grant's nomination of Alexander Stewart as U.S. Secretary of Treasury, and been a constant harassing force pushing Reconstruction policies faster than Grant had been willing to go. Grant resented Sumner's superiority of manner, as well. Told once that Sumner did not believe in the Bible, the President is supposed to have said that he was not surprised: "He didn't write it." As the rift between Grant and Sumner increased, Sumner's health began to decline. When the 42nd U.S. Congress convened on March 4, 1871, Senators affiliated with President Grant, known as "New Radicals" voted to oust Sumner from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship.
Sumner now turned against Grant. Like many other reformers, he decried the corruption in Grant's administration. Sumner believed that the civil rights program he championed could not be carried through by a corrupt government. In 1872, he joined the Liberal Republican Party which had been started by reformist Republicans such as Horace Greeley. The Liberal Republicans supported black suffrage, the three Reconstruction amendments, and the basic civil rights already protected by law, but they also called for amnesty for ex-Confederates and decried the Republican governments in the South elected with the help of black votes, belittled the terrorism of the Ku-Klux Klan, and argued that the time had come to restore "home rule" in the South, which in practical terms meant white Democratic rule. For Sumner's civil rights bill they gave no support at all, but Sumner joined them because he convinced himself that the time had come for reconciliation, and that Democrats were sincere in declaring that they would abide by the Reconstruction settlement.
Sumner was a bachelor for most of his life. In 1866, Sumner began courting Alice Mason Hooper, the widowed daughter-in-law of Massachusetts Representative Samuel Hooper, and the two were married that October. Their marriage was unhappy. Sumner could not respond to his wife's humor, and Alice had a ferocious temper. That winter, Alice began going out to public events with Prussian diplomat Friedrich von Holstein. This caused gossip in Washington, but Alice refused to stop seeing Holstein. When Holstein was recalled to Prussia in the spring of 1867, Alice accused Sumner of engineering the action, which Sumner always denied. They separated the following September. Sumner's enemies used the affair to attack Sumner's manhood, calling Sumner "The Great Impotency." The situation depressed and embarrassed Sumner. He obtained an uncontested divorce on the grounds of desertion on May 10, 1873.
Long ailing, Charles Sumner died of a heart attack at his home in Washington, D.C., on March 11, 1874, aged 63, after serving nearly 23 years in the Senate. He lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, the second senator so honored (Henry Clay being the first, in 1852). At his March 16 burial in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the pallbearers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
Contemporaries and historians have explored Sumner's personality at length. Sumner's friend Senator Carl Schurz praised Sumner's integrity, his "moral courage," the "sincerity of his convictions," and the "disinterestedness of his motives." However, Sumner's Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer, David Donald, presents Sumner in his first volume, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), as an insufferably arrogant moralist; an egoist bloated with pride; pontifical and Olympian, and unable to distinguish between large issues and small ones. What's more, concludes Donald, Sumner was a coward who avoided confrontations with his many enemies, whom he routinely insulted in prepared speeches. But none of his friends at the time doubted his courage, and abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who knew Sumner well, remembered that southerners in the 1850s in Washington wondered, every time Sumner left his house in the morning, whether he would return to it alive. Just before he died, Sumner turned to his friend Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar. "Judge," he said, "tell Emerson how much I love and revere him." "He said of you once," Hoar replied, "that he never knew so white a soul."
According to Hoffer (2010), "It is also important to note the sexual imagery that recurred throughout the oration, which was neither accidental nor without precedent. Abolitionists routinely accused slaveholders of maintaining slavery so that they could engage in forcible sexual relations with their slaves." Sumner also attacked the honor of South Carolina, having alluded in his speech that the history of the state be "blotted out of existence..." Douglas said to a colleague during the speech that "this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool."
In the 2012 film Saving Lincoln, Sumner was portrayed by Creed Bratton, best known for also playing a character of the same name on the American TV series The Office.
Sumner worked with Horace Mann to improve the system of public education in Massachusetts. He advocated prison reform. In opposing the Mexican–American War, he considered it a war of aggression, but was primarily concerned that captured territories would expand slavery westward. In 1847, Sumner denounced a Boston Representative's vote for the declaration of war against Mexico with such vigor that he became a leader of the Conscience Whigs faction of the Massachusetts Whig Party. He declined to accept their nomination for U.S Representative in 1848.
Sumner's reputation among historians in the first half of the 20th century was largely negative—he was blamed especially for the excesses of Radical Reconstruction, which, in the prevailing scholarship, included letting blacks vote and hold office. Both the Dunning School and the anti-Dunning revisionists were especially negative regarding his performance during Reconstruction.
Theological and legal scholar william R. Long characterized the speech as "a most rebarbative and vituperative speech on the Senate floor," which "flows with Latin quotations and references to English and Roman history." In his eyes, the speech was "a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge to the ‘Slave Power’ to admit once and for all that it were encircling the free states with their tentacular grip and gradually siphoning off the breath of democracy-loving citizens."