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Speech, 1856

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Sumner Attacked in U.S. Senate
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On This Day... 1856, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, viciously attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate. Three days earlier, in a passionate anti-slavery speech, Sumner had used language southerners found deeply offensive. Rather than challenge Sumner to a duel, as he would have a gentleman, Brooks beat him with a cane. It was three-and-a-half years before Charles Sumner was well enough to return to the Senate. Although he never fully recovered from the assault, he served another 15 years. An abolitionist who not only opposed slavery but advocated equal rights for African Americans, Charles Sumner was remembered as a man who marched "ahead of his followers when they were afraid to follow."

The beating of Charles Sumner on May 22, 1856 has been described as "one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate's entire history."

Preston Brooks was forced to resign his seat, but his district immediately re-elected him. Although it would be three-and-a-half years before Sumner was well enough to return to the Senate, Massachusetts re-elected him, too, by a huge majority. The deep divisions between North and South had never been clearer.

Born in Boston in 1811, Charles Sumner was descended from English Puritans who had come to Massachusetts during the Great Migration of the 1630s. Like his father before him, Sumner graduated from Harvard College. He continued on to Harvard Law School, earned his degree in 1833, and was admitted to the bar shortly thereafter.

Neither practicing law nor lecturing at the law school, which he had been invited to do, appealed to him. The two years he spent traveling in Europe provided an unusual opportunity for the young American to learn about other forms of government and systems of justice, and to master French, German, and Italian. On his return to Boston in 1839, Charles Sumner was still in search of his calling.

Contact with humanitarians such as Samuel Gridley Howe, educator Horace Mann, and Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing inspired Sumner to become involved in social reform. Massachusetts was teeming with organizations devoted to improving everything from education to agriculture, from diet to women's dress. Charles Sumner found the cause that would almost cost him his life — abolition.

Charles Sumner was an exceptional abolitionist; he not only opposed the institution of slavery but saw black men and women as human beings who were entitled to equal civil rights. He was ahead of his time in many ways. In 1849 he represented black parents in a case to desegregate Boston schools. In his argument before the Supreme Judicial Court, he asserted that segregation hurt white children as much as it did black children.

A few months before, Sumner had helped to organize the Free Soil Party; its slogan summed up its platform: "Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, & Free Men." The party called for free homesteads for families that settled on public lands, the end of slavery in the territories, and a ban on the admission of slave states to the Union. In 1851 a coalition of Free Soilers and Democrats elected Sumner to the United States Senate. He would serve there until the day he died.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was instrumental in resolving a crisis that occurred in 1861, when a U.S. warship forcibly removed Confederate officials from a British vessel. When the White House sought Sumner's counsel, he met with Lincoln and explained the applicable international law. The very next day, Lincoln's administration assured British diplomats that the southerners would be released, and they were.

Sumner's opinions carried less weight with Ulysses S. Grant. The President did not appreciate Sumner's advice that the British were not offering enough for damage done by Confederate ships that had been built in British shipyards. The two men also clashed over the senator's opposition to Grant's plan to annex the Dominican Republic. However, while Charles Sumner had expertise in foreign affairs, his great passion was for the most pressing domestic issue of the day — the abolition of slavery.

When Congress convened in December 1855, Sumner said prophetically, "This session will not pass without the Senate Chamber's becoming the scene of some unparalleled outrage." The atmosphere was highly charged. Both houses were to vote on the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, sponsored by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. The act carved two territories out of the Louisiana Purchase — Kansas and Nebraska — and allowed the residents of the new territories to vote on whether their constitutions would or would not allow slavery. This provoked a fierce debate between those wishing to protect — and, even more worrisome to northerners, expand — the institution of slavery and those wishing to abolish, or at least contain, it.

On the morning of May 19th, Sumner delivered a speech he called "The Crime Against Kansas." Pro-slavery men had denounced him, and now he was scathing about his opponents. He described Stephen Douglas as "the squire of Slavery . . . ready to do its humiliating offices . . . a noise-some squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator." He accused South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler of having "a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot, Slavery."

Butler was not present at the time, but his nephew Congressman Preston Brooks was, and he vowed to defend the honor of his uncle and of the South. Two days later, Brooks entered the senate chamber to exact revenge. He injured Sumner so badly that the Massachusetts senator was not well enough to take his seat again until December 1859. While he recuperated, the New York Tribune printed and the Republican Party distributed almost a million copies of "The Crime Against Kansas. " When Sumner finally returned to Congress, he was no less fervent and no less outspoken about his belief in "The Barbarism of Slavery," as he called one of his first speeches.

Shortly after the Civil War began, Sumner urged emancipation. He pressed his friend the president to recruit black men for the Union Army. And he insisted on absolute equality, regardless of race. After the war, Sumner's persistence helped ensure that states of the former Confederacy could be readmitted to the Union only if they adopted constitutions that gave voting rights to black men.

During the post-war years, Sumner became the leading spokesman for the Radical Republicans in the Senate. He believed Congress should control reconstruction in the South, and he led the way in creating the Freedman's Bureau and providing free schools and homesteads for ex-slaves. He worked for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which gave citizenship and other legal rights to the former slaves and was passed over the veto of President Andrew Johnson. Sumner tried repeatedly to amend the act to outlaw segregation in travel, public accommodations, and education, but he was never successful. His effort to have slaveholders' lands divided among freedmen also failed.

On March 10, 1874, after spending the day in the Senate, Charles Sumner had a fatal heart attack. He was the longest-serving member of the US Senate and one of the most influential politicians Massachusetts ever sent to Washington.


Dictionary of American Biography Vol. 9.

The U.S. Senate website

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition

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Topic Originator Views Replies Most Recent Post
Sumner's desk at Stoughton Historical Society dwight 3186 5 05/22/2013 04:33
by dwight
Sumner, a man ahead of his time. Zinc 2225 2 04/24/2011 22:51
by Anonymous
The Sumner Cane Gerrit Petersen 3885 6 04/24/2011 22:51
by Anonymous
Brooks proclivity towards violence and other facts Zinc 3301 2 04/24/2011 22:51
by Anonymous
Lowell "Factory Girls" respond Mayo 3185 2 04/24/2011 22:51
by Anonymous
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