Charles Sumner – Republican Firebrand

December 30, 2014 | American Other

Sumner in 1850

Charles Sumner was a member of the Whig Party, which was one of the two main political parties along with the Democrats. He was part of the faction called the Conscience Whigs, who were opposed to slavery. Although he said he had no ambitions for a higher political office, he was politically active. The Conscience Whigs published a newspaper, and became popular in their disapproval of the Mexican War. Sumner became a disciple of John Quincy Adams, who had been president, and was serving in the House of Representatives. Adams noted Sumner after his Independence Day speech, and, although he did not agree with his position, he respected his courage. Sumner became Adam’s student, and Adams saw him as his successor. He told Sumner, “You will enter public life; in spite of yourself.”1 In 1848 Sumner helped lead a split off of the Conscience Whigs to join with other anti-slavery groups to form the Free Soil Party. The Free Soil Party wanted to prevent the spread of slavery into the territories, and instead leave free soil for free white labor.

Sumner held his positions firmly, and had virtually ceased his practice of law in order to work in politics and reform movements. Even when wrong, he held his positions staunchly, even to the point of losing many of his friends. Fulton, one of the “Five of Clubs” said about him, “It almost seems as if the love of man meant the hatred of men.”2

Sumner and Henry Longfellow

As part of the Free Soil Party, Sumner ran for public office several times. As a third party, they did not have nearly enough votes to elect him, so it was more to spread his message to a wider audience. But in Massachusetts in 1850, the Free Soilers formed a coalition with the Democrats, and gained a majority in the Massachusetts legislature. Sumner was put forward as the candidate for the United States Senate. There were difficulties in convincing the entire Democratic section to support him. They were a few votes short, and it took three months to finally get him appointed with the majority of one vote. Sumner accepted the position, but was more saddened than elated by it. He had remained aloof from the contest, and when elected, wrote, “For myself, I do not desire public life; I have neither taste nor ambition for it; but Providence has marked out my career, and I follow.”3

Sumner arrived in Washington and took the desk that had previously belonged to Jefferson Davis. The Senate at the time did not contain many notable men. The only one who has gone down in history was Stephen Douglas, who was advocating for his doctrine of popular sovereignty. Sumner looked the part of a dignified Senator. He was six feet four inches tall, and would never sit in a position at home in which he would not sit on the floor of the Senate. Sumner, being a Free Soiler, did not identify with either of the main political parties. He was one of only two Senators who did not get a committee appointment, because he was “outside of any healthy political organization.”

The Senate Chamber

Sumner was most famous for his long orations on the floor of the Senate. He rarely interacted in debates, but instead spent many hours preparing long speeches. He memorized these long speeches so he would be able to speak without notes. At the time, he was considered a very powerful orator, primarily for four reasons. He used many statistics to prove his points. He picked very succinct and memorable titles, which were widely adopted by abolitionists, such as The Barbarism of Slavery, or Crime Against Kansas. He used many quotations and analogies from history, the classics and the Bible, often from different languages. And last, he employed much rhetorical exaggeration. It got his point across, but personal attacks angered many. Sumner’s speeches were very long, some stretched to four hours. Audiences of the time listened carefully, and were not tired by his orations. He had no sense of humor, and used no jokes in his speeches or in personal conversations. He himself said, “you might as well look for a joke in the Book of Revelation.”4

In 1854 the Free Soil party joined with anti-slavery sections of Whigs and Democrats to form the Republican Party, and Sumner followed suit. When Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska act, which said that the people of new territories could decide by vote whether to be free or slave, Sumner became the leader of the opposition. Many Southerns and Northerners who wished to compromise were angered by Sumner’s fierce attacks. He received death threats, but was not afraid. He said, “I am here to do my duty and shall continue to do it without regard to personal consequences.”5

Charles Sumner’s House in Boston. Source.

1Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil Warby David Herbert Donald (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Inc, 2009), p. 129.
2Ibid, p. 144.
3Ibid, p. 173.
4Ibid, p. 184.
5Ibid, p. 218.

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


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