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Chapter 36: first session in Congress.—welcome to Kossuth.—public lands in the West.—the Fugitive Slave Law.—1851-1852.

Sumner left Boston for Washington Nov. 25, 1851. He had three partings which touched his heart,—with his mother and sister at the family home, and with Howe and Longfellow. Howe wrote to him: ‘You are now to be lost to us; and though when here I do not see much of you, still it makes me sad to think I shall no longer have the power when I have the will to get near you for comfort and sympathy when I am sad. God bless and keep you!’ Longfellow wrote in his diary, November 23:—

Sumner takes his last dinner with us. In a few days he will he gone to Washington for the winter. We shall miss him much. He passed the night here as in the days of long ago. We sat up late talking.

Again, November 30:—

We had a solitary dinner, missing Sumner very much. He is now in Washington, and it will be many days before we hear again his footsteps in the hall, or see his manly, friendly face by daylight or lamplight.

He wrote to Sumner, December 25:—

Your farewell note came safe and sad; and on Sunday no well-known footstep in the hall, nor sound of cane laid upon the table. We ate our dinner somewhat silently by ourselves, and talked of you far off, looking at your empty chair. . . . As I stand here by my desk and cast a glance out of the window, and then at the gate, I almost expect to see you with one foot on the stone step and one hand on the fence holding final discourse with Worcester.


In New York Sumner made a few calls, among them one on Joshua Leavitt, at the office of the ‘Independent,’ where he met for the first time Rev. J. P. Thompson.2 John Bigelow came [259] to dine with him; but John Van Buren, who was invited, was unable to accept. From his lodgings at Delmonico's he wrote on the 26th, Thanksgiving Day, letters to relatives and friends, full of tenderness, and showing with what concern he entered on his new career:—

My very dear Julia,—Your parting benediction and God-speed, mingling with mother's, made my heart overflow. I thank you both. They will cheer, comfort, and strengthen me in duties where there are many difficulties and great responsibilities. For myself, I do not desire public life; I have neither taste nor ambition for it; but Providence has marked out my career, and I follow. Many will criticise and malign; but I shall persevere. . . . Good-by. With constant love to mother and yourself,


dearest Longfellow,—I could not speak to you as we parted,—my soul was too full; only tears would flow. Your friendship, and dear Fanny's, have been among my few treasures, like gold unchanging. For myself, I see with painful vividness the vicissitudes and enthralments of the future, and feel that we shall never more know each other as in times past. Those calm days and nights of overflowing communion are gone. Thinking of them and of what I lose, I become again a child. From a grateful heart I now thank you for your true and constant friendship. Whatever may be in store for me, so much at least is secure; and the memory of you and Fanny will be to me a precious fountain. God bless you both, ever dear friends, faithful and good! Be happy, and think kindly of me.

dearest Howe,—Three times yesterday I wept like a child,—I could not help it: first in parting with Longfellow, next in parting with you, and lastly as I left my mother and sister. I stand now on the edge of a great change. In the vicissitudes of life I cannot see the future; but I know that I now move away from those who have been more than brothers to me. My soul is wrung, and my eyes are bleared with tears. God bless you ever and ever, my noble, well-tried, and eternally dear friend!

Sumner's lodgings in Washington, engaged on a visit he had made there in October for the purpose, were at D. A. Gardner's, New York Avenue, between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets, on the same floor with the street. His simple breakfast of coffee, roll, and eggs was taken in his room. He took his dinner, his only other meal, at a French restaurant, where a few weeks later Judge Rockwell of Connecticut, member of Congress, and Sibbern, the Swedish minister, joined with him in a mess. He was present in the Senate Dec. 1, 1851, the first day of the Thirtysecond Congress. His colleague, John Davis, being absent from his seat, though in Washington, when the session began, his credentials were presented by Mr. Cass, whom he invited to do the [260] service as ‘his oldest personal friend in the body.’ The other senators who took the oath at the same time were Hamilton Fish of New York, Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, James of Rhode Island, and Geyer of Missouri. Later in the day Mallory of Florida was sworn. Sumner had selected a seat on the Democratic side of the chamber,—one recently occupied by Jefferson Davis, who had resigned,—by the side of Chase, and in close proximity to the senators from Virginia and South Carolina.3 He had only two political associates,—Chase of Ohio and Hale of New Hampshire; the former chosen by a combination of Free Soilers and Democrats, and the latter by a combination of antislavery men and Whigs. From John Davis, his own colleague, he could expect nothing but personal civility. In sentiment, if not often in action, he could count on a certain measure of sympathy from Seward, who was, however, politic and bent on maintaining his position as a Whig leader,4 and from Wade, who was sincere in his antislavery convictions as well as fearless, but who failed in steadiness and adequate preparation for the contests of the Senate. Hamlin, of maine, was now opposed to any scheme for the extension of slavery, but was unhappily constrained by his position as a supporter of the Democratic party, then controlled by the slaveholding interest. Chase and Sumner were well known to each other before, both in correspondence and personal interviews, and their relations were to continue most intimate and confidential until the former's term expired in 1855.

In point of ability and character the Senate was not then at its best.5 It had seen better days, and was again to see better [261] days. Cass had long enjoyed the advantage of various public service abroad as well as at home, and could speak for an indefinite length of time on any question; but nothing ever came from him which was not prosaic and commonplace. Soule was a brilliant man, the one brilliant representative of the South and Southwest. He had been a partisan of freedom in the Old World, as he would probably have been in the New but for his slaveholding environment. Mrs. Stowe recognized in him ‘the impersonation of nobility and chivalry,’ and even hoped that he might become the Southern leader of emancipation.6

The mass of the senators did not in original faculties or training or aspirations deserve to rank with statesmen. Some of them, born in the last century, had passed most of their life in office,—as Berrien, Bell,7 and Badger; but neither in speech nor act did they leave any impression on our history. Their training was generally that of lawyers practising in local courts; and their studies, if extended beyond what was necessary for the trial of cases in which they were retained, were limited to the history of American politics, or at most included a single reading of Hume and Gibbon. They knew well the art of looking after local interests, of flattering State pride, of serving blindly the party; and they were expert in ministering to the fears, the prejudices, the jealousy, and the self-interest of their section.8 If Southerners, they supported the demands of the slaveholding interest without question; if Northerners, they supported any compromise with slavery which was agreed upon as essential to party success. It has been the custom of statesmen in different periods to enrich and diversify public life with studies in science, the ancient classics, or modern literature; but not to force a comparison with any eminent names in English or French history, it is doing no injustice to the senators of the thirty-second Congress to say that there was nothing in their speeches to suggest that they followed as exemplars John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Edward Livingston [262] and

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