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Sumner, Charles

Born: 1811-01-06 Boston, Massachusetts

Died: 1874-03-11 Washington, DC

Charles Sumner was a lawyer, reformer, and U.S. Senator. He entered Harvard College at the age of fifteen, graduated in 1830, and began studying law. During the 1830s, he practiced law, adopted Unitarian beliefs, and became involved in the era’s numerous reform movements, particularly anti-slavery. Dissatisfied with the law, Sumner spent the last part of the decade studying in Europe and returned to Boston in 1840. His involvement in reform increased during the 1840s and he became involved in the Whig Party. He became a leader of the “conscience Whigs,” who opposed slavery and its expansion westward. Following the Mexican War, Sumner joined the Liberty Party and the Massachusetts General Court elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1851.

In the Senate, Sumner voiced his opposition to the Compromise of 1850 and began advocating for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. Following the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Sumner became highly involved in organizing the political coalition that would become the Republican Party. As the situation in Kansas deteriorated, Sumner became one of the Senate’s leading anti-slavery spokesmen, most notably attacking Stephen A. Douglas and Andrew P. Butler in his 1856 speech, “The Crime Against Kansas,” which resulted in his vicious caning at the hands of Preston S. Brooks. Following the assault, Sumner returned to Boston to convalesce and was reelected to the Senate by the General Court. He physically returned in 1859 and immediately resumed his attacks on slavery.

The onset of the Civil War only increased Sumner’s commitment to anti-slavery, and he continuously advocated emancipation as a northern war aim. He also pushed for African American enlistment and enfranchisement.

Frederick J. Blue, “Sumner, Charles,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21:137-39; David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970); David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960); Gravestone, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA.