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The Reformer

July 2024
4min read

Between the career of Stimson and that of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts there is a striking contrast. One was a man of immense solidity, moving slowly to his tragic moment of decision, aware that what seemed to be a choice for good might also be a choice for undying evil; the other was all flame and arrogance, sure of his own wisdom, plagued by no doubts, plunging ahead with the unshaken conviction that what he was doing was just and righteous altogether. Yet each man helped take his country into a decision of enormous consequence whose implications would go on echoing for generations to come. If the meaning of Stimson’s life came at last to be embodied in what the nation did about the bomb, the meaning of Sumner’s was wrapped up in what the nation did about slavery. Helping to lead the country, each man in his own way partly reflected it.

Sumner, to be sure, had less to do with starting the Civil War than Stimson had to do with dropping the bomb. Yet in an odd way he played a central part in it. If not a man appointed to decide, he was at least an agitator who worked powerfully upon the men who did decide. He helped to create the climate in which the war was fought, in which it took its final momentous shape. (It has even been said that he managed to embody, in his own elegant person, the very essence of the thing the southerners wanted to secede from.)

As with Stimson, a truly perceptive study of the man is now at hand: the first volume of David Donald’s definitive study, entitled Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War . If it does not precisely make him lovable, it at least makes him comprehensible. It presents an essential chapter in the study of the war.

Sumner had a hard time finding himself. Born in Boston in 1811, he came up from under; the rest of the country looked on him, in the end, as something of a representative of the Boston Brahmins, but actually he was nothing of the kind. He fought his way up, and for a long time he had no good notion of just what he was fighting for, except that he wanted to be eminent and successful, and one of the minor mysteries of his career is how he ever managed to achieve this end. A promising lawyer, he had no talent at all for the hard, routine work of legal practice. Politics drew him, but he was basically a cold fish—the last man, one would suppose, who could go out and win votes. For years he seems to have been nothing more than a born reformer in search of a cause.

He found this cause, at last, in slavery, after trying his hand at prison reform, world peace and what-not. He came in, as a matter of fact, somewhat late, and in the early days of the vast realignment of parties caused by this thorny issue, he was relatively unimportant. He had no particular following; he was basically a lone wolf, and Henry Adams remarked acidly that “he had nothing but himself to think about.” Not until the i85o’s did he throw himself completely into the dawning Free Soil movement—concluding, as Mr. Donald says, that “high principle was good politics.” Then he went whole hog, and in 1851 a coalition of Massachusetts Democrats and Free Soil Whigs sent him to the Senate; and in the course of time he became recognized as the most eloquent congressional spokesman for the antislavery cause.

Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War , by David Donald. Alfred A. Knopf. 416 pp. $6.75.

Oratorical styles have changed since Sumner’s day, and the speeches with which Sumner, in the Senate, exerted so much influence sound odd now. They were loaded with statistics, filled with classical allusions and Latin quotations, touched with wind-blown exaggerations. He was utterly without humor; when a friend confessed he had never found a joke in one of Sumner’s speeches, Sumner replied tartly: “You might as well look for a joke in the book of Revelations.” But with all of his remote, scholarly loftiness he had a gift for personal invective. He spoke without fear, at a time when there was much to frighten an antislavery speaker; and his complete, unswerving belief in his own righteousness somehow made his orations convincing.

The point of all of this is that perhaps more than any other man Sumner helped push northern antislavery opinion past the point where a reasoned adjustment with the South was possible; and, by reverse action, helped push slavery’s spokesmen to the same point. Between 1850 and 1860 an atmosphere was created in which it became humanly impossible for the issue to be compromised.

This could result, finally, in nothing but violent action, and the violence struck Sumner himself first of all. This happened in the spring of 1856, when Sumner delivered a speech of unbridled passion in which he denounced “the crime against Kansas” and went out of his way to asperse the character and attainments of a colleague, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. A day or so afterward, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, strolled into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner almost unconscious with his cane.

No caning in American history ever had more farreaching results. Sumner immediately became a martyr. His political position in Massachusetts had been, at that time, extremely shaky; now it became unassailable, and a New York politician said astutely that Sumner “is made by this act, senator for life.” The bitterness that was putting the slavery issue beyond the realm of possible settlement was profoundly intensified. In a real sense, here was the first blow of the Civil War.

Sumner remained away from his desk for three years, believing himself permanently crippled. His political opponents denounced him for shamming illness; Mr. Donald, examining the evidence carefully, believes that he was not shamming. Sumner suffered, apparently, psychosomatic wounds almost beyond healing. The point by now is of no great importance either way. By what he was, by what he said and did, and at last by what was done to him, Sumner had contributed substantially to the strange, tragic decision that America at last made about slavery—that it must be destroyed by violence.

To be sure, Sumner himself never felt that he had any responsibility at all for bringing on the war. As far as he could see, he had simply spoken up for truth and justice; other men, disagreeing with him, had caused the war. But when the war came he welcomed it. Now the evil he opposed could be disposed of. This man was as deeply conscientious as Stimson; the trouble was that he totally lacked the capacity to see any other point of view than his own.

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