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Excerpt from Chapter One
THESE JOTTINGS ARE MADE FOR FRIENDLY EYES," THE NEWLY ELECTED senator from Massachusetts wrote as a postscript to his autobiography, "to be used more or less, or not at all, as shall be thought best." The senatorial contest of 1851 had been the most embittered and prolonged in Massachusetts history, and Charles Sumner wished to repel charges that he was a political nonentity, a mere rhetorician elected through an unholy and corrupt coalition. As his autobiographical notes had this practical purpose, they naturally were not modest, and Sumner's old friend and former Harvard professor, John Gorham Palfrey, to whom he entrusted them, was able to work them into a laudatory newspaper sketch of the new antislavery senator as a statesman whose name would illuminate "the historical page of the triumphs of Freedom in the nineteenth century." Touched by Palfrey's words, which, in fact, merely echoed his own, Sumner was delighted by "that beautiful sketch" of his career. "I felt a throb of gratitude to you," he wrote Palfrey, "but a deep feeling also of my own unworthiness…As a composition your article is all that could be desired. As a token of friendship more than I deserve."
Sumner's autobiographical jottings, like Palfrey's published tribute to him, were revealingly reticent. The new Massachusetts senator stated that he had been born in Boston on January 6, 1811, but he had nothing else to say about his boyhood. Neither here nor at any other time did he look back to the good old days when Boston was a compact town of only 40,000 inhabitants, most of whom knew each other by sight. He never told anecdotes of playing in the mud flats of Back Bay, where now some of the proudest houses in Boston rise. He had no tales of wandering on the wharves, thronged with sailing ships manned by rough-voiced sailors shouting in unknown tongues. He never remembered roaming through the markets, sniffing the exotic aroma of tea from the Orient, tasting figs from Smyrna, and sampling barrels of West Indies molasses through straws adeptly inserted through the bungholes. He had no recollections of snowball fights on the Common or of sledding down Beacon Hill across the main thoroughfare of Washington Street in defiance of all traffic. Sumner never had the feeling of his contemporary, Edward Everett Hale, that Boston "was a good place in which to be born, and a good place in which to grow to manhood."
Sumner's autobiography was equally silent on his genealogy. Though he knew that New Englanders had an almost Oriental reverence for their ancestors and delighted in tracing family lineages through assorted Patiences, Ashabels, and Eliphalets back to the founders of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the newly elected senator made no effort to exploit the fact that on both sides of his family he could claim industrious and God-fearing forebears who had settled in New England in the early 1630s. He did not mention that his mother's grandfather had been an extensive landholder, the surveyor of Hanover, in Plymouth County, a town selectman, a member of the Revolutionary Committee on Public Safety, and later a state representative, or that his maternal grandmother was a descendant of Governor William Bradford, of Plymouth. Nor did he refer to the career of his paternal grandfather, Major Job Sumner, who quit his Harvard classes to fight under General Washington and after the Revolution served as United States commissioner to settle the accounts between the Confederation and Georgia.
Any temptation Sumner may have had to proclaim himself the heir of the Puritans in politics was curbed by his knowledge that his father had been born out of wedlock. Inbred, provincial Boston, where such scandals were never forgotten, would be all too likely to rake up the gossip about the dashing Major Sumner's failure to marry Esther Holmes, by whom he begat his one son. Remembering the grandson's fondness for oppressed races, Boston maiden aunts speculatedwithout any evidence whateverthat the mysterious Esther had been "partly of negro or Indian blood." Prudently the new senator preferred to draw the veil over the whole subject of his genealogy: "It seems to me better to leave it all unsaid."
More surprising was Sumner's silence about his parents. Of his father, Charles Pinckney Sumner, the son merely remarked that he "was a lawyer by profession…a person of literary taste and knowledge, of remarkable independence and sterling integrity."10 The son's coolness reflected the fact that the father was a singularly unlovable man. Presumably he had not always been so formal, so obdurately fixed in his ways. As a student at Harvard he had become a warm friend of young Joseph Story, of Salem, who inspired him to attempt verses in the stately tradition of Alexander Pope's rhymed couplets. The friendship did not expire with college days, and in florid fashion Sumner claimed that he treasured Story's frequent letters as "truly the balsam of friendship,…infinitely more sacred than that which bedewed the hand of laughter-loving Venus, when wounded by the sacrilegious shaft of Diomed." Under Story's influence he became an ardent Jeffersonian, at a time when only Federalism was respectable in Massachusetts, and he even talked of editing a party newspaper in Boston.But, by the time Charles Sumner was born, his father's feeble fires of rebellion had burned low. "I have now passed more than half the age of man," he wrote in 1811, at the age of thirty-five, "and the ambition of youth is in me now checked by the…cautious, and sober thoughts of age." The insecurity of his clouded birth and impoverished childhood, his comparative failure in his law practice, and his financial worries over his growing family he concealed behind an outward front of stiff and stilted formality. Long after the style had changed, he, like Major Thomas Melville, continued to wear a tricornered hat, and he retained to his death the punctilious eighteenth-century etiquette of saluting acquaintances upon the streets by "bowing low, touching his mouth with his hand, and waving it back to his side." His family rarely, if ever, saw him smile.
His wife brought little more warmth to the Sumner household. Tall and stately, with a smooth olive complexion and lustrous brown eyes, Relief Jacob had been a twenty-five-year-old seamstress when she married, and she carried some of her spinster ways into her married life. She did not know how to express affection; not until after her death did Charles learn that she had always cherished a lock of his baby hair. Even her friends remarked that she was "distant" or that she had "the old-school dignity of manner," and she impressed on them her "evident superiority of mind."
Doubtless it was the memory of his own cheerless home that made young Sumner, when a student at Harvard, describe "The present character of the Inhabitants of New England" as one of sobriety, industry, moral purityand "a natural coldness." The very house in which he was born, on Bartolph (now Irving) Street, was "respectable, and yet only above being humble." Like the two later homes the Sumners occupied on Hancock Street, it lay north of that imaginary line that, as true Bostonians used to say, divided the "bob" from the "nabob" side of Beacon Hill. When Charles was a boy, his father's income was only about $1,000 a year, and only Mrs. Sumner's frugality kept the family from actual want. She could afford only iron knives and forks for tableware, and she sent Charles to school wearing coarse, chunky shoes and cheap sky-blue satinet clothes, "never a nice fitting or handsomely appearing suit."