- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2002

By Anne-Marie Taylor
University of Massachusetts Press, $45, 422 pages, illus.

Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was one of the most prominent political reformers of the decades before and after the Civil War. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1851, he became a champion of the antislavery movement as well as an early advocate ofarbitration in international disputes. Sumner's outspoken opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, which would have permitted the extension of slavery into western territories, so infuriated the South that he was attacked on the floor of the Senate by a South Carolina congressman and seriously injured.
During the Civil War Sumner supported the Lincoln administration even while pressing for early action to free all slaves. After the war he led the radical opposition to President Andrew Johnson on issues of reconstruction, and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a key player in post-Civil War foreign policy.
With a record such as this, Sumner should rank high in the pantheon of American reformers. In practice, however, many of Sumner's nominal allies could hardly stand the man.British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone spoke of Sumner's "huge and distempered vanity." A political ally, George F. Hoar, mused, "It sometimes seemed as if Sumner thought the Rebellion itself was put down by speeches in the Senate." Historian Henry Adams would conclude that Sumner's mind reached "the calm of water which receives and reflects images without absorbing them; it contained nothing but itself."
Nevertheless, Sumner has not lacked for scholarly attention. His "works" prepared by Sumner himself were published in 15 volumes in the period following his death in 1874. The early 20th century saw a biography by George H. Haynes. Then, in 1960 and 1970, Lincoln historian David Donald published a two-volume biography of Sumner that remains the standard treatment.
Mr. Donald was not impressed with his subject. He found Sumner to be obstinate, intellectually shallow, and fanatical in his crusades. Mr. Donald's Sumner was cold in temperament, devious in promoting his own advancement, and rightly mistrusted by his political allies. He was part and parcel of the "blundering generation" that helped to bring on the Civil War.
Now Anne-Marie Taylor, in "Young Charles Sumner," a book that considers her subject before his election to the Senate, challenges Mr. Donald's interpretation. She finds a man motivated by principle rather than by ambition. Sumner's dedication to reform, she believes, grew out of a commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment as seen by the country's Founders. Where David Donald sees a self-indulgent pedant, Anne-Marie Taylor finds an idealist, one troubled by self-doubt.
Sumner was brought up in a well-read, upper-middle-class Boston family. He attended the elite Boston Latin School, and then, of course, Harvard. At Harvard Law School Sumner became a protege of an eminent jurist, Joseph Story, and young Sumner anticipated a career in law. He had no interest in legal practice, however, and was torn between a career in legal scholarship and one in politics.
In 1839, at a time when he had not yet resolved this conflict of ambitions, Sumner undertook a two-year visit to Britain and the Continent that did wonders for his self-esteem. He wrote of his time abroad, "I have been familiar with poets & statesmen, with judges & men of fashion, with lawyers & writers; & some … I claim as loved friends."
By 1845 Sumner enjoyed something of a reputation as an orator, and was chosen to be the principal speaker on Independence Day in Boston. His Fourth of July speech marked a turning point in his career, for he made it an antiwar declaration, asking rhetorically, "Can there be in our age any peace that is not honorable, any war that is not dishonorable?" When, the following year, the United States embarked on a controversial war with Mexico, Sumner's stance assured him of a considerable following in New England, where antiwar sentiment was rife.
Sumner edged toward a career in politics, inspired, in the author's view, by a sense of duty that was at times in conflict with his love of learning. "To me," he wrote, "the learned man, who adds the grace of a blameless life, is more respectable than the man of checks & bills of exchange." He became a pillar of the American Peace Society and a featured speaker at abolitionist gatherings. Slavery, he argued, was in defiance of Natural Law. His admiration for Britain was heightened by that country's prominent role in combating the slave trade.
Sumner, the author contends, was "one of America's greatest yet most neglected statesmen." In coming to a sharply different conclusion, she avers, Mr. Donald reflects "the traditional anti-abolitionist and anti-New England bias" of the 1960s. Mr. Donald, she contends, misused his sources and willfully ignored the influence of America's "artistic and literary awakening" on the reform movement.
Anne-Marie Taylor has done an impressive amount of research into her subject, and she writes well. Her reliance on Sumner's own letters, however, together with her determination to refute Mr. Donald, have resulted in an unsatisfying book. No one was a greater admirer of Charles Sumner than Sumner himself, and no one was more facile than he at cloaking every endeavor with the trappings of Virtue. To take him at his own valuation is to ignore the more critical judgments of his contemporaries.

John M. Taylor is the author of a number of works of history and biography, including "William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand."

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