Chapter 16: events at home.—Letters of friends.—December, 1837, to March, 1839.—Age 26-28.

Sixteen months passed between Sumner's parting with his friends in Boston and his leaving England for the Continent; and a reference to matters of public and personal interest occurring at home may be fitly included in this narrative.

At a meeting held in Faneuil Hall, on the day he sailed, Dr. Channing, Hillard, and George Bond denounced the murder of Lovejoy, the anti-slavery editor; and Wendell Phillips began his career as an orator by his reply to James T. Austin, a defender of the deed. Pennsylvania Hall, then recently erected by the abolitionists in Philadelphia, was burned by a pro-slavery mob. Dr. Channing was replying to Henry Clay's defence of slavery.1 The Graves-Cilley duel, between a Southern and a Northern member of Congress, was fought. The North-eastern boundary dispute was waxing warm, and there was much wild talk, particularly in the State of Maine, of ‘war with England.’ A graver difficulty had arisen at another point on our frontier. The burning of the ‘Caroline’ on the American shore by the British authorities—her offence being that she had been freshly used for hostile purposes by Canadian insurgents— inflamed public feeling against Great Britain, and raised vexed questions concerning the inviolability of national territory, and the jurisdiction of courts over acts assumed by a foreign government. The restriction or prohibition of the sale of ardent spirits —a controversy which forty years of agitation have not settled —was for the first time disturbing politicians. Richard Fletcher [2] was re-elected to Congress as the member for Boston. George Bancroft was appointed Collector of the Port, and Robert C. Winthrop chosen Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch, author of ‘The Practical Navigator’ and translator of the Mecanique Celeste, ended a career dedicated to science. George Combe, of Edinburgh, was delivering lectures on phrenology in Boston. Horace Mann was urging with prodigious earnestness and industry the cause of education. Daniel Webster was about to sail for Europe on his only foreign journey. The ‘Sirius’ and ‘Great Western’ were traversing the Atlantic,—the beginning of that ocean steam-navigation which was to give a new force to civilization.2

At Harvard College and the Law School all was well. Two terms a year now took the place of three; elective studies were allowed, and lectures admitted in part as a substitute for recitations. The new Library—Gore Hall—built of Quincy granite, was rising. The Law School numbered seventy pupils; and Professor Greenleaf, sole instructor when Judge Story was absent on judicial service, found himself overburdened with work.

In literature there was new activity. Prescott's ‘Ferdinand and Isabella,’ his first work, was winning golden opinions, and he was making researches for his ‘Conquest of Mexico.’ Cleveland was writing the ‘Life of Henry Hudson’ for Sparks's ‘American Biography,’ and editing ‘Sallust.’ Hillard was completing his edition of ‘Spenser.’ Felton was preparing a Greek Reader, and translating Menzel's ‘History of German Literature.’ Longfellow published ‘The Psalm of Life’ in Sept., 1838, and a few months later ‘Hyperion’ and ‘The Voices of the Night.’ Dr. Lieber visited Boston to superintend the publication of the ‘Political Ethics.’ Motley was writing ‘Morton's Hope.’ Greenleaf was gathering the materials for a treatise upon ‘The Law of Evidence.’ Story was in the full tide of authorship, writing and printing ‘The Law of Agency,’ and revising ‘Equity Pleadings’ and other works.

The period of financial depression,—one of the most remarkable in our history,—which began in 1837, still continued. The failure of some Boston banks had spread unusual distrust. Few local improvements were in progress; but it was thought worthy of record at the time that around the Common had been built a [3] ‘sidewalk,’ which, as a much-frequented promenade, was called ‘The Lovers' Chase.’

The domestic life of Sumner's friends underwent changes. Cleveland and Felton were now both married. The former was living at ‘Pine Bank,’ near Jamaica Pond, and the latter in a new house he had built at Cambridge. Captain R. B. Forbes was embarking for China to make another fortune. Hillard met with one of the saddest of bereavements,—the loss of an only child. Young William Story had passed from College to Law School, and was making his first essays in sculpture,—the busts of his father and a classmate. The ‘Five of Clubs,’ now four only,—Felton, Cleveland, Hillard, Longfellow,—kept up their reunions, always commemorating at firesides and in feasts the loved member whose seat was vacant; and there were many callers at ‘Number Four’ Court Street, who inquired eagerly for his health, progress, and the time of his return.

One or another of Sumner's correspondents wrote to him of these public or private affairs, and never did a young man enjoy tidings from home more than he. He was interested in all that concerned his friends. The events of their marriage and the birth of their children drew from him cordial and delicate congratulation, and he was quick to send his sympathy in bereavement. The families of his friends reciprocated this unfailing interest, and kept him in faithful remembrance. Mrs. Story and Mrs. Greenleaf regarded him like an absent son; and the wives of others, whose age was near his own, felt for him a sisterly affection.

His most constant correspondent was Hillard, who, in frequent and well-filled letters, kept him informed of all that was passing among friends, in courts, at ‘Number Four,’ in book-making, in society, and at Cambridge. Greenleaf wrote of the Law School and of politics. Story wrote of cases heard or decided by the Supreme Court, and of his labors as professor and author. Cleveland and Felton remembered him with many letters, full of affection, each detailing his studies, and the latter reporting also the incidents of college life. Lieber invoked his good offices with publishers and critics. Among correspondents who wrote with less frequency were Longfellow, Mr. Daveis, Luther S. Cushing (who wrote concerning ‘The Jurist’), Mr.Lawrence and Mrs. Samuel Lawrence, Richard Fletcher, Willard Phillips, and Benjamin Rand; and, after their return from Europe, Mr. Ticknor and Dr. Shattuck. [4]

His letters to Judge Story and Hillard were read by other intimate friends, and his experiences became quite generally known in Boston and Cambridge. Americans returning from Europe reported his success in English society. His speech at Newcastle, which was read in a Boston newspaper, was much commended. His social career abroad attracted attention at home, and his return was awaited with unusual interest. The general opinion and expectation concerning him may be best gathered from the letters written to him at the time. One cannot fail to notice, even beneath their assurances of confidence to the contrary, serious apprehensions that his rich draughts of foreign life would give him a distaste for professional work.

Cleveland wrote, May 12, 1838:—

We feel a deep interest in you; your success delights us, your adventures and descriptions entertain us, and your feelings command our sympathies as much as if you were our brother. We feel the same pride and concern for you as we should for “one of the family;” and when one of your nice long letters comes, we feel that we have got a treasure indeed.

Again, Aug. 22:—

A letter from you, dear Sumner, is before me,—a spring to exertion, a stimulus to ambition, and a source of real, unalloyed pleasure. I am delighted to hear of your great advantages in English society. . . . You have a very catholic spirit, which most men want. There is a heartiness in every thing which you do that seems to bear upon it the stamp of sterling. Now, I am perfectly thankful that you are circulating in British society as you are; for I know that a few such men as you will do more towards opening the eyes and the hearts of the best portion of the English than any number of books. . . . Write to me as often as you can. You do not know how much good your letters do me; they excite me to renewed exertion. Dear man! Do you not feel that you are undergoing a sort of apotheosis? Enjoy it, and profit by it; for it will be a source of happiness to you as long as you live. Some of your friends are prophesying misery for you when you come home; but I do not. On the contrary, what real solid satisfaction would you have, if you were not coming home? With such a field for ambition and usefulness as you have open before you here, can you fail to be happy? Write to me soon. I think, if you could see what an event it is here when your letters come, you would love to write to us. Adieu, my dear fellow: and God bless you!

Again, Jan. 6, 1839:—

This day, you are doubly remembered,—it being your birthday; the happiest, I doubt not, you have ever passed,—happy, I am sure, in the present; [5] and may I not add, dear Charley, that it is happy in the future? I am sure you are destined to a happy career, if you will only open your soul to welcome the sunshine which is ready to be poured upon it. . . . We all have our destinies; and yours is grand. Live up to it! Reverence the powers God has given you. Cultivate, expand, and exercise them; and you will be happy. God bless you, my dear fellow I and, when your next birthday comes, may you find yourself as happy as you are now. I speak of your next with no common interest, because I hope and believe you will keep it with us. Oh, a happy gathering will we have!

Mrs. C. wrote April 30, 1838:—

I never meet any of your friends, dear Sumner, that you are not enthusiastically remembered. In all the pleasant meetings where you were seen, we think “of the friend who once welcomed us, too.” Surely, your right ear must burn very hot sometimes.

Felton wrote, July 19 (his wedding-day):—

There are not many men in this wide world to whom I should write on my wedding-day. . . . You have heard of the dinner Cleveland gave the “Five of clubs.” We drank your health in full bumpers, and had a superb time, I assure you. Longfellow and I returned to Cambridge at ten, and agreed that the day must be noted with white chalk. . . . Excuse this rambling, my dear Charley, and take my writing at all as a proof of the warm affection with which I regard you.

Again, Nov. 5:—

I had the “Five of clubs,” the other day; and we drank your health in the first bumper. Indeed, this is our standing libation at the beginning of a feast. I hope you do not forget us in your wanderings. I am growing more and more attached to that excellent institution; and I devoutly trust we may carry it forward to old age. We have formed a design of catching you, immediately on your arrival, and conveying you to some place of security,— say, Pine Bank,—where we shall probably keep you three or four weeks, giving day by day the history of your adventures, before any other person has the least opportunity of hearing a word. I have amused myself with imagining you shooting grouse, accompanied by a sporting parson. Is it possible you killed any thing on purpose? Did you think of Mr. Winkle? Did you remember Mr. Tupman's shooting a partridge by accident? That unfortunate rabbit will haunt you as long as you live, if you are indeed guilty of his blood. I think we must have a series of papers after the manner of Pickwick, describing the adventures of the Club; and it is plain that you must be the travelling committee, to say nothing of being our great oracle on matters of sport.

Again, Jan. 23, 1839:—

You can hardly imagine the joy your friends feel at the brilliant reception you have had in England. They have no forebodings of evil from all [6] this. On the contrary, they have the most entire confidence in the firmness of your character and the goodness of your heart; and they anticipate your return with the richest treasures from the Old World, with your best tastes increased, your knowledge enlarged, your resolution to do good in your generation strengthened, and with such social and intellectual reminiscences as shall be the delight of all your future life. . . . By the way, there are hints current that you will become a Cantab. Is it so? I hope it is!

Hillard wrote, July 23, 1838:—

Think you that you will be content to sit in your chair in a little room,— No. 4 Court Street, Boston,—and issue writs and fill up deeds, after having drunk so deeply of the delicious draught of London social life? But I do you injustice in asking the question.

Again, Aug. 11:—

The general feeling among your friends is one of great pleasure at your happiness and success, with a feeling of gratification, too, that the young men of our country have so favorable a representative abroad. All express themselves warmly upon this subject. There is no scandal and no disparaging remark; no one apprehends that your residence abroad will impair the simplicity of your character or the freshness of your mind, or lead you to look with distaste upon your own country and its institutions. Every one knows that you are too much of a man for that. But there is a general apprehension that you will find it very difficult, after what you have seen and enjoyed, to come back to the drudgery and petty details of the practice of the law; and as I have sat during these hot days, fagging in the office, I have had the same thought come into my own mind. Indeed, with your powers and attainments and industry, I wish you could come back to some higher, nobler, and more genial occupation than that of practice, and take your station among us as a writer, a teacher, a thinker. There is something belittling in the practice of the law; but its philosophy and spirit are ennobling and expanding. I don't know, and could not pronounce, in what particular function or vocation I should like to have you appear; but I want to have the community benefited by the rich stores of study and observation you will have brought back with you. For my own part, the delight I take in you, in your progress, in your success, in your present happiness, is the sunniest and brightest spot upon my path. You are ever present in my thoughts; and if I could only see you once a week and talk of its events with you, I should be entirely happy.

Again, Oct. 7:—

I do assure you that successive bulletins of your successful and victorious progress give me a thrill of pleasure. I am not surprised at your success. The English are a warm-hearted and hospitable people when they give their confidence. They are so overrun with adventurers that they treat with suspicion and coldness any one who presents himself in a questionable shape, any one who has the ear-marks of an adventurer, and whom they suspect [7] of designs against their daughters or their purses. But a modest, intelligent, well-educated, and well-bred young man is always sure of a frank and kind reception. So much for the class to which you belong; but you have recommendations peculiar to yourself, which insure you a proportionate reception. You have a great fund of knowledge, and of that kind of knowledge most valuable in England, and it lies accessible and within your grasp; and your manners are very well calculated for the meridian of England. Besides you have the charm of youth, which adds the beauty of promise to the beauty of fulfilment. I should have laid a wager without hesitation before you went, that you would be better received than any young man who has ever gone there; and I say this without meaning to flatter you, for our best men do not usually go there till they have ceased to be young; and as I said before, other things alike, a young man is received with more empressement than a middle-aged one.

Mrs. Samuel Lawrence wrote, May 12, 1838:—

I will not say with how much regret I found my Saturday evenings broken up. I think we enjoyed them so much that I trust the memory of them will induce a renewal at some future day. Then we shall have the extra pleasure of hearing your feats of valor and adventure. Your anticipations, you say, great as they were, were fully realized on landing in France. I think you peculiarly fitted to enjoy travelling. All is novelty and freshness, and with your energy, ardor, and untiring perseverance no information will be left vnattained, and no rational pleasure unsought. You have my best wishes that nothing may occur to mar this enjoyment.

Dr. Palfrey wrote, Sept. 25:—

You are, I will not say an enviable, but certainly a very fortunate, man; and are thus another illustration of the connection between good luck and good conduct.

Governor Everett wrote, May 20, 1839:—

I rejoice, my dear Sir, to hear from all quarters, public and private, of your great success abroad. I consider the country as under obligations to you for the favorable impression of our means of education and our institutions generally, which must be produced by the specimen of early scholarship and extraordinary attainment you have exhibited. Take care of your health; stay abroad till your eye is tired of seeing and your ear of hearing, and then come back and give your country the benefit of your observation and rare opportunities of improvement.

Dr. Lieber wrote, Oct. 9, 1838:—

Greenleaf runs up and down the coast of the Atlantic like an anxious hen, while you, a young duck, swim lustily on the ocean. He is very much afraid you will become too principled and too unprecedented. ’3


Again, Jan. 8, 1839:—

A happy New Year to you, my dear Sumner. May you see, learn, and live as much in 1839 as you have in 1838! I suppose that is about the best a friend can wish you. May you enjoy good health, and thus be capable to receive Europe; and may you do this, that you may return to your own country and become one of the many links by which God unites period to period,—an agent in his vast plans for the development of civilization, and in the great mental exchange of the moving nations of the earth. The task before you is great and noble. Your mind, your soul, has early been consecrated to become one of the priests in the sacred temple of truth and humanity, of right and pure liberty. Fulfil, then, your destiny, and be conscious of an august calling. Be a true citizen by being a noble man.

Mr. Daveis wrote, Jan. 18:—

But I must not exhaust my whole sheet on one topic, though you invited it. It is no less interesting to you and your friends what is to be the chance for you when you get home. And can there be any question about it? The only practical point will be whether you will bring yourself down to the work. If your head can bear the transition, you will have no difficulty. You will only have to contend with the embarrassment of your riches.

Joseph R. Ingersoll wrote, April 22:—

It has given me great delight to learn, as I have learned from various sources, how distinguished has been your reception and how agreeable your career abroad. As long as gentlemen like yourself and Mr. Webster are the representatives of the country, we are perfectly safe in the belief that we shall gain largely in reputation, and in the hope that we may at length persuade the most reluctant out of their prejudices against us.

John O. Sargent wrote, May 8:—

Your visit has almost tempted me to envy you, for it has been flattering to a degree beyond any thing you had reason to expect,—the most flattering probably enjoyed by any American since time began.

Professor Greenleaf wrote, Sept. 7, 1838:—

It is a long time since I received a line from you; but the Judge kindly hands me all yours to him, and once in a while I see one of Hillard's; so that I am kept acquainted with most of what befalls you, and am enabled to rejoice with the rest of your friends in the singular felicity of your travels. It seems to us hardly credible that one of our circle should so suddenly and, as it were, by magic be spirited away into the first society in England, and enabled to give us, with all the freshness of daily incidents, the sayings and doings of the giants of the legal and political world with whom he is so familiar. We think it a piece of rare good fortune for you; and, to whisper you another truth, we deem ourselves fortunate to have sent them so good a specimen of New England and of the law. See all you can, and profit by all you see. See quite [9] through the Jacobinism and Radicalism and atheism of modern Europe, and all its other isms, and come home a sound and liberal conservative, as God made you; neither bigoted to the old because it is such, nor passionately in love with the striking novelties of the new. You are daily acquiring a vast intellectual and moral power, to be wielded on your return. Our earnest desire is to have you occupy an additional professor's chair, with Judge Story and myself, bringing into our institution all that power and all the affluence of your mind, to bear upon the great and increasing number of young men who come to us for instruction in constitutional and municipal law. Our responsibilities to our country are great, for the influence we thus indirectly exert upon her institutions; but we meet them with alacrity and the courage of honest and conscientious men. We want the aid of a yoke-fellow who is both an accomplished civilian and a sound common lawyer, versed in both systems, but addicted exclusively to neither; a liberal, enlightened, and yet practical jurist, and sound in constitutional law. Need I say that no man fills this space in our eyes like yourself? So make all your acquisitions, my dear friend, bear on this subject; keep always in mind that you are to occupy an additional chair with us, as our colleague in the great and honorable work, practising also in the courts in the more important causes, and in due time hasten home to the station we are quietly endeavoring to prepare for you4

Again, Jan. 18, 1839:—

When you ask me if we do still think it would have been better for you to have stayed at home, you put a difficult question. You have indeed seen “a bright page” of human life, and with most extraordinary good fortune. It will be worth to you more or less, as you may choose. I do not yet regret the step you took. If you can return to us and to our habits of business, as if you had not left New England, bringing your great acquisitions in Europe into active service at home,—as I trust with confidence you will do,—the gain will be clear and decisive; and I think you will find no difficulty in resuming your place in the profession. We must give you an early retainer, that you may go soon into court and make your own arguments, instead of writing them for others to gain fame with.

Again, May 17:—

Can you still remember so humble and quiet a spot as Dane Hall? Scarcely a day passes, I assure you, that I am not in some way reminded of you,—whether it be by visible traces in the library or by a sense of the want of your society; and when in the city I meet your brother Henry, as I frequently do, it is almost like the sight of yourself returned. . . . Of myself I have nothing to say. My life passes without events,—except hearing recitations, giving lectures, and studying law. I am growing older, yet not graver, but rather more buoyant,—holding cheerfulness a religious duty, and [10] cultivating charity with all men. My wife is rather more an invalid than when you left us, but loves you yet, and sends her affectionate regards. May the Lord preserve you, and bring you back in safety in His own good time!

Judge Story wrote, Aug. 11, 1838:—

I have received all your letters, and have devoured them with unspeakable delight. All the family have heard them read aloud, and all join in their expressions of pleasure. You are now exactly where I should wish you to be, among the educated, the literary, the noble, and, though last not least, the learned of England, of good old England, our motherland,—God bless her! Your sketches of the Bar and Bench are deeply interesting to me, and so full that I think I can see them in my mind's eye. I must return my thanks to Mr. Justice Vaughan for his kindness to you; it has gratified me beyond measure, not merely as a proof of his liberal friendship, but of his acuteness and tact in the discovery of character. It is a just homage to your own merits. Your Old Bailey speech was capital, and hit by stating sound truths in the right way.

Oh, for the coronation! the coronation! and you in your Court-dress! We all shouted hurrah! and Mrs. Story was so gratified by your letter, that she almost determined to write to thank you for it. I do it now as her proxy. . . .

I envy you all your literary talk and literary friends, but still more your judicial friends of the Bar and Bench. What you state of their rank in the profession is exactly what I had supposed, either from reading the Reports, or from rumors abroad.5

Again, Jan. 16, 1839:—

Your sketches of the judges have been deeply interesting to me; and I look for the residue of the portraits with increased curiosity. I am truly glad to find that I had not greatly mistaken the relative rank and character of them. . . . How I should have rejoiced to be with you in your travels through England on the summer Circuit, and in your delightful visits to Lord Brougham, Lord Wharncliffe, Earl Fitzwilliam, and the Earl of Leicester! Oh, for a month at Holkham, among the books and manuscripts of Lord Coke! What a treat to gaze upon the books handled by so eminent a man, three centuries ago!

1 Letter to Jonathan Phillips, 1839. Channing's Works, Vol. V. pp. 7-106.

2 The first arrival of the ‘Sirius’ and,‘Great Western’ at New York was on April 23, 1838. Nineteen years earlier, the ‘Savannah’ made a single experimental trip.

3 An allusion to Sumner's letters, in which he expressed a strong preference on some points for the French judicial procedure.

4 In Jan., 1839, Judge Story said in conversation that he and Greenleaf should try to have Sumner in the Law School soon after his return; that the wish which lay nearest and dearest to his heart was to leave the Law School in good hands, and that he desired to have Sumner and Hillard succeed himself and Greenleaf.

5 For remainder of letter, see Story's ‘Life and Letters,’ Vol. II. pp. 297-300.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: