The Abolitionists: Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner

(1811 -1874)

Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner was known as a passionate advocate for civil rights. Educated at Harvard University, Sumner worked tirelessly to abolish slavery. “Where slavery is, there liberty cannot be. Where liberty is, there slavery cannot be,” Sumner declared in a speech he made before Congress in 1864. He branded slavery a ‘national evil.’

As with the citizenry of the country, Congress was split in its opinion about slavery. Sumner was a harsh critic of slavery, and he made sure his colleagues in the Congress knew it. He was relentless in his speeches, angering many to the point where members of Congress grew concerned about Sumner’s safety.

In 1856, Sumner spoke before Congress on the issue of how Kansas should enter the Union, as either a free or slave state. During the speech he spoke particularly harshly about a supporter of slavery from South Carolina, Senator Andrew Butler. Two days later, Butler’s cousin Representative Preston Brooks approached Sumner as he worked at his desk in a mostly empty Senate chamber. He challenged Sumner about his speech, and as Sumner attempted to stand, Butler beat him with his cane. Butler hit Sumner with the gold head of his cane again and again, until Sumer fell to the ground bloodied and unconscious.

It took Sumner three years to recover his health. During that time, the people of Massachusetts chose to leave his Senate seat empty in honor of his heroism. When Sumner returned to the Senate, he gave a four hour speech called “The Barbarism of Slavery”. He was back stronger than ever. He would not be silenced.