Best Things in Life Are Free, Like This Program on Senator Sumner

Friday, July 1, 2011

Since the Pilgrims landed here in 1620, Massachusetts has produced more than its share of political giants. I would argue that none of them stood taller than Charles Sumner, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1851 to 1874.

Born on Beacon Hill (Irving Street) on January 6, 1811, Sumner graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, then traveled widely and studied in Europe. He became fluent in French and attended lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris. One day, there were two or three black students in the lecture hall, which struck him as strange, as he was accustomed to the harsh racial divisions of America. Even stranger to Sumner was the non-reaction of the other students.

Sumner noted later in his diary that the black students "were standing in the midst of a knot of young men and their color seemed to be no objection to them. I was glad to see this, though with American impressions, it seemed very strange."

Upon his return to America in 1840, Sumner practiced law, taught at his alma mater, wrote articles for law journals, and became active in the public life of the Commonwealth. A natural orator, he spoke frequently at lyceums and became known for his strong anti-slavery views and his opposition to the Mexican-American War.

In 1851, the members of the Massachusetts legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. That was how senators were chosen in those days. He soon became one of the most effective and unrelenting opponents of slavery on the national scene. He repeatedly attacked, for example, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed slavery to creep into those territories.

Sumner's passionate advocacy of abolition led to a violent incident on the floor of the Senate, a crime that shocked the population of the north, fueled the anti-slavery movement, and helped set the stage for the Civil War. If people remember Sumner today, it is usually because of what happened on May 22, 1856, when U.S. Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Sumner with a cane and beat him so badly that it took Sumner three years to regain sufficient strength to return to public life. (Brooks was enraged by comments Sumner had made two days earlier about one of the Senate sponsors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who happened to be Brooks's uncle.)

While Sumner was recovering, the legislature re-elected him, even though he was unable to go to Washington, because it believed his empty chair in the Senate chamber would serve as an eloquent reminder of the importance of free speech and resistance to slavery.

When Sumner was finally able to resume his duties, he picked up where he had left off in his ferocious opposition to slavery. This remark, addressed to an opponent during a debate in 1860, was typical of the man:

"Say, sir, in your madness, that you own the sun, the stars, the moon; but do not say that you own a man, endowed with a soul that shall live immortal, when sun and moon and stars have passed away."

Needless to say, Senator Sumner became a key supporter of President Abraham Lincoln, urging him early in the Civil War to emancipate the slaves, a course Lincoln eventually took, with beneficial results for the northern cause.

On Wednesday, July 6, at 11:00 A.M., the Museum of African American History of Boston and Nantucket will offer a special free program on Sumner entitled, A Lighthouse Among the Lampposts: Charles Sumner's Beacon Hill.

The museum offers a regular Black History tour of Beacon Hill, but the July 6 program is an altogether new tour for the purpose of exploring the "humble roots" of Charles Sumner on Beacon Hill and his "pioneering civil rights work." It has been created in celebration of the bicentennial of Sumner's birth.

Everyone who has the time to do so should experience Charles Sumner's Beacon Hill. For more information, visit

Sumner died in Washington on March 11, 1874, while still in the Senate. At the time of his death, he was championing the passage of a civil rights bill to help and protect every African American. Frederick Douglas came to visit him on his deathbed; Sumner told him, "My bill, my bill...Don't let my Civil Rights Bill fail."

Sumner's body was returned to Boston and his casket lay in state at the Massachusetts State House. Veterans of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment, Robert Gould Shaw's unit of African American soldiers, formed an honor guard as 50,000 people came to pay their respects. A shield with the motto, "Don't Let My Civil Rights Bill Fail," rested atop the casket.

In a ceremony at the State House, the head of the delegation that brought Sumner's body home addressed the Governor as follows:

"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 back 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."

That was Charles Sumner, a lighthouse among the lampposts.

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