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Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War Hardcover – January, 1960

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About the Author

David Herbert Donald, who has twice been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, is Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of American Civilization Emeritus at Harvard University. His many books include Lincoln's Herndon, Lincoln Reconsidered, The Politics of Reconstruction, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man, and Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe.

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Excerpt from Chapter One

THESE JOTTINGS ARE MADE FOR FRIENDLY EYES," THE NEWLY ELECTED senator from Massachusetts wrote as a postscript to his autobiography, "to be used more or less, or not at all, as shall be thought best." The senatorial contest of 1851 had been the most embittered and prolonged in Massachusetts history, and Charles Sumner wished to repel charges that he was a political nonentity, a mere rhetorician elected through an unholy and corrupt coalition. As his autobiographical notes had this practical purpose, they naturally were not modest, and Sumner's old friend and former Harvard professor, John Gorham Palfrey, to whom he entrusted them, was able to work them into a laudatory newspaper sketch of the new antislavery senator as a statesman whose name would illuminate "the historical page of the triumphs of Freedom in the nineteenth century." Touched by Palfrey's words, which, in fact, merely echoed his own, Sumner was delighted by "that beautiful sketch" of his career. "I felt a throb of gratitude to you," he wrote Palfrey, "but a deep feeling also of my own unworthiness…As a composition your article is all that could be desired. As a token of friendship more than I deserve."


Sumner's autobiographical jottings, like Palfrey's published tribute to him, were revealingly reticent. The new Massachusetts senator stated that he had been born in Boston on January 6, 1811, but he had nothing else to say about his boyhood. Neither here nor at any other time did he look back to the good old days when Boston was a compact town of only 40,000 inhabitants, most of whom knew each other by sight. He never told anecdotes of playing in the mud flats of Back Bay, where now some of the proudest houses in Boston rise. He had no tales of wandering on the wharves, thronged with sailing ships manned by rough-voiced sailors shouting in unknown tongues. He never remembered roaming through the markets, sniffing the exotic aroma of tea from the Orient, tasting figs from Smyrna, and sampling barrels of West Indies molasses through straws adeptly inserted through the bungholes. He had no recollections of snowball fights on the Common or of sledding down Beacon Hill across the main thoroughfare of Washington Street in defiance of all traffic. Sumner never had the feeling of his contemporary, Edward Everett Hale, that Boston "was a good place in which to be born, and a good place in which to grow to manhood."

Sumner's autobiography was equally silent on his genealogy. Though he knew that New Englanders had an almost Oriental reverence for their ancestors and delighted in tracing family lineages through assorted Patiences, Ashabels, and Eliphalets back to the founders of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the newly elected senator made no effort to exploit the fact that on both sides of his family he could claim industrious and God-fearing forebears who had settled in New England in the early 1630s. He did not mention that his mother's grandfather had been an extensive landholder, the surveyor of Hanover, in Plymouth County, a town selectman, a member of the Revolutionary Committee on Public Safety, and later a state representative, or that his maternal grandmother was a descendant of Governor William Bradford, of Plymouth. Nor did he refer to the career of his paternal grandfather, Major Job Sumner, who quit his Harvard classes to fight under General Washington and after the Revolution served as United States commissioner to settle the accounts between the Confederation and Georgia.

Any temptation Sumner may have had to proclaim himself the heir of the Puritans in politics was curbed by his knowledge that his father had been born out of wedlock. Inbred, provincial Boston, where such scandals were never forgotten, would be all too likely to rake up the gossip about the dashing Major Sumner's failure to marry Esther Holmes, by whom he begat his one son. Remembering the grandson's fondness for oppressed races, Boston maiden aunts speculated—without any evidence whatever—that the mysterious Esther had been "partly of negro or Indian blood." Prudently the new senator preferred to draw the veil over the whole subject of his genealogy: "It seems to me better to leave it all unsaid."

More surprising was Sumner's silence about his parents. Of his father, Charles Pinckney Sumner, the son merely remarked that he "was a lawyer by profession…a person of literary taste and knowledge, of remarkable independence and sterling integrity."10 The son's coolness reflected the fact that the father was a singularly unlovable man. Presumably he had not always been so formal, so obdurately fixed in his ways. As a student at Harvard he had become a warm friend of young Joseph Story, of Salem, who inspired him to attempt verses in the stately tradition of Alexander Pope's rhymed couplets. The friendship did not expire with college days, and in florid fashion Sumner claimed that he treasured Story's frequent letters as "truly the balsam of friendship,…infinitely more sacred than that which bedewed the hand of laughter-loving Venus, when wounded by the sacrilegious shaft of Diomed." Under Story's influence he became an ardent Jeffersonian, at a time when only Federalism was respectable in Massachusetts, and he even talked of editing a party newspaper in Boston.But, by the time Charles Sumner was born, his father's feeble fires of rebellion had burned low. "I have now passed more than half the age of man," he wrote in 1811, at the age of thirty-five, "and the ambition of youth is in me now checked by the…cautious, and sober thoughts of age." The insecurity of his clouded birth and impoverished childhood, his comparative failure in his law practice, and his financial worries over his growing family he concealed behind an outward front of stiff and stilted formality. Long after the style had changed, he, like Major Thomas Melville, continued to wear a tricornered hat, and he retained to his death the punctilious eighteenth-century etiquette of saluting acquaintances upon the streets by "bowing low, touching his mouth with his hand, and waving it back to his side." His family rarely, if ever, saw him smile.

His wife brought little more warmth to the Sumner household. Tall and stately, with a smooth olive complexion and lustrous brown eyes, Relief Jacob had been a twenty-five-year-old seamstress when she married, and she carried some of her spinster ways into her married life. She did not know how to express affection; not until after her death did Charles learn that she had always cherished a lock of his baby hair. Even her friends remarked that she was "distant" or that she had "the old-school dignity of manner," and she impressed on them her "evident superiority of mind."

Doubtless it was the memory of his own cheerless home that made young Sumner, when a student at Harvard, describe "The present character of the Inhabitants of New England" as one of sobriety, industry, moral purity—and "a natural coldness." The very house in which he was born, on Bartolph (now Irving) Street, was "respectable, and yet only above being humble." Like the two later homes the Sumners occupied on Hancock Street, it lay north of that imaginary line that, as true Bostonians used to say, divided the "bob" from the "nabob" side of Beacon Hill. When Charles was a boy, his father's income was only about $1,000 a year, and only Mrs. Sumner's frugality kept the family from actual want. She could afford only iron knives and forks for tableware, and she sent Charles to school wearing coarse, chunky shoes and cheap sky-blue satinet clothes, "never a nice fitting or handsomely appearing suit."

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; 1st edition (January 1960)
  • ISBN-10: 0394419006
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394419008
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,099,951 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Collier on June 18, 2000
Format: Paperback
The author focuses his attention on Sumner's pre-Civil War years when his influence on behalf of the Union and the antislavery cause reached its zenith.
David Donald is renowned for his meticulous research and well written books. He used diaries, manuscripts, scrapbooks, family histories, letters, newspaper files, and valued secondary sources to flesh out his subject. Donald spent ten years on this book and during that time had to absorb the arcane knowledge of the 19th century in such subjects as medicine, law, politics, etc. His scholarship is impeccable. Though forty years have elapsed since the original publication of this book it still satisfies both the casual and serious reader.
If a theme can be assigned to this very good book, it would be, "Sumner was a man who wouldn't compromise his principles no matter the cost." Sumner believed, " sanction the enslaving of a single human being was an act which cannot be called small, unless the whole moral law which it overturns or ignores is small." He was convinced that the appeasement of slave holders was impossible; that the various compromises enacted by the Senate were abdications of Northern principle in order to placate the South and to forestall an inevitable constitutional crisis. Sumner pointed out that supporters of the Compromise of 1850 were in fact extreme sectionalists, while antislavery agitators were the true nationalists.
The author points out that slavery was the one great issue beginning in the late 1840s and continuing through the Civil War. Sumner battled the "peculiar institution" for years and made the abolition of slavery paramount.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By M. A Newman VINE VOICE on July 20, 2008
Format: Paperback
This book takes up the story of Charles Sumner from the beginnning of his involvement with the anti-slavery cause and up to the beginning of the Civil War. This and the companion book, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man are landmark books in a way since they served to alter fundamentally the way we see the great anti slavery figures of the abolitionist cause. Sumner's career was set as a brilliant, if at times, tactless representative of the anti-slavery cause.

Sumner began early, studying at the feet of John Quincy Adams and formulating notions of the law and human rights that led to his pre-war prominance. Until the Civil War, Sumner was the most prominent figure for anti-slavery. The senate proved a bully pulpit when most other national figures tried to wish away the controvery of slavery, Sumner gloried in denouncing the practice. It was because of this that he was savagely beaten by Preston Brooks on the Senate floor and returned by the people of Mass. even though he spent two years attempting to recover.

This book captures the man and shows how he was great not in spite of his faults, but because of them.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Dark Romantic on January 18, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Truly - Truly - This is a godless place," said Charles Sumner when the United States Senate reconvened in 1856. Going into Donald's biography of Sumner, I was told it was an unsympathetic portrait of a complicated man. Indeed, I found it hard to like Sumner - driven but uncompromising, cultured but humorless, unambitious for personal gain yet occasionally guilty of petty jealousy - but Donald presented enough of the man for me to make my own judgment. Even as I sympathized with Sumner's difficult recovery from his beating by Preston Brooks, and even as I applauded his staunch moral view against slavery, I couldn't help thinking he was just another politician: his career was full of political maneuvering, well-timed speeches which were then printed and distributed at his own expense, and a constant need to delineate friends and enemies. Still, it's important to know his story, especially for anyone interested in the Civil War or antebellum period, in political history, or in the Civil Rights movement (before the 20th century). And, really, there's nothing wrong with his character flaws; he was human, after all, and one need not be perfect or even exemplary to accomplish great things.

The book was very readable and Donald focused on exactly what interested me: Sumner's beating, his recovery, the climate of antebellum America. It would have been nice to know more about the Sarah Roberts case in the 1840s (her name is not even mentioned, if I recall, only vaguely referred to as an early anti-segregation case) but a more recent book, "Sarah's Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America", makes up for that.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Gary Hoggatt on February 2, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Not long ago I read David Herbert Donald's 1996 biography Lincoln and was completely impressed by Donald's work, and his ability to bring Abraham Lincoln to life with his writing. One of the major recurring personalities in Lincoln is Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts. Given all that, and that Donald won the Pulitzer Prize for biography for it, I decided I had to read Donald's 1960 biography, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War. This is the first volume of a two volume biography, and covers Sumner's life up until Confederate shots are fired at Fort Sumpter.

One major difference between this volume and Donald's Lincoln is, frankly, that the subject is much less likeable. Sumner could be passionate and uncompromising in his beliefs, but he could also be vain, touchy, and self-righteous. To Donald's credit, he does not shy away from behavior or incidents that leave Sumner looking the worse, and he tries to explain just why Sumner developed these traits. I came away feeling that I had an accurate picture of the man, good and bad.

Much like Donald's biography of Lincoln is an interesting insight into the then-frontier of Illinois and the birth of the Republican Party in the West, the Sumner biography is also a window into 19th century New England (and Europe, thanks to Sumner's extensive travels) and the birth of the Republican Party in New England. It was a time of great tension and change, even in the oldest parts of the country.

Sumner was one of the most powerful politicians of his day, and at the forefront of the conflict between North and South. Anti-slavery Northerners looked to him as their most outspoken and powerful advocate, and Southerners despised him for his assault on what they viewed as their traditional way of life.
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