Charles Sumner had opposed slavery as far back as he could remember. His father, an egalitarian in the tradition of Thomas Paine, visited Haiti during its revolutionary struggle for independence and came away impressed by the nascent Black republic. Back in Boston, he had friendly relations with members of the city’s free Black community.
The younger Sumner first encountered the peculiar institution during his 1834 trip to Washington, when he saw a group of slaves while passing through Maryland. “They appear to be nothing more than moving masses of flesh, unendowed with anything of intelligence above the brutes,” he wrote at the time. During a tour of Europe, however, watching Black students at the Sorbonne convinced him that slavery was to blame for this lowly condition.
“The distance between free blacks and the whites among us is derived from education,” he wrote, “and does not exist in the nature of things.” In 1836 he told a friend in South Carolina, “We are becoming abolitionists at the North fast.” Anti-abolitionist riots, the gag rule controversy in Congress, the uncompromising rhetoric coming from the South—all of it, he reported, was driving enlightened opinion toward emancipation.
It was one thing to support abolition, quite another to make it your life’s work. For Sumner, the shift began with Texas statehood. To Van Buren, the issue had been a political inconvenience; to Sumner, any case of slavery’s expansion was a moral atrocity. The more he focused on slavery, the larger it loomed in his consciousness. “All the acts of our Government [are] connected, directly or indirectly, with the institution,” he concluded. He saw its pernicious influence wherever he looked: in Congress, where the ranks of the slave power were multiplied by the three-fifths clause; in the courts, where judges chosen by slave-owning presidents staffed the bench; even in the North, where former slaves who had escaped to freedom could be snatched back at any second.
“Slavery,” he announced, “stops every thing that is good.” But what to do about it? Massachusetts Whigs said they opposed slavery, but party leaders dropped their resistance to annexing Texas after deciding it was a losing battle, and in 1848 the party chose slave owner Zachary Taylor as its presidential candidate. Garrisonians, meanwhile, denounced the Constitution as a “covenant with death” and called for the union to be destroyed.
Opposed to both, Sumner joined with “political abolitionists” who saw a democratic path to emancipation. He depicted the slave power as an alien force that had taken over a government whose framers meant to put slavery on the road to ultimate extinction. Slavery was a malignant tumor in an otherwise healthy patient, not a congenital defect. “You already support the Constitution of the U.S. by continuing to live under its jurisdiction,” he tweaked one Garrisonian. “Let us, then, continue to live under it; but… strive in all ways for its purification.”
Abolitionists would use the tools of politicians to overthrow a corrupt status quo. “If bad men conspire for Slavery, good men must combine for Freedom,” he said. “The moralist and philanthropist must become for this purpose politicians,—not forgetting morals or philanthropy, but seeking to apply them practically in the laws of the land.” These righteous leaders would preside over a democracy where “politics and morals, no longer divorced from each other, become one and inseparable in the holy wedlock of Christian sentiment.”It was one thing to support abolition, quite another to make it your life’s work.
Despite the utopian rhetoric, Sumner was happy to compromise on issues that didn’t touch his central convictions. “Our great object must be to encourage union among all who are against Slavery,” he insisted. “They should look upon each other with good will, and generosity,” he said, “and direct their powers,—never against each other—but always against the common enemy.”
He was agnostic on how to bring this new party to life. At first he thought antislavery would take over the Whigs, but he soon gave up on overthrowing the “Cotton Whig” establishment. He struck up correspondences with political abolitionists outside Massachusetts looking to form a national third party. His short history in politics made him an ideal mediator for Whigs, Democrats, and recovering Garrisonians ready to plunge into party building. He strategized with Ohio’s Salmon Chase and discussed the “inglorious confusion” of existing coalitions with John Van Buren. An enthusiastic Free Soiler, he threw his support behind John’s father in 1848. After Van Buren’s defeat, he switched his focus back to Massachusetts, now convinced that fusion with the Democracy was their best option.
As Sumner rotated through potential allies, his overarching strategy remained the same. In order to build a united front across the North, political abolitionists had to fix the public’s attention on slavery, which meant sidelining the issues that Whigs and Democrats preferred talking about—tariffs, banks, Indian removal, and other subjects that cut across the sectional divide. “All the ideas put forward in the controversies of party are now practically obsolete,” Sumner announced. “Freedom is the only question now before the American people.”
He became a pariah in high society. Antislavery was welcome in Brahmin circles, but the worthies of Beacon Hill considered his fixation on the topic unseemly. Old friends avoided him on the street. Outsiders to Boston watched in disbelief as literal shudders passed through the room when his name was mentioned at fashionable soirees. He was, however, welcome at meetings of the city’s politically active free Black people, making regular appearances at a Black-owned barbershop known for hosting antislavery discussions, an abolitionist sequel to Abraham Van Buren’s tavern.
With his social standing in free fall, Sumner discovered his inner populist. In 1848 he railed against “an unhallowed union—conspiracy let it be called—between two remote sections: between the politicians of the Southwest and the politicians of the Northeast,—between the cotton-planters and flesh-mongers of Louisiana and Mississippi and the cotton-spinners and traffickers of New England,—between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” Drawing on a resonant piece of Jacksonian rhetoric, he announced, “The money power has joined hands with the slave power. Selfish, grasping, subtle, tyrannical, like its ally, it will not brook opposition.”
When Southern oligarchs locked arms with Northern capitalists, Sumner concluded, the wealthy posed a greater threat to liberty than the mob.
But he was an inconsistent democrat. Although he denounced the slave oligarchy, it wasn’t clear whether he rejected oligarchy itself or merely a “vulgar aristocracy of the skin.” He wanted to redeem the propertied class, not abolish capital. If all that was wrong in American life sprang out of the slave power, then emancipation and integration need not upset the country’s underlying social structure. The United States after slavery would be its best self, only more so. And with abolitionists still a despised minority, simple majoritarianism wasn’t an option. “Aloft on the throne of God, and not below in the footprints of a trampling multitude, are the sacred rules of Right, which no majorities can displace or overturn,” he announced, using words that could have been taken out of Joseph Story’s mouth.
Luckily, Sumner’s faith in the people was looking more realistic. In 1849 he enlisted as cocounsel in Roberts v. City of Boston, a case arguing for integrated schools. Introducing arguments that would be picked up in Brown v. Board of Education more than a century later, he argued that educational segregation was inherently unequal. Although he lost the case, in 1855 Massachusetts abolished school segregation, an encouraging sign that he might not stay in the minority for long.
He pressed onward, supplementing high-flown theorizing with organizational grunt work—editing newspapers, planning rallies, and delivering speech after speech on behalf of the cause. Swept up in a perennial campaign, he lost any bit of interest he had in practicing law, along with the melancholy that hung over him when he contemplated life as “a mere lawyer.” His eloquence made him one of antislavery’s most effective advocates, and his prestige made him one of their most valuable. John Quincy Adams came to see him as an heir. “I see you have a mission to perform,” Adams told him. “You will enter public life; you do not want it, but you will be drawn into the current, in spite of yourself.”
Sumner assured Adams that he had no interest in elected office, and he kept on denying it even after he was chosen for the Senate. His election was a fluke product of antebellum politics, when senators were still selected by the state legislature, not popular vote. In 1850 Massachusetts delivered a mixed verdict. The Whigs won a plurality, but Democrats and Free Soilers had a narrow majority. Forging an ad hoc coalition, Democrats took the governor’s chair, and Free Soilers got the Senate. Sumner’s enthusiasm for this shotgun marriage outweighed concerns among Democrats about sending a “red-hot Abolitionist” to the Senate, though not without months of protracted negotiations— and, perhaps, some shady backroom dealings. When victory came, it was by the slimmest of margins: 1 vote out of 385 total.
“For myself, I do not desire public life,” Sumner told his sister Julia as he set out for Washington. “I have neither taste nor ambition for it; but Providence has marked out my career, and I follow.”
Sumner was not impressed by his new home. “I begin to be a-weary of this life,” he said after eight months in office. “The scenes of the Senate have disgusted me. No man, who cares for happiness, should consent to come here.” Although Southern politicians were friendly in private—much friendlier to him than was Boston high society—he traced the “inexpressibly low” tone of Washington society to slavery, calling it “the source of all meanness here from national dishonesty down to tobacco-spitting.” Prolonged exposure did not warm him to the city. “Truly—truly—this is a godless place,” he said in 1856, the same year he won reelection to a second term.
He arrived at a transitional period in Washington’s history. The old generation was passing into twilight: John Calhoun was dead, Henry Clay a spectral presence, Daniel Webster ensconced at the State Department (and horrified that Sumner had inherited his seat). “You have come upon the stage too late,” Sumner was told by Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton, a thirty-year veteran of Washington. “Not only have the great men passed away, but the great issues, too,” Benton said. “Nothing is left you, sir, but puny sectional questions and petty strifes about slavery.”
Sumner hoped to make a career out of turning these “puny sectional questions” into a national cause, but as one of just a handful of Free Soilers in Congress he had few allies. Defiant, he claimed that the people were on his side. “The rising public opinion against Slavery cannot flow in the old political channels,” he warned. “If not through the old parties, then over the old parties, this irresistible current shall find its way.”
Certainly there was a widespread sense that realignment was coming. In 1854, The New York Times reported that both parties had lost their hold on the public. “Their machinery of intrigue, their shuffling evasions, the dodges, the chicanery and the deception of their leaders have excited universal disgust, and have created a general readiness in the public mind for any new organization that shall promise to shun their vices.”
Politicians felt the same dissatisfaction, especially the younger ones. “Old parties, old names, old issues, and old organizations are passing away,” wrote the forty-two-year-old Alexander Stephens, a Whig congressman from Georgia (and future vice president of the Confederacy). “A day of new things, new issues, new leaders, and new organizations is at hand.”
But if the old regime was coming apart, it wasn’t at all clear what the new order would look like. In Sumner’s home state, the nativist American Party, better remembered today as the Know Nothings, won the governorship, the whole congressional delegation, the entire state senate, and all but 3 of the 379 state representatives in the 1854 elections. Know Nothings elected governors in seven other states the same year, along with more than fifty members of the House. Mixing animosity toward the country’s rising immigrant population (mostly German and Irish) with a wide-ranging hostility to the political establishment, Know Nothings positioned themselves, in a remarkably short period of time, as a major force in American politics.
In 1856, however, the party split along the same divide over slavery that destroyed the Whigs. Know Nothings received just 21.5 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election, putting them behind the newly formed Republican Party. Emerging from a combination of top-down and grassroots activism—private meetings in Washington and local conventions across the free states—the Republican Party first took shape in 1854. Sumner embraced the Republican label early, even as other antislavery politicians—including Abraham Lincoln— kept their distance, unsure as to whether it was a majority in embryo or another doomed crusade.
Though Sumner was too radical and idiosyncratic to speak for Republicans as a whole, he was one of their most compelling preachers. The party owed a sizable number of their most popular slogans—including “the barbarism of slavery,” “freedom national,” and “the back-bone party”—to the senator from Massachusetts. His framing of the debate was just as influential. According to Sumner, there was no middle ground in the clash of civilizations between North and South. It was the Mayflower or the slave ship, Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, knowledge or ignorance, prosperity or misery, progress or reaction, civilization or barbarism, freedom or slavery—in short, “a solemn battle between Right and Wrong, between Good and Evil.” More than anything, he owed his success to the force of this simple story.
Sumner had learned about the power of polarization by watching the South. “It is right to be taught by the enemy,” he said. “With them Slavery is the mainspring of political life, and the absorbing center of political activity.” Northerners would have to be just as single-minded. He urged voters in free states to put aside their former differences, making a place for recovering Democrats and former Whigs, conservatives and radicals, “the true American” and “the foreign-born.”
Unlike most Republicans, Sumner’s coalition had a central place for African Americans. This was more a matter of principle than of politics. The United States was an overwhelmingly white nation, and the free states were whiter still—98.8 percent white in 1860. Racially restrictive suffrage laws further diminished Black influence at the polls. And most antislavery voters—along with most antislavery politicians—showed no interest in turning the United States into a multiracial democracy. Abraham Lincoln underlined the point in 1854. “This government was made for the white people,” he said, “and not for the negroes.”It was the Mayflower or the slave ship, Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, knowledge or ignorance, prosperity or misery, progress or reaction, civilization or barbarism, freedom or slavery.
With precious few allies to choose from, African Americans from around the country looked to Sumner. “All the friends of freedom, in every State, and of every color, may claim you, just now, as their representative,” Frederick Douglass told Sumner in 1854, calling himself “one of your sable constituents.” He was the very rare white politician of his era to keep up an active correspondence not just with Black leaders such as Douglass but with ordinary African Americans. In his letters, Sumner could be prickly, imperious, and condescending—but that was just as true in his exchanges with white people.
Sumner lived his principles. Henry McNeal Turner, a Black pastor visiting the capital from Georgia, described his first meeting with Sumner this way: “To my astonishment the greatest statesman the sun ever shone upon walked up between us and locked our arms, and proceeded through the streets and buildings as unconcernedly as if he had been in company with his senatorial colleagues; he thought no more of asking a black man to dine at his table than he did of the whitest man on earth.”
Republicans held together a coalition mixing antislavery white supremacists and racial egalitarians by focusing on a common enemy. Whether they believed that slavery was a national sin or an economic anachronism—and Sumner thought it was both—Republicans insisted that the slave power was to blame. They perverted the Constitution. They seized control of the government. They kept alive an institution that should have passed away long ago. They stood in the way of the free labor dream, where every man could climb the ladder from wage earner to independent producer. They stood in the way of the simple request that slavery not spread across the western territories.* They were splitting the country in two.
Calling for the death—even the slow death—of the wealthiest slave society in history was a revolutionary demand. But Republicans were pursuing a radical goal for conservative reasons. The South had to be transformed, they argued, so that the North could stay the same. Industrialization and urbanization were remaking the free states, and even small farmers were increasingly drawn into the marketplace. In an era of railroads, telegraphs, and ocean-crossing steamships, the yeoman farmer’s days were numbered. Wage labor was becoming more common, propertied independence less so. Economic inequality had been rising for decades, and it showed no signs of abating.
Perhaps reflecting the importance of western expansion to the Republican platform, Sumner’s racial egalitarianism did not include Native Americans, who, he said, were not “willing to learn” the “improvements of civilization.”
Republicans needed a way to speak to both the winners and losers of this great transformation. They found it by glorifying the virtues of free labor over slavery, conjuring visions of a society populated by small-time farmers and shopkeepers. Former Whigs might stress the harmony of interests between capital and labor, while ex-Jacksonians paid more attention to class conflict. But with the slave power as their nemesis and free soil as their goal, Republicans called for a political revolution to maintain the status quo.
Excerpted from Realigners: Partisan Hacks, Political Visionaries, and the Struggle to Rule American Democracy by Timothy Shenk. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Shenk. All rights reserved.