Read an Excerpt
Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man
By David Donald
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 David Donald
All rights reserved.
More Than "One Idea"
Not since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had so many Americans mourned. At the news of Charles Sumner's death the Michigan state legislature unanimously adopted resolutions expressing grief, and in Charleston, South Carolina, once the hotbed of secession, flags were lowered to half-mast. The mayors of Philadelphia and New York begged to have the body lie in state in their cities. Residents of Boston thronged to Faneuil Hall to hear tributes to the dead, and the governor of Massachusetts proclaimed a statewide day of mourning.
In Washington grief was intense. During the early morning of March 11, 1874, Negro residents in the capital, learning of the Senator's serious heart attack, began to gather in quiet groups outside his house on Vermont Avenue and H Streets, just across Lafayette Park from the White House, and by midday the streets were jammed. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Senate, meeting at noon, immediately suspended business out of respect for its dying member, and the House of Representatives, after desultory discussion interrupted by frequent medical bulletins from Sumner's bedside, adjourned promptly at the news of his death. The next day Congress voted to set aside Friday, March 13, for funeral services in the Capitol.
At nine o'clock that morning the funeral procession left Sumner's house. A delegation from Congress was supposed to be in the lead, but quietly the Negro mourners, marching five abreast, took their place at the head of the line. Though the day was raw and blustery, thousands were waiting at the Capitol when the coffin was placed in the rotunda on the black catafalque where Lincoln's body had rested. It was the first time in American history that a Senator's memory had been so honored. For three hours a dense throng of the idle, the curious, and the grief-stricken filed by the open coffin to look at the cold, livid, discolored face that, beneath the transparent glass, looked like that of a drowned man. At twelve-thirty the body was brought into the Senate Chamber, where the President of the United States and his cabinet, the justices of the Supreme Court, the members of the diplomatic corps, and the Senators and Representatives were waiting. As five thousand spectators tried to crowd into the galleries, the anterooms, and the corridors, every chair in the Senate chamber was filled except one, Sumner's own seat, heavily draped in black.
After the service the casket, guarded by the sergeant-at-arms of the Senate and escorted by delegations from both houses of Congress, traveled by non-stop special train to New York, to the disappointment of crowds that had assembled at Wilmington and at Philadelphia to pay their final respects. After an overnight halt, the funeral train moved on to Massachusetts. Beginning at Springfield there were throngs gathered at every railroad station to watch the black train speed east, and church bells tolled along the entire route. In Boston the crowd, too large for the police to control, surged onto the railway tracks and followed the cortege up Beacon Hill to the State House. There in the dimly lit Doric Hall, the governor waited. Speaking for the Congressional delegation, Henry B. Anthony, the President pro tempore of the Senate, addressed him: "May it please your Excellency, we are commanded ... to render back to you your illustrious dead. ... With reverent hands we bring to you his mortal part that it may be committed to the soil of the renowned Commonwealth which gave him birth. Take it; it is yours. The part which we do not return to you is not wholly yours to receive, nor altogether ours to give. It belongs to the country, to mankind, to freedom, to civilization, to humanity."
The next day, March 15, the coffin, now sealed, lay in state in the Doric Hall, attended by soldiers from the all-Negro Shaw Guard, which had proved its heroism at Fort Wagner during the Civil War. A large floral crown hung just above the head of the coffin, and beneath it a snow-white dove, apparently in the very act of alighting. On the coffin itself lay a shield bearing the motto: "Don't Let the Civil Rights Bill Fail." Perhaps as many as five thousand people were waiting outside when the doors of the State House were opened, and by afternoon the crowd had grown so large that women began to faint in the closely packed lines. Walking silently, two or three abreast, nearly forty thousand persons passed by the catafalque during Sunday and the morning hours of Monday.
With all business in Boston suspended on Monday, the streets were packed with the mourners and the curious, and the police had difficulty in clearing the route of the funeral procession from the State House to King's Chapel, selected because it had once been the place of worship attended by the mother of the Senator, who himself had belonged to no church. Spectators pushed close to touch the casket, to eye the delegations from Washington, and to count off the pallbearers: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Greenleaf Whittier, representatives of the literary culture of New England; Robert C. Winthrop and Charles Francis Adams, embodiments of the patrician leadership of Massachusetts; and five former governors, during whose terms in office Sumner had represented the state in the United States Senate.
After the Episcopal service for the dead, the funeral procession slowly formed anew to escort the remains to the cemetery. At the head were the Vice President of the United States, the members of the Massachusetts delegation to Congress, the governor of the state, the mayor of Boston, and the president and overseers of Harvard College. At the rear were two thousand representatives of Negro fraternal groups. As the huge cortege inched down Beacon Street to turn onto the Charles River Bridge, it produced a gigantic traffic snarl, and for forty-five minutes the hearse was stalled in front of a house with tightly drawn blinds. Behind them stood the divorced wife of the dead Senator, who looked down at the coffin and said: "That is just like Charles; he never did show tact."
Finally the procession lurched on, across the bridge, through Cambridge, past Harvard College, and out to the cemetery at Mount Auburn. All along the five-mile route crowds lined the streets. As dusk was falling and the graveside prayers were said, the male choir sang: "Inter vitae scelerisque purus."
Popular interest in the dead Senator was insatiable. Virtually every newspaper in the United States, as well as many abroad, carried an obituary editorial. Reporters wrote of his daily routine as Senator, of his recent divorce, of his final hours. The press publicized the provisions of his will, which divided most of his one-hundred-thousand-dollar estate equally between his surviving sister, who lived in California, and the Harvard College Library. Some periodicals offered steel engraved portraits of Sumner in order to attract new subscribers. Music publishers sold at least three different Sumner funeral marches.
With the nineteenth century's seemingly endless appetite for oratory, audiences assembled again and again to hear Sumner extolled. At a huge public meeting in the Music Hall on March 18 Bostonians listened to an elaborate eulogy by Carl Schurz, the German-American who was Sumner's closest associate in the Senate during his final years. Both houses of Congress set aside April 27 to hear tributes to Sumner. On June 9 there was another large gathering at Boston's Music Hall, this time sponsored by the Massachusetts state government, at which Whittier read a funeral ode on Sumner and George William Curtis, crusading editor of Harper's Weekly, delivered a commemorative oration. Within the year at least four books containing these collected tributes and eulogies were published.
Nearly all the orators repeated the story of Sumner's life. They told of his industrious years at Harvard, where he had been the favorite law student of Justice Joseph Story; they recounted the extraordinary social successes he had achieved during the more than two years he spent in Europe in the 1830's; and they recalled his stunning first public appearance in Boston when, at the age of thirty-four, he had delivered on July 4, 1845, his oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations," announcing that there was no justifiable war, no dishonorable peace. Most speakers told of Sumner's painful decision in the 1840's to join with Charles Francis Adams, John Gorham Palfrey, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and a few others in breaking with the Whig party over the annexation of Texas and recalled how these "Conscience Whigs" had coalesced with other antislavery men to form the Free Soil party. They discussed Sumner's first election to the Senate in 1851, by a coalition of Free Soilers and Democrats, and recalled how courageously, as a member of the tiny antislavery minority in Congress, he had demanded that the United States recognize that freedom was national, slavery sectional. Nearly every eulogist told how Sumner in 1856 because of his orations against slavery was assaulted upon the floor of the Senate by Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina and how he had spent three years recovering from those wounds. More recent history the eulogists assumed to be familiar to their listeners, and for the most part they passed over in less detail Sumner's labors as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for ten years and his unceasing efforts to secure to Negroes all the rights of man.
In both public eulogies and private appraisals contemporaries agreed that the United States had lost one of its truly great men. Sumner was "the greatest of our Senators and of our Citizens alike," concluded Senator Timothy O. Howe of Wisconsin, who had been politically at odds with the Senator for several years. Whittier lauded Sumner's "tireless devotion to duty, his courage, his proved scorn of meanness and greed and fraud, his almost austere truthfulness, his unbending integrity, stainless honor and tender regard for the rights of all." The Springfield Republican, frequently critical of Sumner in the past, began its obituary: "The noblest head in America has fallen, and the most accomplished and illustrious of our statesmen is no more." A Massachusetts legislator went the newspaper one better: "Not only has America lost her greatest and best statesman, but the world has lost its ablest and most devoted friend."
At the same time, a note of puzzlement kept appearing in the numerous tributes to Sumner, as though the speakers were not sure on what basis his claim to greatness rested. Those who paid tribute to Sumner's industry, to his sincerity of purpose, to his incorruptibility in an age of spoilsmen knew that these traits, admirable as they were, hardly warranted ranking the Senator among the greatest of statesmen. No more did his erudition, amounting at times to pedantry, entitle him to the esteem of countrymen who honored Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant as popular heroes. Some years earlier eulogists might have attributed Sumner's fame to his oratory, but in recent times his style had fallen into disfavor. Even in funeral orations speakers felt obliged to complain that his speeches made an "almost barbaric display of literary wealth gleaned from all languages and gathered from all lands," and a friendly newspaper observed that had Sumner "had a large family to look after ... or large professional clientage taking up his odd moments, his speeches would have gained more in directness and force than they would have lost in affluence of learning."
No one tried to explain Sumner's fame in terms of legislation which he had pushed through Congress. His Senate colleague, George S. Boutwell, with humorous exaggeration grumbled that after nearly a quarter of a century in Congress Sumner had been instrumental in the adoption of only one law — a measure permitting Mongolian immigrants to be naturalized. Though the leading proponent in Congress of Negro rights, Sumner had not been the author or the sponsor of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth amendments; indeed, he had gravely objected to all three measures. Everybody agreed, declared Massachusetts Congressman Nathaniel P. Banks, that Sumner had "no claim to respect or to honor upon the mere measures that are placed on the statute book." As Senator John Sherman more tactfully put it, Sumner was "often so eager in the advance that he did not sufficiently look to practical measures to secure the progress already made."
A large number of the eulogists concluded that Sumner's fame rested upon the special role he had so long played in American public life, that of the idealist in politics. Some misconceived that role so completely as to claim that he had been above politics. Blessedly he "knew nothing of management and party manoeuvre," declared one speaker, and another admirer insisted: "He never packed a caucus, pulled a wire, or rolled a log." Such assertions of Sumner's political innocence must have come as a surprise to the members of the Massachusetts legislature, which for four consecutive terms had chosen him to the Senate; they could remember how Sumner had systematically undercut every political rival in Massachusetts and how his lieutenants, especially Francis W. Bird and the other members of the "Bird Club," had pressured the legislators into endorsing Sumner's policies and repeatedly reelecting him.
The most perceptive commentators recognized that Sumner's political role was far more complex. If his elections rested in the hands of legislators who were not notably indifferent to party, his popular support came from idealistic groups, such as the clergymen, the women, and especially the young voters of Massachusetts, who were hostile to the institutions and the compromises of American political life. Even the members of the Bird Club, which met every Saturday afternoon at Young's Hotel in Boston, were apolitical politicians; Bird himself, as Governor John A. Andrew once remarked, could not be "coaxed, bought, told nor bullied." Such men wanted their Senator to be "the embodiment of the moral idea, with all its uncompromising firmness, its unflagging faith, its daring devotion"; indeed, as Carl Schurz tried to show, Sumner could be their "leader only because he was no politician."
No acting was necessary for Sumner to play the part of "statesman doctrinaire," especially during the years before the Civil War. Manly and impressive, when he rose to his full six feet and two inches, tossed back his mane of dark brown hair, already showing a little gray, and pointed out the barbarism of slavery, he seemed principle personified. Psychologically as well as physically he fitted the role. His boyhood inability to live up to the expectations of his dour father or to win the love of his undemonstrative mother left him chronically unable to relish success; after each victory, a contemporary noted, he felt obliged to sound "the trumpet-note of an ever higher endeavor." In early years Sumner had flogged himself with his dissatisfaction, even over triumphs won, but during his sufferings after the Brooks assault he came to count himself among the holy company of the martyrs and never again questioned his own motives or regretted his own actions. Thenceforth he blamed the hollowness of victory upon the inadequacies of others, whose low political instincts preferred compromise to consistency.
Once the Republican party came to power in 1860 Sumner found his political role more difficult to sustain. It had been easy to be indifferent to applications for patronage when he knew that a Democratic President would ignore his recommendations, and it had been simple to scorn all compromise when his voice and his vote carried no weight. An influential member of the victorious party was, however, in an entirely different position, obliged to make small concessions and day-by-day compromises if he was to participate effectively in the governing of the country. Some veteran antislavery leaders, like Salmon P. Chase, became so absorbed with this process as to neglect principle; others, like Joshua R. Giddings, unable to adjust to the responsibilities of power, were quietly pushed out of positions of prominence. Neither Sumner's temperament nor his constituency permitted him to follow Chase's course, and he was equally unwilling to be driven from public life. From 1861 on, therefore, his career was marked by awkward attempts to reconcile the expectations of his constituents and the demands of the Republican national administrations, by frequent shifts from the role of sectarian leader to that of responsible party member, by precarious efforts to balance principle and power. In 1874 Sumner was almost the only surviving original Republican leader who could still command, even in diminished form, broad respect throughout the country as well as influence within his party.
Excerpted from Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man by David Donald. Copyright © 1970 David Donald. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.