He graduated in 1830 at Harvard College, and in 1834 graduated at the Harvard Law School. Here, in closest intimacy with Joseph Story, he became an enthusiast in the study of jurisprudence: at the age of twenty-three he was admitted to the bar, and was contributing to the American Jurist, and editing law texts and Story's court decisions. What he saw of Congress during a month's visit to Washington around 1834 filled him with loathing for politics as a career, and he returned to Boston resolved to devote himself to the practice of law. The three years (1837-1840) spent in Europe were years of fruitful study and experience. He secured a ready command of French, German and Italian, equalled by no American then in public life. He formed the acquaintance of many of the leading statesmen and publicists, and secured a deep insight into continental systems of government and of jurisprudence. In England (1838) his omnivorous reading in literature, history and jurisprudence made him persona grata to leaders of thought. Lord Brougham declared that he "had never met with any man of Sumner's age of such extensive legal knowledge and natural legal intellect." Not till many years after Sumner's death was any other American received so intimately into the best English circles, social, political and intellectual.
In his thirtieth year, a broadly cultured cosmopolitan, Sumner returned to Boston, resolved to settle down to the practice of his profession. But gradually he devoted less of his time to practice and more to lecturing in the Harvard Law School, to editing court reports and to contributions to law journals, especially on historical and biographical lines, in which his erudition was unsurpassed. In his law practice he had disappointed himself and his friends, and he became despondent as to his future. It was in a 4th of July oration on "The True Grandeur of Nations," delivered in Boston in 1845, that he first found himself. His oration was a tremendous arraignment of war, and an impassioned appeal for freedom and for peace, and proved him an orator of the first rank. He immediately became one of the most eagerly sought orators for the lyceum and college platform. His lofty themes and stately eloquence made a profound impression, especially upon young men; his platform presence was imposing, for he was Six feet and four inches in height and of massive frame; his voice was clear and of great power; his gestures unconventional and individual, but vigorous and impressive. His literary style was somewhat florid. Many of his speeches were monuments of erudition, but the wealth of detail, of allusion, and of quotation, often from the Greek and Latin, sometimes detracted from their effect.
Sumner co-operated effectively with Horace Mann for the improvement of the system of public education in Massachusetts. Prison reform and peace were other causes to which he gave ardent support. In 1847 the vigour with which Sumner denounced a Boston congressman's vote in favour of the Mexican War Bill made him the logical leader of the "Conscience Whigs," but he declined to accept their nomination for Congress. He took an active part in the organizing of the Free Soil party, in revolt at the Whigs' nomination of a slave-holding southerner for the presidency; and in 1848 was defeated as a candidate for the national House of Representatives. In 1851 control of the Massachusetts legislature was secured by the Democrats in coalition with the Free Soilers. but after filling the state offices with their own men, the Democrats refused to vote for Sumner, the Free Soilers' choice for United States senator, and urged the selection of some less radical candidate. A deadlock of more than three months ensued, finally resulting in the election (April 24) of Sumner by a majority of a single vote.
Sumner thus stepped front the lecture platform to the Senate, with no preliminary training. At first he prudently abstained from trying to force the issues in which he was interested, while he studied the temper and procedure of the Senate. In the closing hours of his first session, in spite of strenuous efforts to prevent it, Sumner delivered (August 26, 1832) a speech, "Freedom national; Slavery sectional," which it was immediately felt marked a new era in American history. The conventions of both the great parties had just affirmed the finality of every provision of the Compromise of 1850. Reckless of political expediency, Sumner moved that the Fugitive Slave Act be forthwith repealed; and for more than three hours he denounced it as a violation of the constitution, an affront to the public conscience, and an offence against the divine law. The speech provoked a storm of anger in the South, but the North was heartened to find at last a leader whose courage matched his conscience. In 1856, at the very time when "border ruffians" were drawing their lines closer about the doomed town of Lawrence, Kansas, Sumner in the Senate (May 19-20) laid bare the "Crime against Kansas." He denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill as in every respect a swindle, and held its authors, Stephen A. Douglas and Andrew P. Butler, up to the scorn of the world as the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of "the harlot, Slavery." Two days later (May 22) Preston S. Brooks (1819-1857), a congressman from South Carolina, suddenly confronted Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the Senate chamber, denounced his speech as a libel upon his state and upon Butler, his relative, and before Sumner, pinioned by his desk, could make the slightest resistance, rained blow after blow upon his head, till his victim sank bleeding and unconscious upon the floor. That brutal assault cost Sumner three years of heroic struggle to restore his shattered health--years during which Massachusetts loyally reelected him, in the belief that in the Senate chamber his vacant chair was the most eloquent pleader for free speech and resistance to slavery. Upon returning to his post in 1859, the approaching presidential campaign of 1860 did not deter him from delivering a speech, entirely free from personal rancour, on "The Barbarism of Slavery"--to this day one of the most comprehensive and scathing indictments of American slavery ever presented.
In the critical months following Lincoln's election Sumner was an unyielding foe to every scheme of compromise. After the withdrawal of the Southern senators, Sumner was made chairman of the committee on foreign relations (March 8, 1861), a position for which he was pre-eminently fitted by his years of intimate acquaintance with European politics and statesmen. While the war was in progress his letters from Cobden and Bright, from Gladstone and the duke of Argyll, at Lincoln's request were read by Sumner to the cabinet, and formed a chief source of light as to political thought in England. In the turmoil over the "'Trent' affair," it was Sumner's word that convinced Lincoln that Mason and Slidell must be given up, and that reconciled the public to that inevitable step. Again and again Sumner used the power incident to his chairmanship to block action which threatened to embroil the United States in war with England and France. Sumner openly and boldly advocated the policy of emancipation. Lincoln described Sumner as "my idea of a bishop," and used to consult him as an embodiment of the conscience of the American people.
The war had hardly begun when Sumner put forward his theory of reconstruction, that the seceded states by their own act had "become felo de se," had "committed state suicide," and that their status and the conditions of their readmission to membership in the Union, lay absolutely at the determination of Congress; as if they were Territories and had never been states. He resented the initiative in Reconstruction taken by Lincoln, and later by Johnson, as an encroachment upon the powers of Congress. Throughout the war Sumner had constituted himself the special champion of the negro, being the most vigorous advocate of emancipation, of enlisting the blacks in the Union army, and of the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau. A friend of Samuel Gridley Howe, he was also a guiding force for the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission. The credit or the blame for imposing equal suffrage rights for negroes upon the Southern states as a condition of Reconstruction must rest with Charles Sumner more than with any other one man. Despite contemporary racial prejudice, he insisted on putting the ballot forthwith into the hands of blacks, lest their rights be taken from them by their former masters and the fruits of the war be lost. But it must be remembered that in Sumner's plan equal suffrage was to be accompanied by free homesteads and free schools for negroes.
In the impeachment proceedings against Johnson, Sumner was one of the president's most implacable assailants. Sumner's opposition to Grant's pet scheme for the annexation of San Domingo (1870), after the president mistakenly supposed that he had secured a pledge of support, brought upon him the president's bitter resentment. Sumner had always prized highly his popularity in England, but he unhesitatingly sacrificed it in taking his stand as to the adjustment of claims against England for breaches of neutrality during the war. Sumner laid great stress upon "national claims." He held that England's according the rights of belligerents to the Confederate states had doubled the duration of the war, entailing inestimable loss. He therefore insisted that England should be required not merely to pay damages for the havoc wrought by the "Alabama" and other cruisers fitted out for Confederate service in her ports, but that, for "that other damage, immense and infinite, caused by the prolongation of the war," the withdrawal of the British flag from this hemisphere could "not be abandoned as a condition or preliminary of such a settlement as is now proposed." (At the Geneva arbitration conference these "national claims" were abandoned.) Under pressure from the president, on the ground that Sumner was no longer on speaking terms with the secretary of state, he was deposed on the 10th of March 1871 from the chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations, in which he had served with great distinction and effectiveness throughout the critical years since 1861. Whether the chief cause of this humiliation was Grant's vindictiveness at Sumner's opposition to his San Domingo project or a genuine fear that the impossible demand, which he insisted should be made upon England, would wreck the prospect of a speedy and honourable adjustment with that country, cannot be determined. In any case it was a cruel blow to a man already broken by racking illness and domestic sorrows. Sumner's last years were further saddened by the misconstruction put upon one of his most magnanimous acts. In 1872 he introduced in the Senate a resolution providing that the names of battles with fellow citizens should not be placed on the regimental colours of the United States. The Massachusetts legislature denounced this battle-flag resolution as "an insult to the loyal soldiery of the nation" and as "meeting the unqualified condemnation of the people of the Commonwealth." For more than a year all efforts--headed by the poet Whittier--to rescind that censure were without avail, but early in 1874 it was annulled. On the 10th of March, against the advice of his physician, Sumner went to the Senate--it was the day on which his colleague was to present the rescinding resolution. With those grateful words of vindication from Massachusetts an his ears Charles Sumner left the Senate chamber for the last time. That night he was stricken with an acute attack of angina pectoris, and on the following day he died.
Sumner was the scholar in politics. He could never be induced to suit his action to the political expediency of the moment. "The slave of principles, I call no party master," was the proud avowal with which he began his service in the Senate. For the tasks of Reconstruction he showed little aptitude. He was less a builder than a prophet. His was the first clear programme proposed in Congress for the reform of the civil service. It was his dauntless courage in denouncing compromise, in demanding the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, and in insisting upon emancipation, that made him the chief initiating force in the struggle that put an end to slavery.
See Sumner's Works (15 vols., Boston, 1870-1885), and Edward L Pierce's Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner (4 vols.,. Boston, 1877-1893). Briefer biographies have been written by Anna L Dawes (New York, 1892); Moorfield Storey (Boston, 1900); and George H Haynes (Philadelphia, 1909).