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Chapter 18:

  • The Supplementary Civil-rights Bill.
  • -- a letter on the San-Domingo Affair. -- the tone of Mr. Sumner's Criticisms on the administration. -- his illness. -- his view of the Republican and Democratic parties. -- letter to colored citizens. -- support of Mr. Greeley. -- Reception in Boston. -- Visit to Europe. -- nomination as Governor of Massachusetts. -- resolutions on the battle-flags. -- Letters in vindication of his course. -- interviews with friends. -- his desire to raise Money by Lecturing. -- his last Visit to Boston. -- declining health. -- his last labors in Congress. -- Recision of the censure for his resolution on the battle-flags.

Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it. --Abraham Lincoln.

La verite, voila mon offrande cherie.
     Loin de toi pour jamais le vil encens des cours;
Flatter le souverain, c'est trahir la patrie,
     C'est du bonheur public empoisonner le cours.

A great man under the shadow of defeat is taught how precious are the uses of adversity; and, as an oak-tree's roots are strengthened by its shadow, so all defeats in a good cause are but resting-places on the road to victory at last. --Charles Sumner.

On the twelfth day of May, 1870, Mr. Sumner, ever intent on the uplifting of the colored citizen, introduced his supplementary Civil-Rights Bill, declaring that all persons, without regard [323] to race or color, are entitled to equal privileges afforded by railroads, steamboats, hotels, places of amusement, institutions of learning, religion, and courts of law. The same bill substantially was introduced by him again Jan. 20, 1871.
Show me, “said he, in speaking on this measure,” any thing created or regulated by law, and I show you what must be opened equally to all without distinction of color. Notoriously, the hotel is a legal institution, originally established by the common law, subject to minute provisions and regulations; notoriously, public conveyances are, in the nature of common carriers, subject to a law of their own; notoriously, schools are public institutions, created and maintained by law; and now I simply insist that in the enjoyment of those institutions there shall be no exclusion on account of color.

His maxim was, “Equality of rights is the first of rights;” and his whole life was but one glorious struggle to reduce the principle of the old Magna Chart, “Nulli negabimus, Nulli differemus justitiam,” into practical operation. His views in respect to the course of the administration in the San-Domingo affair may be seen in this letter:--

Washington, 9th July, 1871.
My dear Redpath,--Your letter must have crossed mine. I send you this French translation of the Report. I cannot obtain the English. [324]

The president's friends were afraid to propose the printing of extra copies, as that would have opened the whole question; so that only the ordinary number for the Senate was printed.

Meanwhile, I hear that the dementia continues. The flag of Samana still flies without authority; and money has been obtained at New York to pay another year's lease. Here is usurpation. The treaty is dead: it died by lapse four months from date; yet under this dead treaty the flag flies, and the United States are asked to pay money. Nothing like this was in the articles against A. J.

Very truly yours,

If the tone of his criticisms, especially in his suppressed speech of March, 1871, on the administration, be considered too severe, it must be remembered that he was a mortal; that his system had been shattered by a tremendous blow; that the removal of himself, and his intimate friend Mr. Motley, from positions which they were so eminently qualified to fill, was another heavy blow; and that he honestly believed that favoritism and corruption had entered the very heart of that grand old Republican party of which he had been, to a great extent, the founder and the leader. After the delivery of his great speech, on the last day of February, 1872, in support of his resolution demanding an investigation of the sales of ordnance stores made during the war between France and Germany, the return of his [325] old malady rendered it imperative that he should cease a while from mental labor. He returned, however, to the Senate in May, and made, on the last day of that month, a memorable speech, in which he declared his loss of confidence in the Republican party, and severely criticised the course of Gen. Grant.

Both the old parties, “said he,” are in a crisis, with this difference between the two,--the Democracy is dissolving, the Republican party is being absorbed. The Democracy is falling apart, thus losing its vital unity: the Republican party is submitting to a personal influence, thus visibly losing its vital character. The Democracy is ceasing to exist: the Republican party is losing its identity. Let the process be completed, and it will be no longer that Republican party which I helped to found, and always served, but only a personal party; while, instead of those ideas and principles which we have been so proud to uphold, will be presidential pretensions; and instead of Republicanism, there will be nothing but Grantism. Political parties are losing their sway. Higher than party are country, and the duty to save it from Caesar.

This address was used as a campaign document. For several weeks subsequent to the presidential nominations, he remained reticent in regard to the two candidates; but on the 29th of July, in a letter to the colored citizens, he announced his intention of abandoning the Republican party, and of supporting [326] Mr. Greeley for the presidency. In this letter he said,--

Never have I asked for punishment. Most anxiously I have looked for the time, which seems now at hand, when there shall be reconciliation, not only between North and South, but between the two races; so that the two races and the two sections may be lifted from the ruts and grooves in which they are now fastened, and, instead of irritating antagonism without end, there shall be sympathetic co-operation. The existing differences ought to be ended.

His health did not allow him to take an active part in the canvass; but returning to Boston, where he was branded by some of his old political companions as an “apostate,” and deserted by many of his former anti-slavery coadjutors,--especially by Mr. Garrison, who addressed to him a trenchant letter on his defection from his party,--he spent some days with H. W. Longfellow at Lynn, and on the 5th of September left for Europe. On his arrival in Liverpool, he received the news of his nomination by the Liberals and Democrats as governor of Massachusetts. This honor he declined. He met with a cordial reception both in England and in France, and had interviews with Thiers and Gambetta; but his health was so much impaired, that his time was mostly occupied in looking over engravings and other works of art, “I have not read an American [327] newspaper,” said he, writing from London, “since I sailed out of Boston Harbor; nor have I concerned myself except with engravings, pictures, books, and society.”

He reached home on the 26th of November, and was present in his seat at the opening of Congress, Dec. 18, when he introduced into the Senate a resolution declaring “that the names of battles with our fellow-citizens shall not be continued in the army-register, or placed upon the regimental colors of the United States.”

A resolution of censure was immediately passed by the General Court of this State, declaring “that such legislation meets the unqualified condemnation of the people of this Commonwealth.”

No man honored more than Mr. Sumner the bravery of the loyal troops; but, as soon as the contest ended, no man more than he desired a speedy restoration of harmony and peace: as early as May, 1862, he had introduced a similar resolution. He therefore was deeply aggrieved at the ill-advised censure of the State he represented. In this letter to his friend James Redpath, he declares his anxiety for strength to sustain his resolution:--

Washington, 25th Dec., 1872.
My dear Redpath,--I wish you a merry Christmas! I regret much that I cannot take advantage of your invitation; [328] but I am under medical treatment, with the doctor at my house twice a day, the last time to inject under the skin morphine and strychnine. This vacation I give to the doctor reluctantly but necessarily. I long to be strong, that I may vindicate my resolution, which can be done against all assault. Twice before have I offered it with the applause of Gen. Scott and Gen. Robert Anderson.

Faithfully yours,

The following letter to Mr. T. A. Smith also exhibits his feelings on the battle-flag resolution:--

Washington, 27th Dec., 1872.
My dear sir,--I thank you sincerely for the kind, good letter you have written me. Never did I deserve better of Massachusetts than now; for never did I represent so completely that high civilization which is the pride of our beloved Commonwealth. Thrice before, once in 1862, I offered the same proposition. I received the applause of Gen. Scott and Gen. Robert Anderson. Accept my best wishes, and believe me, my dear sir,

Sincerely yours,

To his old college friend the Hon. G. W. Warren, who visited him in January, 1873, he said, “Since the assault upon me in 1856, I have never been entirely well; and just now I am feeling the painful effects more than usual.” At that time Chief-Justice Chase, then quite ill, came in, and afterwards Mr. Agassiz. The conversation turning [329] to Mr. Sumner's re-election, his friend the noble scientist, who passed away before another interview, said, “Of course you will be re-elected. Who is to be put against you? Your name is a weight; and there is no other which can outbalance it. . . . The people are not to throw away a great character for slight differences.”

A senator, referring subsequently to some insignificant matter, said to him, “Mr. Sumner, how will this affect your re-election?” “Affect what?” replied he. “Affect your election,” said the other. “What election do you speak of?” said Mr. Sumner. “Why, next year, in 1875, the period of your re-election comes round.” “Oh, yes!” answered Mr. Sumner, as if suddenly taking his idea: “my re-election will come round in 1875; but I may die long before that; and as long as I live I can do my duty.”

During a call made on him some time afterwards by Mr. Wilson, he said with great earnestness, “If my works were completed, and my Civil-Rights Bill passed, no visitor could enter that door that would be more welcome than death.”

Having incurred losses by the great Boston fire, he found himself in arrearages at this time to the amount of about ten thousand dollars; but instead of receiving, as so many others, “back pay” from [330] the public treasury, he determined, feeble as he was, to make up the deficit in the lecture-field. He therefore sent this letter to the Boston Lyceum Bureau:--

Washington, 13th May, 1873.
My dear Redpath,--Nobody is authorized to act as my agent; nor do I remember any communication with the New York Bureau.

I should like to lecture next autumn, if consistent with my health; but this is still uncertain.

I congratulate you on your return home, which is a surprise. I supposed you would give a month to Vienna and the national honor.

Sincerely yours,

On his last visit to Boston, in the autumn of 1873, his reception was almost an ovation, and in delightful contrast with that of the preceding year. He was greeted everywhere with enthusiasm, and pressed on every hand to honor literary and political re-unions with his presence. At a public dinner just before his last departure for Washington, he said in reference to Mr. Wilson the vice-president, sitting near him: “He is under the charge of his physician: he is also under my charge; for his life is too precious to be exposed. I watch over him at Washington, and endeavor to see that he does not undergo unnecessary exertion.” “But who,” some one exclaimed, “shall guard the custodian?” Although the [331] “custodian” was on that occasion in the very best of spirits, and made an admirable address, his health was rapidly declining; and he therefore sent with much reluctance this request to cancel his lyceum engagements.

Coolidge House, 3d Oct., 1873.
Dear Mr. Redpath,--In announcing me as a lecturer for the present season, and making engagements for me, you acted precisely according to understanding. I felt at the time in condition to assume this heavy work, and am not conscious of any failure since. But much-valued friends have represented to me, that, at this early period of convalescence after protracted disability, it would be imprudent for me not to allow myself further rest, and especially that I ought not to undertake a series of engagements so wearying as that proposed.

Had this representation proceeded from a few only, or had my friends been divided or less strenuous, I should not, perhaps, have felt constrained, as I do now, by their unanimous judgment in letter and conversation, leaving me no alternative. It is with much reluctance, and in obedience to the sentiments of those whose kindness awakens my gratitude, that I now withdraw, and ask you to cancel any engagements made on my account.

Accept my thanks, and believe me, my dear sir,

Faithfully yours,

In November Mr. Sumner addressed a letter to a meeting held in New York, condemnatory of the [332] outrages of “The Virginius,” deprecating any menace of war, and advising the liberation of the enslaved in the West Indies.

During the last session of Congress, he opposed, as usual, any inflation of the currency, and advocated an early return to specie payments. His last speech in Congress, terminating a brilliant senatorial career of almost a quarter of a century, was made on Saturday, the 7th of March, in the discussion of his substitute for the Centennial Bill, which had passed the House.

He contended that the one hundredth anniversary of the Republic should be entirely national in its character; and, in accordance with his well-known patriotic and economical views, emphatically said,--

I have three earnest desires in connection with our coming anniversary: first, to secure a proper commemoration of that great day, truly worthy of this Republic, and characteristic, so that Republican institutions shall thereby gain; secondly, to save the national character, which must suffer if the present scheme is pursued; and, thirdly, to save the national treasury.

Almost the last words he heard pronounced in the Senate-chamber were those read by his colleague of the resolution of the Massachusetts legislature, rescinding and annulling the act of undeserved censure [333] of Dec. 18, 1872. On being asked if he should address the Senate when it was presented, his reply was, “The dear old Commonwealth has spoken for me; and that is enough.”

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