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Chapter 17:

  • Reconstruction.
  • -- the course of Andrew Johnson. -- Mr. Sumner's efforts on behalf of the Freedmen. -- his remarks on the “equality Bill.” -- on the Fourteenth Amendment. -- his opposition to Compromise. -- his plea for the elective franchise. -- the death and character of his mother. -- his Marriage and Divorce. -- on naming children. -- Suffrage for Colored.People at the North. -- rupture between the president and Congress. -- removal of Mr. Stanton. -- impeachment of the president. -- a letter to Mr. Stanton. -- Financial reconstruction. -- equal Suffrage. -- the Alabama claims. -- the Cubans. -- the Dominican treaty. -- rupture with Gen. Grant. -- displacement of Mr. Sumner. -- speech on San Domingo.

The laws, the rights,
The generous plan of power, delivered down
From age to age by our renowned forefathers,
So dearly bought, the price of so much blood,--Oh!
let it never perish in our hands.

His public conduct was such as might have been expected from a spirit so high, and an intellect so powerful. He lived at one of the most memorable eras in the history of mankind,--at the very crisis of the great conflict between liberty and despotism, reason and prejudice. That great battle was fought for no single generation, for no single land. --Thomas B. Macaulay.

By the surrender of the rebel army, which was soon followed by the capture of Jefferson Davis, May 10, 1865, the Southern States, exhausted and powerless, were ready to accept [302] any terms of recognition which might have been presented. This was a golden opportunity. Mr. Sumner and other leading loyal statesmen entertained the idea that Congress had the right to prescribe the conditions of re-admission to the Union; that the freedmen should be endowed with the elective franchise, and be held in all respects “equal before the law.” “The just and honest method is,” said he, “the best.” “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points in statesmanship, as well as in geometry.” Had the vantage-ground been taken at the outset, reconstruction and the establishment of civil freedom, contemplated in the president's Act of Emancipation, would have been soon effected. But Andrew Johnson, having succeeded Mr. Lincoln in the executive chair, early assumed the right of deciding how the States recently in rebellion should be governed, and on what terms they should be admitted to the Union. Adopting what he termed at first an “experiment,” and afterwards “my policy;” forgetting, also, that his province was to execute, not to frame, the laws,--he so encouraged the hopes of the Southern States, that, on the opening of the Thirty-ninth Congress, in December, 1865, a strong demand was made by them for an immediate representation in that body. This arrogant attempt of the seceding States to regain a seat in the national councils [303] was sternly met by loyal Congressmen; and hence a disagreement soon arose between them and the president, which culminated in his impeachment, and did not terminate until his retirement from the executive chair.

By his re-actionary course, the partisans of slavery had time to gather strength; and thus, by involving simple measures of reconstruction in a variety of complications, several years were spent in acrimonious debates upon the terms of re-adjustment. Mr. Sumner watched intently every movement compromising in the least the freedom of the colored people, and never failed to raise his voice on their behalf. He entertained no feelings of hostility towards the South; he longed to see the States restored to permanent peace, to order and prosperity; he desired to have them once more represented in the halls of legislation: still he strenuously insisted that Congress, not the president, should prescribe the way, and that the rights of the freedmen should be faithfully guarded and protected. He urged with great persistency the passage of the constitutional amendments, and readily accepted any temporary measures that promised to afford security to the colored race until these additions to the organic law should be adopted by the people. He maintained, that, by the constitution itself, the very preamble [304] of which declares “that all men are born equal,” slavery is abolished; yet, under the proclamation of Mr. Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment (adopted, after many earnest debates, Dec. 18, 1865), the South still clung with strange tenacity to its long-cherished institution: so deeply had its roots intwined themselves around the heart of social life. To render the redemption of the captive perfect, Mr. Sumner threw himself, with the full intensity of his deep convictions, into every question which concerned the welfare of the freedman. On the 20th of December, 1865, he made an earnest speech on the “Equality Bill” of Mr. Wilson, which was to “maintain the freedom of the inhabitants in the States declared in insurrection and rebellion by the proclamation of the president of July 1, 1862.” He said, “When I think of what occurred yesterday in this chamber; when I call to mind the attempt to whitewash the unhappy condition of the rebel States, and to throw the mantle of official oblivion over sickening and heart-rending outrages, where human rights are sacrificed, and rebel barbarism receives a new letter of license,--I feel that I ought to speak of nothing else.” This hard shot upon the policy of the president drew forth sharp replies; and the word “whitewashing” long rung through the halls of Congress. It was the truth which it contained that drew the blood; and this the president soon came to realize. [305]

In the course of his remarks Mr. Sumner reviewed the condition of the freedmen in the several States, and in closing said,--

I bring this plain story to a close. I regret that I have been constrained to present it. I wish it were otherwise. But I should have failed in duty had I failed to speak. Not in anger, not in vengeance, not in harshness, have I spoken; but solemnly, carefully, and for the sake of my country and humanity, that peace and reconciliation may again prevail. I have spoken especially for the loyal citizens who are now trodden down by rebel power, and who are without representation on this floor. Would that my voice could help them to security and justice! I can only state the case: it is for you to decide. It is for you to determine how long these things shall continue to shock mankind. You have before you the actual condition of the rebel region: you have heard the terrible testimony. The blood curdles at the thought of such enormities, and especially at the thought that the poor freedmen, to whom we owe protection, are left to the unrestrained will of such a people, smarting with defeat, and ready to wreak vengeance upon these representatives of a true loyalty. In the name of God, let us protect them! Insist upon guaranties. Pass the bill now under consideration; pass any bill: but do not let this crying injustice rage any longer. An avenging God cannot sleep while such things find countenance. If you are not ready to be the Moses of an oppressed people, do not become its Pharaoh.

To the urgent and eloquent utterances of Mr. Sumner is mainly due the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment without the obnoxious reference to a [306] distinction in color, which the framers of the constitution took such pains to avoid. The joint resolution — with the clause, that, “whenever the elective franchise shall be denied or abridged in any State, on account of race or color, all persons therein of such race or color shall be excluded from the basis of representation” --had passed the House by a large majority, and was favorably entertained by the Senate, when Mr. Sumner, on the 6th and 7th of February, and on the 7th and 9th of March, 1866, in speeches characterized by cogent reasoning and historical illustration, unfolded the iniquity of the compromise, and emphatically denounced this effort to admit the idea of inequality and disfranchisement on account of color, into the constitution.

After generations have passed, surrounded by the light of Christian truth, and in the very blaze of human freedom, “said he,” it is proposed to admit into the constitution the twin idea of inequality in rights, and thus openly set at naught the first principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the guaranty of a republican government itself, while you blot out a whole race politically. . . .

Who does not admire the English patriot who once said that he would give his life to serve his country, but he would not do a mean thing to save it? I hope we may act in this spirit. Above all, do not copy the example of Pontius Pilate, who surrendered the Saviour of the world, in whom he found no fault at all, to be scourged and crucified; while he set at [307] large Barabbas, of whom the gospel says in simple words, “Now, Barabbas was a robber.”

His opposition to all compromise he thus reasserts:--

I have fought a long battle with slavery; and I confess my solicitude when I see any thing that looks like concession to it. It is not enough to show me that a measure is expedient: you must show me also that it is right. Ah, sir! can any thing be expedient which is not right? From the beginning of our history the country has been afflicted with compromise. It is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned. I insist that this shall cease. The country needs repose after all its trials: it deserves repose. And repose can only be found in everlasting principles. It cannot be found by inserting in your constitution the disfranchisement of a race.

For this and other noble pleas on behalf of the elective franchise and the ballot-box for the freedmen, they will hold him, more than any other benefactor, in heartfelt and dear remembrance.

The ballot is protector. Perhaps, at the present moment, this is its highest function. Slavery has ceased in name; but this is all. The old masters still assert an inhuman power, and now by positive statutes seek to bind the freedmen in new chains. Let this conspiracy proceed unchecked, and the freedman will be more unhappy than the early Puritan, who, seeking liberty of conscience, escaped from the ‘lords bishops’ [308] only to fall under the “lords elders.” The master will still be master under another name, as, according to Milton,--

New presbyter is but old priest writ large.

Serfdom or apprenticeship is slavery in another guise. To save the freedmen from this tyranny, with all its accumulated outrage, is your solemn duty. For this we are now devising guaranties; but, believe me, the only sufficient guaranty is the ballot. Let the freedman vote, and he will have in himself under the law a constant, ever-present, self-protecting power. The armor of citizenship will be his best security. The ballot will be to him sword and buckler,--a sword with which to pierce his enemies, and a buckler on which to receive their assault. Its possession alone will be a terror and a defence. The law, which is the highest reason, boasts that every man's house is his castle; but the freedman can have no castle without the ballot. When the master knows that he may be voted down, he will know that he must be just; and every thing is contained in justice. The ballot is like charity, which never faileth, and without which man is only as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. The ballot is the one thing needful, without which rights of testimony and all other rights will be no better than cobwebs which the master will break through with impunity. To him who has the ballot all other things shall be given,--protection, opportunity, education, a homestead. The ballot is like the horn of abundance, out of which overflow rights of every kind, with corn, cotton, rice, and all the fruits of the earth; or, better still, it is like the hand of the body, without which man, who is now only a little lower than the angels, must have continued only a little above the brutes. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; but, as is the hand in [309] the work of civilization, so is the ballot in the work of government. “Give me the ballot, and I can move the world,” may be the exclamation of the race still despoiled of this right. There is nothing which it cannot open with almost fabulous power, like that golden mistletoe, offshoot of the sturdy oak, which, in the hands of the classical adventurer, unclosed the regions of another world; and, like that golden bough, it is renewed as it is used:--

One plucked away, a second branch you see
Shoot forth in gold, and glitter from tie tree.

If I press these illustrations, it is only that I may bring home to your minds that supreme efficacy which cannot be exaggerated. Though simple in character, there is nothing the ballot cannot accomplish; like that homely household lamp in Arabian story, which, at the call of its possessor, evoked a spirit who did all things, from the building of a palace to the rocking of a cradle, and filled the air with an invisible presence. But it is as protector that it is of immeasurable power, like a fifteen-inch columbiad pointed from a monitor. Ay, sir, the ballot is the columbiad of our political life; and every citizen who has it is a full-armed monitor.

Having pleaded for the freedman, I now plead for the Republic; for to each alike the ballot is a necessity. It is idle to expect any true peace while the freedman is robbed of this transcendent right, and left a prey to that vengeance which is ready to wreak upon him the disappointment of defeat. The country, sympathetic with him, will be in a condition of perpetual unrest. With him it will suffer; and with him alone can it cease to suffer. Only through him can you redress the balance of our political system, and assure the safety of [310] patriot citizens. Only through him can you save the national debt from the inevitable repudiation which awaits it when recent rebels in conjunction with Northern allies once more bear sway. He is our best guaranty: use him. He was once your fellow-soldier: he has always been your fellow-man. If he was willing to die for the Republic, he is surely good enough to vote; and, now that he is ready to upheld the Republic, it will be madness to reject him. Had he voted originally, the acts of secession must have failed: treason would have been voted down. You owe this tragical war, and the debt now fastened upon the country, to the denial of this right. Vacant chairs in once happy homes, innumerable graves, saddened hearts, mothers, fathers, wives, sisters, brothers, all mourning lost ones, the poor now ground by a taxation they had never known before, all testify against that injustice by which the present freedman was not allowed to vote. Had he voted, there would have been peace. If he votes now there will be peace. Without this you must have a standing army, which is a sorry substitute for justice. Before you is the plain alternative of the ballot-box or the cartridge-box: choose ye between them. . . .

The Roman Cato, “said he,” after declaring his belief in the immortality of the soul, added, that, if this was an error, it was an error which he loved. And now, declaring my belief in liberty and equality as the God-given birthright of all men, let me say in the same spirit, if this be an error, it is an error which I love; if this be a fault, it is a fault which I shall be slow to renounce; if this be an illusion, it is an illusion which I pray may wrap the world in its angelic forms.

Thus would Mr. Sumner, on the principle that the State had ceased to be in practical relations [311] with the Union, and that Congress had the power of reconstruction, press the advantage which the Union arms had won to the upraising of the colored people. He intended that “every drop of American blood that was shed should surely be consecrated to human freedom;” and he soon had the satisfaction to see his long and perilous efforts realized in the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, sweeping the baneful and degrading system of slavery away, and bringing a long and heavily oppressed people to enjoy the right of the elective franchise.

In June of this year (1866) Mr. Sumner came home to stand by the bedside and receive the parting benediction of his dying mother. She had attained the age of more than fourscore years, and had experienced many trials and afflictions, which she bore with womanly fortitude, and retained something of earlier grace and beauty to the last. “She was tall and stately,” said one who knew her well, “with the oldschool dignity of manner; and, if thought distant, you soon forgot, in her genial friendliness and evident superiority of mind, every thing except that she was one of the most admirable of women.” When urged in her last illness to send for her son, she replied that his country had more need of his services than she, and that he had better remain at [312] Washington. He came, however, and stood beside her when she passed away. Returning from her grave, he bowed his head in the loneliness of sorrow, and exclaimed, “I have now no home!”

The summer was spent in revising his speeches for the press, and in making preparations for the coming conflict in the re-establishment of order in the Southern States.

On the twenty-seventh day of October he was united in marriage, by the Right Rev. Bishop Manton Eastburn, with Mrs. Alice (Mason) Hooper, the widow of Mr. William Sturgis Hooper, and daughter of Mr. Jonathan Mason of Boston. This alliance, owing to disparity of age and taste, was infelicitous; and a divorce was decreed May 10, 1873, by Judge Holt of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. By this circumstance the friendly relations between Mr. Sumner and the Hon. Samuel Hooper, father-in-law of Mrs. Sumner, were in no respect disturbed.

In regard to naming children after great men, Mr. Sumner wrote this pleasant and sensible letter to a father in New York who proposed to call his son Charles Sumner:--

My dear----,--Don't make a mistake. Never name a child after a living man. This is the counsel I give always, and most sincerely. Who knows that I may not fall? I, too, may [313] grow faint, or may turn aside to false gods. I hope not; but this is one of the mysteries of the future. Therefore name your boy some good Christian name (it may be Charles, if you will; for that is general); but do not compel him to beat all his days a label which he may dislike. I once met a strong anti-slavery youth who bore the name of Martin Van Buren. He was born while New York sat in the presidential chair; and his father named him after the chief of the land. But the youth did not find the sentiments of the late Mr. Van Buren such as he wished to be associated with.

Ever yours,

Steadily intent on the elevation of the African race, Mr. Sumner made in the Senate, July 12, 1867, a powerful plea for securing the elective franchise to the colored citizens of the North.

How can you look the rebel States in the face, “said he,” when you have required colored suffrage of them, and failed to require it in the other States? Be just: require it in the loyal States, as you have required it in the rebel States. . . . There is a clause in the constitution directing you to guarantee a republican form of government. It is a clause which is like a sleeping giant in the constitution, never until this recent war awakened; but now it comes forward with a giant's power. There is no clause in the constitution like it. There is no clause which gives to Congress such a supreme power over the States as that clause. Then, as I have already said, you have the two other clauses. Your power under the constitution is complete. It is not less beneficial than complete. . . . Regard [314] it as the completion of these reconstruction measures: regard it as a constitutional enactment.

The rupture between Congress and the president, who had vainly endeavored to prevent the enactment of the second Freedmen's-Bureau Bill (passed, over his veto, July 16, 1866), and who had at every point opposed the reconstruction measures of the Republicans, continued to widen, until his suspension of E. M. Stanton, the indefatigable secretary of war, when measures were instituted for his impeachment. In these proceedings Mr. Sumner, always vigilant lest the rights of the Senate should be invaded, actively participated. He prepared several elaborate papers on the guilt or innocence of the president, and made the point that the chief-justice had no right to vote in the trial. Mr. Sumner voted on almost every count against the president. Mr. Stanton was re-instated by the Senate Jan. 14, 1868, under the Tenure-of-Office Bill (passed March 2, 1867, over Mr. Johnson's veto). The president, however, soon again removed him, appointing Gen. Lorenzo Thomas in his place ad interim, when Mr. Covode introduced into the house the resolution of impeachment. While Mr. Stanton was remaining in suspense concerning his own course of action, Mr. Sumner sent to him this epigrammatic letter, which in point of brevity surpasses even Caesar's celebrated “Veni, vidi, vici.” [315]

Senate Chamber, 21st February, 1868.

Ever sincerely yours,

On the acquittal of the president in May following, Mr. Stanton resigned his office. On the 11th of July Mr. Sumner spoke at length against the president's scheme of repudiation, and in favor of completing reconstruction through public faith and specie payment. “The word of our nation,” said he, “must be as good as its bond.” He strongly urged economy; and, on the principle that State affairs should be conducted on the line of uncompromising and eternal justice, said,--

I call your attention to three things in which all others centre. The first is the public faith; the second is the public faith; the third is the public faith. Let these be sacredly preserved, and there is nothing of power or fame which can be wanting. All things will pay tribute to you, even from the uttermost parts of the sea. All the sheaves will stand about, as in the dream of Joseph, and make obeisance to your sheaf. Good people, especially all concerned in business, whether commerce, banking, or labor,--our own compatriots or the people of other lands,--will honor and uphold the nation which, against all temptations, keeps its word.

Although reconstruction, by the passage of bills over the president's veto, for the admission of all [316] but three of the rebel States, had been virtually concluded at this session of Congress, Mr. Sumner said he should not consider the work completed until he saw a colored member in the Senate. During the presidential campaign of this year he favored the election of Gen. Grant, although he believed a better nomination might have been made.

On the 3d of February, 1869, he strongly advocated in the Senate the enactment of a law by Congress for equal suffrage in opposition to the constitutional amendment.

Why amend, “said he,” what is already sufficient? Why erect a supernumerary column? . . . Let this beneficent prohibition once find a place in our statute-book, and it will be as lasting as the national constitution itself, to which it will be only a legitimate corollary. . . . Once adopted, it will go into instant operation, without waiting for the uncertain concurrence of State legislatures, and without provoking local strife, so wearisome to the country. The States will not be turned into political caldrons; and the Democratic party will have no pudding-stick with which to stir the bubbling mass.

The bill for the amendment, however, prevailed; and the African race was thus constitutionally restored to the political privileges of American citizenship. To the achievement of this grand result, no one contributed more of eloquence, statesmanship, or personal effort than Charles Sumner; and by the [317] liberated millions no name on earth is more revered. “If others forget thee,” said Robert B. Elliott of South Carolina, “thy fame shall be guarded by the millions of that emancipated race whose gratitude shall be more enduring than the monumental marble.” By Mr. Sumner's remarkable speech early in 1869, on “The Alabama” claims, which he undoubtedly over-estimated, and which led to the rejection by the Senate of the Clarendon-Johnson treaty, he somewhat endangered our friendly relations with England, and was severely criticised by the English press; yet his design was not so much to obtain heavy damages, as to exhibit the wrong done by England in furnishing that vessel to the rebels, and also the underlying principles of international law, by which sovereign states in their intercourse with each other ought always to be guided. He subsequently used his influence in securing the consent of the Senate to the treaty of Washington, by which an award of less consideration was secured.

In the following year Mr. Sumner pressed upon the attention of the Senate the importance of establishing colored schools at the South, of striking out the word “white” in the naturalization bill, of the odious income-tax from the tariff bill, and of reducing letter-postage. He also, June 23, reported a [318] series of resolutions expressing warm and judicious sympathy with the Cubans, then suffering outrages from the collision between the insurgents and the Spanish government; but his most remarkable effort was in opposition to the president's Dominican treaty. Mr. Sumner no doubt honestly believed that the scheme of annexing the Republic of San Domingo to the United States was advocated by the administration and its supporters, not for the benefit of the people of that island, but for the enrichment of certain speculators; and he most frankly, perhaps too sharply, avowed his opinions on the subject. During the discussion of this measure, the severity of his criticism on the course of the president, whom he believed to act as an imperialist, bestowing undue favors on his special friends, led, in combination with other causes, to a rupture between him and the chief-executive. The tempers and habits of these distinguished men were totally unlike. There was no great love between them in the beginning; and, if I may change an expression of Shakspeare, it decreased on better acquaintance. The effects of the cruel blow received by Mr. Sumner in 1856 were still remaining; and, as they disturbed the functions of his physical frame, so they had, undoubtedly, some influence on his intellectual temper. On account of the opposition to his annexation scheme, and perhaps [319] for some other reasons, Gen. Grant, against the advice of many of his supporters, removed in 1870, from his place as minister to England, Mr. J. L. Motley, the historian, and an intimate friend of Mr. Sumner. In a letter to the president, dated July 5, 1870, Mr. Wilson said in regard to the displacement of Mr. Motley,

I fear you will make a sad mistake if you remove him; and I beg you to consider the case carefully before acting. His removal is believed to be aimed at Mr. Sumner. Right or wrong, this will be the construction put upon it. Can you, my dear sir, afford to have such an imputation rest upon your administration? Mr. Motley is one of the best known and most renowned of our countrymen. . . . I need not say that they (the men of Massachusetts) are surprised at the rumor that he is to be removed. They are pained to have it said that his removal is on account of Mr. Sumner's opposition to the San-Domingo treaty. His removal will be regarded by the Republicans of Massachusetts as a blow not only at him, but at Mr. Sumner. . . . I want to see the President and Congress in harmony, and the Republican party united and victorious. To accomplish this, we must all be just, charitable, and forgiving.

Very truly,


In February, 1871, Mr. Sumner was supplanted as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs by Simon Cameron. He had long fulfilled the duties attendant on this position with distinguished ability; and no man in this country was better acquainted with foreign affairs, or held in higher consideration by foreign courts. But he and the president were at variance.

On the 27th of March, 1871, he again spoke on the San-Domingo treaty.

On evidence before the Senate, “said he,” it is plain that the navy of the United States, acting under orders from Washington, has been engaged in measures of violence, and of belligerent intervention, being war without the authority of Congress. An act of war without the authority of Congress is no common event. This is the simplest statement of the case. The whole business is aggravated when it is considered that the declared object of this violence is the acquisition of foreign territory, being half an island in the Caribbean Sea; and, still further, that this violence has been employed, first, to prop and maintain a weak ruler, himself a usurper, upholding him in power that he might sell his country; and, secondly, it has been employed to menace the Black Republic of Hayti.

He denounced Baez as a usurper who would sell his country, and said that the treaty was a violation of the Constitution of the United States, as well as of that of San Domingo. On the ensuing day Mr. [321] Howe replied to Mr. Sumner, defending Baez; and he insinuated, in conclusion, that Mr. Sumner, Judaslike, was trying to stab the Republican party in the back.

Replying to Mr. Howe, Carl Schurz in a very brilliant speech said, “Mr. Sumner had plunged his dagger not into the Republican party, but into Caesarism; and we cannot forget that the world has agreed to pronounce Brutus the noblest Roman of them all.”

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