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Chapter 4:

He (Charles Sumner) presents in his own person a decisive proof that an American gentleman, without official rank or wide-spread reputation, by mere dint of courtesy, candor, an entire absence of pretension, an appreciating spirit, and a cultivated mind, may be received on a perfect footing of equality in the best circles,--social, political, and intellectual; which, be it observed, are hopelessly inaccessible to the itinerant note-taker, who never gets beyond the outskirts of the show-houses. --Quarterly review.

In the autumn of 1837 Mr. Sumner sailed for Europe, taking with him letters of introduction to distinguished gentlemen abroad, from Mr. Justice Story and other eminent civilians.

Mr. Sumner,” says Judge Story in his letter, “is a practising lawyer at the Boston bar, of very high reputation for his years, and already giving the promise [49] of the most eminent distinction in his profession: his literary and judicial attainments are truly extraordinary. He is one of the editors, indeed the principal editor, of ‘The American Jurist,’ a quarterly journal of extensive circulation and celebrity among us, and without a rival in America. He is also the reporter of the court in which I preside, and has already published two volumes of reports. His private character, also, is of the best kind for purity and propriety. But, to accomplish himself more thoroughly in the great objects of his profession,--not merely to practise, but to extend the boundaries in the science of law,--I am very anxious that he should possess the means of visiting the courts of Westminster Hall under favorable auspices; and I shall esteem it a personal favor if you can give him any facilities in this particular.” Mr. Sumner was received with enviable distinction into many of the best circles of English society, and was honored with marked attention by the leading members of the bench and bar. He was once invited to sit with the lord chief-justice of the king's bench. A novel point arising during the trial, his lordship, turning to Mr. Sumner, inquired if any American decision touched that point. “No, your lordship,” Mr. Sumner instantly replied; “but the point has been decided in your lordship's court in such a case,” [50] which he then cited. This singular promptitude gave him much celebrity with the English bar. During his residence in England, which embraced a period of almost a year, he frequently attended the debate in parliament, and made the acquaintance of the leading speakers and the eminent statesmen of the day. In a letter to him, dated Aug. 11, 1838, Mr. Justice Story says,--

“I have received all your letters, and have devoured them with unspeakable delight. All the family have read them aloud; and all join in their expressions of pleasure. You are now exactly where I 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 mother-land: 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 his 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.” During his residence in London, Mr. Sumner formed the acquaintance of Thomas B. Macaulay, whose “wonderful conversation,” said he, [51] “left on the mind an ineffaceable impression of eloquence and fulness, perhaps without a parallel.” Of the manner of his introduction to Richard Monckton Milnes, he gave the following account to his friend James Redpath:--

“I was at Sydney Smith's breakfast-table one morning, with perhaps a dozen others, when he suddenly asked me how English literary reputations stood in America.” “We sometimes presume,” said Mr. Sumner,

“to rejudge your judgments; to refuse a reputation where you give one, and to bestow a name where you withhold it.” “An example! An example!” exclaimed Mr. Smith in his caressing style. Here I was, a young Yankee Doodle, to use a phrase of Mr. Carlyle, at the table of the greatest wit, probably, that England ever saw, singled out by him to maintain a position which I had advanced. But I did not feel inclined to let the matter go by default, so I said at once:--

Carlyle!” “Carlyle!” said Smith, “we don't know him here: what have you got to say of Carlyle?” I said, “I am not an indiscriminate admirer of Carlyle; I find much in him to criticise: but I have always been impressed by his genius; he seems to me to write as if by flashes of lightning.” This declaration seemed to surprise the company, with the exception of one gentleman, whom I observed to [52] listen very attentively. When the conversation was resumed, he rose and placed his card in my hand, saying, “Mr. Sumner, I thank you for what you have said of Carlyle. I am the only man here who appreciates him. This is my card; I shall be obliged for yours, and desire to visit you.”

It was Richard Monckton Milnes, the poet and member of Parliament. The conversation of Mr. Carlyle resembled in style his published writings. It was racy, suggestive, thoughtful, matterful.

From England Mr. Sumner went to Paris, where he found ready access to the highest literary circles. His knowledge of the French language and literature enabled him to appreciate the brilliant intellectual society of the French capital. He made the acquaintance and secured the friendship of the gifted poet Alphonse de Lamartine, then becoming liberal in his political views; of Victor Hugo, then struggling into fame; of M. Alexis de Tocqueville, who had recently published the first part of his great work on “Democracy in America;” and of other well-known authors. Not a moment of his time was wasted. “He attended the debates of the Chamber of Deputies, and the lectures of all the eminent professors in different departments,--at the Sorbonne, at the College of France, and particularly in the Law [53] School.1 He became personally acquainted with several of the most eminent jurists,--with Baron Degerando, renowned for his works on charity; with Pardessus, at the head of commercial law; with Foelix, editor of the “Review of Foreign Jurisprudence;” and other famous men. He attended a whole term of the Royal Court at Paris, observing the forms of procedure, received kindness from the judges, and was allowed to peruse the papers in the cases. His presence at some of these trials was noticed in the reports in the law journals.”

While in France, his thoughts were turned especially to the leading social questions of the day; and, from his intercourse with the liberal philosophers of that period, his views of prison-discipline, of universal peace and brotherhood, which came so grandly forth in his first remarkable orations, received fresh coloring and confirmation. Through Mr. Sumner many of the advanced ideas of France in respect to legal and social science were introduced into [54] America. Lewis Cass was then our minister at Paris; and at his solicitation Mr. Sumner wrote a strong defence of our claim in respect to the northwestern boundary, which was published in “Galignani's Messenger,” and extensively copied by American journals, and which evinced the liberal policy of the writer, and materially aided in the settlement of that vexed question. In the art-galleries of this city he began to make that collection of engravings which subsequently came to be one of the finest in America.

From Paris Mr. Sumner repaired to Italy, the land of art, of poetry, and song. Here he gave himself up to the study of the works of the grand masters, and to the ruins of ancient Rome. He himself glowingly describes the country as the

enchanted ground of literature, of history, and of art, strown with richest memorials of the past, filled with scenes memorable in the story of the progress of man, teaching by the pages of philosophers and historians, vocal with the melody of poets, ringing with the music which St. Cecilia protects, glowing with the living marble and canvas, beneath a sky of heavenly purity and brightness, with the sunsets which Claude has painted, parted by the Apennines (early witnesses of the unrecorded Etruscan civilization), surrounded by the snow-capped Alps and the blue, classic waters of [55] the Mediterranean Sea. . . . Rome, sole surviving city of Antiquity, who once disdained all that could be wrought by the cunning hand of sculpture,

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera,
Credo equidem: vivos ducent de marmore vultus,
who has commanded the world by her arms, by her jurisprudence, by her church, now sways it further by her arts. Pilgrims from afar, where neither her eagles, her praetors, nor her interdicts ever reached, become the willing subjects of this new empire; and the Vatican stored with the precious remains of antiquity, and the touching creations of a Christian pencil, has succeeded to the Vatican whose thunders intermingled with the strifes of modern Europe.

During his residence in Italy he often studied twelve hours a day: he mastered the Italian language, and read many of the Italian poets and historians. His art-studies at Rome he pursued under the guidance of Thomas Crawford, one of our most eminent American sculptors, then a resident of the Eternal City. In the galleries of the Vatican, of the Capitol, and of the palaces, he spent many days with this distinguished artist, admiring and criticising the resplendent works of the great masters.

“He once told me,” says a personal friend, “that a Catholic bishop, after endeavoring in vain to convert [56] him to the Roman faith, had finally assured him, that, if he would but read the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, he would certainly be convinced; when he promptly informed him that he had already read every word of that esteemed father in the original Latin; and, though he had not become a Catholic in religion, he was catholic enough to admit that the Angelic Doctor had, in his opinion, one of the first of intellects, if not the very first, that the earth had known.” Mr. Sumner added, in narrating this incident, that in speaking further of Aquinas he expressed his wonder that one who died so young should have been able to write so many works as he had left behind; whereupon the bishop had asserted that he lived to a good old age. Assuring him that he was certainly mistaken, the senator turned to a cyclopaedia of biography, and showed the bishop that the father died at the early age of forty-eight years.

Returning home by the way of Germany, he there was courteously received by the celebrated Prince Metternich, and formed an acquaintance with the historian Leopold Ranke, the geographer Carl Ritter, the eminent scientist Alexander von Humboldt, and other prominent savans. Mr. Sumner visited Europe for the sole purpose of study and observation. He left no opportunity for acquiring information and a higher culture unimproved. With ready access to [57] the best society, with a mind eager for new truths, with a taste refined by classical pursuits, a memory as retentive as a vice, and an aspiration which no impediment could repress, he treasured up a golden store of intellectual wealth, and. on his return to Boston early in 1840 possessed an affluence of learning and a felicity of diction which commanded the admiration of our most accomplished scholars.

“You have indeed,” wrote Mr. Prescott the historian to him, “read a page of social life such as few anywhere have access to; for your hours have been passed with the great,--not merely with those born to greatness, but those who have earned it for themselves.”

With what delight Mr. Sumner again beheld the domes of Boston, and how well he loved his native city, may be inferred from these remarks he subsequently made concerning it:--

Boston has always led the generous and magnanimous actions of our history. Boston led the cause of the Revolution. Here was commenced that discussion, pregnant with the independence of the colonies, which, at first occupying a few warm but true spirits only, finally absorbed all the best energies of the continent,--the eloquence of Adams, the patriotism of Jefferson, the wisdom of Washington. Boston is the home of noble charities, the nurse of [58] true learning, the city of churches. By all these tokens she stands conspicuous; and other parts of the country are not unwilling to follow er example. Athens was called the eye of Greece: Boston may be called the eye of America; and the influence which she exerts is to be referred, not to her size, for there are other cities larger far, but to her moral and intellectual character.

On reaching home, he found a widowed mother — who during his absence had followed the remains of her accomplished daughter Jane, and then in 1839 of her beloved husband, to the silent grave — in charge of the bereaved family. His reception was most cordial and affectionate; and, choosing for his study the front chamber above the parlor, he arranged the specimens of art and the books he had secured abroad, and there for many years pursued his literary course. His books were his society, his pen the instrument of his toil. He labored unremittingly; now delving into classical lore, now poring over the tomes of mediaeval learning, now studying the works of the French and English statesmen, and now communing with the spirits of the Revolutionary patriots,--Adams, Ames, Jay, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington. To use the language which he loved, it could be truly said of him,--“Come l'ape succhia i fiori,
Succhia i detti demigliori.

” [59]

Thus he treasured up that precious store of facts, principles, and illustrations with which he embellished (sometimes at the risk of being called a pedant) his discourses.

He resumed the practice of the law: but his thoughts were given rather to its principles and its literature than to its prosaic and dry details; and he therefore found it a relief to steal away from his profession, and present his thoughts concerning intellectual and social questions on the platform of the lyceum, where he soon obtained remarkable success. During the winter of 1843 he again delivered a course of lectures to the students of the Cambridge Law School, and subsequently engaged in the laborious work of editing the twenty volumes of “Vesey's Reports,” to which he added sketches of distinguished counsellors mentioned in the text, and also valuable notes. In speaking of the execution of this task, “The Law Reporter.” makes the following discriminating remarks:--

“Wherever occasion offers itself, the editorial note has been expanded till it assumes something of the port and stature of a brief legal dissertation, in which the topics are discussed in the assured manner of one who feels that his foot is planted on familiar ground, and whose mind is so saturated with legal knowledge that it readily pours it forth at the [60] slightest pressure; reminding us of those first ‘sprightly runnings’ of the wine-press, extracted by no force but the mere weight of the grapes. Mr. Sumner has also introduced a new element into his notes: we allude to his biographical notes of the eminent en whose names occur in the reports either in a judicial or forensic capacity, nd to his occasional historical, political, and biographical illustrations of the text. In what may be called the literature of the law,--the curiosities of legal learning,--he has no rival among us.”

1In Paris,” says Mr. Sumner, in his argument against separate colored schools, Dec. 4, 1849, “I have sat for weeks at the Law School on the same benches with colored persons listening, like myself, to the learned lectures of Degerando and of Rossi (the last is the eminent minister who has unhappily fallen beneath the dagger of a Roman assassin); nor do I remember observing, in the throng of sensitive young men by whom they were surrounded, any feeling towards them except of companionship and respect.”

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