previous next

Chapter 2:

  • Charles Sumner at the Boston Latin School.
  • -- his Teachers, Schoolbooks, Studies, and companions. -- his Standing. -- two Anecdotes illustrative of his character. -- “Macte Virtute.” -- Admission to Harvard University. -- his Classmates. -- his Habits. -- personal Appearance and Studies in College. -- extracts of Letters from his Classmates. -- “the White Vest.” -- his Fondness for reading, and his favorite Authors. -- his Chum and looms in College. -- an anecdote. -- his Standing at Graduation. -- his “Book.”

What manner of child shall this be? St. Luke.

And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,--“Excelsior!

At the age of ten years, Charles Sumner was found qualified to enter the Boston Latin School, then under the charge of the accomplished classical scholar Benjamin A. Gould, and noted, as at present, for its thorough and persistent drill in the inceptive classical studies. Here the tall and slender lad applied himself closely to his lessons; studying Adam's Latin Grammar (which Mr. Gould edited with ability), the Gloucester Greek [23] Grammar, Euler's Algebra, Horne Tooke's Pantheon, Irving's Catechism, and reading Cornelius Nepos, Sallust, Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil; together with Jacobs's Greek Reader, Mattaire's Homer, and other books preparatory to admission to Harvard College. The late Joseph Palmer, M. D., was an assistant instructor in the school, but was not then conscious that he was moulding the spirit of one whom he was afterwards to greet as the leading speaker on behalf of freedom in America. Among his school companions at this period were George T. Bigelow, Robert C. Winthrop, George S. Hillard, James Freeman Clarke, Thomas B. Fox, William H. Channing, Samuel F. Smith the poet, and others who have since attained celebrity. Although Charles Sumner did not hold the highest rank in scholarship on the appointed lessons of his class, he was distinguished for the accuracy of his translations from the Latin classics, and for the brilliancy of his own original compositions. He received in 1824 the third prize for a translation from Sallust; when one of the examiners remarked, “If he does this when a boy, what may we not expect of him when a man?” Two years later he obtained a prize for a theme in English prose, and also another for a Latin poem. On graduating he was honored with the Franklin Medal. He is remembered by his schoolfellows at this period as [24] being kind-hearted, thoughtful, courteous, though exhibiting some slight consciousness of “being to the manor born.” This last trait in his character sometimes drew a smile from the members of his family. On his lying in bed one morning until after the household had breakfasted, his mother rather sharply said to him as he came down, “Why so late this morning, Charles?” “Call me Mr. Sumner, mother, if you please,” said he, as if his dignity were offended; and so the point of the rebuke was broken.

Another anecdote exhibits the purity of his spirit at this period. A certain lady nearly of his own age was wont to meet him frequently on his way to school; when he would always greet her cheerfully with the salutation, “Good morning! Macte Virtute” (follow virtue), as if this saying were his creed. Whenever in after life she heard his name, this salutation came to her impressively, knowing as she did the strict integrity of his life.

He continued five years at the Latin School; when, at the age of fifteen, he was found well prepared for entering Harvard College, whose terms of admission were somewhat less exacting than at present.

In the year 1826 he commenced his studies in the classic halls of Cambridge. Among his classmates were, Thomas C. Amory, Jonathan W. Bemis, James [25] Dana, Samuel M. Emery, John B. Kerr, Elisha R. Potter, Jonathan F. Stearns, George W. Warren, and Samuel T. Worcester. The accomplished John T. Kirkland was president of the university; and among the instructors were Edward T. Channing in rhetoric, Levi Hedge in logic, George Otis in Latin, John S. Popkin in Greek, George Ticknor in modern languages, and John Farrar in natural science. His room during his first year was No. 17, Stoughton Hall. In person he was at that time unusually tall for a youth of fifteen summers; and, though one of the six youngest of his class of forty-eight, he stood among his fellows in respect to height conspicuous. “When he entered college,” one of his classmates writes to me, “he was tall, thin, and somewhat awkward. He had but little inclination for engaging in sports or games, such as kicking football on the Delta, which the other students were in almost the daily habit of enjoying. He rarely went out to take a walk; and almost the only exercise in which he engaged was going on foot to Boston on Saturday afternoon, and then returning in the evening. He had a remarkable fondness for reading the dramas of Shakspeare, the works of Walter Scott, together with reviews and magazines of the higher class. He remembered what he read, and quoted passages afterwards with [26] the greatest fluency. He did not study for college rank, as many do, but took a good position in the classics, and was excellent in composition. In declamations he held rank among the best; but in mathematics there were several superior. He was always amiable and gentlemanly in deportment, and avoided saying any thing to wound the feelings of his classmates.”

Another member of the class of 1830 communicates to me the following items: “Though reasonaably attentive to his college studies, and rarely absent from the recitations, I do not think that Mr. Sumner, as an undergraduate, was much distinguished for close application. Having been much better fitted for college, especially in Latin and in Greek, than the majority of his class, he continued to sustain a high rank in both the ancient and the modern languages throughout his college course. He stood well also in elocution, English composition, and the rest of his rhetorical pursuits. In the last years of his college course, he failed in all the more abstruse and difficult mathematics. His memory was retentive; and it was sometimes said of him that he learned by heart the most difficult mathematical problems, without having a very clear understanding of their import. Morally, so far as I have ever heard, his character was without reproach.” [27]

The following incident, which occurred during young Sumner's freshman year, illustrates well that firmness of purpose, and persistent adherence to preconceived opinions, by which his whole course was signalized. “At the time our class entered,” writes to me the Rev. S. M. Emery, D. D., one of his classmates, “undergraduates were required by the college laws to wear a uniform, consisting of an Oxford cap, coat, pantaloons, and vest of the color known as ‘Oxford mixed;’ but in the summer a white vest was permitted, no fancy colors being allowed. Sumner, probably having in his mind Edmund Burke, who on state occasions wore a buff-colored waiscoat, as Daniel Webster did when he was to speak in the Senate, procured a vest so near to buff color as not likely to be mistaken for white by the observer of the legal color. Now the tutor, proctors, and other teachers, one of whom had his room in each hall, as a sort of police, constituted what was called the ‘parietal board.’ They held their meetings once or twice a week to consider delinquencies of the students, to report to the faculty at their weekly meetings, and to summon the delinquents before them. Sumner's vest did not escape the keen eyes of this police. He was summoned before the assembled board, to answer to the charge of disobeying the laws by wearing a vest which was not of the [28] lawful color. He protested, in the best-natured way possible, that nothing was farther from his mind than to disobey the college rules in all respects; but that the article of apparel in question was white: it might need the manipulations of a laundress; but it was certainly white. The board dismissed him with the injunction not to appear again in public without a regulation-vest. Conscious that his vest was white, he took no notice of the gentle admonition of the board, but continued to wear the same objectionable garment. Two or three weeks elapsed; and he was again called before the board on the same charge. He maintained with much eloquence that his vest was white. He was told that the board would be obliged to report him to the faculty if he persisted longer in his course, and he was then dismissed with the same advice as before. Disregarding the parietal board, he appeared the next day wearing the same colored vest. This he continued to do for several weeks, when he was again called before the same tribunal, on the double charge of disregarding its admonitions and of disobeying the college laws. The board threatened more earnestly than ever to report him to the faculty, and also to recommend to it a public admonition. He was undismayed, and argued his cause with as much earnestness as he since has many questions in Congress. He left the [29] board this time feeling confident there was no escape from a public admonition. What was his surprise, however, to learn a day or two afterwards, that, as the easiest way of settling the case, the board had voted, ‘That in future Sumner's vest be regarded by this board as white.’ ”

“He was,” continues Dr. Emery,

so well prepared for college at the Boston Latin School, that the lessons in the classical department were mere boy's play to him. His declamations were an outburst of subdued eloquence, showing as much earnestness as he would in addressing the Senate. He had been accustomed to literary society from his youth, and was brought up among books, so that study was with him a kind of second nature. He never studied, as many students do, for college honors, but for the love of study, and for cultivating his mind, already well-disciplined and refined. His good taste, if nothing else, kept him from the company of “fast young men” and from any bad habits. His greatest pleasure was found in his room, attending to his favorite studies, which were something relating to the humanities.

Many a time has he rushed down to my room and begun a speech, as if in a legislative body: “I rise, Mr. President, to present a petition” (stating what object), when he would go on with a speech, [30] in which he would introduce quotations from Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal. The quotations were the very same which, thirty years afterwards, I read in some of his congressional speeches; and they were always accurate. I recollect accompanying him to an ecclesiastical council (ex parte) held in the old court-house in Cambridge, to dismiss the Rev. Dr. Holmes. Mr. Hoar of Concord was counsel for the party opposed to Dr. Holmes. We went to hear his argument, in the course of which he quoted the familiar line, “Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis.” But instead of saying “in illis,” he said “cum illis.” Sumner was greatly shocked at the mistake, and turning to me said, “A man ought to be ashamed of himself who attempts to quote an author, and does not quote correctly.” This slight misquotation condemned the scholarship of Mr. Hoar in his estimation; and he had no confidence in his learning afterwards. He was a person of great self-possession, a trait which he inherited from his father, who when high-sheriff of Suffolk County was called upon to read the Riot Act on the stage of the Federal-Street Theatre, where a riot was in progress, and went steadily through it in the midst of a shower of brickbats.

He delighted in the society of distinguished men, of whom Judge Story was then one of the foremost [31] in Cambridge. He was deeply impressed with the beauty of the Prayer Book of our Church; and I have often heard him read in a very solemn manner many portions of it, especially the burial-service, which he would render with great pathos.

Another of his companions, in a carefully-written letter, says to me, “He was more given to study than to companionship. He had the reputation of being a diligent reader out of the course, and was often praised for his themes and forensics. For scholarship he stood among the upper third, but was not remarkable; yet this was true of several of his classmates who have since obtained distinction. As I recall him at the college, in chapel, or in the yard, he was of a height above the average, slender, awkward in his ways and movements, rather shy, and not by any means inclined to merriment.”

Those who enter college at a very early age often excel in the classical and rhetorical studies, but, for the want of that maturity of mind which years alone can bring, find themselves unable to grapple successfully with the higher branches of mathematical science and of ethical philosophy. The failure comes not so much from any deficiency in aspiration or of original mental power, as from the need of time for due development. The strength of the contestant is not equal to the armor. This was the [32] condition of Charles Sumner. His tastes and inclinations also led him to the belles-lettres and humanities. He practically took, as every one who means to make the most of his abilities will do, a kind of elective course. He gave himself to the study of history, of rhetoric, eloquence, and poetry. He read with zest and keen avidity the works of the great masters. He was fascinated by the splendid diction of Hume and Gibbon, the charming style of Addison and Goldsmith, the glowing eloquence of William Pitt, of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and of Edmund Burke. His imagination was enkindled by the golden thoughts of Dante, Milton (always with him a favorite), Dryden, Pope, and Shakspeare. With these immortal geniuses he lived, and from them drew his inspiration. He strolled, moreover, into distant and untrodden fields of literature, and, as the bee, selected honey from unnoticed flowers. Here he gathered sweets from some French poet of the medieval ages; here from some neglected Latin or Italian author; here from some Saxon legend, some Highland bard, or some Provencal troubadour. This material afterwards came in to beautify his grand pleas for peace, humanity, and freedom.

“It was my fortune,” says the Hon. G. W. Warren,

to be one of nine classmates who formed a private society in our senior year, meeting once a [33] week for literary exercises. Of that little circle were Browne, Hopkinson, and Sumner, now departed; and among the surviving are Worcester (formerly representative in Congress from Ohio, having succeeded Senator Sherman) now of Nashua, N. H., and the Rev. Dr. Stearns of Newark, N. J. Those hours spent together (for no one missed a meeting) were indeed literary recreations.

Sumner was also a member of the Hasty-Pudding Club. The records show at least one made by him when temporary secretary, which is characteristic of the style of his later days. The moot court was then the literary exercise of the club; and in his turn he filled the judge's chair, and displayed his legal learning in advance. On his motion the first catalogue of the past and present members was printed, as I well remember; for the principal labor fell upon me as secretary.

Of his appearance and studies in college, the same surviving classmate says, “Youngest of his class, he had in college that same manly form, and open, expressive countenance. He was the tallest of his class. His genial companionship was much sought. He was noted also for his retentive memory. A diligent reader of history, and a thorough belleslettres scholar, he never forgot a date of any event, nor made a misquotation. He was, as might be supwere [36] his most intimate companions; and associated with its classic halls were many of his dearest memories. The university now points to him as one of the most brilliant stars in its broad constellation.”

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 Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1830 AD (1)
1826 AD (1)
1824 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: