In early November 1856, the carriage carrying an ailing Charles Sumner weaved through the streets of Boston, hastened forward by the boisterous cheers of onlooking crowds. Recently beaten senseless on the floor of the Senate by the vengeful South Carolinian Preston Brooks, Sumner limped north to his hometown that turned out in concerned sympathy to welcome its wounded representative. Reportedly, however, when the procession came to Beacon Street—home of the city’s mercantile and manufacturing elite—the shutters of the federal mansions were shut tight in disdain. Even in this moment of personal tragedy, Sumner’s traditional opponents among conservative exWhigs would not consider him their own. The fiery antislavery advocate had repudiated the policies of the man he had replaced, Daniel Webster, and the scions of Boston Whiggery had never forgiven him.
This vignette is also illustrative of how historians have considered the life of Charles Sumner, one of the most important Civil War U.S. senators. His reputation ebbs and flows, depending on the social vision of each passing generation. In eras expressing the hope of racial harmony, valuing the rewards of egalitarian democracy, and celebrating the march of social justice, Sumner emerges as a hallowed icon and a rich symbol of what determined and principled activism can achieve. But in eras worrying over the agitations of those discontented with the social order, critical of those urging fundamental reorderings of the institutions of society, and uncomfortable with those whose passionate appeals to justice seem to spurn calm and reasoned thought, the reputation of Sumner suffers. As much as any actor of the Civil War era, Charles Sumner has transcended the context of his own time. Scholarly fascination with his long and varied career demonstrates that, in truth, every generation has its own Sumner.
Despite his later lofty achivements, Charles Sumner was not a child of privilege like so many of Boston’s antebellum political and social elite. The son of a middling Boston attorney and county sheriff, Sumner was born on January 6,