Childhood & Early Life
Charles Sumner was born in Boston on January 6, 1811, to Charles Pinckney Sumner and his wife. His father was a liberal Harvard-educated lawyer, abolitionist, and early proponent of racially integrated schools. His family was a middle-class one.
He went to the Boston Latin School, where he befriended Robert Charles Winthrop, James Freeman Clarke, and Samuel Francis Smith; all of whom would one day grow up to be famous men in their own rights.
After school, he studied at the Harvard College, graduating in 1830 following which he went to the Harvard Law School. He was admitted to the bar in 1834.
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He entered into a partnership with George Stillman Hillard and started their private law practice. He also lectured at Harvard Law School from 1836 to 1837.
Sumner traveled to Europe in 1837 and began studying French in Paris. There he observed that black people interacted freely with the whites and this openness of the European society made him realize how rampant racism was in the United States.
He returned to the U.S. in 1840 and continued lecturing at Harvard Law School, editing court reports, and contributing to law journals.
He ventured into the political scenario in 1845 when the Mexican–American War was going on. He delivered an Independence Day oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations" in Boston, denouncing the use of war for settling international disputes and promoted arbitration in its place. His excellent speech ensured that he became a much sought after speaker on public affairs.
In 1851, a Democratic-Free-Soil coalition in the Massachusetts legislature named him the United States Senator from Massachusetts. He became very active in the anti-slavery movement and delivered his first major speech, "Freedom National; Slavery Sectional" in 1852 in which he attacked the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
He became a leader of the anti-slavery forces in the Senate. In 1856, debates on slavery in Kansas were going on and he delivered a two-day oration, “The Crime against Kansas”, in which he strongly condemned Southern advocacy of the expansion of slavery.
During the speech he specifically denounced the Kansas–Nebraska Act, and verbally attacked authors of the Act - Democratic Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.
Butler's cousin, Representative Preston Brooks, was infuriated by Sumner’s speech and decided to “punish” him. He, accompanied by a few of his friends, brutally beat up Sumner with a cane on May 22 1856, repeatedly hitting him on the head and other parts of the body.
The caning of Sumner shocked the public and he was proclaimed a hero in the South for defending Southern honor. Even though he survived, Charles Sumner had suffered very severe head injuries and spent months convalescing. He was re-elected to his constituency in November 1856 even though he was not in a position to resume his duties, it was believed that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery.
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On his doctor’s advice, Sumner toured several countries, spending time in France, Germany and Scotland. Because of the trauma he suffered as a result of his attack, he was forced to refrain from work for a few years.
Sumner finally returned to the Senate in 1859. He served as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from March 1861 to March 1871. During his travels in Europe, he had formed acquaintanceships with prominent Englishmen such as Richard Cobden, John Bright, and William Ewart Gladstone, which had helped him gain deep knowledge of international affairs and thus aided him greatly in this role.
During the American Civil War, he pushed for the liberation of the slaves and introduced the Thirteenth Amendment to the Senate in 1864. After the war he supported the policies of the Radical Republicans and harshly criticized President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies and became an early and constant exponent of his impeachment.
He remained a champion of civil rights for blacks till the very end of his life. He co-authored and introduced the bill which was ultimately passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1875 months after his death. . It was the last civil rights legislation for 82 years until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Charles Sumner was the leader of the antislavery forces in Massachusetts, noted for being a very vocal champion of civil rights for blacks. A powerful orator, he gave many hard hitting speeches including the “Crime against Kansas" speech in 1856 during the Bleeding Kansas crisis.
He co-authored what was eventually passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1875, working alongside John Mercer Langston, a prominent African American who established the law department at Howard University. Sumner had started work on the Act in the early 1870s but did not live to see its eventual enactment.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Alice Mason Hooper, the widowed daughter-in-law of Massachusetts Representative Samuel Hooper, in 1866. The marriage was unhappy and ended in a divorce in 1873.
Charles Sumner died of a heart attack at his home in Washington, D.C., on March 11, 1874.
Several educational institutions are named in his honor; these include Charles Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, Charles Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale, Massachusetts, and Charles Sumner School and museum in Washington.