The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson
ĽName: Charles Sumner

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Charles 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 Story’s decisions under the title Sumner’s 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 Vesey’s Reports (1841-1846).

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 Buren’s (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 Freedmen’s 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 Johnson’s 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 Grant’s plan to annex Santo Domingo led to Sumner’s 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.

Robert C. Kennedy, HarpWeek

Sources consulted:  Harper’s Weekly Encyclopedia of United States History; Melvin Urofsky, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States; and Harper’s Weekly.


Charles Sumner
(6 January 1811 - 11 March 1874)
Source:  History of Congress, 1867-69, Vol. I

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