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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Sumner (1811–1874)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
CHARLES SUMNER was born in Boston, January 6th, 1811. His name is inscribed on the roll of men of letters; but it is indeed writ larger, and more familiarly known, upon a somewhat different page. There can be no doubt, however, that the effective orator has an honored place among literary artists. In fact some men, weary of fictitious pathos and useless tears, might be tempted to give the highest honors, even in the art of expression, not to epic poet or romancer, but to him who in a vital crisis sways a doubting Senate or a reluctant mob to heroic decision and action. And this learned jurist, this many-sided indefatigable scholar, this puritanic reformer and persistent doctrinaire, was an inspiring orator, a powerful preacher of political ethics and civic righteousness.  1
  Perhaps there has been no more typical example of that earlier Bostonian culture, with its high standards, than Charles Sumner. He knew nothing of such early hardships, such a struggle for intellectual life, as Lincoln’s. He followed his grandfather and his father from the best classical schools to Harvard College, where he graduated in 1830. When he came of age he was already Judge Story’s favorite pupil. At twenty-five he was widely known, even to European scholars, through his learned essays in the Jurist, and had published several volumes of legal ‘Reports’ which are still standard works of reference. His interest was deepest in the large problems of international law. In England, thanks to Judge Story’s enthusiastic letters and his own modest worth, he had such popularity and social success as no young American of private station had ever enjoyed. He was repeatedly invited to a seat beside the judges in the highest English courts.  2
  From his three happy years in England, France, Italy, and Germany (1837–1840), he returned to the rather uncongenial and unremunerative practice of law in his native Boston. He was not only learned in history and kindred fields, but a trained connoisseur in music and art as well. Naturally he was one of the favorites in the brilliant circle centring about the Ticknors. His lifelong friendships with Longfellow, and others of the group, were already firmly knit. A casual remark of his at this period indicates an ambition to become some day president of Harvard College. Judge Story’s dying desire was that Charles Sumner should fill his chair in the Harvard Law School.  3
  But in that very year, this industrious many-sided scholar had suddenly discovered the sterner purpose for which his life had thus far been the preparation. He was invited to deliver the Fourth of July oration, in the presence of the citizen militia, on the eve of the war of conquest against Mexico. His speech, on ‘The True Grandeur of Nations,’ was a fervent protest against all war as a survival of barbarism.  4
  In the next autumn—eight years later than his old schoolmate Phillips—he plunged into the Abolition agitation. His speech in November 1845 at once gave him a leading place in the political wing of the movement. The social ostracism and ridicule he had to face cannot have disturbed his lofty soul. The partial abandonment of his cherished studies no doubt cost him an inward struggle. But there was no hesitation, when the call grew clear to him.
  “‘Forego thy dreams of lettered ease;
  Lay thou the scholar’s promise by:
The rights of man are more than these.’
  He heard, and answered: ‘Here am I.’”
  5
  It was in 1851 that a fusion of Free-Soilers and Democrats made Sumner United States Senator from Massachusetts. He succeeded Webster, and Clay left the Senate on the day Sumner entered it. Mr. Carl Schurz makes effective use of this dramatic coincidence in his noble Eulogy.  6
  Sumner held his seat in the Senate until his death; his chair being kept vacant by his State for three years during his slow recovery from the famous assault on him in his seat in the Senate chamber, by Preston Smith Brooks of South Carolina. His assailant rained blows upon his head with a bludgeon, while his victim was trying to extricate himself from his seat until he fell senseless and bloody upon the floor.  7
  Through all changing conditions, almost single-handed at first, then as leader of a triumphant party, again alienated from nearly all his old associates, Sumner advocated always the ideal rights of man, the cause of the weak against the strong. He had no conception of politic delay, of concealment, of compromise. He was not a practical legislator even. Very few measures were enacted into law in the form in which he presented them. He had in large measure the scornful intolerance of the devoted reformer. Even as a preacher, his lack of humor or wit would have seemed a heavy handicap. Yet he was on the one hand the most welcome guest of gentle, scholarly Longfellow; and on the other the favorite counselor of shrewd, humorous, self-taught Abraham Lincoln, who, with all his sure-footed caution, never chafed under Mr. Sumner’s impetuous advocacy of the most advanced ideal measures. Perhaps no civilian, save Lincoln himself, molded in so large measure the issues of that most vital crisis in our national history.  8
  From the fifteen stately volumes that record Charles Sumner’s life work, it would hardly be possible to select a page without some allusion to the cause to which that life was so freely given. It has seemed desirable for a literary work to select chiefly from some of his other utterances, like the early Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard, commemorating four friends then recently departed.  9
  There is an important biography of Sumner by his friend and literary executor, Edward L. Pierce. The best brief summary of his career is the Eulogy delivered at Boston by Senator Schurz. Besides the exquisite dirge written for his friend’s funeral, the poet Longfellow includes Sumner in the little group of ‘Three Friends’ to whom a sheaf of sonnets is devoted. Whittier also greeted repeatedly in generous verse his fellow-warrior and beloved comrade.  10
 
 
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