Charles Sumner and the Underground Railroad

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Since coming to Washington, Charles Sumner had learned he could make friends with slaveholding Southerners and that he could make speeches which would please critics, as well as the kind that set them against him. His ability to speak eloquently, if not always with the most graceful style, set him apart from the crowd. He prided himself on his erudition and a complete lack of anything resembling a joke. Having the advantage of considerable height and good looks didn’t hurt either.

Sumner exercised his talents in finessing Lajos Kossuth and on behalf of a land grant for a railroad, but managed to avoid speaking on slavery. The coalition which elected him on the basis of his antislavery politics had reason to expect something on that front and feared he may go soft on the cause. Conservatives in Massachusetts hoped that Sumner would soon betray those who elected him. We may remember Sumner as the man of three backbones and steadfast foe of slavery, but they didn’t know how things would turn out. In late 1851 and early 1852, Sumner appeared bent on living down to expectations.

Sumner had damned Millard Fillmore for signing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Fillmore visited Boston, Sumner made a courtesy call. When the elections of 1851 came around, Sumner avoided campaigning for his own coalition. As the presidential campaign of 1852 heated up, he refused to support Winfield Scott despite Scott’s soundness on slavery specifically on the grounds that he expected more antislavery action on the Democratic side. He believed his Free Soil party should stand apart even when the Democracy chose Franklin Pierce as their man, instead throwing himself behind John P. Hale in a hopeless cause. Sumner refused to act even on a petition sent by his constituents for the release of two men who tried to smuggle fugitive slaves out of Washington.

The Free Soilers had not voted for anything like this. Four and a half months into his tenure, Sumner had done nothing on his signature issue but sit idle. His public did not know that he had taken up lobbying Fillmore in private for the release of the men. Sumner well knew that if he told any Garrisonian, the news would appear in the Liberator almost before the ink on the letter dried. Then Fillmore would look like a man capitulating to the radicals and refuse to act. The President showed no eagerness on that front even without the publicity problem, not delivering pardons until August. The release of fugitive-abettors in Washington risked their rearrest by southern partisans, maybe even mob action, so as soon as Sumner had the news he drove to their jail. He packed the newly freed men into a carriage with a friend of his and the friend’s gun, then sent them off to the North in haste.

Railroads and Rhetoric

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner went to Washington deeply unsure that he would make a good Senator. He had not liked the city or the political class on his one previous visit. He would enter the Senate as the result of what many considered a corrupt bargain and be only the third senator of his party. As such, he could hope for little in the way of distinguishing himself except rhetoric until the composition of the chamber changed dramatically. Despite his fears and some initial snubs, Sumner found himself relatively welcome in the Washington social scene. He got on well with southerners, which probably no one saw coming. His careful welcome of Lajos Kossuth that managed not to endorse the revolutionary’s cause won him wide plaudits.

With all that under his belt, Sumner might have hoped the worst behind him. In his ongoing quest to prove he had opinions on more than slavery, he rose to speak in debate over an Iowa land grant meant for a railroad. Sumner endorsed it heartily and caught fire for his trouble. The westerners might like development, but more eastern states cared much less for projects that did not benefit them directly. The Whig press in Massachusetts, so recently praising Sumner’s handling of Kossuth, turned on him. The papers castigated the new senator for favoring the West at the expense of New England.

That may seem strange, given the Whig’s enthusiasm for internal improvements, but more than partisanship probably went into it. Whigs wanted internal improvements in part because they would concentrate the population to the point where it could support the other improving projects they had in mind for the nation. A railroad in Iowa would serve the expansion of white America and consequent diffusion of white men across the continent in an unending sprawl of subsistence farming. In addition, the faster the west grew the more largely Democratic states would enter the Union. Opposing a far-flung railroad fit well into that strain of Whig orthodoxy.

Sumner pretended he didn’t care and griped that most of the papers didn’t even print his speech, but he put considerable effort into trying to convince his friends back home that he hadn’t made a blunder. Instead, as David Donald quotes him, Sumner believed he had made an “original and unanswerable” argument that constituted “the most important speech for the West uttered in Congress for 10 years.” Per Donald, Sumner had actually given the issue little thought. He mainly wanted to use the speech as a showpiece for his peers.

Senator Sumner, like many before and since, cared deeply for his image. A large man, six-two and 185 pounds, Donald has Sumner dress for the stage:

At a time when most senators wore black frock coats, Sumner affected light-colored English tweeds; his “favorite costume was a brown coat and light waistcoast, lavender-colored or checked trousers, and shoes with English gaiters.

A big man in purple pants would draw some eyes. Sumner reinforced his imposing figure with closely rehearsed, memorized speeches in an era when most men simply read theirs. (Spontaneous debate rarely visited the Senate.) Sumner accessorized with forceful gestures and by throwing his hair back. He chose an oratorical model deeply informed by the Classics, contrary to my previous impression that he had a bit of a common touch. This made Sumner a clear speaker, but also a repetitive one. He deliberately eschewed neologisms to make himself sound still more formal. After writing and revising before speaking, Sumner took another round of revisions before his work appeared in the Congressional Globe, and then would polish them again for published collections. In an age where public men took rhetoric seriously, Sumner took it more seriously than many.

Disappointing Lajos Kossuth

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)


We left Charles Sumner newly arrived in Washington and caught up in its busy social life. Aware that he did not know the Senate’s norms and that he came with a reputation as a man who cared for antislavery and nothing else, he did not rush to make his maiden speech. Instead Sumner spent his nights studying up with the Congressional Globe, a true hero’s calling, and reading law and manuals of parliamentary procedure. At the same time he kept up a growing correspondence. To dispel the presumption that Sumner thought only of slavery, he chose to make himself heard first on the occasion of Lajos Kossuth’s sensational arrival in the United States.

Kossuth excited nineteenth century Americans as a good looking, heroic revolutionary figure fluent in English. They wanted to wine and dine him. A few over-excited types probably hoped to somehow help with his revolution. The official welcome mat rolled out and almost as soon as it had second thoughts set in. Kossuth, a European radical, might have other ideas in that vein than just freedom for Hungarians. If he opposed slavery, then it followed that giving him a state welcome implied endorsement by the United States of his doctrines. Independent of that, welcoming a foreign revolutionary who would probably solicit support for his cause did not comport well with the national tradition of non-interference in European affairs.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

Sumner made an equivocal speech that praised Kossuth and declared all fighters for freedom deserved American admiration. He endorsed the official reception, planting his flag with the revolutionary. Then he took it down and went home by declaring that no one should understand the reception as any kind of endorsement for Kossuth’s politics. Certainly it did not signal that the United States would intervene in the affairs of the Habsburg Empire in any way. The United States might toast Kossuth and feast him at the highest levels, but Sumner would have the nation do so strictly in the role of a fan club.

The speech prompted some grumblings from Sumner’s more radical friends, but went over well with most Massachusetts opinion. Even hostile newspapers praised him for it. Sumner’s fellow senators proved just as effusive. The new person might expect an encouraging welcome, but Sumner had gotten snubs instead. Those assembling to congratulate him after he finished included more than Sumner’s recently-acquired senatorial friends. Even Lewis Cass, who went out of his way to make Sumner unwelcome previously, now said that he felt no shame at presenting the antislavery man to the Senate. Maybe they could make a tolerable senator out of him yet.