Sumner, Charles

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Sumner, Charles

Charles Sumner.

Charles Sumner served as U.S. senator from Massachusetts for 23 years starting in 1851. His career in the Senate was a turbulent one, marked by much controversy.

Sumner was born January 6, 1811, in Boston, Massachusetts. Sumner graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts degree in 1830 and a bachelor of laws degree in 1833.

After his Admission to the Bar in 1834, Sumner traveled through Europe from 1837 to 1840 to analyze foreign judicial systems. When he returned to the United States, he became interested in reform issues and emerged as a reform leader and an abolitionist. He was instrumental in the development of the Free-Soil Party in 1848 and endorsed Martin Van Buren, the candidate of that party, in the presidential election of 1848.

Sumner staunchly opposed Slavery and advocated the revocation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9 Stat. 462). He vehemently attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 (10 Stat. 277), which allowed residents of new territories to determine the slavery issue for their areas. In 1856, in a speech known as "The Crime Against Kansas," Sumner attacked stephen a. douglas, the originator of the bill, and South Carolina senator Andrew Pickens Butler, who strongly supported slavery. After the scathing oration, Sumner was beaten with a cane by Representative Preston Smith Brooks, who was related to Senator Butler. The injuries Sumner sustained prevented him from actively participating in senatorial affairs for the next three years.

In 1861 Sumner became the presiding officer of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He held that position until 1871, when his radical behavior resulted in his removal from that office.

During the Reconstruction period, Sumner was a member of the radical Republican faction. He opposed President Andrew Johnson's conservative policy toward the South and advocated a policy that would allow freed men to own land that was previously a part of their owner's estates. Sumner also believed that the state legislatures should control the school system, and that all races should be allowed to attend public schools. Sumner and Johnson were often at odds over their conflicting policies, and Sumner supported the Impeachment of the president in 1868.

Sumner did not fare any better with the new administration of President ulysses s. grant. He opposed Grant's policy to annex Santo Domingo and demanded large reparations from Great Britain because that country had aided the Confederacy during the Civil War by supplying ships. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish spoke against Sumner's policy toward the British, saying that it interfered with current relations with that country. In 1871 Sumner was asked to leave his post as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, but he remained in the Senate until his death March 11, 1874, in Washington, D.C.

Further readings

Barnico, Thomas A. 2000. "Massachusetts Lawyers and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson." Massachusetts Legal History 6.

Donald, David Herbert. 1996. Charles Sumner. New York: Da Capo Press.

Taylor, Anne-Marie. 2001. Young Charles Sumner and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811–1851. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.


Abolition; Kansas-Nebraska Act.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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