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Charles Sumner

Sumner, Charles, 1811–74, U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1851–74), b. Boston. He attended (1831–33) and was later a lecturer at Harvard law school, was admitted (1834) to the bar, and practiced in Boston. He spent the years 1837 to 1840 in Europe. Later he became involved in several reform movements, including antislavery, and in 1851 a combination of Free-Soilers and Democrats sent him to the Senate. An aggressive abolitionist, Sumner attacked the fugitive slave laws, denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and on May 19–20, 1856, delivered his notable antislavery speech called "The Crime against Kansas." A master of invective, he singled out as his special victim Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, who was not there to reply. Two days later he was assaulted in the Senate chamber by Preston S. Brooks, Butler's nephew. It took Sumner more than three years to recover from the attack, but Massachusetts reelected him, and he resumed his seat in Dec., 1859. He had been important in organizing the new Republican party and in 1861 was made chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. In the Trent Affair he favored the release of the captured Confederate commissioners. Sumner highly approved Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; indeed he had been impatient at the long delay. Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House led the radical Republicans in their Reconstruction program for the South. He held that the Southern states had "committed suicide" by their secession and thus had lost any rights under the Constitution. Reconstruction he considered the function of Congress alone and he was most active in trying to secure the conviction of President Andrew Johnson on the impeachment charges. During the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Sumner's excessive demands regarding Civil War claims against Great Britain hampered the administration's negotiations with that country. His relationship with Grant deteriorated further when Sumner denounced Grant's questionable scheme to annex Santo Domingo; this led to his removal (Mar., 1871) from the chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations. Humiliated, Sumner helped organize (1872) the short-lived Liberal Republican party. Sumner wrote and spoke widely, and there are two editions of his works (15 vol., 1870–83; 20 vol., 1900).

See E. L. Pierce, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner (4 vol., 1877–93); D. H. Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960, repr. 1970) and Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History: Biographies


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