Chapter 46: qualities and habits as a senator.—1862.
was from the beginning of his career in the Senate an interesting, and he had now become the most conspicuous, figure at the Capitol
His seat was first inquired for by visitors.1
Person, fame, suffering, accomplishments, character, the confidence of men, all united to put him in the front and to keep him there.
His associates in the Senate, when his presence no longer imposed reserve, testified to the power of his personality.2
On the day when they summed up his relations to the body in which he had long served, they recalled ‘his manly beauty and manly strength,’3
‘his imposing presence on the outer circle of the Senate,’4
and ‘the grand intonations of his far-sounding voice.’5
One said: ‘He was a man of such mark in his mere exterior as to arrest at once the attention of a stranger and make him a chief among ten thousand.’6
Another said: ‘You will remember his commanding presence, his stalwart frame (six feet and four inches in height), the vigor and grace of his motions, the charm of his manners, the polish of his rhetoric, the abundance of his learning, the fervor and impressiveness of his oratory.
He was every inch a senator, and upheld with zeal and fidelity the dignity, privileges, and authority of the Senate.’7
, in a eulogy, likened the fidelity of John Quincy Adams
to his seat in the House of Representatives, to that of a marble column of the Capitol
to its pedestal;8
and the same tribute is Sumner
's due. No private errand and no listlessness kept him from his public duty; and he attended with severe punctuality the sessions of his committee and of the Senate.
When the Internal Tax
bill, which had consumed many days of discussion, was pending (nearly six months after the session began), he remarked that he had not been absent from his seat three minutes since it was taken up, or half an hour since the session began.9
Near the end of the session he spoke forcibly against a final adjournment until the public business was completed, pointing out that Congress was by several weeks short of the limit which it was accustomed to reach when members were paid by the day instead of by the year.10
In declining an invitation to attend a public meeting in the city of New York
, he said, ‘A senator cannot leave his place more than a soldier.’11
It has often occurred in the Senate,—and it occurred many times during this session, in which the duties of patriotism were most exacting,—that it was obliged to adjourn for want of a quorum, or for want of the attendance of a sufficient number to make its action decisive.
's vacant chair, while he was in health, was never an obstruction to public business.
Again and again, at this and at other sessions, as the official record shows, he protested against an early adjournment in the afternoon, and urged that the Senate go on with its calendar.12
persistence in opposing a limitation of the session, even under the oppressive heat of the summer, brought him sometimes into collision with senators who, though not laggards, took a less exacting view of official duty, or who thought, sometimes quite rightly, that enough had already been done, and what remained would ripen for better action during the vacation.13 Sumner
's superlative fidelity may be thought finical, but it attests the seriousness with which he regarded all public duties.
's presence in the Senate was always one of dignity, such as became the office and place.
He never descended to frivolity; he did not, as is the habit of restless members, keep passing from seat to seat, indulging in small talk with one or another, but remained mostly in his own;14
he listened with respect to what his associates said in debate;15
his manners were uniformly decorous, as opponents in the worst of times admitted; and the stranger in the gallery looking down on the scene recognized in him the impersonation and ideal of a leader in what has been regarded, in view of its constitution and functions, as a parliamentary body second to none in the world.
, already referred to, a writer and public man distinguished for critical observation of men and affairs, wrote in his journal on shipboard, in February, 1861, his estimate of Sumner
, given in reply to a fellow-passenger who had made some criticisms on the senator:—
First, he was the most accomplished man in public life in America; second, the ablest orator in Congress; third, of unblemished private character; fourth, of unblemished public character, which no breath of calumny had ever reached, and whom no one had ever dared approach with a dishonorable proposition; fifth, a man whose zeal and talents had been expended, not upon selfish schemes, but upon measures and policies looking to the improvement of the condition of society,—such ends as, whatever differences of opinion may prevail as to the adaptation of his means to secure them, must possess the sympathy and respect of all good citizens; sixth, he is
very amiable; and seventh, a man whose decorum of character and whose talents have done and are doing more than those of any other man in the Senate to arrest the gradual decline of that body in the estimation of the country, in itself a service which those who feel the important role the Senate ought to play in our constitutional system know how to appreciate.
added in 1886 the following memorandum to complete what he had said twenty-five years before:—
Though a man of strong feeling, Mr. Sumner was distinguished for the marvellous control which he always exerted over his passions.
In this respect he had an advantage over most of the conspicuous public men of his time.
He never seemed to entertain—at least I never saw him exhibit—any resentment.
When the names of his political assailants were mentioned in his presence, he took his revenge with a smile.
No statesman of his time so completely and effectively expressed the antislavery sentiment of the free States.
He was fond of applause,—rather too fond of it; but he sought only such applause as he thought he deserved.
His ends were always of the best.
His name is not associated, so far as I can recollect, with any public effort which did not have for its end the welfare of his country, by means entirely consistent with the highest standards of dignity and honor.
It would have been well, I think, if Sumner had held some important executive or administrative office,—that of governor of Massachusetts, or a member of the Cabinet at Washington, for example,—that he might have familiarized himself with the difficulties which every servant of fifth millions of masters, be he ever so pure and wise, must always encounter in trying to have his own way.
had comprehensive intelligence, which always sought to throw on the question in hand all the light of history and philosophy.
Among American statesmen, those whom he most resembled in this respect are Jefferson
, Edward Livingston
, and John Quincy Adams
He never valued his own opinion so highly that he was not ready to sit at the feet of the masters of science.
He was always prone to test public questions, not by apparent and transient exigencies, but by principles permanent and fundamental.
It was for this reason that during the Civil War
and reconstruction period he consulted so often Dr. Lieber
, a publicist, living apart from political management, whose knowledge and counsels other public men would not have thought worth seeking.
believed it to be the statesman's part to lead the people, and not merely to follow them.
He recognized, indeed, that measures and policies, in order to prevail, must have the support of public opinion; but he did not in advance
study the drifts and currents of that opinion.
He trusted the instincts of the people, and believed that what was right and true and wise would after statement, appeal, and agitation be approved by them.
As these pages will show, he often advanced while others hesitated, and secured positions which afterwards they thought it safe to occupy.
In the midst of popular frenzy he held firmly to his convictions, waiting serenely for the ‘sober second thought.’
's sense of moral rectitude was supreme in the direction of his public conduct; and next to that sense was his allegiance to fixed principles of law and policy in opposition to temporary considerations of expediency and opinion.
On details and minor points he was ready to yield; but he did not believe in piecemeal legislation, and he always held fast to the substance of a good measure, believing it was wiser to force small men and weak men to do their duty than to let them have their way. He was incapable of any indirection or political trick.
In no public act was he ever governed by the slightest reference to his own personal interest or fortunes.
Equity, patriotism, and human rights were his inspirations, and the expression of his face was that of conscientiousness and sincerity.
This is the testimony not merely of old and intimate friends, or of men tempered like himself, but of critical observers not bound to him by personal relations.
It was often given in his lifetime, and more freely when death had set the seal on his career.
Not denying to many of their contemporaries a certain measure of these noble qualities, their fullest development must be found in our time in two kindred characters,— John Bright and Charles Sumner
What Bright did for England
did for the United States
,—each insisting always on the supremacy of the moral sentiments in government and the intercourse of nations, and each leaving a character stamped ineffaceably on the civilization of the English-speaking race.
It was thought that the senator's ideal side was too greatly developed to allow the working of the executive faculties in legislation.
There is an indisposition to admit various capacities in the same person.
Est mzos hominum ut nolint eundem pluribus rebus excellere
; and Sumner
's confessed addiction to great principles stands in the way of the recognition of his ability to deal with the routine of ordinary work.
It is easy, however, to push this criticism too far. He had not, indeed, like many public men, been bred in childhood to the drudgery of farm or workshop, and he missed something by this exemption.
He did not remain long enough at the bar, nor was he devoted enough to his profession while he remained in it, to acquire that various knowledge of all pursuits which comes naturally to a lawyer in full practice.
By the bent of his nature, also, he was inclined to moral and political speculations rather than to executive detail.
Other qualities and habits, however, served him in overcoming these limitations.
He learned prudence, economy, and fidelity in his father's house; he could not bear the thought of being in debt; he was from the start a hard worker; he was never hasty in judgment, but weighed well all questions of action and conduct, so that friends who sought his advice in trouble found him a wise counsellor; he was thoughtful in the little things as well as the great things of life; he was methodical in habit as in the working of his faculties; he kept an open mind for all knowledge, whether coming from books, letters, or conversation; he was thorough in preparation, and exhausted the subject in hand; and, above all, he was supremely conscientious in doing in the best way, to its full completion, every private or public service which he undertook.
If he had not that liking for details, that interest in statistics, tables, and calculations, or in legal niceties, which is marked in some public men,—notably the senators from Vermont
for a generation,—he largely made up for the defect by scrupulous fidelity in investigation, and close attention to each piece of business from its beginning to its end. If he were to oppose or seek to modify a tax in a revenue bill, he was always present at the critical moment, and never losing heart with one
failure, renewed his motion at every later stage.
If he had engaged to promote an appointment, he was not content with an assent to his request by the head of the department, but he followed the papers in their course from bureau to bureau till he saw the commission drawn and signed.
A constituent, who visited Washington
to look after his interest in a pending bill, could, after he had shown the justice of his case and obtained the senator's promise of attention to it, go home with entire confidence that the promise would be kept with no further reminder, even though the matter might not in the course of business be reached for months.
He carried earnestness and will into all he did, and succeeded where others of less heart and force failed.
A manager of the sanitary commission17
relates how, arrested by red tape at the war department, he sought in his despair the senator, who overcame all obstacles in an hour, and saw delivered to the manager the needed pass for the relief steamer up the Potomac
It came about from his fidelity and the general confidence in his efficiency that the people of his State confided to him their interests in pending legislation, or in business with the departments, rather than to others who had passed their lives in professional, industrial, or commercial pursuits.18
One great secret of his power, as was remarked by a shrewd critic of public men, was his intense personality, ‘his great and overmastering qualities,’ which brought him at times into collision with other senators, but which nevertheless made him ‘one of the powers and estates of the country.’19
The period of Sumner
's chairmanship of the committee on
foreign relations was fruitful in business appropriate to the sphere of that committee.
It was his duty to scrutinize, report, and explain treaties on a large variety of topics, which when ratified became laws of the land.
They concerned naturalization, citizenship, extradition, postal relations, commerce, and navigation, the suppression of the slave-trade, claims of American citizens against foreign governments or of foreigners against our own, and cessions of territory.
The disposition of such questions required a practical talent, in which he was not found wanting.
While a member of the committee on the District of Columbia, he reported and carried through bills relating to the various interests of the District
Several statutes removing the disability of colored citizens were his handiwork.
The consolidation of the statutes of the United States
was his first thought, and was finally effected by his constant pressure.
Some critics, remembering that Sumner
stood at some time in the way of their pretensions, or solicitous that their unrenowned services should not be overlooked, have suggested as a limitation to his sphere that he did not draw many statutes.20
This mechanical work falls largely to the solicitors of the departments, or to promoters of bills;21
did as much of it as most men holding his relation to general affairs,—as much, for instance, as Webster
probably did not, while chairman of the committee on military affairs during the Civil War
, draw one of the bills reported by him,—all being supplied by the Secretary of War
, whose proper business it is to adjust the details of the military system.
The mass of senators and representatives at that time were accustomed to leave Washington
immediately after the adjournment.22 Sumner
never left when the session ended, but habitually remained at the capital several weeks to bring up correspondence in arrears, post documents, and explore public questions which awaited action.
He was not, it is true, encumbered with the family or business ties which called some of his associates to their homes; but he was in this prolonged assiduity altogether an exception among those who were as free as himself.
's style was deliberate.
He sometimes introduced topics or reflections which he thought relevant, though they bore only remotely on his argument.
He drew occasionally on former speeches for materials.
To the last of his life, as in his youth, what he wrote or spoke was marred by quotations from prose and poetry, sometimes extended beyond the limits of good taste.
But he never rambled, never continued speaking because he did not know where to end, never spoke longer than he intended when he rose, never uttered a sentence which did not express a thought clear and important to his own mind.
Any habitual reader of the debates of Congress will readily note what vices of parliamentary speaking he escaped.
While senator he had always a large correspondence, and never larger than now,—letters not only from his wide circle of personal friends, American and foreign, but from thousands whom he never saw.23
A few he answered, but the greater number were recognized only by a copy of some speech, with an autograph frank and a memorandum of ‘thanks’ on the envelope.
He delighted, as few delight, in such burdensome recognitions from correspondents, known and unknown.
He was unhappy if snow or freshet kept back the postman's morning packet; and all who invaded his breakfast hour—the time when his intimate friends most sought him—recall the zest with which he opened and read letter after letter (now and then handing one to the visitor) from his miscellaneous correspondents,—Cobden, Bright, and the Duchess
; a dozen or twenty faithful friends who wrote of affairs in Massachusetts
; old Abolitionists in all parts of the country, well known or obscure,—indeed, from thousands of all conditions who had thoughts and anxieties which they wished some one in Washington
He was the only public man in Washington
who had a European correspondence of any public value.
Bright and Cobden
, almost our only two friends of eminence in England
, reported to him drifts of opinion important to be known by our government, and gave sincere counsels as to what it was best for us to do. The Duchess
, reflecting the views of the duke, then in the Cabinet
, did the same.
These letters as soon as received
were read to the President
and his advisers, and were most useful in guiding their action.
To these three correspondents he wrote often and most earnestly,—maintaining, spite of slowness and shortcomings, the moral grandeur of our cause, and protesting against the unfriendly, or, at least, unsympathetic action of the British
To other Englishmen he wrote at intervals with appeals of like tenor; and he also conducted a correspondence with the Count
after his return from this country to France
's intimate communication with foreigners, at a time when foreign opinion and action were so important to us, is not among the least of his services to his country during our civil contest.24
He was likewise in communication with a large proportion of the legations and consulates of the United States
, from which came statements of their needs and the aspect of our Civil War as it was regarded at their posts, and advice as to modes of enlisting foreign opinion in our favor.25
No one outside of the state department had at command equal sources of information of this kind.
He was the one senator to whom advanced antislavery men looked for the expression and promotion of their views; and every mail at this time, and indeed during his entire service in Congress, brought him a large number of letters from this class, in which they stated, often at great length, their hopes and fears, and their interest in the various measures concerning slavery.26
's rooms while he was in the Senate were more sought than those of any member of either house.
Among the visitors were writers for public journals, friends from Massachusetts
, politicians from all parts of the country, survivors of the old antislavery guard, and distinguished foreigners.
They often came late in the evening and staved long; and his only way of dismissing them was, when he was on familiar terms with his caller, to turn to the unfinished work on his desk.
‘For a busy man,’ wrote Forney
, ‘he was the most accessible I ever knew.’
How he could accomplish all his tasks, and yet give so much time to miscellaneous visitors, was something of a mystery.
It was, however, his midnight vigils which brought up the arrears.
The newspaper men were generally very friendly to him. He held tightly the secrets of the Senate notwithstanding he had no respect for the system of closed doors; but as far as consistent with a senator's oath, he talked freely and instructively to all who came to him. After he had a house of his own, which was not till 1867, he explained to Dr. Howe
a contre-temps by
which a well-known scholar whom he had wished to see had been refused admission, and added:—
I am impatient and nervous, weary, fatigued, and unhappy, beginning the day weary and ending it weary.
From the time I take my seat at the breakfast table interruptions begin; and such is the succession of visitors that during this vacation I have been detained daily at the table where I breakfasted till three o'clock P. M., without an opportunity of putting pen to paper or leaving the room.
At dinner I try to be alone, unless with guests, and the domestic says to callers at this time that I am engaged. . . . I doubt if any one is as much beset by help-seeking visitors as myself, nor is anybody equally accessible.
The President and members of the Cabinet receive at their offices during an hour or two.
I begin with the morning and end at midnight, intermitting an hour for dinner.
What my manner is to them, all this considered, I leave to the judgment of those who see me most.
To some I am impatient, at times very inpatient, as they insist upon absorbing my time; but I doubt if anybody in Washington hears so many with greater patience or kindness.
My duties now are onerous, and I need one hundred hours daily instead of twenty-four.
I had not heard of H.'s death.
Such is my feeling about life that he seems to have obtained rest.
I have a sense of relief for the persons thus preferred.
He is taken beyond our trials, where ingratitude and falsehood will cease.
Again a Happy New Year!
There was at this time an enormous pressure for places in the home and foreign service of our government, and also for appointments and promotions in the army.
These aspirants, as well as citizens who had business with the departments, often eminent in position and of disinterested patriotism, were unable to obtain access to them except through senators and representatives.
, as the files of letters received by him show, bore his full share of this burden.
He and his colleague were the medium of communication between Governor Andrew
and the government.27
Literary men as well as antislavery men, irrespective of the States they lived in, felt they had a special claim on Sumner
was urgent with him for a mission, first at the Hague
and then at Vienna
hoped, though vainly, to be saved by him from the competition of place-seekers.
, wishing to succeed Cameron
at St. Petersburg
, wrote from that capital, Aug. 18, 1862: ‘Take my importunity in good part; there are so few senators who are scholars!’
It was a time when relatives were always at Washington
on their way to look for wounded or sick soldiers, or to recover their bodies from fields and hospitals.
, however much it might invade his time, was always glad to serve them by procuring passes or otherwise.
When any of his friends met with bereavements, his habit was to send a letter of solace.
The files of his correspondence contain many replies from those whose griefs he sought to assuage.
The brother of Rev. Arthur B. Fuller
, killed at Fredericksburg
, whose widow's petition for a pension he promoted, wrote to him: ‘As often as my brother's widow receives her pension for herself and little ones, she will think of the senator from Massachusetts
's admirers often named their children for him. His replies to them, when they announced this kind of recognition, were of uniform tenor, and one written in 1865 may be given as a specimen:—
Don't make a mistake.
Never name a child after a living man. This is the counsel I give always and most sincerely.
Who knows that I may not fail?
I, too, may grow faint, or may turn aside to false gods.
I hope not; but this is one of the mysteries of the future.
Therefore name your boy some good Christian name.
It may be Charles if you will, for that is general; but do not compel him to bear all his days a label which he may dislike.
I once met a strong antislavery youth who bore the name Martin Van Buren.
He was born while New York sat in the Presidential chair, and his father named him after the chief of the land.
But the youth did not find the sentiments of the late M. V. B. such as he wished to be associated with.
Somebody in the play says in anger to his son: “I'll unget you!”
Don't do this.
Simply unname him.
entered, in December, 1861, the House
as a member from a Boston district, and continued a member during the rest of the senator's life.
He was a wealthy merchant, and his associations and sympathies hitherto had been those of the capitalists, who as a class had not looked with favor on Sumner
Daily intercourse, as was often the case, changed Mr. Hooper
view of the senator, and he came to be his cordial and confidential friend, so remaining to the end. He dispensed a liberal hospitality; and in his house at Washington
, as well as at Boston
and on the seashore, Sumner
was always welcome to lodge or dine.28
Later in these pages it will become necessary to refer to a near connection between the two friends.
Two or three incidents in family and friendship may be noted here,—the death in March, 1862, of another of the ‘Five of Clubs’ (Felton
, of whose funeral Mr. Thies
sent an account); the disability of George Sumner
, stricken with paralysis, and after medical treatment in Northampton
coming back to the old home in Hancock Street; a cordial letter from Agassiz
in the autumn urging attendance at the dinners of the Saturday Club