Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.
Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.
Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that
I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.
Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.
Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.
Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.