H. G. (Henry George) Spaulding.

Charles Sumner; an address online

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Online LibraryH. G. (Henry George) SpauldingCharles Sumner; an address → online text (page 1 of 3)
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To thee, dear comfort of my later years, '^

I dedicate this speech. Too deep for tears

These thoughts and memories of my pensive age;

And yet, between the lines, on every page,

I see thy cheerful smile or gladdening eye;

Or else the look that said. Let this go by.

The work thus done seems mine; but. none the less,

•Tis partly thine, for thou did'st check excess,—

And, unto all I said of Sumner's truth.

Thou gavest, precious gift, the dew of youth.


The raison d'etre of this Address is given in its opening para-
graph, where it is said that "great men need not that we praise
them: the need is ours, that we know them." In this, his cen-
tennial year, Charles Sumner is too little known. The virtues
which in his lifetime created hostility are hidden, not in the
"excess of light" which attended his death, when his greatness
of soul was almost universally acknowledged, but in the dark-
ness which has come from misunderstanding or misinformation.
Unfounded traditions and idle anecdotes have obscured his white-
souled integrity and have dimmed the "sweetness and light"
which were so harmoniously blended in his character.

Those who were privileged to be much in his presence knew
well that his moral earnestness and his passion for justice were
united with a most highly cultured and genial personality. He
was an impersonation not only of Conscience, but also of those
human traits which make men loved by those who enjoy their

While I do not claim that this Address is the final word about
the great Massachusetts senator, I can honestly say that I have
taken pains to speak on all points by the book and to present the
man, Charles Sumner, "in his habit as he lived." Part of the
Address was read, on January 8, 1911, to the congregation of the
Third Religious Society of Dorchester, Mass. It has also been
> given to the Newton Tuesday Club. Somewhat condensed, it
was delivered in Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, on May 30, 1911,
before the Memorial Society of Harvard University.

1470 Beacon Street,
Brookline, Mass., August, 1911.


I am to speak at this time on the character and career of
Charles Sumner, to the end that we may be moved to imitate
"his stainless integrity, his supreme devotion to humanity, his
profound faith in truth, and his unconquerable moral enthusi-
asm." "Great men," it has well been said, "need not that we
praise them: the need is ours, that we know them. Whether
we stand where they stood or have travelled far on ways they
dreamed not of, we are the richer that they lived."

Of our illustrious Massachusetts senator — the senator with a
conscience, as Theodore Parker called him — Governor N. P.
Banks once said, "He was the foremost man of his time"; while
the Methodist Bishop Haven named him "the very chiefest of
our statesmen." To-day these eulogies may strike many persons
as highly colored exaggerations; yet no one can deny that
by the verdict of history Charles Sumner is rightly regarded as
one of our country's greatest men. He was great as an orator
and as a statesman; greater still as a leader in one of the most
momentous moral conflicts that the world has yet seen, — the
conflict between slavery and freedom in America; greatest of
all as a godly man, of whom Ralph Waldo Emerson could say,
"I never knew so white a soul." It was my high privilege to
have known Mr. Sumner in the early years of our Civil War.
He had throughout my college life been my ideal of the uncor-
rupt statesman; and, in a nearer view which a personal friend-
ship gave me, the shining moral quaUties of his character lost
nothing of their brightness. He was then his country's and
freedom's wise leader; the Senate's chief; the bosom friend and
counsellor of Abraham Lincoln, who to the end loved and trusted
him and looked to him as a confidential adviser. When he
died in March, 1874, I gave from the pulpit of the church in
Dorchester, of which I was then the pastor, the first funeral
discourse on the life and labors of "the white-souled statesman"


which was delivered in any church in the land. My sainted
predecessor in the same church, the Rev. Thomas J. Mumford,
said of Sumner soon after in an editorial in the Christian Register,
"It was not our great senator's mental superiority which gave
him a strong hold upon the hearts of the people : it was his moral
greatness, his fidelity to principle, his courage in expressing his
real convictions, his transparent candor, his unsuspected integ-
rity." We shall do well at this time to think on these things.

Charles Sumner was born in Boston on January 6, 1811. In
his boyhood's home he had the inestimable treasure of a good
mother, a woman of strong and heroic traits of character. Her
pastor, the Rev. H. W. Foote, of King's Chapel, once said: ''The
son only outlived his mother eight years; but from boyhood to
age his devotion cheered her and his unselfish love was her
strong support. Her comfort was his ruling aim in that home
life which for fifty-five years he shared with her; and, when the
end came, it was he who stood beside her and gently guided her
as she went serenely into the Silent Land." In that Boston
home of honorable poverty Sumner's father planned for the boy
Charles a good common-school education, to fit him for a life
of self-help and self-support. Imagine the surprise of that
father, himself a scholar and a graduate of Harvard, when his
son came to him one day with some elementary Latin books
which he had bought with pennies of his own earnings, and asked
him to hear his recitation. It became at once the hope and
purpose of Sumner's family to give this boy the preparation at
least for a college course.

That in 1826 Charles could enter Harvard College, after a care-
ful training in the already famous Latin School of Boston, was due
to a change in his father's circumstances. Just at this critical
time in his brilhant son's career the elder Sumner was appointed
sheriff of Suffolk, with a salary large enough to enable him to
send his boy to Cambridge. But for this the future orator,
statesman, and anti-slavery leader would have gone to a military
academy or to West Point. Few of us can doubt that the course
at Harvard was not only the proper preparation, but was also
the predestined equipment, for Sumner's great work in life.

After his graduation in 1830 Sumner went through the Har-
vard Law School, opened an office in Boston, and was at one time
the law lecturer at Cambridge, taking the place of his distin-
guished friend. Judge Joseph Story. The years 1837, 1838, and
part of 1839 Sumner spent in Europe, advancing and broadening
his culture in many ways and forming acquaintances among a
large number of the most eminent European scholars and public
men. In 1845, when he was but thirty-four years of age, he was
the orator at Boston's Fourth of July Celebration. His appear-
ance at this time was striking. "He appeared," said one of
his biographers, ''the embodiment of manly beauty. He stood
six feet and three inches in height, erect, handsomely propor-
tioned, a splendid specimen of vigorous manhood." This Fourth
of July address put Sumner at once in the very forefront of
America's orators. Edward Everett called it ''an address of
unsurpassed fehcity and power." Within a single year after its
delivery more than ten thousand copies of it were printed and
circulated; and to-day, sixty-six years later, it is still published
annually and distributed by the Peace Societies of England and
our own country. It was the earnest of Sumner's hfe-work, the
early promise of his determination to bring the civilized world
up to his own high ideals of justice and humanity. Such seed-
sowing is never in vain, though the ripe harvest may be long

The following year, in 1846, Sumner was the orator of the Phi
Beta Kappa of Harvard. The subject of his oration was "The
Scholar, the Jurist, the Ai-tist, and the Philanthropist," com-
memorating under this head his former friends, Pickering, Judge
Story, Washington Allston, and William Ellery Channing, all of
them Phi Beta Kappa men in their day. The address was another
signal triumph for Sumner, the rising orator, and won for him the
warm praise of such men as Chancellor Kent, Edward Everett,
and John Quincy Adams. Edward Everett said of it: "It was
marked with a certain magnificence which I do not well know
how to parallel. It was an amazingly splendid affair. I never
heard it surpassed; I do not know that I ever heard it equalled."
To Sumner himself, Everett, who was at that time the President


of Harvard, wrote, ''Should you never do anything else, you have
done enough for fame; but you are, as far as these public efforts
are concerned, at the commencement of a career destined, I
trust, to last for long years of ever -increasing usefulness and
honor." It is pleasant in this connection to remember that
Sumner's Alma Mater gave him in 1859 the honorary degree of
LL.D., and also that he left to Harvard in his will all his rare
books and his splendid collection of autographs, besides giving
the college an endowment of $1,000 in trust for an annual prize
for the best dissertation by any student on ''Universal Peace."

The succeeding years, from 1846 to the time of his election to
the United States Senate in 1851, are marked by Sumner's grow-
ing interest in public affairs and the important part which he
now took as a leader in the anti- slavery cause. But from
start to finish in his political career he stood firmly for principle
as against expediency. At the Massachusetts AVhig Convention
in 1847 he voted with others for a resolution which pledged the
Whig party to support no candidate for the Presidency who was
not known to be opposed to the extension of slavery. The
resolution was lost, but the discussion of it gave Sumner his
opportunity of going upon the record as unflinchingly hostile to
the position of those who would stand by their party, whether
it was right or was wrong. "Far above," he said, "any flicker-
ing light or battle-lantern of party is the Everlasting Sun of
Truth in whose beams are the duties of men." There spoke the
Charles Sumner of immortal fame; and the future events of his
public career are but a series of brilliant illustrations of those
great words. Let me repeat them here to-day. "/n the beams
of the Everlasting Sun of Truth are the duties of men^

From December 1, 1851, when Senator Sumner took his seat
in the Congress of the United States, to March 11, 1874, when he
died, his life was that of a pubhc servant. He fell at last while
still at the post of duty, wearing his senatorial harness, pre-
pared to serve or wait, elsewhere or there. The record of what
Sumner said and did in these twenty-three years of his Con-
gressional labors is part of his country's history. At the end he
could say, looking back over his public career, "There is one


satisfaction that cannot be taken from me: I have tried to do
my duty and to advance humanity, keeping Massachusetts fore-
most in that which is just and magnanimous."

In leaving Boston for Washington, Mr. Sumner showed again
that warmly affectionate side of his nature which has not always
been fully recognized. From New York he wrote to his intimate
friend, Dr. Howe, of the South Boston Blind Asylum, ''Three
times yesterday I wept like a child; I could not help it; first
in parting with Longfellow, next in parting with you, and lastly
as I left my mother and my sister." To Longfellow he wrote: "I
could not speak to you as we parted ; my soul was too full ; only
tears would flow. Your friendship and dear Fanny's [Mrs. Long-
fellow] have been among my few treasures, like gold unchanging.
From a grateful heart I now thank you for your true and constant
friendship. God bless you both, ever dear friends, faithful and
good!" One other instance of Sumner's affection for his per-
sonal friends deserves mention here. I have said that Abraham
Lincoln loved him and trusted him to the end. Indeed, in spite
of some sharp political antagonisms, which would have shattered
a friendship less deeply based, Lincoln showed Sumner more
signs of personal regard than any other man in public service.
When, on that sad morning of April 15, 1865, Lincoln lay on his
dying-bed in Washington, Sumner sat by his side, holding his
hand and sobbing as a child; and it was upon Charles Sumner's
strong arm that Lincoln's son Robert stood leaning as the
immortal President breathed his last.

The relations between Sumner and Lincoln are such an im-
portant part of the history of the times which we are here con-
sidering that they call for a more extended notice. The fact
to be emphasized is that Sumner's attitude toward slavery
greatly influenced Lincoln; although the wise and cautious
President did not look at the general question precisely as Sumner
did. With Lincoln the supreme aim of the government in the
Civil War, at least in the earlier periods of the war, was to restore
the Union. Sumner, on the other hand, always looked upon the
Southern Rebellion as being, what we all know it really was,
slavery in arms. He beUeved, therefore, that the war, although


aimed primarily at the restoration of the Union, could not end,
and ought not to end, without ending slavery also.

When in the summer of 1862 Sumner was urging Lincoln
to take the decisive step of issuing the edict of emancipation,
the President said to his friend, "You, Sumner, are only a month
or so ahead of me." These words of Lincoln were almost lit-
erally true in respect of what was perhaps the greatest act of
his life; for it was only a little later, i.e., on the 22d of September,
1862, that the Proclamation of Emancipation was issued and the
shackles which had fettered four millions of slaves were at one
stroke and forever broken. To have done that great act, Gov-
ernor Long once said, "to have at one cut ripped the cancer
from the Republic, was to have attained a glory than which
there can be no greater in human history." Of that immortal
glory let Charles Sumner have the share to which impartial
history says he was fully entitled. And in this connection, as
we are thinking of the attitude of these two statesmen, the
Executive and the senator, in respect of the freedman, let us
remember that they were virtually of the same opinion as to
what the national government should do for the newly emanci-
pated negro. Did Lincoln think that the country owed the
colored man a good education, even more than it owed him the
right of suffrage? This was always Sumner's contention, who
went even further in this direction of a wise and sane statesman-
ship. For Sumner would have had the government give the
negro a homestead as well as the school and the ballot. He
would thus have had the freedman placed where, untrammelled
by poverty and unhindered by ignorance, he could by his thrift
and his knowledge prove himself capable of casting an intelligent
vote. It was not then universal suffrage for the black man which
Sumner advocated: it was rather impartial suffrage. "If you
introduce," he said, "the test of the spelling-book, let it cut
clear across; let it apply impartially to blacks and whites alike."
The only difference of opinion between the two great comrades
that ever threatened to destroy their friendship related to the
question whose was the power of controlling reconstruction
while the war was still in progress. Lincoln held that the power


belonged to the Executive, while Sumner contended that it
belonged to Congress. The event proved that, so far as this
question of reconstruction was concerned, Sumner was right
and Lincoln was in error. All other questions touching the
status of the negro or that of the Southern States which had
been in rebeUion arose at a later period, after Lincoln's death.
That the successful opposition by Senator Sumner to a project
on which the President's heart was set caused no break in their
personal friendship was due as much to the magnanimity of
Sumner as to the greatness of Lincoln. One other illustration
of the influence of our great anti-slavery senator over his friend,
President Lincoln, calls for a passing mention. It was in the
period when the two illustrious comrades were most intimate
in their friendship, on March 4, 1865, that Abraham Lincoln
gave his brief second Inaugural Address, a speech as memorable
in many ways as his immortal words at Gettj^sburg. Toward
the close of this Inaugural Lincoln said, referring clearly and
strongly to the sin of slavery, "If God wills that this war con-
tinue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred
and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop
of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn
with the sword, yet the judgments of the Lord are true and right-
eous altogether."

To return to Sumner's great hfe-work as ''the senator with a
conscience," we note, first of all, that for several months after
taking his seat in Congress in 1851 he remained silent upon all
the questions which then came before the Senate. He was
awaiting his time to speak to Congress and to the nation in
behalf of human liberty. At length that time arrived. Claim-
ing his right to discuss a resolution which brought the Fugitive
Slave Law directly before the Senate, Sumner on the 26th
of August, 1852, only a few days before Congress adjourned
its session, delivered his first public speech against American
slavery, — the most significant happening in the United States
Senate since Daniel Webster's reply to Hayne. It was also an
epitome of Sumner's whole public career. Still further, it
marked the beginning of an epoch in our country's history.


It rang out the old even as it rang in the new. In this speech
Sumner arraigned slavery in the name of that nationality which
it had falsely called its own; he declared that the anti- slavery
movement is from the Everlasting Arm; he indicted the Fugitive
Slave Bill, to quote his own words, ''in the name of the Con-
stitution which it violates, of my country which it dishonors,
of humanity which it disowns, of Christianity which it offends";
he showed by the indisputable facts of current history that the
act ''had not that essential support in the public conscience of
the States where it was designed to be enforced without which
any law becomes a dead letter"; and he closed with the grandly
simple peroration : —

"Mindful of the lowly whom it pursues, mindful of the good
men perplexed by its requirements, in the name of Charity, in
the name of the Constitution, repeal this enactment." Were
not these words well and bravely said? And was not this true
Christian warrior, this godly man, who was without fear and
above reproach, the champion of that "Stern Lawgiver" of
whom Wordsworth sang: —

"Thou dost preserve the Stars from wrong;
And the most ancient Heavens, through Thee, are fresh and strong."

The novel and pregnant phrase, "Freedom National, Slavery
Sectional," which was first used in this speech of Sumner's, soon
became the watchword and the rallying cry of the new Free Soil
party, later the Republican party. But, at the time when the
Massachusetts senator uttered these words, slavery had appar-
ently subdued to its will the entire nation. It controlled our
politics. It ruled our trade and our commerce. It laid a pad-
lock on the lips of nearly every Christian minister in the land;
while it had poisoned at their source those social relations which
should keep men generous and sweet-tempered in their inter-
course with one another. After Sumner had delivered in the
Senate his first speech against slavery, he was made to feel, even
as in my own boyhood I had felt, the social ostracism which
every one then encountered who dared to say a word, or to do
the smallest deed, against the giant wrong. Never shall I forget


the evening in 1861 when, as I was walking with Mr. Sumner
through the residential quarter of the city of Baltimore, he
pointed to one after another of the stately mansions which we
were passing, and said with a tone of pathetic sadness in his
voice: ''When I came to Washington, ten years ago, all these
houses were opened to me, and I was always a welcome guest.
But ever since my anti- slavery speech in the Senate, every one
of these brownstone fronts has been closed against me." I did
not then know what, indeed, I have only recently learned, that
as early as 1848, three years before he went to Washington, the
expression of his anti -slavery convictions had cost him in his
native city of Boston a similar loss of social recognition. Rid-
ing one day down Beacon Street with his friend Richard Henry
Dana, he said sadly: ''The time was when there was hardly a
house within two miles of this place where I was not a welcome
guest. Now hardly one is opened to me." This is the state of
things of which we need to remind ourselves when we think of
that now long ago time which saw the advent of Charles Sumner
to the Senate of the United States. For this godly man was most
emphatically what Theodore Parker had desired that he should
be, "the senator with a conscience." He saw all his political
duties "in the beams of the Everlasting Sun of Truth." In
a very real sense Sumner incarnated the conscience of the North
in respect of human slavery; and it was but natural that he
should become its chief representative. From the moment of
his first speech in the Senate the slave -holding power through-
out the land knew that, at last, it had met its match, if not its
master. These hitherto so insolent defenders of the slave sys-
tem could then say with Macbeth: —

"We but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison 'd chalice
To our own hps."

I can see him now as on that midsummer day, nearly sixty
years ago, he stood proudly erect in his place in the Senate; as
George William Curtis once pictured him, — "with the light of


spotless youth upon his face, towermg, dauntless, radiant; the
indomitable Puritan, speaking not for his State alone, nor for
his country only, but for human rights ever^'where and always;
forecasting the future, heralding the New America." Then
followed the speeches which Sumner made, called forth by the
violation of the Missouri Compromise, — "The Crime against
Kansas," as he forcibly, but truly, characterized it. Of these
speeches the most vigorous and most telling was that of June
28, 1854. In his former speeches he had attacked the slave
power, showing the crimes of which it had been guilty and ex-
posing the corrupt and corrupting character of that tyrannical
rule under which Liberty had no rights that the government
was bound to respect. The slave -masters themselves he had
hardly alluded to, save as they were an inseparable part of the
slave power. But the time had come when there was no longer
any virtue in forbearance toward his insolent assailants, the
men who cracked the plantation whip in the halls of Congress
and practised on their political peers the tactics of the overseer
and the slave-driver. The invective of Sumner's speech was
indeed severe; but who will now say it was uncalled for or un-
deserved? There are occasions when the champion of justice
must silence the bully and shame the coward ; and Charles Sum-
ner plied the scourge of a righteous wrath in that chamber of
legislation, as of old the whip of knotted cords was used in the
temple at Jerusalem. His great speech on ''The Crime against
Kansas," given two years later on May 19, 1856, led to the cow-
ardly and brutal attack by Preston Brooks which nearly cost
Sumner his life and impaired his usefulness during all the years
that succeeded the shameful event.

It is interesting to note, in passing, that no other speech ever
delivered in the United States Congress found such a large and
world-wide hearing as this particular anti- slavery speech of
Sumner's. Fully a million copies of it were distributed. It was
reprinted and widely circulated in England and was translated

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Online LibraryH. G. (Henry George) SpauldingCharles Sumner; an address → online text (page 1 of 3)