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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 146

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This is the grave of Charles Sumner.

Born in Boston in 1811, Sumner’s family were strong abolitionists and of course their son picked this up with passion. He graduated from Harvard in 1830 and entered the law in 1834. He traveled in Europe for a few years and returned to Boston in 1840, deciding to practice law. Although he originally did not intend to go into politics, it did not take him long to change his mind. It was slavery that moved him to politics, particularly the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War, where the United States stole half of Mexico to extend slavery. He became a well-known orator and helped organize the Free Soil Party. Democrats took over the Massachusetts state senate in 1851, but with the parties in rapid transition at this time, they could not elect a senator and after three months of political infighting, Sumner managed to be sent to Washington as a Free Soil Democrat.

Sumner had only one issue in the Senate: abolitionism. His first speech in 1852 was an attack on the Fugitive Slave Act. He soon became the most hated senator of the South. That Sumner was personally a very difficult person did not help. Sumner is most famous for being beaten nearly to death by the South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks in 1856 after Sumner gave a speech not only attacking slavery in the harshest terms, but personally attacking Brooks’ uncle Andrew Butler. The talk against slavery was harsh enough, comparing slaveowners to johns who can’t help but have sex with prostitutes, among other things. But Butler had recently had a stroke. And Sumner started making fun of him in the speech, both doing an imitation of Butler’s inability to speak and saying, “[He] touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.” So Sumner was incredibly righteous in his condemnation of the slave power. He also made fun of stroke victims on the Senate floor. Thus you have the power and the problem of Charles Sumner.

Sumner suffered many injuries from his beating, as well as PTSD. He tried to return to the Senate in 1857 but freaked out and had to leave immediately. In 1858, on the second anniversary of the attack, he sailed for Europe. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts senate reelected him, even though they were basically giving up a vote in the Senate. He finally returned to the Senate in 1859 and continued his biting attacks on the South and on slavery.

When the Civil War began and all the southern senators left, Sumner became head of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Despite his ideological hatred of slavery, when the Trent Affair threatened to bring the British into the war on the side of the treasonous southerners, Sumner covered for Lincoln by arguing that the detained southern war commissioners were not contraband and he used Senate rules to suppress debate on the issue, allowing it to blow over. He advised Lincoln to make the war about slavery and pushed through the U.S. finally recognizing Haiti as a nation in 1862. He remained a leader in American foreign policy the rest of his life, providing critical support for the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia, which only received the necessary 2/3 majority in the Senate by 1 vote. He broke with Ulysses Grant over the annexation of the Dominican Republic. Grant supported it because his capitalist buddies wanted it and because he held onto the idea that the U.S. should find somewhere to dump freed slaves. Sumner saw it as unjust and a precursor to annexing Haiti. He killed the treaty that Grant had worked out with the leader of the Dominican Republic. Grant responded by firing Sumner’s friend who was ambassador to Britain. This led to open hatred between the two men.

During Reconstruction, Sumner argued that the South had committed “state suicide” by seceding and thus had no rights that Congress was bound to respect. He was already deeply critical of Lincoln for not doing enough for the now ex-slaves in his early comments on Reconstruction. Of course he grew to hate Andrew Johnson with a white-hot passion and gladly voted for his impeachment. He became one of the last stalwarts for radical Reconstruction by the 1870s and annually pushed his civil rights bill that guaranteed equal accommodations in all public places. He sought to remove the word “white” from all American citizenship and immigration laws and was one of the few politicians to support the Chinese immigrants as the move arose to bar them from the United States. Unlike many abolitionists, Sumner did not turn with a passion against labor unions after the Civil War and declared his open support for the 8-hour day in 1872.

Sumner died in 1874 of a heart attack. To honor him, Congress finally passed his civil rights bill as the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Unfortunately, not only was it not really implemented but the Civil Rights Cases declared in unconstitutional in 1883 and Jim Crow America was on.

Charles Sumner is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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