A Boston Welcome for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner gave up convalescence at Cresson, Pennsylvania, and returned to Philadelphia. There he received bad news yet again: his doctor believed that Sumner must refrain from any physical or mental excitement if he wanted to live. Sumner kept up an active correspondence, but refused invitations to attend public meetings. Delivering a speech, especially to a crowd and in his customary style, might well be beyond his ability. A public failure like that would not have done much for his fragile mental and physical state.

Sumner may have stayed in Philadelphia for longer, but Anson Burlingame looked poised to lose re-election. Sumner did not approve at all of his accepting Brooks’ challenge, but already at Cresson he received the Congressman with obvious affection for the benefit of the reporters on hand. When that, plus a public letter of support, did not seem adequate, Sumner returned to Boston. Ostensibly he came for a grand reception, but really to campaign. Though he did decline the banquet offered, Sumner had to muddle through the rest.

On November 3, the festivities began with Sumner driven from Longfellow’s home to that of Amos Lawrence, benefactor of the Emigrant Aid Society and longtime foe of the Senator’s. There Sumner received a plethora of guests in the afternoon, who came up from the State House in eighteen carriages. They in due course put him into an open carriage and escorted him to the Boston city line. There, in 1824, Josiah Quincy met the aged Lafayette on his return tour of the United States. Now, the aged Josiah Quincy met Sumner.

Quincy praised Sumner at length before a crowd of seven hundred, closing with thanks to Heaven for keeping him around long enough to see the day. Sumner, still in his carriage, leaned forward and appeared greatly moved. The powerful voice necessary for an orator in the age before microphones and speakers, failed Sumner. Appearing “haggard and careworn, with languid eye and pale cheek,” he spoke briefly. The Senator called his suffering “not small” but he did it for duty’s sake and it paled before what the good people of Kansas still endured.

Then the show continued, with Sumner transferred to a new carriage drawn by six gray horses, joining the mayor of Boston and Quincy for a half-mile procession through cheering crowds and beneath banners hung to welcome him. The crowd might have grown to seven thousand, packing the streets, hanging from windows, and standing on rooftops to get a look at their hero. Men, women, and children through bouquets into the carriage.

Governor Gardner welcomed Sumner to the State House with a consciously apolitical speech. All Massachusetts stood with their maimed Senator, just not necessarily on matters of policy. Sumner had a proper speech ready to go in response, but he only managed a few lines before his endurance gave out. He had somewhat more after Quincy spoke, but between that, all the crowds, and movement, Sumner had had enough. He passed the copy to reporters on hand for printing.

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“I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner at a health spa up in the Alleghenies. There he continued to struggle with his recovery, but seemed at last on a slow mend. He looked forward to some time home in Massachusetts, though not the grand reception he expected. Sumner usually enjoyed the public eye, so his dread of it now speaks volumes to his state of mind. Walking still strained him and mental exertion gave him headaches.

At the spa, Sumner showed more troubling symptoms still. When tired, which must have happened frequently given the continuous references to his exhaustion, Sumner felt

as tho’ the blows were raining upon his head again; then will feel a numbness in the scalp; then again acute pains; then a sense of exhaustion that prevents any physical or mental effort.

We would say Sumner had flashbacks. He had trouble sleeping still and began to fear the loss of his faculties. The Senator now stared down the prospect of permanent disability, something he feared more than death. He wrote Joshua Giddings that

I sometimes am led to apprehend that I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.

George Sumner didn’t help matters by talking about cases of mental illness he observed in Parisian hospitals. Way to go, George. Dr. Wister, of Philadelphia, told Sumner that he couldn’t comment on whether the Senator suffered a brain “deranged organically or only functionally.” A functional disorder, someone might recover from. Actual brain injury? Maybe not. Sumner probably suffered both. He also became preoccupied with his symptoms, for which one can hardly blame him. Every time he fell short of his expectations, his body reinforced his fears.

Eventually, Sumner could take no more of the spa at Cresson. He wanted more engaging surroundings that could get his mind off his debilitated state and left, against the advice of the doctor there. Leaving took him back to Philadelphia and Dr. Wister. Once again he seems to have improved briefly, but then relapsed. He later wrote to the spa’s physician that he left too soon.

Come the end of September, Dr. Perry examined Sumner again and found his frailty largely unchanged. As before, he believed the Senator could not take much stress at all if he hoped to keep his life.

“His steps were feeble and tottering”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner declined to take any further part in Preston Brooks’ prosecution than grand jury testimony; he did not consider himself at all well. The psychological strain of revisiting the attack constantly, perhaps even in Brooks’ presence, can’t have appealed even when he felt physically better and Sumner rarely felt that. Visitors described him as a man much enfeebled, who may not make it. Francis Blair’s home in Silver Springs gave him some relief from Washington’s summer heat, but it remained close enough for a steady steam of visitors that further exhausted the Senator.

On July 5, Sumner returned to Washington City to put his affairs in order before departing for less demanding climes. That prompted a fresh bout of visitors, including both antislavery luminaries and members of the diplomatic corps. Edward L. Pierce’s Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner relates that the only administration men, excepting Lewis Cass who Sumner once befriended in Europe, stayed away. The parade of well-wishers can’t have helped, but Sumner left the city on July 7, staying the night in Baltimore before proceeding on to Philadelphia and Dr. Caspar Wister. At the time, Sumner expected to return to the Senate in August.

Dr. Wister examined Sumner on July 9 and found him in

A condition of extreme nervous exhaustion, his circulation feeble, and in fact every vital power alarmingly sunken. At that time his steps were feeble and tottering, as if in extreme old age; he complained of constant pain in the back and lower extremities, -in the latter it was a tired and weary sensation and he had a sense of construction and pressure about the head. At that time his pulse was quick and small, appetite language, and his sleep broken, disturbed, and unrefreshing. All the above conditions were heightened by exertion either mental or physical.

Wister recommended Sumner go to Cape May for relaxation. He spent a week there, improving, but then suffered another relapse. On July 22, he wrote to Giddings that he might resign his seat. Sumner still wanted to come back and resume his duties, but clearly doubted that he could. He abandoned Cape May for a health resort at Cresson, Pennsylvania. There, but he managed a daily ride on horseback, though he still struggled with walking. By mid-August, he could write -again to Giddings- that he hoped “to do good service in the coming campaign” for the presidency. The Republicans nominated John C. Fremont in June, with a sympathy vote going to Sumner for vice-president.

On August 28, Sumner wrote a friend that he had not made a full recovery,

but I ride on horseback, converse, read, write letters, and hope soon to be in working condition, though I fear that a perfect prudence would keep me from all public effort for some months to come.

Walking still exhausted him, but Sumner felt on the mend. He expected to return to Massachusetts soon, but dreaded the inevitable public welcome. He would rather “slip into Massachusetts, run about for a few days” and then maybe get on the stump.