Top positive review
42 people found this helpful
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, "...to 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.