Customer Reviews: Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War
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on June 18, 2000
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. He became the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, a post which he made more important than that of any Ambassador and more influential than that of the Secretary of State of the United States. By 1851, Sumner was one of the most powerful men on the North American continent and was known throughout Europe.
When first viewing slaves Sumner said, "They appear to be nothing more than moving masses of flesh, unendowed with anything of intelligence above the brutes." This book clearly illustrates why his opinion changed and why this complex man fought the lonely fight to remove all legal barriers that sustained racial discrimination. Sumner believed such discrimination fostered racial inferiority and was psychologically harmful to Blacks. He believed the pledge in the Declaration of Independence for universal equality was as much a part of the public law of the land as the Constitution.
In this regard, Sumner continually excoriated the public to reform slavery and eventually influenced hundreds of thousands of Northern voters. When read today, his fiery speeches seem ponderous and stilted. Further, Sumner often used illogical reasoning and had a tendency to extend a principle to its utmost limits - he could be irritating and obtuse at time. Regardless, he was a powerful spokesman for the antislavery movement and his speeches solidified Northern opinion in the "great crusade."
In reading this book, its clear Sumner was insensitive to the power of his words. He really didn't care as he had a remarkable power of rationalization and convinced himself that expediency and justice coincided where the abolition of slavery was concerned. The author hasn't overlooked the part that fortuitous circumstances played in the selection of Sumner as one of the most powerful and enduring forces in the pre-Civil War government. (He led the Radical Republicans during the Civil War) While the borderline between myth and history is often blurred, the author proves that the myth in Sumner's life more often than not matched the real Charles Sumner.
Sumner's involvement in the slavery issue seems compulsive to 21st century readers but it was an outgrowth of his life and times. The humanity of a society can be measured by the quality of its compassion and its ability to feel the anguish of others. In contrast, the inability to feel the lash that strikes another's back is the most destructive trait a society can possess.
Sumner's moral compassion wouldn't allow him to act otherwise when it came to slavery. Sumner believed the issue was simple: Slavery was evil, stamp it out!
This is superb Americana.
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VINE VOICEon July 20, 2008
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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on February 2, 2012
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. After Sumner's "Crime Against Kansas" speech in 1856, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks actually assaulted Sumner with a cane in the Senate chamber, resulting in Sumner being unable to perform his duties as a Senator for three years.

I can't recommend Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War as highly as I do Donald's Lincoln, but that's is not really Donald's fault. As interesting as Sumner is, he's just no comparison to Lincoln. However, after reading these two books and finding him as the opposition in each, I find myself wishing Donald would write a biography of Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who contested with Lincoln in Illinois for the Illinois Senate seat and and the 1860 presidential campaign, and who butted heads with Sumner over slavery in the Senate in the 1850's.

Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War is a good book that sheds a lot of light on the tensions that lead to the Civil War. I wouldn't recommend it to the general reader who isn't familiar with the era, and I'd recommend you read Donald's Lincoln first, but this volume is well done, and worth your time if you're a Civil War history aficionado.
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on January 18, 2011
"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. I found some of the political stuff hard to follow without prior knowledge of certain events in the period. With that said, it was a good idea to present Sumner in this way, as a politician who helped lead the country in the years up to the Civil War (and beyond, of course), rather than as a more general biographical study.
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VINE VOICEon August 14, 2011
One never knows quite how to feel about Charles Sumner.

He was, without question, among the most consequential political leaders of the Civil War era. He was, in many ways, far ahead of his time on the historic issue of race relations. The nation is forever in his debt.

And yet... Sumner could be as vain as he was brilliant, as hard to like up close as he is easy to admire from a distance. As tragic and indefensible as was his senseless, disabling beating by the vicious Preston Brooks on the floor of Senate, one can also comprehend, in Donald's telling, that sympathy to Sumner was more limited among some of his colleagues than one might have supposed.

How does one evaluate Sumner's contribution? It remains a bit of an enigma, sifting through the vision, intellect and moral sense that marked his leadership at its best--separating it from the self-righteousness and incapacity to work with others respectfully that were also present.

David Donald's work is masterful. He culls through original sources, moving past the rather extravagantly admiring biographies of earlier times. Donald is judicious, presenting a multi-faceted portrait, beginning with Sumner's familial background, moving skilfully into exposition and interpretation of the Massachusetts scene of the era, ultimately into the larger context of a nation hurtling toward the blood-soaked war of section against section, brother against brother.

This reader's sole regret is that this volume has not been combined with Donald's subsequent, companion volume, concluding Sumner's life. Perhaps it's the ultimate accolade to Donald to sigh that this book--this remarkable biography--ends too soon...[note: it turns out that a combined volume is available on, from another publisher, at a very high price; hopefully this can be rectified].
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on July 31, 2015
I had an absolute HATRED for the High School I went to in a small town in Washington State. I couldn't WAIT to get OUT of that place and, to THIS DAY, I have NEVER REGRETTED IT (I later finished High School in Seattle when I was 30 with STRAIGHT "A's"). This book was the BEGINNING of my LOVE FOR HISTORY. I was SO EXCITED to see that it was STILL OUT there. I now have it again and will never let it go. Thanks to books like this one, I can honestly say that I learned way, WAY more on my OWN than I EVER did in that most MISERABLE EXCUSE for a SCHOOL that I was CURSED to ATTEND!!! Many thanks to David Donald, as well as Mathew Brady, for making history and learning EXCITING again.
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on May 11, 2013
Got the sense that the biographer did not particularly like his subject, which led to a more critical biography. The result? A surprisingly fair-minded assessment of this great, complex American. As one who dislikes hagiographic biography, I found Mr. Donald's biography and approach uniquely felicitous and, perhaps as an adjustment to his personal feelings, remarkably clear in placing Mr. Sumner in perspective. I found the information about Mr. Sumner's reception in Europe very interesting and helpful in understanding the broader context of his political aims.
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on March 6, 2012
I enjoyed the history presented here. Sumner wasn't exactly my kind of man. He was a product of the "Enlightenment" age, an age where people began to reject the Bible as God's word. He was something of a radical which isn't necessarily a bad thing depending on the circumstance. At times, he no doubt went too far in vilifying his Southern opponents. He helped to fuel the fires that led to the war. But it was a war that was all-too inevitable in my opinion. I only wish the second book that completes the biography was available on the Kindle. I am really interested to read about his relationship with Lincoln and about Sumner's role in Congress during the war.
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on June 23, 2014
I read both volumes of this biography about 25 years ago, and I simply adored it. He was a peculiar man who arguably didn't get a lot done in Congress, but i just found his life endlessly fascinating.
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on March 14, 2012
I enjoyed the book. Mr. Sumner is a difficult man to understand. He is a bit of an odd duck. The author does a good job covering her topic. The book helped further my understanding of the very troubling time before the Civil War. He seemed to be at the center of it-- often under very unusual circumstances.

I felt that this is really just volume 1. Mr. Sumner most productive works and central part in history takes place after the book is ended. I hope the author completes the story otherwise the reader is left with a partial picture.
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