Early in the morning of March 11, 1874, 63-year-old Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner suffered a massive heart attack. The mortally ill senator said that his only regrets about dying were that he had not finished preparing his collected writings for publication and that the Senate had not yet passed his civil rights bill. He expired that afternoon. Not since the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 had the nation grieved so deeply at the loss of one of its statesmen.
From the time he first took his oath as a senator 23 years earlier, Sumner had eloquently campaigned against racial inequality. His first speech in the Senate attacked the 1850 law that allowed the use of federal resources to capture runaway slaves. Only three other senators joined him in that politically risky campaign—one that was as unpopular in his home state as it was in the South. In the mid-1850s, he helped found the Republican Party as a coalition of antislavery political factions.
Tall and handsome, Sumner was also pompous and arrogant. Those latter traits got him into deep trouble in May 1856. At one point in a three-hour speech attacking slavery in Kansas, he described South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler as "an ignorant and mad zealot." Several days later, a House member who was related to Butler entered the Senate Chamber and savagely beat Sumner for those remarks.
The attack transformed Sumner into a northern hero, solving his political problems at home, and effectively guaranteeing him a lifetime seat in the Senate. When he died in 1874, his funeral was conducted in the Senate Chamber and he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Individual states competed for the honor of having his body displayed in their capitols.
Sumner would surely have been pleased to know that he has been memorialized on all three floors of the U.S. Capitol's Senate wing. Constantino Brumidi's portrait in Room 118 depicts Sumner as a senator of ancient Rome. That classical motif appears also in a third-floor marble portrait bust by noted nineteenth-century sculptor Martin Milmore. The grandest work, however, is located just outside the Senate Chamber. In the last year of his life, a tired and ill Sumner sat for a formal oil portrait by artist Walter Ingalls. In the finished work, Ingalls tactfully borrowed from a much earlier Mathew Brady photograph, leaving for posterity an image of a benevolent Sumner in his youthful prime. Who could ask for a better memorial?
Donald, David. Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man. New York, Knopf, 1970.