previous next

Section Sixth: the interval of illness and repose.


When the assault was made on Mr. Sumner, he was not only in perfect health, but in the enjoyment of a degree of physical strength and corresponding intellectual vigor, that few men ever possess. It was the testimony of the surgeons and by-standers who saw his body entirely undressed for an examination, to trace the extent of his injury, that they had never seen a human form more perfectly developed, for beauty, symmetry, and power. It was the belief of the many eminent surgeons and distinguished men on both sides of the Atlantic, who, during the next three or four years, treated his case professionally, that the only hope for his ultimate recovery lay in the exceptional and almost unparalleled vigor and vitality of his physical system. [297]

After the assault, from which he supposed he would recover in a few days, it soon became evident that the pressure upon the brain, connected with weakness in the spinal column, would render any early recovery an impossibility. He became the guest of Francis P. Blair, at Silver Spring—within an easy carriage ride of Washington. In the fore part of July, he found himself well enough to go on to Philadelphia, where he received the kindest attention from the family of Mr. James T. Furness. At their invitation, he went with them to Cape May. Afterwards, under advice of Dr. R. N. Jackson, he was removed to Cresson, among the highlands of Pennsylvania. But no signs of immediate restoration appeared, and in the beginning of October he once more reached his home in Boston. This return he had postponed, at the earnest persuasion of his medical adviser, who foresaw that his entry to Boston would be attended with the greatest excitement, for the feeling which inflamed the people of Massachusetts, of indignation on the one side, and of the tenderest affection on the other, could not be repressed.


The welcome which Massachusetts extended to her Senator on his return, was an imposing demonstration of honor and love. Boston was decorated as she had never been for the gayest festival. Thousands had flocked from every district of the State, and every city in New England; and the occasion was marked by every token of respect, and made touching by every proof of sympathy and affection. With great difficulty, and in a feeble voice, he thus returned his thanks from the platform which had [298] been erected in front of the Capitol, and up whose steps he was assisted by the most venerable men of Boston:—
It is a pleasure to be once more among the scenes of home; to look upon familiar objects,—the State House, the Common, and well-known Streets. It is more pleasant still to behold the countenances of friends. And all this pleasure, sir, is enhanced by the welcome which you now give me, in behalf of the Commonwealth which for five years I have served, honestly, earnestly, and constantly, in an important field of duty, to which I was introduced by an unsought suffrage.

Sir, I thank you for this welcome; I thank, also, the distinguished gentlemen who have honored this occasion by their presence. I thank, too, these swelling multitudes who contribute to me the strength and succor of their presence; and my soul overflows especially to the young men of Boston, out of whose hearts, as from an exuberant fountain, this broad-spreading hospitality took its rise.

My earnest desire, often expressed, has been, that I might be allowed to return home quietly, without show or demonstration of any kind. And this longing was enforced by my physical condition, which, though vastly improved at this time, and advancing surely towards complete health, is still exposed to the peril of relapse, or at least to the arrest of those kindly processes of Nature essential to the restoration of a shattered system. But the spontaneous kindness of this reception makes me forget my weakness, makes me forget my desire for repose.

I thank you, sir, for the suggestion of seclusion, and the security which that suggestion promises to afford.

Something more, sir, I would say, but I am admonished that voice and strength will not permit. With your permission, therefore, I will hand the reporters what I should be glad to say, that it may be printed.

[The remainder of the speech is printed from Mr. Sumner's manuscript.]


More than five months have passed since I was disabled from the performance of my public duties. During this weary period 1 have been constrained to repeat daily the lesson of renunciation,—confined at first to my bed, and then only slowly regaining the power even to walk. But, beyond the constant, irrepressible grief which must well up in the breast of every patriot, as he discerns the present condition of [299] his country, my chief sorrow has been caused by the necessity, to which I was doomed, of renouncing all part in the contest for human rights, which, beginning in Congress, has since enveloped the whole land.

The Grecian Chief, grievously ill of a wound from the stealthy bite of a snake, and left behind while his companions sailed to the siege of Troy, did not repine more at his enforced seclusion. From day to day, and week to week, I vainly sought that health which we value most when lost, and which perpetually eluded my pursuit. For health I strove, for health I prayed. With uncertain steps I sought it at the seashore, and I sought it on the mountain-top.

Two voices are there: one is of the sea,
One of the mountains; each a mighty voice:
In both from age to age thou didst rejoice,
They were thy chosen music, Liberty!

I listened to the admonitions of medical skill, and I courted all the bracing influences of Nature, while time passed without the accustomed healing on its wings. I had confidently hoped to be restored so as to take my seat in the Senate, and to be heard there again, long before the session closed. But Congress adjourned, leaving me still an invalid. My next hope was, that I might be permitted to appear before the people during the present canvass, and with heart and voice plead the great cause now in issue. Even now, though happily lifted from long prostration, and beginning to assume many of the conditions of health, I am constrained to confess that I am an invalid,—cheered, however, by the assurance that I shall soon be permitted, with unimpaired vigor, to resume all the responsibilities of my position.

Too much have I said about myself; but you will pardon it to the occasion, which, being personal in character, invites these personal confessions. With more pleasure I turn to other things.

I should feel that I failed in one of those duties which the heart prompts and the judgment confirms, if I allowed this first opportunity to pass without sincerest acknowledgment to my able, generous, and faithful colleague, Mr. Wilson. Together we labored in mutual trust, honorably leaning upon each other. By my disability he was left sole representative of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate, throughout months of heated contest, involving her good name and most cherished sentiments. All who watched the currents of debate, even as imperfectly as I did in my retirement, know with what readiness, courage and power he acted,—showing himself, by extraordinary energies, equal [300] to the extraordinary occasion. But it is my especial happiness to recognize his unfailing sympathies for myself, and his manly assumption of all the responsibilities of the hour.


I am not here to indulge in eulogy, nor to open any merit-roll of service; but the same feeling which prompts these acknowledgments to my colleague, embraces also the Commonwealth from whom we have received our trust. To Massachusetts, mother of us all,—great in resources, great in children,—I now pledge anew my devotion. Never before did she inspire equal pride and affection; for never before was she so completely possessed by those sentiments which, when manifest in Commonwealth or citizen, invest the character with its highest charm, so that what is sown a natural body is raised a spiritual body. My filial love does not claim too much, when it exhibits her as approaching the pattern of a Christian Commonwealth, which, according to the great English Republican, John Milton, ‘ought to be but as one huge Christian personage, one mighty growth and stature of an honest man, as big and compact in virtue as in body.’ Not through any worldly triumphs, not through the vaults of State street, the spindles of Lowell, or even the learned endowments of Cambridge, is Massachusetts thus,— but because, seeking to extend everywhere within the sphere of her influence the benign civilization which she cultivates at home, she stands forth the faithful, unseduced supporter of Human Nature. Wealth has its splendor, and the intellect has its glory; but there is a grandeur in such service which above all that, these can supply. For this she has already the regard of good men, and will have the immortal life of history. For this she has also the reproach and contumely always throughout the ages poured upon those who have striven for justice on earth. Not now for the first time in human struggle, has Truth, when most dishonored, seemed most radiant, gathering glory even out of obloquy. When Sir Harry Vane, courageous champion of the English Commonwealth, was dragged on a hurdle up the Tower Hill to suffer death by the axe, one of the multitude cried out to him, ‘That is the most glorious seat you ever sat on!’ And again, when Russell was exposed in the streets, on his way to a similar scaffold, the people, according to the simple narrative of his biographer, imagined they saw Liberty and Virtue sitting by his side. Massachusetts is not without encouragement in her own history. She has seen her ports closed by arbitrary power,— [301] she has seen her name made a byword of reproach,—she has seen her cherished leaders, Hancock and Adams, excepted from all pardon by the Crown; but then, when most dishonored, did Massachusetts deserve most, for then she was doing most for the cause of all. And now, when Massachusetts is engaged in a greater cause than that of our fathers, how serenely can she turn from the scoff and jeer of heartless men! Her only disgrace will be in disloyalty to truth which is to make her free.

Worse to bear—oh, far worse!—than the evil speaking of others, is the conduct of some of her own children. It is hard to see the scholarship which has been drawn from her cisterns, and the riches accumulated under her hospitable shelter, now employed to weaken and discredit that cause which is above riches or scholarship. It is hard, while fellow-citizens in Kansas plead for deliverance from a cruel Usurpation, and while the whole country, including her own soil, is trodden down by a domineering and brutal Despotism, to behold sons of Massachusetts in sympathy, open or disguised, with the vulgar enemy, quickening everywhere the lash of the taskmaster, and helping forward the Satanic carnival, when Slavery shall be fastened not only upon prostrate Kansas, but upon all the Territories of the Republic,— when Cuba shall be torn from a friendly power by dishonest force,— and when the slave-trade itself, with all its crime, its woe, and its shame, shall be opened anew under the American flag. Alas, that any child of Massachusetts, in wickedness of heart, or in weakness of principle, or under the delusion of partisan prejudice, should join in these things! With such, I have no word of controversy at this hour. But, leaving them now, in my weakness, I trust not to seem too severe, if I covet for the occasion something of the divine power

To bend the silver bow with tender skill,
While, void of pain, the silent arrows kill.


Gladly from these do I turn to another character, yet happily spared to Massachusetts, whose heart beats strong with the best blood of the Revolution, and with the best sentiments by which that blood was enriched. The only child of one of the authors of American Liberty, for many years the able and courageous Representative of Boston on the floor of Congress, where his speeches were the masterpieces of the time, distinguished throughout a long career by the grateful trust of his [302] fellow-citizens, happy in all the possessions of a well-spent life, and surrounded by ‘honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,’ with an old age which is second youth, Josiah Quincy, still erect under the burden of eighty-four winters, puts himself at the head of our great battle,—and never before, in the ardor of youth, or the maturity of manhood, did he show himself so grandly conspicuous, and add so much to the heroic wealth of our history. His undaunted soul, lifted already to glimpses of another life, may shame the feebler spirits of a later generation. There is one other personage, at a distant period, who, with precisely the same burden of winters, asserted the same supremacy of powers. It is the celebrated Dandolo, Doge of Venice, at the age of eighty-four, of whom the historian Gibbon has said, in words strictly applicable to our own Quincy: ‘He shone, in the last period of human life, as one of the most illustrious characters of the times: under the weight of years he retained a sound understanding and a manly courage, the spirit of an hero, and the wisdom of a patriot.’ This old man carried the Venetian Republic over to the Crusaders, and exposed his person freely to all the perils of war, so that the historian describes him, in words again applicable to our day, saying: ‘In the midst of the conflict, the Doge, a venerable and conspicuous form, stood aloft, on the prow of his galley,’ while ‘the great standard of St. Mark was displayed before him.’ Before the form of our venerable head is displayed the standard of a greater Republic than Venice, thrilling with its sight greater multitudes than ever gazed on the standard of St. Mark, while a sublimer cause is ours than the cause of the Crusaders; for our task is not to ransom an empty sepulchre, but to rescue the Saviour himself, in the bodies of his innumerable children,—not to dislodge the Infidel from a distant foreign soil, but to displace him from the very Jerusalem of our liberties.

May it please your Excellency, I forbear to proceed further. With thanks for this welcome, accept also my new vows of duty. In all simplicity, let me say that I seek nothing but the triumph of Truth. To this I offer my best efforts, careless of office or honor. Show me that I am wrong, and I stop at once; but in the complete conviction of right I shall persevere against all temptations, against all odds, against all perils, against all threats—knowing well, that, whatever may be my fate, the Right will surely prevail. Territorial place is determined by celestial observation. Only by watching the stars can the mariner safely pursue his course; and it is only by obeying those lofty [303] principles, which are above men and human passion, that we can make our way safely through the duties of life. In such obedience I hope to live, while, as a servant of Massachusetts, I avoid no labor, shrink from no exposure, and complain of no hardship.


Once more in his native city, surrounded with every comfort, and watched over with the greatest vigilance by Dr. Marshall S. Perry, his attending physician, with the consultation of the venerable Dr. James Jackson, and all the suggestions the most learned medical men of Boston could give, he remained several months, as quietly as possible, in his own house, most of the time lying on the sofa or bed.

Meantime, in this state of prostration, with no immediate prospect of recovery, he had been reflected for the second term to the Senate of the United States by unanimity almost without a parallel. The vote of the Senate was given to him without a dissenting voice; and in the Assembly, constituted of several hundred members, there were only a few scattering votes.

At last he felt so much restored that, against the persuasion of many friends, he started for Washington, reaching the Capital just before the close of the session, but in time to determine by his vote the fate of the Tariff of 1857. After being sworn in for his second term, on the 4th of March, he yielded to the persuasion of his friends, who were unanimous in the opinion that nothing but rest and recreation could restore him; and on the 7th of March he sailed for Havre.


He was no stranger in Europe. Throughout the British Islands, and on the Continent, all the great men [304] in science, in literature, in jurisprudence, with the friends of humanity, were prepared to give him the most generous greeting. Mr. George Combe, the distinguished physiologist, who interested himself most earnestly in his case, after consultation with Sir James Clark, Physician to the Queen, advised him strongly against any early return to public life. But so deep was his anxiety about certain measures before Congress, he could not be deterred from returning; and in December, 1857, he was once more in his seat. But he soon found that application to public affairs brought on a recurrence of his unfavorable symptoms, and a series of relapses induced him at last to make one more, and, if necessary, a protracted effort for recovery. Consequently, on the 22d of May, the following year,—1858,—he once more embarked for Europe.

At Paris he placed himself under the care of Dr. Brown-Sequard, the illustrious physiologist and specialist, who made a more thorough and analytical diagnosis of his case than had ever been made; and he unreservedly expressed the opinion that ‘the blows on the head had taken effect by contre-coups in the spine, producing disturbance in the spinal cord.’ ‘What then shall be the remedy?’ inquired Mr. Sumner. ‘Fire,’ answered Dr. Brown-Sequard. ‘When can you apply it?’ ‘To-morrow, if you please.’ ‘Why not this afternoon?’ That afternoon it was done by the moxa, which was followed by seven other applications, always without chloroform, since Mr. Sumner remarked that he wished to comprehend the whole process; and as for the pain, he cared nothing for it.

This treatment had taken place in the month of June, and the result justified the sagacity and learning of Mr. [305] Sumner's very great medical adviser. Probably within the whole range of modern chemistry, its subtle elements of power have in no instance been so exhaustively invoked for the restoration of life; for, although a perfect cure seemed to be an impossibility, yet beyond all doubt it is owing to the matchless learning, and more than friendly assiduity, of Dr. Brown-Sequard, that Mr. Sumner's valuable life was protracted with almost unabated vigor during the long period of sixteen years.

To show the elasticity of Mr. Sumner's mind, and the strange power of recuperation his physical system possessed, he spent most of the time during the painful treatment he was subjected to, in the careful study of engravings; and thus with the assistance of the finest artists in Paris, he matured his connoisseurship in that exquisitely beautiful department of Art.


After journeying leisurely through Switzerland, Germany, and the northern part of Italy, taking Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Venice, and Trieste en route, he reached Paris, where he made preparations for his immediate return to America. But in a medical conference held by Dr. Brown-Sequard, Dr. George Hayward, and the illustrious French practitioner, Dr. Trousseau, he was informed that death would be the inevitable result of so rash an undertaking. Escaping, therefore, from all the excitements of Paris, which meant the excitements of Europe, he fled to Montpelier, in the south of France, where he led a life of absolute retirement. Every day he was cupped on the spine, and three-quarters of his time was spent on his bed or sofa, sleeping whenever [306] he could, but finding his chief recreation in reading; although he would frequently attend the public lectures at the College, on History and Literature.


No portion of the earth approaches nearer to the ideal of the invalid's paradise, than the south of France. Bordering on the Mediterranean,

That tideless sea,
Which ceaseless rolls eternally;

whose waters vary in temperature only one or two degrees in the year, and whose climate combines all the soft and genial influences so completely embraced in the term mezzo giorno, and far away from the fire-life Americans lead, he was now on the road to substantial recovery. After one more rapid dash through Italy, he reported himself in Paris to Dr. Brown-Sequard, who now pronounced him well. For a month he took the seabaths at Havre, and at the opening of Congress in December, he was once more in his Senatorial seat.

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 People (automatically extracted)
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.
1858 AD (2)
December, 1857 AD (2)
1857 AD (2)
December (2)
October (2)
July (2)
June (2)
May 22nd (2)
March 7th (2)
March 4th (2)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: