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Chapter 23: return to his profession.—1840-41.—Age, 29-30.

Cordial greetings awaited Sumner on his arrival in Boston, from his old friends, and from many others who had become interested in his social career abroad. His first weeks at home were filled with conversations concerning his foreign journey. With what zest he related the things he had seen and heard, is still well remembered. He often passed the night with Cleveland at Pine Bank, and with Longfellow at the Craigie House. He spent many evenings with Mr. Ticknor, comparing their European experiences.1 In June, he visited Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Lawrence at Lowell, and in August sought, for a few days, the refreshment of sea-breezes at Nahant. He made an excursion to Lancaster with Felton, whose family was passing some weeks in that interior town, and dined with Emerson at Concord, on his way home. With Dr. Lieber, who made a visit to Boston, he had long talks about his journey. In the summer, he met for the first time Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mrs. Frances Kemble,—the former at Hillard's, and the latter at Pine Bank.

He took his father's place in the Society of the Cincinnati, and attended its customary dinner, July 4, at Concert Hall. Slowly he returned to professional and literary work. Soon after reaching home, he filled reluctantly, for a few weeks, a vacancy as instructor in the Law School. He declined an invitation, received through Mr. Daveis, to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Bowdoin College,—excusing himself by saying that he could not pledge any time which might be required by his profession.2 Later, he declined an invitation to lecture before [149] the ‘Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.’3 During the summer, his correspondence with friends was left much in arrears. In August, he took for a few days the place of Hillard, who was with the Ticknors at Woods' Hole; but, with that exception, he did no service for clients for the first four months after his return.

With the beginning of September,—the time when the summer vacation closes in New England,—he resumed in earnest the daily work of his profession. He was from that time faithful to his office from nine in the morning till five or six in the afternoon,—allowing an interval for the family dinner from two to half-past 3. He usually passed the evening with friends; but, after a dinner or party, returned home to read till midnight, or often two hours later. During the years 1840 and 1841, he made no contribution to any magazine or newspaper. When he had been at home a year, he confessed in a letter: ‘It has been the least productive year of my life. I feel .that I have done very little,—made no advance in any sort of knowledge; nor laid up any materials for happiness.’ In the autumn of 1840, he carried through the press the third volume of his ‘Reports’ of Judge Story's Circuit Court opinions.4

Professional work awaited him as soon as he was ready to resume it. He had his share of the business of the office to which Hillard had solely attended in his absence. Professor Greenleaf and Mr. Fletcher gave him a place as junior in some causes in which they were engaged; and clients sometimes came to him under the impression that Judge Story would listen kindly to his arguments. He was retained in several patent causes,5 the chief of which related to the Phillips patent for friction matches.6 Professor Greenleaf, who had been employed to contest the validity of this patent, entrusted to Sumner after his return the direction and labor of the contestant's case, and early in 1842 himself withdrew from it. It embraced suits in law and equity in the Circuit Court, which lasted five years; and the pleadings and evidence were voluminous. [150] Sumner became very zealous in the controversy, and during the autumn of 1841 was engaged in taking testimony in Boston, New Haven, and New York. His final argument of the cause in 1844 will be referred to hereafter.

England was at this time asserting the right to search vessels carrying the American flag, when they were suspected both of being engaged in the slave-trade and of being other than American vessels; and her ships of war had made searches even when the vessel, although suspected as a slaver, was known to be American. British officers who had made them, when afterwards found here, were sued in actions of tort. Sumner and Hillard were retained by the British Consul at Boston in actions of this kind brought in Massachusetts.7 Rufus Choate and Mr. Perkins, of Salem, were the plaintiff's counsel. Sumner's connection with this litigation directed his attention more closely to the question of search and inquiry in cases of suspected slavers, which he afterwards discussed in the public journals.

He occasionally sat as a commissioner to take depositions pending in the United States courts. Sometimes, the counsel on one side or the other were worried by his disposition to extend his duty beyond a mere record of questions and answers to a fuller examination by himself,—he maintaining it to be a part of his functions as magistrate to obtain the whole truth from a witness, instead of merely writing down what a skilful counsel saw fit to draw from him.

Sumner never took kindly to the details of law business. He wrote to Mr. Perkins once: ‘I found the bill of costs without understanding it; and I sometimes believe that it is not in my power to understand any thing which concerns such matters.’ If he had the responsibility of an important cause, he was inspired by the gaudium certaminis,and worked with diligence and enthusiasm; but he was less vigilant in the ordinary routine of the office. Once, when he consented rather thoughtlessly to the continuance of an action, his absent associate, who had left it in his charge, wrote regretfully to him ‘of that facility of temper and disinclination to say No, of which I have so often discoursed to you.’

Sumner had come home with the determination to work diligently [151] and earnestly in his profession; and in that spirit he returned to it. At times, he exulted in the confidence that he should defeat the prophecies of those who had said his European visit would spoil him for the law; but at others, notwithstanding this sense of triumph, he could not refrain from confessing to his intimate friends that he had little heart for its drudgery.

Sometimes, at this period, he recurred unwisely to his foreign life or letters in conversation with clients and lawyers, who knew or cared little about such things,—a habit likely to repel those who were intent only on the business in hand, and to make them feel that his mind was not enough on what most concerned them. Indeed, prudence dictated a greater reserve in this regard, with all except intimate friends, than he maintained. But it was his nature to pour out what his heart was full of; and he fancied that others would receive it as he would have received it from them. Later, when he had in hand the serious work of a reformer, he made only infrequent allusions to this foreign journey of his youth.

W. W. Story, then a student in the office of Hillard & Sumner, writes:—

I studied the practice of the law in his office in Boston, and was for two years in constant daily intercourse with him and his partner, Hillard; and pleasant and instructive days they were. During all this time I never saw him out of temper, and never heard from him a hasty or intemperate word. He was uniformly kind and considerate to me, and ready to put down his pen to answer any questions or elucidate any subject. But he was more interested in the literature and what is called the science of the law and the application of its principles than in the practice of it. He would talk to me by the hour of the great jurists, and their lives, and habits of thought; and tell me all sorts of interesting anecdotes of great barristers and judges. Hillard and he and I used to talk infinitely, not only of law, but of poetry and general literature and authors, when business would allow,—nay, sometimes when it would not allow; but who can resist temptation with such tastes as we all had?

It was not for a long time that he could settle down again to the practical work before him. After the flush of those exciting days abroad, his office and daily occupations seemed dull and gray; and I cannot but think that they changed the whole after-course of his life and thought. He did, indeed, set himself with determination to his work, but it had lost the charm it formerly had; and the dreams of those delightful days and the echoes of those far voices haunted his memory. America seemed flat to him after Europe. This, however, slowly passed away, though never, to his dying day, completely.


This long-cherished friend of Sumner has recalled these early as well as later days in an “In Memoriam” :—8

For years, dear friend, but rarely had we met,
Fate in a different path our feet had set;
Space stretched between us, yet you still were near,
And friendship had no shadows of regret.

At least your noble thoughts can never die,—
They live to stir and lift humanity,—
They live to sweeten life and cheer us on:
If they are with us, surely you are nigh.

Yes, in our memory, long as sense remains,
That stalwart frame shall live, that voice whose strains,
To lofty purpose pitched, struck like a fire
Into our blood, and thrilled through all our veins.

That full sonorous voice, whose high-strung key
Was tuned to justice and to liberty,—
That sounded like a charge to rouse the world
From the deep slumber of its apathy.

Nor these alone;—we shall remember too
The kind familiar tones of love we knew,
The genial converse and the storied lore,
The cultured charm that every listener drew.

The gladsome smile, the gleam of quick surprise,
That thrilled the face and lightened through the eyes;
The uplifting brow, the utterance frank and clear,
And all that sullen death to sight denies.

Vain friendship's voice, and vain the loud lament
A nation breathed as o'er your bier it bent;
Vain unto you, that as you passed away
A shadow darkened down a continent.

Rest, then, brave soldier, from the well-fought fight
Rest, genial scholar, from the dear delight
Of arts and books! Rest, steadfast, stainless friend!
For ever ours,—though lost to sense and sight.

Stern Duty's champion, at thy bier we bow!
Brave, honest, faithful to the end,—thy vow
To God and Freedom kept,—unbribed, unbought:
Rest thee,—or rise to loftier labors now.


Sumner was at this time a great favorite in Boston society. He was welcomed to the best houses as soon as he reached home. He frequented those of

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