History Crush: Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner, from the Encyclopedia Britannica

Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to launch our new “History Crush” series. Staff from across the National Archives will share which historic person in our holdings makes their heart beat a little faster! Our inaugural guest post comes from Natalie Rocchio, who is an archives specialist at the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives.

Since starting at the Center for Legislative Archives, I’ve been crushing on a certain former statesman from Massachusetts . . . and no, he’s not a Kennedy.

 My history crush is Senator Charles Sumner, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1833. He was a world traveler (it’s said that he spoke at least three languages fluently!). He was a gifted orator and a well-known pacifist. As a member of Congress, he worked to end slavery in America and ensure civil rights for African Americans. 

Sumner began his political career in 1848. He was elected to the Senate in 1851 as a member of the Free Soil Party and later reelected as a member of the Opposition, Republican, and Liberal Republication Parties from 1855 to 1874.

In 1856, he delivered a speech called “Crime Against Kansas” during the Kansas statehood debate in which he denounced slavery and attacked other senators who supported the institution. On May 22, after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina walked into the chamber, approached Sumner, and proceeded to beat him with his cane for insulting his state and Senator Andrew Butler (who was Brooks’s uncle and who had received the brunt of Sumner’s verbal attacks in “Crime”).

Sumner was barely conscious after the caning. In fact, he never fully recovered, and he didn’t return to serve full-time in the Senate until 1859. Historians believe that Sumner suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the caning. The brutal attack has been viewed as a precursor of the extreme opinions seen across the United States leading up to and during the Civil War.

Certificate of Election for Charles Sumner, April 25, 1851; Credentials of Senators (SEN 32A-J4); 32nd Congress; Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives, Washington, DC.

After the Civil War, Sumner continued to fight for African Americans. In 1870, he introduced his first civil rights bill with no avail. He reintroduced the bill in the 42nd and 43rd Congresses. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his bill pass. It is said that many members of Congress were motivated to approve the bill after Sumner’s death because of his lifelong commitment to destroy slavery and ensure the rights of African Americans.

President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill, often referred to as the Sumner Civil Rights Bill, into law on March 1, 1875. It prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations, but not public schools (although public schools were included in Sumner’s original version). In 1883, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in the Civil Rights Cases. This bill was the last civil rights legislation to be passed in Congress for over 80 years.

Following his death, Sumner was the fourth person to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. As a statesman, passionate humanitarian, civil rights leader, linguist, world traveler, brilliant orator, and (I admit) dashing young man, Charles Sumner made a huge impact on our nation’s history—which is why he is my biggest history crush.

Sumner Civil Rights Bill (ARC 1986640), December 1, 1873; Bills and Resolutions Originating in the Senate and Considered in the House (HR43A-C1); 43rd Congress; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives, Washington, DC.

6 thoughts on “History Crush: Charles Sumner

  1. Nice choice, Natalie. Sumner was perhaps Mary Todd Lincoln’s favorite Senator, and after her husband’s assassination championed getting her a pension.

  2. Thanks, Rod! Sumner and the Lincoln’s were very close friends (although they didn’t always agree politically). Sumner was actually at the Petersen House when President Lincoln died. It’s said that Robert Lincoln was crying on Sumner’s shoulder as he learned that his father had finally passed. So I’m not surprised at all to learn that he helped Mrs. Lincoln with her pension. Thanks for sharing!

  3. “Give me the money that has been spent in war and I will clothe every man, woman, and child in an attire of which kings and queens will be proud. I will build a schoolhouse in every valley over the whole earth. I will crown every hillside with a place of worship consecrated to peace.” – Charles Sumner

  4. He also represented young Sarah Roberts in Roberts v. Boston, a case quite similar to a better-known one a century later: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

  5. Excellent choice! As a Bostonian, I have always held Charles Sumner as my ideal Baystater and politician. Along with Bobby Keenedy, his politics has most deeply shaped my own. Which of his biographies is your favorite?

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