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Section first: Parentage and education.


Many a grander tribute to the noble life of Charles Sumner will hereafter be paid by the pen; but this one, however unworthy, cannot be withheld while tears of mingled love and sorrow are yet undried upon the cheek of the nation. In private life, the first tributes to the loved and the lost, are the best, because they are the tenderest and most sincere. So, too, is it with a mourning people; and no offering of affection can be held more sacred than that which flows unbidden from the bereaved heart.

Since the death of the Father of the Republic, which filled the country with grief, and threw distant nations into mourning, there have been but three funerals in America which bore even a faint resemblance to that, in the depth and extent of the public sorrow; and these have all occurred within the last few years:—The first was of Abraham Lincoln, who holds the next place to [2] Washington in the hearts of our people, and who is enshrined among the few beloved names which all mankind cherish:—

The second was of Horace Greeley, whose death revealed so wide-spread and strangely tender an affection amongst all classes and conditions of men:—

And now comes the last name in this wonderful triumvirate of great, gifted, and good men, who, taken together, will in ages to come be mentioned on the same historic page, whenever the leaf is turned which records memorials of the astounding events which have transpired so near the close of our First Hundred Years.

We by no means intimate that they alone will reflect all the glory of their period; for every scene of activity and every field of achievement has been illustrated by loyalty, patriotism, and valor, and they will long be remembered with honor and gratitude; but these three names cannot perish. To one and all we may safely apply the words which Webster from Bunker Hill addressed to the soul of its departed hero:

Our poor work may perish, but thine shall endure! This monument may moulder away: the solid ground it rests upon may sink down to a level with the sea; but his memory shall not fail. Wherever among men a heart shall be found that beats to the transports of Patriotism and Liberty, its aspirations shall be to claim kindred with thy spirit.

Charles Sumner was born in Boston, January 6, 1811. He was fortunate in his ancestry, for they were the best stock of the two Englands—the Old and the New—and that meant the best stock of men on the earth. Physically, they were tall, broad-shouldered, strong, fine-looking men. From the early settlement of Massachusetts Bay, the Sumners had been distinguished for their [3] learning, valor, and public services. Among them, increase Sumner had distinguished himself as one of the greatest judges and governors of the State. When he was inducted into office, his personal appearance was so imposing, as compared with Hancock and Adams— the former a cripple from the gout, the other bowed down with infirmity—that there was an exclamation of satisfaction on all sides—‘Thank God we have at last got a Governor that can walk!’

The late Senator's father, Charles Pinckney Sumner, maintained the judicial and scholarly prestige of his ancestry, and his father had done good work in the public cause during Colonial and Revolutionary days.

We attach a good deal of importance to these facts; for, however common it may be in Democracies, to speak slightingly of noble descent, yet all men of sense are well aware that nothing more valuable can be inherited than good sound blood—strong, healthy constitutions,—ample and vigorous frames, well put together,—unless indeed it may be—what is so generally allied to all these qualities—strong, healthy brains, vigorous intellect, and manly character. But, when to all this are joined habits of learning, graces of scholarship, dignified manners, broad intelligence, familiarity with public affairs, the respect of their fellow-men, with high standing in good society, and enough of fortune—lands and money—to command all the advantages which a competency of this world's goods can bestow; it would be strange indeed if, from such sources, strong characters should not grow up. It was under such auspices that Charles Sumner's boyhood began, and the ripened fruit of all this auspicious planting showed itself throughout his well-rounded life.

From the first colonizing of the country, Massachusetts [4] Bay had planted institutions of learning, and nurtured them with the utmost care. In less than twenty years from the landing of the Pilgrims, the foundations of Harvard College had been laid, and her teachers were among the most learned men of England. The common schools of the Colony were then the best in the world, those of Boston leading the way. At the time Charles Sumner's education began, these common schools had grown to be so excellent, that John Quincy Adams said if he had as many sons as King Priam, he would send them all to the district school. In his tenth year he entered the Public Latin School of Boston, where he began his preparation for maturer studies, carrying away from all rivals the prizes for English composition and Latin poetry, besides gaining medals for distinction in other departments. His final preparation for college was completed at the Phillips Academy, when he entered the University, where a brilliant list of Sumners on the scrolls, stretched through more than a hundred years.

Having formed thorough habits of study, he easily surmounted every difficulty that lay in his way, and being graduated with honor in 1830, he still continued his studies, with the aid of private tutors, for another year, when he entered the law school at Cambridge, under the special encouragement of Judge story, who formed for him a deep attachment, which grew more earnest and genial to the end of that great man's life. He predicted for his protege the earliest and highest success as a jurist, remarking that he had never seen a young man so readily master the profound principles of law. From early boyhood History had for him a special fascination. He loved investigation for it's own [5] sake so well, that almost insensibly to himself he became the best historical student of his time; and this alone can account for the endless wealth of illustration he had stored up for future use in public life. Having the Law Library under his control as its librarian, he could lay his hand instantly upon any volume, and he amazed the ripe jurists around him with the enormous extent and minuteness of his learning. He seemed to make an exhaustive study of every subject that came before him. The text-books which filled the scope of study for his associates, were but guides for him to broader and deeper explorations.

During his law studies he wrote several articles for The American Jurist, of which he subsequently became editor. Being admitted to the Bar in 1834, he found himself suddenly launched into a successful and lucrative practice, which even with able men, had been considered the reward only of long years of patient industry and assiduous application. He was soon appointed Reporter of the United States Circuit Court, over which Judge story presided; and his three volumes of that jurist's decisions made him as well-known to the lawyers of England as he was at home. In fact, he soon reached so high a standing, that he delivered lectures before the Law School, in the absence of either Judge story or Professor Greenleaf; and with so much acceptance that, by the advice of those eminent men, he was invited to the chair of a Professor in the institution. But, regarding all he had hitherto done as only preliminary to larger attainments, he unhesitatingly declined the honor. The learned Andrew Dunlap had before this written ‘A Treatise on the Practice of the Courts of Admiralty in Civil Causes of Maritime Jurisdiction,’ but was prevented [6] by illness from bringing it out. The editorship of it was committed to Mr. Sumner, who received from the author on his death-bed, the most unqualified and grateful praise for the manner in which he had performed his task.

The young lawyer had now entered upon a brilliant career, with prospects that would have gratified the ambition of almost any other man. But with a loftier ambition, he threw up his practice, to visit Europe, where he could pursue his studies to greater advantage, and carefully survey the structure of society and government in the old world. Unrestricted in means, he could travel as far, or reside as long, as he pleased.

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