CHAPTER 1 CHARLES SUMNER (1865)
CHARLES SUMNER DISAGREED, VEHEMENTLY, WITH General Grant’s vision of life after the Civil War ended. A fifty-four-year-old senator from Massachusetts, Sumner had already been a casualty of that war, four years before its first shot was fired.
Sumner’s grandfather had fought in the American Revolution, but he had inherited his abiding fervor from his father, who opposed segregated schools and the law forbidding marriage between whites and blacks.
A lifelong crusader, the elder Sumner was fond of saying, “The duties of life are more than life,” and he passed on that philosophy to his twins, a boy and a girl, born in 1811. Although Matilda Sumner died at twenty-one, her brother Charles never forgot the lesson.
From Boston Latin Grammar School, Charles went on to Harvard, where he strongly impressed his law professor Joseph Story, who was also a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
But a trip to Washington soured Sumner on a political career.
He developed a loathing for the theatrical airs of the Senate and for what he derided as “newspaper fame.” Apart from Judge Story, he found the Court no better.
Calling on Chief Justice Roger Taney, Sumner was disdainful of his “paltry collection of books, which seem to be very seldom used.”
He chose instead to travel extensively throughout Europe, where he
picked up fluency in German, Italian, French, and Spanish. Members of the British aristocracy were taken with this young Yankee’s erudition and welcomed him into their circle for fox hunting at their country estates.
Sumner dined at the Garrick Club and took tea with Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. His hostess forgot his nationality so completely that as they chatted she exclaimed, “Thank God, I have kept clear of those Americans!” Sumner pretended not to hear.
Invited by lawyers to Guildhall, London’s administrative center, Sumner was pleased to find a marble bust of an early British abolitionist in a place of honor.
At Windsor Castle, he toured the private rooms, where he found the royal dining hall unappealingly “showy and brilliant.”
When Sumner went home after eighteen months, it was only because his money had run out.
• • •
Sumner’s father had died during his travels. Back in Boston, he went to live with his mother on Hancock Street while he practiced law and oversaw the upbringing of his brothers and sisters. Friends decided that Europe had sent Charles home more portly but better tailored.
Sumner found that, at six-foot-four and with a powerful voice, he was becoming a popular speaker despite his weakness for fustian language. In the past, Boston’s traditional Fourth of July oration had left John Adams unimpressed. By the time the nation’s second president died in 1826, he was complaining that the event featured “young men of genius describing scenes they never saw” and professing “feelings they never felt.”
When Sumner was chosen for the honor of delivering the oration in 1845, he resolved to do better.
The familiar ritual at Tremont Temple began with a prayer, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, and music from a choir of a hundred girls. Then Sumner rose in a dress coat with gilt buttons and white trousers to face an audience of two thousand patriots. Barely referring to notes, he spoke for the next two hours.
Sumner began by denouncing the recent annexation of Texas
because it would probably lead to war with Mexico. Amid murmurs of disapproval from supporters of President Polk’s war policy, Sumner spelled out his theme:
“In our age there can be no peace that is not honorable; there can be no war that is not dishonorable.”
Sumner lauded the glories of nearby Harvard University before pointing out that after two centuries, the school had accumulated property worth only $703,175.
In contrast, the warship Ohio docked in Boston Harbor had cost $834,845.
“War is known as the last reason of kings. Let it be no reason of our republic. Let us renounce and throw off forever the yoke of a tyranny”—war—“more oppressive than any in the annals of the world.”
It was far from the thrilling martial rhetoric his audience had anticipated. Afterward, during the dinner at Faneuil Hall, Boston’s politicians and military officers angrily disavowed Sumner’s sentiments.
To restore a semblance of good humor, the dinner chairman suggested that the problem with his friend Sumner was that since he was a bachelor, he knew nothing of domestic strife and therefore nothing of war.
But at least one Boston general admired Sumner’s reaction to the discord he had aroused: He withstood “all these fusillades with the most quiet good nature, and even with good-humored smiles,” the man reported. “No man could have behaved with more exact and refined courtesy.”
• • •
When Judge Story died two months later, Sumner debated whether he wanted to succeed him as head of Harvard’s law school.
He worried that taking the position would mean censoring his opinions; he would “no longer be a free man.” But after his Fourth of July oration, Harvard settled the question for him, and the job was not offered.
Over the next two years, Sumner became appalled by the compromises that Senator Daniel Webster and other Northern Whigs were making to preserve the Union. In response, Sumner joined with a group including Salmon P. Chase of Ohio to form a Free Soil Party.
As a Free Soiler, Sumner ran against a Whig congressman in 1848, lost badly, and retreated to the practice of law. But when President
Millard Fillmore appointed Webster as his secretary of state, the naming of Webster’s replacement fell to the commonwealth’s legislature.
Many of its members were put off by what they considered Sumner’s arrogance and self-righteousness. These days, when he was invited to speak, Sumner insisted that he appear on a stage and not behind a pulpit, which he called “a devilish place.”
To heighten the insult, he added, “I do not wonder that people in it are dull.”
That uncompromising spirit had closed the doors of most of Boston’s first families to him. Even his closest friend from Harvard, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, lamented Sumner’s growing obsession.
“Nothing but politics now. Oh, where are those genial days when literature was the topic of our conversation?”
Despite those misgivings, Sumner was sent to the U.S. Senate by the margin of a single vote. Once there, he became an unyielding champion of his father’s ideals and took satisfaction in being described as the conscience of New England.
Sumner was unperturbed by his unpopularity. Ideas mattered to him, the men who held them hardly at all. When he had come across congenial spirits, they tended to be poets and writers—Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier. And the circle was exclusively male.
One friend observed that at any gathering, Sumner “would at once desert the most blooming beauty to talk to the plainest of men.”
In the years leading to the war, Sumner had remained a bachelor.
• • •
If Charles Sumner was a product of the culture that had produced the stern John Quincy Adams, Representative Preston S. Brooks reflected—like Henry Clay—the more indulgent life of the South and West. By the time he graduated from village grammar schools, Brooks had become so devoted to local taverns that the faculty of South Carolina College felt compelled to tighten its disciplinary code.
Even so, Brooks was expelled before he could graduate for what the college described as “riotous behavior.”
Moving on to practice law in Edgefield, South Carolina, Brooks was twenty-one when he fought his first duel—turning a trifling affront into a point of honor. Because dueling was illegal in the state, he met
his antagonist on a nearby Georgia island. Brooks took a bullet in his abdomen and thigh. The other man was also wounded, but both of them survived.
At six-foot, Brooks was nearly as tall and imposing as Sumner, but his life involved far more romance. When his first wife died after two years of marriage, Brooks married her sister. A supporter of the war with Mexico, he went off jauntily to fight. A fever soon sent him home again, but his service contributed to his military bearing.
As a Democrat who did not favor immediate secession, Brooks was rewarded for his moderation in 1852, with election to Congress from South Carolina. There he joined his cousin, the state’s senator, Andrew Pickens Butler, and he was present in the Senate chambers on March 19, 1856, when Sumner of Massachusetts rose to argue that for Kansas to enter the Union, it must outlaw slavery.
• • •
Sumner had already annoyed fellow senators in 1852 by urging repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act at a time when both parties wanted to slip past that year’s presidential election without debating the issue. Senate leaders did their best to stop Sumner from speaking, but he finally got the floor and introduced a motion to end the requirement that every citizen, North or South, join in apprehending runaway slaves. Sumner attracted three votes besides his own.
Although his crusade failed, Sumner’s eloquence drew disaffected Whigs and Free Soilers to another new movement. In September 1854, they came together in Worcester, Massachusetts, to form a coalition they called the Republican Party.
Other Whigs, however, were still put off by Sumner’s intemperance. For the time being, men like Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Henry Seward of New York saw a brighter future with the Whigs than with the Republicans or another splinter group, the secretive and anti-immigrant Know Nothings.
And yet, the Know Nothings did much better than any other slate in the election for the Massachusetts legislature—377 Know Nothings won, against a single Whig, one Democrat, and one Republican.
Sumner responded with renewed passion. On a trip through
Kentucky, he absorbed the lessons of his first extended exposure to slavery. In Lexington, he watched a slave auction and saw a coach driver whipping a Negro. At his hotel, a black child who was waiting on tables was knocked to the floor by a white man’s blow to his head.
Back home, Sumner’s speeches berated the Know Nothings—“I am not disposed to place any check upon the welcome of foreigners”—and stumped energetically for the Republicans. But within his new party, schisms were already arising. Men who shared Sumner’s resolute politics—Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania—were being called radicals.
• • •
By the time Sumner rose for his next two-day oration, the label had become official: Sumner was a Radical Republican. Yet he considered his speech simply a historical review of slavery, and he had shown a draft to New York senator Henry Seward, also an abolitionist but far less impatient and outspoken than Sumner. Seward had not supported Sumner’s repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act four years earlier, and now he urged Sumner to delete any personal attacks from his speech.
Henry Seward already knew, however, how stiff-necked Sumner could be.
Once he had asked Sumner, as a personal favor, to support legislation that would benefit a New York steamship line. Sumner refused. He said that he had not been sent to the Senate to get Seward re-elected.
Seward had snapped, “Sumner, you’re a damned fool.”
Sumner ended up voting for the bill, but the two men did not speak for months. Their coolness thawed, partly because Seward’s wife, Frances, had always been unstinting in her praise of Sumner’s “clear moral perceptions” and his being “so fearless a champion of human rights.”
But even she had advised Sumner against denouncing his colleagues by name.
Sumner ignored her advice and shifted from a mild review of the Kansas affair to biting ridicule. He assailed President Franklin Pierce for bowing to slave owners and Illinois senator Stephen Douglas for supporting a proslavery community within the Kansas territory.
In the past, Sumner had enjoyed his place on the Senate floor next to Preston Brooks’s cousin, Andrew Butler. In fact, Sumner had once
paid him a high compliment:
If only Butler had been born in New England, Sumner said, “he would have been a scholar or, at least, a well educated man.”
But Sumner’s opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act had destroyed any traces of friendship.
Now Sumner claimed that there was nothing Butler touched “that he does not disfigure.” The accusation was especially pointed since it could be taken as referring to the defect in Butler’s lip that distorted his speech. Sumner went on to add that Butler “cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.”
Butler was not in the chamber as Sumner mocked the way he had boasted about South Carolina’s venerable traditions. “He cannot surely have forgotten its shameful imbecility from slavery, confessed throughout the Revolution, followed by its most shameful assumptions for slavery since.”
• • •
The first Democrat to respond was Michigan’s Senator Lewis Cass, his party’s presidential candidate eight years earlier. Cass called Sumner’s speech “the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grated on the ears of the members of this high body.”
Speaking next, Stephen Douglas charged that Sumner had shown “a display of malignity that issued from every sentence.”
Douglas asked, “Is it his object to provoke some of us to kick him . . . ?”
Answering Douglas, Sumner referred to him as a skunk or—as he put it euphemistically—“a noisome, squat and nameless animal” that was “not a proper model for an American Senator.”
When newspapers published extracts from Sumner’s oration, titled “The Crime Against Kansas,” he received lavish congratulations from throughout the North. The New York Tribune praised his “inspiring eloquence and lofty moral tone.” Sumner’s friend Longfellow called the speech “the greatest voice on the greatest subject that has been uttered.”
• • •
After listening to the first day of Sumner’s speech, Preston Brooks had not returned for its conclusion, but Sumner’s diatribe against South Carolina was being hashed over at every dinner party in the capital. A
consensus was emerging that the tepid response by Southerners to Sumner’s provocation had been unmanly.
Brooks realized that his cousin was expected to punish Sumner for his insults. Southerners agreed that a duel was out of the question since Sumner was no gentleman. He would have to be whipped like a dog or a slave.
And yet Senator Butler, a frail sixty-year-old, could not carry out that retribution against the powerfully built Sumner. Brooks decided that punishment fell to him, even though Sumner outweighed him by thirty pounds.
For two days, Brooks lay in wait for Sumner to leave the Senate, but each time Sumner got immediately into his carriage. After another sleepless night, Brooks was ready to change his tactic and run up the flights of stairs to confront Sumner as he entered the Capitol.
But when he confided that plan to Congressman Henry Edmundson, the Virginian warned him that the exertion would exhaust him. Since Sumner was the stronger man, Brooks should conserve his strength.
On the third day of his vigil, Brooks went inside the Capitol to pass the time until the Senate adjourned. He then had to wait another hour until a group of women visitors finally left the lobby.
Edmundson saw that Brooks had taken a seat on the largely vacant Senate floor and said lightly, “Are you a senator now?”
Brooks was in no mood for joking. “I will stand this thing no longer,” he said.
Sumner had remained at his desk, franking copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech to mail to constituents. He did not rise when Brooks approached him.
“Mr. Sumner,” Brooks began, “I have read your speech with care and as much impartiality as was possible, and I feel it my duty to tell you that you have libeled my State and slandered a relative who is aged and absent, and I am come to punish you for it.”
With that, Brooks raised a cane that had been given to him a few months earlier. He had chosen it today because it was made from gutta-percha, a tropical wood that he thought would be less likely to splinter.
Brooks brought down his cane on Sumner’s head, pleased to see each strike hitting home. He swung so rapidly that Sumner was soon blinded
by his own blood and could not fight back.
As the beating continued, however, Sumner made a desperate effort and pulled himself up with such force that he ripped the desk from its iron screws embedded in the floor.
He found, though, that by crouching he had made himself even more vulnerable.
The unrelenting blows had splintered the cane, after all, but Brooks persisted, reveling in the sound of Sumner’s pain. His victim was bellowing “like a calf,” Brooks said afterward.
Sumner passed out and was about to fall. Brooks caught him with one hand while he kept beating him with the other. His cane was in shreds, but Brooks was still flailing when two congressmen heard the uproar and rushed to Sumner’s aide.
One of Brooks’s friends, Representative Laurence Keitt, brandished his own cane to ward them off and shouted, “Let them alone, God damn you!”
But the two reached the scene and pulled Brooks away from Sumner just as a Kentucky senator was hurrying up the aisle to plead, “Don’t kill him!”
Awakening from his frenzy, Brooks mumbled, “I did not intend to kill him.” As he pocketed his cane’s gold head, he added, “But I did intend to whip him.”
• • •
With Brooks being led to a side room, Sumner slipped again toward the floor. Supported by a friendly congressman, he leaned against a chair while he regained consciousness. A Senate page brought him a glass of water.
Sumner’s bleeding head was soaking his coat and trousers. He said he could walk to a sofa in the Senate anteroom but asked that someone recover his hat and the papers on his desk.
A doctor arrived to stanch Sumner’s wounds and sew four stitches in his scalp.
Soon afterward, he visited Sumner at his lodgings and warned Sumner’s friends that he must have absolute quiet.
As he drifted off to sleep, Sumner murmured, “I could not believe such a thing was possible.”
• • •
The doctor was optimistic about Sumner’s recovery. He described the beating as producing “nothing but flesh wounds” and predicted that
Sumner could take up his Senate duties within a few days. But when Sumner continued to run a high fever, his brother brought in specialists who found that Sumner’s spinal cord had been injured, which made his walking erratic and painful.
As time passed and Sumner did not return to the Senate, his enemies accused him of cowardice. But it took many months at health spas before he could move about freely. In the meantime, Republican lawmakers in Massachusetts elected him to a second Senate term.
When Sumner finally returned to the Capitol, he found that the first day at his desk exhausted him and “a cloud began to gather over my brain.” He decided that the most effective cure would be a return to Europe after twenty years.
During the next seven months on the continent, Sumner’s hectic social calendar suggested a full recovery.
In Paris, the young novelist Henry James, expecting stigmata from the abolitionist hero, was surprised to find Sumner’s wounds “rather disappointingly healed.”
But returning again to Congress for the new session in December 1857, Sumner discovered that he was still not ready. He could concentrate for only short periods, and he took no interest in the jousting over the status of Kansas between Stephen Douglas and the new president, James Buchanan. Sumner withdrew to Boston and diverted himself by examining a collection of engravings recently donated to Harvard College.
• • •
Preston Brooks’s assault had made both men famous.
From the time of the attack, crowds throughout the North cheered Sumner’s name and groaned and hissed at any mention of Brooks.
At an Indignation Meeting, Emerson spelled out
the lesson of Sumner’s beating: “I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”
In the South, acclaim and calumny were reversed. The Herald of Laurensville, South Carolina, described Brooks as “noble” and Sumner as “notorious.”
The merchants of Charleston took up a collection to buy Brooks a new cane inscribed “Hit Him Again.”
That theme was taken up by the Richmond Whig, whose editors had argued in the past for civility. Now they regretted only that Sumner had not been horsewhipped and urged that “Seward and others should catch
it next.” Another Virginia newspaper, the Petersburg Intelligencer, went further in singling out Henry Seward of New York:
“It will be very well to give Seward a double dose at least every other day until it operates freely on his political bowels.”
But North Carolina’s Wilmington Herald spoke for other Southerners when it argued that although perhaps “Sumner deserved what he got,” the editor could “not approve the conduct of Brooks” and found the entire episode “disgraceful.”
Andrew Butler, his honor avenged, returned to the Senate in time to hear Sumner’s friend Henry Wilson denounce Brooks’s “brutal, murderous and cowardly assault.”
At that, Butler shouted, “You are a liar!” and demanded a duel. Wilson turned away the challenge as a “lingering relic of a barbarous civilization.”
• • •
The Senate appointed an investigative committee of two Southern Democrats and three Northerners considered moderate on the issue of slavery. They invited Brooks to offer his version of the incident.
After he declined to appear, they concluded that he could be punished, if at all, only by his colleagues in the House.
While the House debated over expelling Brooks, a denunciation by one of Sumner’s friends provoked Brooks to issue his own challenge to a duel. The other man agreed. But to avoid U.S. laws, he proposed a site on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
Brooks backed out, complaining that he could not be protected from Northern mobs. His enemies turned that refusal into a ditty:
“But he quickly answered, No, no, no.
“For I’m afraid, afraid, afraid,
“Bully Brooks’s afraid.”
Nearly two months after Sumner was assaulted, the House motion to expel Brooks came to the floor. It passed 121 to 95, less than the required two-thirds vote. The following day, the House censured Laurence Keitt for his role but absolved Henry Edmundson.
In New York State, Frances Seward was resigned to the verdict. In the days after the hearing, she had been asked whether Brooks would hang if Sumner died from his wounds. No, she said cynically, only slaves were hanged in Washington, and then by men who thought it was too mild a punishment.
After a district court fined Brooks three hundred dollars, voters returned him to the House in the next election.
When he died from a throat infection early in 1857, Sumner was visiting Longfellow in Boston and received the news calmly. He saw Brooks as “a mere tool of the slaveholders,” Longfellow recalled.
To another friend, Sumner said, “The Almighty has settled this, better than you or I could have done.”
• • •
When Sumner returned full-time to the Senate, however, his colleagues learned that any mildness had been fleeting. As a martyr, he had been spared criticism from Northern Whigs, even those who considered him insufferably self-righteous. They found that it was a trait his convalescence had not mitigated.
Sumner said he dreaded being again in Washington “amidst tobacco-spitting, swearing slave-drivers, abused by the press, insulted so far as it is possible, pained and ransacked by the insensibility . . . to human rights and the claims of human nature.”
On their side, Southerners had forgiven nothing. They sent threatening letters promising “another pummeling.”
Through an accident of history, Sumner was drawn into the debate over a raid of a Southern arsenal by the untamable abolitionist John Brown. After the attack by Preston Brooks, Brown had called on Sumner in Boston to ask if the senator still had the coat he had been wearing on the fateful day.
With effort, Sumner limped to a closet and brought out the coat, caked with his blood.
Brown did not speak but held it with his lips pressed tight, while his eyes, Sumner recalled, “shone like polished steel.”
Now with Brown about to be hanged for his failed raid at Harper’s Ferry, Sumner granted that Brown must be punished, but he also recognized a kindred soul.
Yes, he condemned Brown’s actions and the
bloodshed, Sumner said, “but how can I refuse admiration to many things in the man?”
That spirit was on display when President Buchanan invited Sumner to the White House to urge that he endorse recent Senate propositions aimed at warding off civil war.
Sumner heard Buchanan out, then replied that the people of Massachusetts “would see their state sink below the sea and become a sand bar” rather than acknowledge that a human being could be treated as property.
• • •
With the presidential election of 1860 approaching, many men in Sumner’s Republican Party hoped to attract Northern Whigs and prevent Stephen Douglas from fanning emotions throughout the South. They certainly did not want Sumner’s intransigence on public display.
He, in turn, was contemptuous of their caution. He was resigned to the prospect of Henry Seward being the Republican nominee. But Sumner had never fully trusted Seward’s commitment to immediate and outright abolition.
When the Republicans met in Chicago, however, delegates passed over Seward to nominate a man who had served only one term in the Congress. Although Sumner did not know Abraham Lincoln, he decided to spell out the principles that Lincoln must embrace.
The result was a four-hour oration on June 4, 1860, titled “The Barbarism of Slavery.”
Sumner began mildly, alluding indirectly to the recent deaths of Preston Brooks and Senator Butler—“tombs that have been opened since I spoke.”
After assuring his audience that he was not motivated by vindictiveness, Sumner laid into the slave-owning states, with special disdain for South Carolina. And, he argued, if the African race was indeed inferior, as the slave owners claimed, “then it is the unquestionable duty of a Christian Civilization to lift it from its degradation, not by the bludgeon and the chain,” but by a “generous charity.”
Republican politicians deplored Sumner’s unrepentant diatribe. His friends began sleeping on his parlor floor to protect him against further retaliation. When Lincoln was sent a copy of the speech, he would not
be drawn into the controversy.
“I have not yet found time to peruse the speech,” Lincoln wrote in his note of thanks, “but I anticipate much both of pleasure and instruction from it.”
• • •
Although Sumner still had not met the Republican nominee and knew little about him, when the election returns were counted he celebrated Lincoln’s victory with a partisan group called the Wide-Awake Club. Throughout the campaign, its members had been demonstrating for Lincoln in Northern cities by carrying torches on long poles to light up the night sky.
Even though they could not vote, the female Wide-Awakers at Mount Holyoke College were no less enthusiastic.
The young women were described as “laughing and shouting and drinking lemonade” as they carried a banner that read, “PRESIDENT—ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Behind a homely exterior, we recognize inner beauty.”
When Wide-Awakers in Concord reached the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the exuberant crowd spotted Sumner and shouted to him for a speech. At that point, Sumner still hoped that South Carolina’s threat to leave the Union would prove idle, but his remarks acknowledged that a cataclysm might be coming:
“A poet has said that the shot fired here was heard round the world, and I doubt not that this victory, which we have achieved in our country, will cause a reverberation that will be heard throughout the globe.”
• • •
As the consequences of Lincoln’s election became inevitable, Sumner could sound torn—never about abolition, but about the fate of the Union.
Much as I desire the extinction of Slavery,” he wrote in a letter to an English correspondent, “I do not wish to see it go down in blood.”
At other times, he seemed to take a fatalistic satisfaction in the crisis. When South Carolina became the first state to secede, Sumner predicted that “Virginia will go, and will carry with her Maryland and Kentucky. They will all go.”
At their first meeting, the president-elect managed to reassure Sumner
that he would be steadfast. All the same, Sumner concluded that Lincoln lacked the social grace and dignity to lead the nation. But he had to admit that his conversation could flash with extraordinary insights.
Lincoln was also taking the measure of his guest. Commenting on Sumner’s imposing height, he suggested that they stand back to back to see who was taller.
Sumner declined with a reproach: This was “the time for uniting our fronts against the enemy and not our backs.”
Lincoln, who admired Sumner’s idealism, took the rebuff in good part.
He told the story afterward with the glint in his eye that his friends recognized. He had found Sumner’s remark “very fine,” Lincoln said. “But I reckon the truth was . . . he was afraid to measure!”
In the same teasing tone, Lincoln reminded listeners that he had “never had much to do with the bishops down where I live. But do you know, Sumner is just my idea of a bishop.”
From that time on, Lincoln tried to shield Sumner’s sensibilities. John Eaton, an army chaplain, recalled the day that Lincoln had been lolling comfortably with a long leg twisted over the arm of his chair. When Sumner was heard approaching, Lincoln instantly snapped to, rose to his feet, and prepared to return his visitor’s bow.
Sumner had come to recommend a name for a consulship. Lincoln thanked him warmly and saw him out. Returning to Eaton, Lincoln sank back in his chair, resumed straddling its arm, and explained his hasty attempt at propriety:
“When with the Romans, we must do as the Romans do!”
Sumner’s patronizing of the new president persisted to the day he was walking home from the inaugural. He had been pleased with Lincoln’s address, and he observed to a Massachusetts colleague that the speech could best be described as “a hand of iron and a velvet glove.”
But, Sumner added, Lincoln might not recognize Napoleon’s famous phrase.
• • •
The president was soon to disappoint Sumner in a more substantial way. Sumner felt he could legitimately expect appointment as secretary of
state, since few Americans matched his wealth of experience or his contacts overseas. And yet Lincoln chose Henry Seward, the man he had just defeated for the Republican nomination.
As Lincoln’s term unfolded, however, the president and Sumner adjusted to each other.
Mary Lincoln reported that she sometimes overheard them in her husband’s office, where they would talk and “laugh together like two schoolboys.”
• • •
When Lincoln struggled with the proclamation that would define his presidency, he did not turn to Charles Sumner for advice. Instead, the president called together his cabinet on July 22, 1862, and even then he confided the purpose of the meeting only to Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
Overcoming his lingering reluctance, Lincoln was ready to declare that slaves within every state rebelling against the Union were free “thereforward and forever.” The result would put an end to slavery for three and a half million black men, women, and children but not for the 425,000 within the states that had not rebelled, since they did not fall under the president’s war powers authority.
First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation
Before reading his proclamation aloud, Lincoln announced that his mind was made up and that he “had not called them together to ask their advice.”
When he had finished reading, most cabinet officers were stunned into silence or quietly indicated their support. Only Salmon Chase, despite his reputation as a fervent abolitionist, recommended caution. He would have preferred a more sweeping decree, Chase said, but he recommended that discretion be left to the generals on the ground to free the slaves within their occupied territory “as soon as practical.”
Speaking last, Henry Seward raised one consequence that Lincoln admitted he had not considered: Given the reverses suffered lately by the Union army, Lincoln’s action might look like a desperate last resort.
The list of the North’s defeats was indeed sobering, beginning with the first major battle of the war at Bull Run in Northern Virginia. When the troops of Confederate general Thomas Jackson had stood fast and forced the Union army to retreat, both North and South had been shocked into accepting that the war would be a long one. From that day, the general had been called “Stonewall” Jackson, and now a second battle at Bull Run promised to go no better.
Seward recommended that the president wait for a battlefield success.
Then, when “the eagle of victory takes flight,” Seward said, Lincoln could “hang your proclamation about his neck.”
Lincoln was persuaded. He returned the two foolscap pages to his pocket and hoped for a military success.
• • •
That moment was slow in coming. In mid-September 1862, General Lee made a daring decision to carry the war to the North. By invading Maryland, he intended to tie down the Union forces that were defending Washington.
Lee did not know that a letter outlining his tactics had been left behind when his army vacated an earlier camp at Frederick City. Recovered by a Union soldier, the letter had been sent to George McClellan, the thirty-six-year-old commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Although McClellan was admired for his meticulous planning, he was proving to be sluggish on the ground. But with Lee’s strategy in his
pocket, he moved to vanquish Lee’s vastly outnumbered Confederate troops.
The battle was fought at Antietam Creek, near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. When fighting ended on September 17, 1862, the number of American casualties was greater than in any other single day in the nation’s history.
Nearly 24,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had been killed or wounded or were missing in action. Despite the disparity in the number of troops committed to battle, the losses on both sides proved to be close—about 12,500 of McClellan’s men against 11,500 of Lee’s.
But McClellan’s critics pointed out that the general—always worried about being outnumbered—had held back from battle two corps of his reserves that totaled more than Lee’s entire force. McClellan’s caution had enabled Lee to withdraw to fight again.
• • •
Five days after the battle, Lincoln issued the first of a two-part proclamation. He set a deadline of January 1, 1863, for freeing slaves in any state that did not return to the Union.
Lincoln’s ultimatum infuriated the South. Jefferson Davis swore that if freed slaves were recruited as soldiers, he would never recognize them as legitimate combatants and would punish black troops harshly along with their white commanders.
The Union army responded by publishing a code of conduct that protected prisoners of war and forbade torture. The pamphlet warned against mistreating Negro troops and held that the rules of war allowed for “no distinction of color.”
When Lincoln’s deadline came and went, his second proclamation freed the slaves in the ten states of the Confederacy. But while invoking his authority under Article II of the Constitution, Lincoln exempted the border states that had not seceded—Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware. Also exempted were the state of Tennessee, back again under Union control, and the city of New Orleans, together with thirteen Louisiana parishes.
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Claiming victory at Antietam had not improved George McClellan’s standing with Lincoln. On November 5, 1862, the president removed him from command of the Army of the Potomac and two days later appointed Ambrose Burnside to replace him.
Only two years older than McClellan, Burnside wanted to prove his eagerness to fight. On December 13, he provoked a battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia, where his casualties ran to 12,653 men, almost 1,300 of them killed. Lee’s losses were less than half that number—5,377, with 608 dead.
The fiasco led Radical Republicans to step up their scornful criticism of the president’s conduct of the war.
Lincoln lamented, “If there is a worse place than hell, I am in it.”
He sent Burnside to the Army of the Ohio to repair his reputation and, with severe misgivings, appointed Joseph Hooker, a major general approaching fifty but unflagging in his enthusiasm for liquor and for the women available at military encampments.
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Further Union losses served to test the alliance between the president and Charles Sumner during the months leading to Lincoln’s re-election campaign. Early in January 1864, during a second battle at Cold Harbor, northeast of Richmond, Virginia, Ulysses Grant had lost nearly 7,000 men to General Lee’s 1,500.
Dispirited, Sumner became sympathetic to a movement by other Radicals to replace Lincoln, even after he had been nominated by the Republicans for a second term.
Sumner’s rift with the president was repaired, however, during the intense debate over a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery. Although abolition was the crusade of his lifetime, Sumner had not been leading the congressional charge. Instead, it was Missouri senator John Henderson who submitted a joint resolution for the amendment in January 1864. Henderson, no Radical Republican, was a Democrat who had stayed loyal to the Union.
As variations on the amendment were put forth, Sumner found all of them wanting. In a speech on April 8, 1864, he denounced his colleagues for their past inaction:
Since “nothing in the Constitution” supported slavery, Sumner said, no amendment had been necessary. Congress could have acted on its own. But because members had been too timid, he grudgingly acknowledged that an amendment might now be called for.
In the end, Sumner voted for a version cobbled together by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would add the United States to the expanding list of nations that banned slavery.
France’s revolution had ended slavery in 1794. England first abolished the slave trade in 1807, then outlawed slavery itself in 1832. As America was launching its civil war, Russia had freed its serfs in 1861, and the Netherlands ended slavery in its colonies two years later.
The pending amendment reversed the intention of an amendment offered by Congressman Thomas Corwin of Ohio that had passed Congress in the last days of the Buchanan administration. If ratified by the states, Corwin’s proposal would have forbidden any future amendments to abolish or restrict slavery.
Corwin’s Thirteenth Amendment would have been the first change in the Constitution in almost sixty years. It had passed both houses of Congress, and in his first inaugural address, Lincoln had seemed to endorse its sentiments.
By April 1864, however, the president had become committed to an amendment that would end slavery. With a vote of thirty-eight to six, the Senate approved the measure on April 8, 1864. When Democrats in the House blocked passage, Lincoln saw to it that the amendment was added to the Republican platform during his re-election campaign.
That election produced enough gains for the Republicans for Lincoln to predict its inevitable passage in the next Congress, but he pressed former Whigs who had become wavering Democrats to switch their votes even before that. He sent aides to lobby for the amendment with a stirring admonition:
“Remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.”
On January 31, 1865, the amendment passed the House 119 to 56, and Lincoln signed it the next day, the final step on the path he had begun with the Emancipation Proclamation.
The president’s home state of Illinois hastened to become the first
to ratify the amendment on the day he signed it. By the night that Lincoln was shot, Arkansas had become the twenty-first state to ratify, and eight months later, with Georgia’s ratification on December 6, 1865, the amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution.
A few states rejected or tabled the change and ratified it only later. The state of Mississippi did not add its approval until 1995 and neglected to notify Washington until February 2013.
The language of the amendment was terse:
1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Charles Sumner had already moved on. He was preparing to confront the discrimination that he expected the newly freed slaves to face, and he protested a system in the District of Columbia that designated separate streetcars for black passengers. Sumner called it “a disgrace to the city, and a disgrace to the National Government, which permits it under its eyes.”
He achieved only limited success—barring discrimination on a single railway—but he did win equal pay for the black soldiers who had been recruited since 1862.
Sumner’s crusading continued to come at a price.
One of his friends, a Polish translator in the Senate, lamented that he “is attacked by political enemies and is obnoxious, nay at times, nauseous, to men of the same party principles as his.”
That same friend acknowledged that Sumner’s manner was at least partly to blame—“his petty schoolmaster-like conceit, and by the everlasting pompous display of his rhetorical superiority and undigested erudition.”