Members of Congress: Charles Sumner (1811-1874)

Charles Sumner
Artist questions Charles Sumner's sincerity as a humanitarian
 Sumner's Washington Residence

Sumner’s Washington Residence

Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner

Mrs. Lincoln said Sumner and President Lincoln were “great chums after they became acquainted.”1 They were “like boys during his last days,” Mrs. Lincoln told Herndon. They “were so glad the war was over.”2 Senator Sumner was a difficult man to like. “Sumner knew that he was able, knew that he was learned, and he was not unaware that he was handsome,” wrote Lincoln biographer Albert Beveridge. “Nor did he object to others knowing of his superiority. His voice was deep, sonorous and almost too well modulated; his enunciation clear and precise; his gestures appropriate but studied. He was versed in the classics which he loved to quote, and was an untiring worker. His speeches, although rhetorical and ornate, were full of facts. He was sincere, high-minded, and morally courageous; but he was without the least humility and had no consideration for the feelings or opinions of others. Indeed he seemed to think that anyone who disagreed with him was either a knave or a fool, and probably both.”3

Lincoln biographer David Donald wrote that with Sumner “the President developed bonds of personal and political friendship.” According to Donald, “The relationship was difficult for both men, for there could scarcely have been too more different personalities. Handsome, Harvard-trained, and world-traveled, Sumner was the antithesis of the homely, self-educated President. With a decades experience in the Senate, Sumner naturally regarded the untried Lincoln as ‘honest but inexperienced.’ A compulsive worker, proud of his prompt and thorough attention to his official duties, the Senator thought Lincoln’s ‘habits of business…irregular’ and felt that the President ‘did not see at once the just proportions of things, and allowed himself to be too much occupied by details.’ Sumner was proud of the purity of his diction, and he was pained when the President inelegantly said that the Confederates ‘turned tail and ran.’ Admitting that Lincoln occasionally wrote passages ‘unique in beauty and in sentiment,’ he nevertheless thought the president’s style ‘failing often in correctness.'”4

Sumner took an active interest in foreign affairs – and in recommending individuals for diplomatic posts. Mr. Lincoln used Sumner’s expertise to balance the foreign policies of Secretary of State William H. Seward. “It was generally believed by many of the friends of Mr. Seward, that the latter ran the administration,” wrote Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley. Nothing could be farther from the fact. I know, of my own personal knowledge, that Mr. Lincoln would not allow Mr. Seward to send any very important dispatch to England, until he had first shown it to Senator Sumner, who was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Mr. Lincoln once told me that he had the greatest confidence in the judgement of our Massachusetts Senator in everything pertaining to foreign relations.”5 In fact, Sumner himself wrote that in a conversation on the River Queen on April 9, 1865, President Lincoln said: “They say I have been under Seward’s influence; I have counseled with you twice as much as I ever did with him.”6

Sumner friend Carl Schurz observed: “Mr. Lincoln was a constant puzzle to him. He frequently told me of profound and wise things Mr. Lincoln had said, and then again of other sayings which were unintelligible to him and seemed to him inconsistent with a serious appreciation of the task before us. Being entirely devoid of the sense of humor himself, Mr. Sumner frequently – I might say almost always – failed to see the point of the quaint anecdotes or illustration with which Lincoln was fond of elucidating his argument, as with a flashlight. Mr. Sumner not seldom quoted such Lincolnisms to me, and asked me with an air of innocent bewilderment, whether I could guess what the President could possibly have meant.”7

Sumner repeatedly pressed for emancipation measures and Mr. Lincoln explained to him that he differed with the Massachusetts Senator only in timing. One day, Sumner interrupted a meeting with editor John W. Forney, according to Hawkins Taylor, an Illinois friend and frequent visitor to the White House. “The Senator told Mr. Lincoln that he came to induce him at once to issue an emancipation proclamation, freeing the slaves within a short time, if the rebels did not lay down their arms. Mr. Lincoln objected to the issuing of such a proclamation at that time, and took great pains to convince Sumner that it should not be done. Sumner was imperious and rather offensively earnest. Mr. Lincoln bore it a long time, and Sumner, getting more offensive in his manner, Mr. Lincoln stretched out his long arm, and, in loud, earnest tones, said: ‘Mr. Sumner, I will not issue a proclamation freeing slaves now.’ Mr. Sumner at once sprang to his feet and, without a word, rushed out, slamming the door after him.”

According to Hawkins, “Mr. Lincoln, after giving Sumner time to cool off, had called on him at his room. What took place there Forney never knew, but he said he never saw Sumner in such high good spirits as he was that evening at dinner” at the White House with Sumner and Mr. Lincoln. Forney said: “It was the happiest dinner that three men ever enjoyed.8 Sumner’s assistant once commented that “Mr. Lincoln bestowed more tokens of good-will on Sumner than on any [other] senator.”9

Sumner’s “impatience caused him to undervalue the reasons Mr. Lincoln gave him for what Sumner called the ‘dilatoriness’ of the government in proclaiming an anti-slavery policy and in making a direct attack upon the hateful institution,” observed Carl Schurz. “He was grievously disappointed when Lincoln thought it necessary, in order to conciliate the feelings of the War Democrats and of the Border State Unionists, as well as to keep the military commanders within the bounds of discipline, to disavow the partial emancipation orders of Generals Frémont and Hunter, and gave voice to that disappointment in unsparing criticism. But he did not lose confidence in the man who had said that ‘if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong’; and with unceasing persistency he plied the President with appeals in favor of decisive measures and of speedy action. Lincoln warded off his urgency by telling him: ‘Mr. Sumner, you are only six weeks ahead of me.'”10

But even Sumner’s dedication to emancipation could be stymied by his own peculiarly stubborn nature. White House assistant John G. Nicolay relayed a story that illustrated the care Mr. Lincoln used to handle Sumner when the 13th Amendment was up for a vote in the House of Representatives in January 1865. Suggestions were made about pursuing a deal with Sumner’s help – which President Lincoln summarily rejected.

I went to the President this afternoon, at the request of Mr. [James M.]Ashley, on a matter connecting itself with the pending Amendment of the Constitution. The Camden & Amboy interest promised Mr. Ashley that if he would help postpone the Raritan Railroad Bill over this session, they would in return make the N.J. Democrats help about the amendment either by their votes or absence. Sumner being the Senate champion of the Raritan bill, Ashley went to him to ask him to drop it for this session. Sumner however showed reluctance to adopt Mr. Ashley’s suggestion, saying that he hoped the amendment would pass anyhow, &c. Ashley thought he discovered in Summer’s [sic] manner two reasons 1st that if the present Senate resolution were not adopted by the House, the Senate would send them another, in which they would most likely adopt Sumner’s own phraseology, and thereby gratify his vanity and ambition; and 2d that Sumner thinks the defeat of the Camden & Amboy monopoly would establish a principle by legislative enactment, which would effectually crush out the last lingering relics of the States’ Rights dogma. Ashley therefore desired the President to send for Sumner, and urge him to be practical and secure the passage of the amendment in the manner suggested by Mr. A.
I stated these points to the President who replied at once
“I can do nothing with Mr. Sumner in these matters. While Mr. Sumner is very cordial with me, he is making his history in an issue with me on this very point. He hopes to succeed in beating the President so as to change this government from its original form, and making it a strong centralized power.’
Then calling Mr Ashley into the room, the President said to him, “I think I understand Mr. Sumner; and I think he would be all the more resolute in his persistence on the points which Mr. Nicolay has mentioned to me if he supposed I were at all watching his course on this matter. “11

There was continuing tension. Sumner thought himself superior to almost everyone – the President included. He once told his Massachusetts colleague, Henry Wilson, that President Lincoln was unfit for office. Sumner said “there are twenty men in the Senate who are better qualified for the place.” Asked to name them, Sumner listed Wilson, Senator Jacob Collamer and others.”12 The unspoken implication, however, was that Sumner himself would be at the head of that list. Sumner was angry with President Lincoln for his veto of the Wade-Davis Reconstruction bill in July 1864. In August, he wrote a friend: “You know well that I have always regretted that the Republican Convention was called at so early a day. Its action seemed to me ill-considered & unreasonable[.] If it were regarded as merely temporary, then its errors might be corrected by another Convention, which, with the concurrence of Mr Lincoln, might nominate a candidate who would surely be elected.”13 But when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died, Sumner rushed to press President Lincoln to appoint Salmon P. Chase to replace him.

Still, most observers thought that despite their differences on military affairs and reconstruction, the President and the Senator had gotten closer. Perhaps Mr. Lincoln realized that Sumner offered a better avenue for influence than other Radical Republicans like Zachariah Chandler, Benjamin Wade or Henry Wade Davis. Biographer Donald wrote: “Lincoln was determined that not even the reconstruction issue would divide him and Sumner. The president was seriously disappointed when Louisiana was not readmitted, and he became, as Sumner himself declared, ‘almost angry’ at the Massachusetts Senator for his obduracy. ‘I can do nothing with Sumner in these matters,’ the President sadly declared.”14

One key to Sumner’s relationship was his friendship with Mrs. Lincoln, who valued his companionship and shared a sense of selfl-importance. “We are having charming weather & I am most happy to say, that my blessed Husband’s health, has much improved. We went to the Opera on Saturday eve; Mr Sumner accompanied us – we had a very gay little time,” she wrote a friend on March 20, 1865. “Mr S when he throws off his heavy manner, as he often does, can make himself very very agreable[sic]. Last evening, he again joined our little coterie, & tomorrow eve, – we all go again to hear ‘Robin Adair,’ sung in ‘La Dame Blanche by Habelmann. This is always the pleasant time to me in W. springtime, some few of the most pleasant Senators families remain until June, & all ceremony, with each other is laid aside. Mr L most probably, goes down to the front (entre nous) this week & wishes me to accompany him – I gladly seize on any change that will benefit him.”15

“Mr. Sumner had become the most sincere and confidential adviser of Mr. Lincoln,” wrote contemporary biographer Isaac Arnold. “These two men, in many respects so unlike, became the most ardent and affectionate personal friends. They rode and walked together, and seemed to enjoy each other’s society like brothers. Sumner, the scholar and the man of conventionality, the favorite American of the English aristocracy, found in Lincoln one that he admired and confided in above all others.”16 Biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “The two men grown during the war years, Sumner in at least slight degree coming to favor short words that said as much as long ones. Even in the quality of humor Sumner had learned in some degree to let himself go in appreciation of the occasional eye-twinkle of Lincoln.”17

Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “The relationship between the enator and the president was a curious one, for initially Lincoln impressed Sumner as undignified, socially inept, and uncultured.”18 Biographer Donald, whose books analyzed both figures, wrote: “These two men, so radically different, came to respect and ultimately to like each other. Lincoln knew that the Senator was incorruptible, if often irritating; Sumner came to see that the President wanted ‘to do right & to save the country.’ Feeling a ‘profound pit’ for the President in his thankless labors, Sumner tried, even when being critical of the administration, not to ‘enter into a personal controversy.’ ‘I have always been frank with the President; very frank,’ he said, ‘but what has passed between us I have never communicated in any way to the public.'”19 Maine Congressman James G. Blaine recalled: “Mr. Sumner was studious, learned, and ambitious. He prepared his discussions of public questions with care, but was not ready as a debater. He presented his arguments with power, but they were laborious essays. He had no faculty for ex tempore speech.”20

Just before Lincoln’s murder, Sumner wrote in a letter to Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase: “The more I have seen of the Presdt. the more his character in certain respects has risen, & we must admit that he has said some things better than anybody else could have said them.”21 After Mr. Lincoln’s death, Mrs. Lincoln wrote to thank him for his eulogy for her “lamented Husband.” She wrote that “the words of a friend so cherished as you were, by the great and good man, who has been called away, your words as testimonials in his praise are very welcomely received.”22


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 358 (Mary Todd Lincoln interview with William H. Herndon, September 1866).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 357 (Mary Todd Lincoln interview with William H. Herndon, September 1866).
  3. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, Volume II, p. 340.
  4. David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 115.
  5. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 579 (John B. Alley).
  6. David Donald, editor, Letters of Charles Sumner, p. 549 (Letter of Charles Sumner to Francis W. Bird, April 16, 1871).
  7. Carl Schurz, The Autobiography of Carl Schurz (Abridged), p. 187.
  8. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 12-13 (Hawkins Taylor, Genealogy of the Descendants of John Walker of Wigton, Scotland).
  9. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 127.
  10. Carl Schurz, The Autobiography of Carl Schurz (Abridged), p. 187.
  11. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 171 (Memorandum, January 18, 1865).
  12. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 84 (Conversation with Henry Wilson, April 1, 1874).
  13. Charles Sumner, The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner, Volume II, p. 251 (Letter to John Andrew, August 24, 1864).
  14. David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 124.
  15. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and letters, p. 205-206 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Abram Wakeman., March 20, 1865).
  16. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 411.
  17. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 191.
  18. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 162.
  19. David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 119.
  20. James G. Blaine, Twenty Years of Congressman from Lincoln to Garfield, Volume I, p 818.
  21. Beverly Wilson Palmer, editor, The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner: 1859-1874, Volume II, p. 6.
  22. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 255 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Charles Sumner, July 4, 1865).