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Sumner was staunch, anti-slavery senator

On this day (March 11) in 1874, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner suffered a heart attack and died at age 63 in Washington, D.C.

During his long and distinguished public career (1848-1874), the ambitious, hardworking, imperious Sumner was a leading abolitionist who sought the immediate, noncompensated (to slaveowners) emancipation of all black slaves.

Along with his anti-slavery crusade, Sumner championed many other reform movements of the mid-19th century, such as work peace, prison reform, and Horace Mann’s pioneering educational reforms.

Born Jan. 6, 1811, in Boston, Charles received an excellent education. Attendance at the Boston Latin School was followed by graduation from Harvard in 1830 and from the Harvard Law School in 1833. Admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1834, Sumner commenced the practice of law in Boston. A short stint as a recorder of the U.S. circuit court in Boston was followed by a two-year lectureship at the Harvard Law School.

During the years 1837-1840, Sumner took an extended educational tour of Europe. Back in Boston, his increasingly lucrative legal practice led almost inevitably to a political career.

In 1848, along with former President Martin Van Buren, Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John and son of John Quincy) of Massachusetts, and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Sumner became one of the founders of the Free Soil Party. This party, which adopted the slogan of “Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men,” was pledged to “a national platform of freedom in opposition to the sectional platform of slavery.”

The party attacked what it considered the “aggressions of the slave power” and supported the David Wilmot Proviso of 1846 that, while never passed, would have prohibited involuntary servitude in any territory acquired in the Mexican War (1846-1848) – a war incidentally that Sumner vehemently and articulately opposed.

Elected in 1852 to the U.S. Senate, Sumner opposed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (an act sponsored by Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas that established the principle of “popular sovereignty” in the federal territories).

During the rancorous Senate debates over the issue of slavery in the Kansas territory, Sumner delivered a scathing speech (“The Crime Against Kansas”) on May 19, 1856, that was a sharp condemnation of the “slave oligarchy” and its “rape” of Kansas. In this somewhat intemperate tirade, Sumner repeatedly cast insulting aspersions upon the moral character of two of his fellow senators: Douglas for sponsoring the “hated” Kansas-Nebraska Act and Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina for being an ardent and vocal supporter of the institution of black slavery.

In retaliation for remarks made regarding his Uncle Andrew Butler, Rep. Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, on May 22, 1856, assaulted Sumner as he sat at his desk in the Senate chamber. Sumner collapsed under the repeated blows of Brooks’ cane.

Interestingly, Brooks’ assault was overwhelmingly approved in the South, while in the North it was more rationally condemned as an uncalled violation of the freedom of speech.

Although Brooks resigned his House seat in July, he was quickly and overwhelmingly re-elected.

After a three-year absence from the Senate spent recovering his health, Sumner returned to the Senate in 1859 to become a staunch supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and most of his policies.

After the Civil War, Sumner became one of the leading “Radical Republicans.” As such, he demanded that the freed blacks be given their full civil rights before the Southern states could re-enter the Union.

Upon his death on this day in 1874, Charles Sumner was eulogized as an idealist whose views on desegregation and black civil rights were far in advance of his time.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at

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