Charles Sumner – Early Career

December 23, 2014 | American Other


One of the most important figures in the United States Senate before the Civil War was Charles Sumner. He was born in Boston on January 6th, 1811, the oldest of nine children. He was not good at sports, and instead spent his time reading and studying. He read Latin and Greek extensively, and studied history as well. His father was appointed sheriff and was able to send his son to Harvard. He did not do well there because of his poor skills in mathematics. However he continued to read, borrowing more books from the library than anyone else in his class. After graduating, he decided to go to Harvard Law School for lack of anything else to do, but he found he enjoyed it. He studied under Joseph Story at Harvard Law School, who was a Supreme Court Justice. Sumner became one of Story’s favorite pupils. After school, he was more distinguished in his writing and teaching on law than his actual handling of cases.

He traveled through Europe from 1837 – 1840. Upon returning home he had difficulty settling down to practice law. He disliked the drudgery of a normal law practice. Long before, he and five of his close friends had formed the “Five of Clubs,” a literary group that met once a week which included Sumner; Sumner’s law partner George Hillard; Henry Cleveland, an author; Cornelius Felton, a Harvard professor; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous poet; and later Samuel Gridley Howe, future member of the Secret Six and a social reformer. Sumner fell into depression after several of his friends married, and he turned to social reform. He wrote in 1845, “My name is connected somewhat with two questions, which may be described succinctly as those of peace and slavery. To these may be added prison-discipline.”1

Sumner’s Birthplace. Source.


He really began his advocacy for universal peace by giving a speech entitled The True Grandeur of Nations at a large Fourth of July Celebration in 1845. In that speech Sumner, spoke against the Mexican-American war which was about to start, and passionately proposed peace between all nations. Although Sumner’s speech was fundamentally flawed because universal peace is impossible to obtain, he was bold in speaking for what he believed was right. He proclaimed that, “respectable citizens volunteer to look like soldiers, and to affect in dress, in arms and deportment, what is called ‘the pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war,’” with the officers of the Massachusetts militia sitting nearby. Although he became very popular with the radicals, he lost much by giving this speech. He was alienated from most of Boston society, where he previously had a high standing. He was not appointed as a Professor in the Harvard Law School, which had been anticipated for years. It was explained:

Sumner has become an outrageous Philanthropist – neglecting his Law, to patch up the world – to reform prisoners and convicts – put down soldiers and wars – and keep the solar system in harmonious action…. The conservative Corporation of Harvard College…consider Sumner in the Law-school, as unsuitable as a Bull in a china-shop.2



Sumner was also active in the anti-slavery movement. He stood in the middle of two sections of abolitionists. On the one hand was most of Massachusetts, who were opposed to slavery, but were not willing to press the issue hard upon the South, and on the other the radical abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, who wished to dissolve the Union rather than be affiliated with the slave holding states. Sumner summarized his position in 1846:

I think Slavery a sin, individual and national; and think it the duty of each individual to cease committing it, and, of course of each State, to do likewise. Massachusetts is a party to slave-holding, and is responsible for it, so long as it continues under the sanction of the Constitution of the United States. I would leave it to the local laws of each State. If the South persists in holding slaves let it not expect Massachusetts to aid or abet in the wrong. I cannot be a slave-holder; nor can I help upholding slaveholding.3

Sumner did not believe the federal government should force the states to abolish slavery. However, he believed that the North should, in as many ways as possible, attempt to convince the South to abolish it with a “moral blockade.” He wanted the federal government to stifle it in its role by making no Fugitive Slave laws, by outlawing slavery in the District of Columbia, and by outlawing slavery in new territories.

Sumner in 1846

1Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil Warby David Herbert Donald (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Inc, 2009), p. 109.
2Ibid, p. 108.
3Ibid, p. 112.

This post is part of an ongoing series on Charles Sumner, an important Civil War era Republican politician.


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