Sumner was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard in 1830. He edited a
law review, the American Jurist, and served as a reporter for the United States Circuit
Court, from which he published three volumes of Judge Joseph Storys decisions under
the title Sumners Reports. Sumner lectured on constitutional and international law
at Harvard s law school for three winter terms. In 1837, he began traveling
throughout continental Europe, followed by a year of residence in England. Returning to
Boston in 1840, he published a 20-volume annotated edition of Veseys Reports
Sumner first entered the political arena in 1845 as American-Mexican
hostilities were on the horizon. In an Independence Day speech before city officials in
Boston, he denounced the use of war for settling international disputes and promoted
arbitration in its place. The publicity from that oration made him into a much
sought-after speaker on public affairs. He opposed the annexation of Texas and criticized
the institution of slavery. In 1848, he abandoned the Whig party to support Martin Van
Burens (unsuccessful) Free-Soil candidacy for President. In 1851, a
Democratic-Free-Soil coalition in the Massachusetts legislature chose Sumner to fill the
vacated U.S. Senate seat of Daniel Webster, who had resigned to become Secretary of State.
Sumner became a leader of the anti-slavery forces in the Senate. During the debates on
slavery in Kansas in May 1856, he delivered a two-day oration"The Crime against
Kansas"that vehemently condemned Southern advocacy of the expansion of slavery.
Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina believed that Sumner had insulted his uncle,
Senator Andrew Butler. In retaliation, Brooks used his cane to beat Sumner, who was seated
at his desk on the Senate floor, to unconsciousness. The caning of Sumner became a symbol
in the North of Southern brutality. Meanwhile, Brooks became a hero in the South for
defending Southern honor, and was subsequently reelected by his constituency. Besides his
battle against slavery, Sumner led the fight for racial integration of Boston public
schools in the 1850s.
During the Civil War, Sumner pushed for the emancipation of the slaves and introduced
the 13th Amendment to the Senate in 1864. He also nominated a black lawyer,
John Rock, to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, introduced the bill that created the
Freedmens Bureau, and proposed a civil service reform bill in 1864.
During Reconstruction, Sumner supported the policies of the Radical Republicans and
introduced the bill that eventually became (after his death) the Civil Rights Act of 1875,
which outlawed racial discrimination in public places until the Supreme Court overturned
the law in 1883. He was a strident critic of President Johnsons Reconstruction
policies and became an early and constant exponent of his impeachment. After the Senate
acquitted Johnson, the Massachusetts Senator was one of the few true-believers who
proposed impeaching the President again.
Given his interest in international relations, Sumner sat on the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee. He stringently backed American financial claims against Britain for
providing the Confederacy with ships during the Civil War (often called the Alabama
Claims). His opposition to President Grants plan to annex Santo Domingo led to
Sumners removal as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1870. Thereafter, he
dissociated himself from the Republican party, supporting the Liberal
Republican-Democratic presidential nominee, Horace Greeley, in 1872. In that same year, he
was nominated for governor of Massachusetts by a Liberal Republican-Democratic coalition,
but he was in Britain for health reasons, so declined the offer. Two years later, he died
in Washington, D. C.