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Chapter 3: birth and early Education.—1811-26.

Charles and Matilda, the eldest and twin children of Charles Pinckney and Relief Sumner, were born in Boston, Jan. 6, 1811. Their birthplace was the frame-house on the south-east corner of Revere (then May) and Irving (then Buttolph) Streets, the site of which is now occupied by the rear part of the Bowdoin Schoolhouse. The neighbors, who took a kindly interest in the event, remember that they weighed, at the time of birth, only three and a half pounds each, and were not dressed for some days. At first, the tiny babes gave little promise of living many hours; but, surviving the first struggle for existence, they soon began to thrive. The boy was retained by his mother, and the girl was provided with another nurse. The parents rejoiced in their first-born. To the father, whose heart was full of gladness, it seemed as if the whole town knew his good fortune as soon as he knew it himself. Indeed, children, as they came one after the other, were always welcomed in that household.

Charles was first taught in a private infant school, kept by his maternal aunt, Miss Hannah R. Jacob, in the upper room of his father's house. Perry's and Webster's Spelling Books and the ‘Child's Assistant’ were then the primary school-books. It is not likely that he remained at his aunt's school when he was older than six or seven. For some time before his admission to the Latin School he attended the West Writing-School, afterwards known as the Mayhew School, which was kept in a building now used as a stable, at the corner of Hawkins and Chardon streets. Not only writing but the other common English branches were taught in the school. Benjamin Holt, who lived to an advanced age, was the master in the writing department, and Hall J. Kelley in the reading. James Robinson, of Cambridge, who died in 1877, was an usher. Charles is remembered by persons still living as large for his age, amiable and quiet, and maturer than most of the other scholars. The boys liked him, and even those older [36] than himself looked up to him. He was taught writing before entering the Latin School, by a well-known master of the art, Elmer Valentine, whose rooms were at 3 Cornhill Square, now known as Joy's Building. From him, Feb. 17, 1821, he received a merit-card, handsomely executed in pen-and-ink.

The father, deeming it necessary to prepare his son as soon as might be to earn his livelihood and assist in the support of the family, intended to have him taught in the English branches only, and not in Latin and Greek. The boy, however, with a kind of instinct for classical culture, bought, with some coppers he had saved, a Latin Grammar and ‘Liber Primus’ of an older boy, who had no further use for them. He studied them privately out of school, and one morning surprised his father by appearing with the books, and showing his ability to recite from them. His father, impressed perhaps by this incident, decided to put him in the classical course provided by the public schools.1

Charles, having passed the required examination, was admitted with his next younger brother, Albert, as a member of the Boston Latin School, near the close of August, 1821. This public school, and the private academies at Exeter, N. H., and Andover, Mass., have for a long time maintained a high repute both as to quality of instruction and lists of pupils eminent in all professions.2 The Latin School was, from 1821-26, under the charge of Benjamin A. Gould as head-master, and Jonathan Greely Stevenson and Frederick P. Leverett, his assistants. Joseph Palmer, the necrologist of Harvard College, and for many years connected with the ‘Boston Advertiser,’ was an usher. Mr. Leverett, the author of an excellent Latin Lexicon, was the teacher whose thorough drill added much to the character of the school at that time. Charles continued his attendance at Mr. Valentine's writing school until December of the next year.3

The course at the Latin School was then one of five years, and the school was divided into five classes, according to the years of study. Each class was distributed into three divisions, generally [37] with some reference to proficiency in the appointed studies. Charles and his brother and their kinsman, William H. Simmons, belonged to the third or lowest division. The class had forty-five members the first year; but three years later it had only twenty-nine. While he was in the school, there were in older classes Robert C. Winthrop, George S. Hillard, George T. Bigelow, James Freeman Clarke, and Samuel F. Smith; and in the succeeding one, Wendell Phillips.

The curriculum at the Latin School comprehended more than was then or is now required for admission to Harvard College. It included, in Latin, Adam's ‘Latin Grammar,’ ‘Liber Primus,’ ‘Epitome Historiae Graecae’ (Siretz), ‘Viri Romae,’ ‘Phaedri Fabulae,’ ‘Cornelius Nepos,’ Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses,’ Sallust's ‘Catiline’ and ‘Jugurthine War,’ Caesar, Virgil, Cicero's ‘Select Orations,’ the ‘Agricola’ and ‘Germania’ of Tacitus, and the ‘Odes’ and ‘Epodes’ of Horace. In Greek, it included Valpy's ‘Greek Grammar,’ the ‘Delectus Sententiarum Graecarum,’ Jacob's ‘Greek Reader,’ the ‘Four Gospels,’ and two books of Homer's ‘Iliad.’ Tooke's ‘Pantheon of the Heathen Gods’ introduced the pupil to mythology. In arithmetic, Lacroix was used; and in reading, Lindley Murray's ‘English Reader.’4

In 1824, Charles won a third prize for a translation from Ovid, and a second prize for a translation from Sallust; and, in 1826, second prizes for a Latin hexameter poem and an English theme. He received, for the two prizes last named, an English edition of Gibbon's History in twelve volumes. A detur, awarded to him, Feb. 1, 1823, probably as a recognition of good conduct and attention to studies, is preserved, running thus:—

Some of his attempts at Latin poetry, at this time, are preserved,—two hexameters, one of June 26, 1825, Ad Inferos [38] Orpheos descensus, and the other of January, 1826, Hectoris mors, and an ode of June 15, 1826, Ad ver, in eight verses.

While at the Latin School, he did not distance the greater number of the pupils in the prescribed course; but his general knowledge and occasional efforts in composition, as well as fair standing in recitations, insured him a respectable rank as a scholar. He gave no promise of a remarkable career; and yet both teachers and pupils respected his qualities of mind and his disposition.

The exhibition, or annual visitation, of the Latin and other schools at the close of the five-years' course, in 1826, took place Wednesday, Aug. 23. The occasion, at the Latin School, was graced by distinguished guests,—John Quincy Adams, then President of the United States, Nicholas Biddle, the President of the Bank of the United States, Leverett Saltonstall, of Salem, and Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin, a native of Boston and an officer in the British navy. The sixth part—not a prominent one— was ‘A Discussion on the Comparative Merits of the Present Age and the Age of Chivalry.—C. Sumner and H. W. Sargent.’

Six scholars, of whom Charles was one, each received a Franklin medal. His is still preserved, with the same blue ribbon which was then attached to it. In the afternoon, there was the customary dinner at Faneuil Hall, attended by the mayor, Josiah Quincy, the distinguished guests, the school-committee, and other municipal officers. The scholars who had been on that day decorated with the medals also attended. President Adams, who had since his father's recent death abstained from participation in festivities, made the occasion an exception. He was present at the dinner, and spoke with his usual energy and aptness. After a tribute to the worthies of Massachusetts in other days, and a reference to the recent commemoration of the lives of Adams and Jefferson, he closed his inspiring speech with the sentiment, ‘The blooming youth! May the maturity of the fruit equal the promise of the blossom!’ His wish was to be fulfilled in at least one of the scholars who heard him.

On August 2, three weeks before these festivities, Daniel Webster delivered, at Faneuil Hall, his oration on Adams and Jefferson. Early in the morning of that day, the young men of Boston, having formed in procession at the State House, went to the First Church in Chauncy Place, where, with solemn services, they [39] commemorated the deceased ex-Presidents. The scholars of the Latin School were assigned a place in the procession. At a later hour, Faneuil Hall was not large enough to contain the multitude which pressed for admission. Charles at length forced his way in, just in time to hear the imagined speech of John Adams in favor of the Declaration of Independence, which, according to the newspapers of the day, was the most impressive passage of the oration. Never has a youth, when passing from one interesting period of study to another, had a more precious opportunity than was enjoyed by this boy of fifteen, who was then fortunate enough to listen to such orators as Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams.

One who was in the same division of his class relates an incident which illustrates his acquisitions and tastes at this time:

He was not always attentive to his studies at school; that is, to the specially appointed lessons in Latin, Greek, and mathematics. For the first two years of our course we studied nothing whatever but Latin and Greek. But we boys felt the superiority of his mind and education, though we could get above him, at times, in school rank. I used to look at him with wonder as I heard him talk on subjects I knew nothing of. The first I ever learned of the Labarum of the Romans was from a discussion he had, in common talk, with one of his mates. He had a full sense of his knowledge, yet he never obtruded it upon his fellows, or showed any self-conceit. When we had been less than two years in the school, he fell into a dispute one day, in the middle of the class exercises, with an ill-natured teacher, who undertook to put him down for ignorance on some point of geography,—a branch not studied in the school, or made the subject of examination on admission. Sumner, then about eleven years of age, replied, with spirit, that he could answer any question which the teacher might put to him. The teacher bethought himself a moment, and, going to his table, and looking up what he esteemed a difficulty, asked him where Cumana was. The boy replied instantly, with a full and correct answer; and no further question was asked.

Other pupils at the school do not recall any characteristics, as distinguishing him from his fellows.

He was a thoughtful, studious youth, always fond of reading. His mother, in later life, often spoke of this trait of his boyhood. He enjoyed history most of all, reading it not in an easy, careless way, but with earnest attention, sitting on a low seat, and with maps spread out before him. When fourteen years of age, he wrote a compendium of English history, from Caesar's conquest to 1801, which filled a manuscript-book of eighty-six pages. [40] The penmanship is elaborate in the early part, but less careful towards the end. The events are succinctly narrated, in good English, and dates are given, with the year and often with the month and day. With a boy's humor he begins with this title: ‘A Chronological Compendium of English History, by Charles Sumner. Copyright secured. Boston, 1825.’ This abstract, probably begun at his father's suggestion, was a discipline in composition and study, which prepared the way for larger acquisitions. In 1826, when fifteen years old, he read Gibbon's History, copying at the same time the extracts which pleased him. Some of these he re-copied into a commonplace-book, which he began in his Senior year in college. His inquisitive mind sought knowledge as well in conversation as in books; and he plied with many questions travelled persons and his father's friends who had served as army officers in the unsettled territory of the West. This trait survived boyhood, and he always listened well to those who could tell him aught worthy of note that they had seen or heard.

As a boy he was little given to sports. It is remembered that he was rarely seen playing with his mates. He was not addicted to games. Once he was sent, with his twin sister and his brother Albert, to a dancing-school, but while enjoying well enough the sight of others engaged in the pastime, he had no fancy for sharing in it himself, and soon ceased to attend. Other boys of the same school met out of school hours, on playgrounds or at their father's houses, but he was seen chiefly at the school. Swimming was the sport which he enjoyed most.

While thoughtful and somewhat reserved, he was in no respect severe or unsympathetic. He was liked by his fellows, relished fun in a quiet way, and laughed heartily at a good story. He was never vulgar or profane. His aesthetic as well as his moral nature repelled indecency and irreverence. Soon after he entered the Latin School, a classmate of rather diminutive size was attempting a juvenile oath, when Charles called the attention of the boys and turned the laugh on him, by saying, with a comical expression of face, ‘Hear little——. He says “damn.” ’ The rebuke sufficed.

His features were at this time strongly marked, and were less attractive than in later years. He was slender and tall. He did not carry himself easily, and, as the phrase is, did not know what to do with his limbs. It was the habit of the boys [41] in the Latin School to give nicknames to each other, significant of something in their appearance or ways, by which they were uniformly called, without however intending or giving offence. One was applied to him, as expressive of his awkwardness.

His growth was rapid, and his constitution rather delicate than robust; but his only illness in early life occurred when he was six years old. The fare of the family table was quite simple, but Charles was entirely content with it.

Boston, which with its growth in space and numbers is now a city of nearly 350,000 inhabitants,6 contained in Sumner's early boyhood only about 40,000. It retained its town organization until 1822, its citizens electing selectmen and voting upon municipal affairs in Faneuil Hall. Within its limits, then quite narrow, were many open spaces, now covered by warehouses and dwellings. Ample gardens were spread out on streets since lined with blocks. Families most regarded for lineage and wealth lived near the Common and the State House, and also on Fort Hill, which after being deserted by this class was levelled in 1871, and is now a thoroughfare of business. Copp's Hill, the North End, and the West End were inhabited generally by citizens who enjoyed a competency or were raised above poverty by their earnings. The suburbs were occupied by villages and large farms, with estates here and there of merchants who drove daily to their counting-rooms in Boston.

The people were generally primitive in their mode of living. A few were moderately rich, but equality of condition was the general feature of society. The streets were not as yet filled with the metropolitan life which one now meets in them. The town was more like a large village than a city. It combined the advantages of a well-appointed community, but its character was that of repose rather than rapid movement. One was humble, indeed, not to be personally known to most of his fellow-citizens. Harvard College diffused an atmosphere of culture among a people distinguished for a traditional love of learning. Charles's father, being a lawyer and liberally educated, ranked with the intelligent class, but he had not the fortune to place him in the more exclusive society. He had also separated himself from the political party which attracted the wealth and culture of New England. Among such a people, [42] and with such surroundings, the boyhood of Charles Sumner was passed.

The boy's life was not wholly within the city; he sometimes visited his maternal relatives at South Hingham, where, with others of the family, he was the guest of his mother's uncle. Here he could enjoy the view from Prospect Hill, near by. Once, he and his brother Albert took a long walk, from South Hingham to Nantasket Beach. He was fond of going with the cow-boy for the cattle, at evening, and had a fancy for watching the dairy-work in the kitchen. Later in life, he spoke with interest of these early days. His surviving kinsfolk recall him, on these visits, as fond of reading, well behaved, helpful in doing chores, and never mischievous. He made visits also to his father's relatives in the district of Dorchester, now comprehended in Hyde Park.

His father did not expect to send him to college until after the last year of his five-years' course at the Latin School had begun. With his limited means, he had designed him for some occupation in which he could earn his livelihood sooner than in one of the learned professions. Charles had desired a cadetship at West Point, but no way opened for admission to the National Military Academy.7 The father began inquiries in relation to the ‘American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy,’ under the charge of Captain Alden Partridge, which was first established at Norwich, Vt., and had recently been removed to Middletown, Conn. The school was conducted on a military system, and enrolled cadets from nineteen States. In 1829 it was discontinued, and the present Wesleyan University was established on its site. The father's letter to Captain Partridge gives an interesting description of his son:—

Boston, 15 August, 1825.
Sir,—I have read the prospectus which you issued, in 1821, at Norwich, and I have recently read a notice, in the ‘Palladium,’ that you wish to employ some lads in your institution at Middletown.

I have a son, named Charles Sumner, in his fifteenth year, and large of his age, but not of so firm and solid a constitution as I should wish to have him. [43] He has no immoral practices or propensities known to me; he has acquired a pretty good knowledge of Latin and Greek; understands the fundamental rules of arithmetic, and has a superficial knowledge of the whole. He is well acquainted with geography and history, both ancient and modern; in fine, he has been four years at the public Latin School in Boston, sustaining a good standing in the class, which will be qualified for admission at Cambridge college in 1826, for which I do not design him. The life of a scholar would be too sedentary and inactive for him.

I have eight children, of whom this boy is the oldest, to all of whom I wish to give a useful, but not what is commonly called a learned, education. My means enable me only to think of usefulness. I wish him to learn all of agriculture, arithmetic, and book-keeping he conveniently can by a year's attendance, service, and study at your institution; also something, and as much as you think proper, in the elements of soldiership. I wish him, if convenient, to hold his own in Latin and Greek; and to make some progress in the preliminary branches of mathematics. And, if consistent with rules applicable to lads of humble acquirements and standing, I wish he may be admitted to hear your instructions on ancient and modern warfare, your comparison between the phalanx and the legion, and some of those orations and lectures that I heard you deliver, a few winters since, in Boston, to silent, instructed, and delighted auditories. His knowledge of geography and history is sufficiently extensive and minute to give him a relish for such ennobling instruction and entertainment. I think I should like to send him about the first of September; but, Sir, if I send him at all, it must be on a footing of those who seek employment, according to that notice of yours which I have recently read. And I wish to know, before you see him, on what terms he would probably be received, and to what employment he would probably be put that would be serviceable to you and not disagreeable to his feelings; feelings that do not incline him to become improperly a burden on you or on me, or to ordinary menial services that would injure him in the estimation of those lads who are now his associates, among whom he is destined to earn his living, and, I hope, to sustain a respectable rank.

The notice I have above alluded to has seemed to me to lay you open to such inquiries as I have thus taken the liberty to make. I do not expect you to descend to minutiae in your reply. I shall be content with the shortest answer that it will comport with your continually usefully occupied time to make; and, as it is my affair more than yours, I request that your answer, if it shall be found consistent and agreeable to send one, may not be postpaid.

The above is in the handwriting of my son. I will only add that I am, Sir,

Your respectful and obedient servant and well-wisher,

The father's plan for the education of his son, who entered heartily into it, was changed by the improvement in his own [44] fortunes which took place three weeks after his letter to Captain Partridge. On Sept. 6, he was appointed Sheriff of Suffolk County; an office whose revenues enabled him to dispense with the rigid economy he had hitherto been compelled, with his narrow income and large family, to practise. A few months later he determined upon a college-course for his son.8

At the beginning of September, 1826, Charles entered upon his studies as a member of the Freshman Class of Harvard College. A week later, his father gratefully acknowledged to Mr. Gould, the head-master of the Latin School, the value of the services rendered by its instructors to his son, and particularly those of Mr. Leverett, to whose accuracy, he wrote, Charles had often borne his testimony, and whose faithful attentions he had received during the whole of his five-years' course in the school.

note.—Since this chapter was stereotyped, there has been found among the files of the War Department a letter of Charles Pinckney Sumner to the Secretary of War, dated Nov. 22, 1825, in which he applies for a cadetship for his son Charles at West Point. This letter shows that the father's purpose to send his son to college was not formed immediately after his appointment as sheriff. The interesting part of the letter (in which he gives Mr. Webster and Judge Story as his own references) is as follows:—

My oldest son, Charles Sumner, is desirous of being admitted a member of the Military Academy at West Point. He will be fifteen years old in January next. He is of a good constitution and in good health, although unusually studious. He is well acquainted with Latin and Greek; is somewhat acquainted with arithmetic and algebra, and French. He is exceedingly well acquainted with history and geography, both ancient and modern. He knows the scenes of many of the distinguished battles of ancient and modern times, and the characters of the heroes who figured in them. He has a strong sense of patriotic pride, and a devotion to the welfare and glory of his country. He is now at the Latin School in Boston, and in August next will be qualified to enter the University at Cambridge. He prefers the Academy at West Point.

1 Mr. Sumner, in September, 1854, related this incident in presence of some friends, one of whom was Richard H. Dana, Jr.

2 The centennial anniversary of the re-opening of the Latin School, after the evacuation of Boston by the British, was celebrated by a reunion, Nov. 8, 1876.

3 His father recorded in his almanac, Sept. 17, 1821, ‘Charles and Albert began at Mr. Valentine's again, from 11 to 1;’ on July 3, 1822, ‘Exhibition at Mr. Valentine's;’ and, on Dec. 17, 1822, ‘Paid Mr. Elmer Valentine, and withdrew Charles and Albert.’

4 On the fly-leaf of many of his text-books which he used in the Latin School and in College he wrote the motto, “Me jure tenet.

5 Qui studet, &c., Ars Poet. 412.

6 The suburban cities of Cambridge and Chelsea together contain, in addition, nearly 70,000 inhabitants.

7 Charles Pinckney Sumner, in a letter to Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, commanding at West Point, dated July 14, 1829, in which he introduces his son, says: ‘It was once my son's wish to become a member of your institution, but I perceived it to be a hopeless undertaking to procure his admission.’ The thought of a military education was probably prompted by the circumstance that a relative, Edwin V. Sumner, and a friend of the family, Josiah H Vose, were of the regular army.

8 His letter to Governor Lincoln, who appointed him, attributed to this appointment his ability to send his son to college. Ante, p. 22.

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