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Charles Sumner Dies

March 11, 1874

Charles Sumner by Walter Ingalls

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 regret about dying was 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. In the mid-1850s, he helped to found the Republican Party as a coalition of antislavery political factions. Throughout his Senate career, he repeatedly backed efforts by African Americans and others seeking justice and equality.

Tall and handsome, Sumner was also pompous and arrogant. Those latter traits got him into trouble in May of 1856. In his most famous speech—speaking for several hours over two days—Sumner delivered a scathing attack on the supporters of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed for expansion of slavery into the new territories. “Mr. President,” he began, “A crime has been committed.... It is the rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery....”

In his speech, Sumner targeted two Democratic senators as principal culprits in this crime. First, there was Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Sumner considered him to be a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal ... not a proper model for an American senator." And there was Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Mocking the southern senator’s stance as a man of chivalry, and using shockingly explicit and sexually-charged language, Sumner accused Butler of taking “a mistress . . . the harlot, Slavery.” Several days later, a House member who was related to Butler entered the Senate Chamber and savagely beat Sumner with a heavy walking stick.

The attack transformed Sumner into a northern hero and assured his place in history books, but his greatest legislative legacy came in the years after the caning. Serving in the Senate until his death, Sumner championed the cause of African Americans, calling for the passage of constitutional amendments to provide civil and political rights to freedmen. In 1870 he introduced what he considered to be his most important piece of legislation, a civil rights bill to guarantee to all citizens, regardless of color, “equal and impartial enjoyment of any accommodation, advantage, facility, or privilege.” Sumner predicted it would be the greatest achievement of Reconstruction. “Very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented,” he proclaimed.

Unfortunately, Sumner did not live to see his bill pass, but it occupied his final thoughts. “Don’t let the bill fail,” the dying Sumner pleaded to Frederick Douglass and others at his bedside. “You must take care of [my] civil-rights bill.” Sumner’s bill did become law in 1875, but the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1883. It took another 80 years for Sumner’s ideas to finally gain legislative endorsement – with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reference Items:

Donald, David.  Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man.  New York, Knopf, 1970.