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Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner was born on January 6, 1811 in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard in 1830. After a year of study on his own, he entered Harvard Law School, where he became a close friend of Joseph Story, who in addition to teaching at Harvard was an associate justice of the Supreme Court. In 1837, Sumner discontinued his prospering legal practice and went to Europe to educate himself on European legal practices. When he returned in 1840, his understanding of Europe was well developed and he had acquired a command of French, Italian, and German. In 1846, Sumner led a group known as the "Conscience Whigs" in an attempt to get the party in Massachusetts to adopt a strong antislavery position. They were defeated by the conservative elements known as the "Cotton Whigs." Sumner left the Whigs and supported the Free-Soil Party in the Election of 1848. When the Free-Soilers and Democrats formed a coalition to control the Massachusetts legislature, Sumner became the leading candidate for the U.S. Senate. He was given that position in 1851 and served there until his death. As a leader of the small band of antislavery members on Capitol Hill, Sumner proposed in 1852 the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. He argued that slavery should be confined to the Southern states who had permitted it at the time the nation was formed, and that no federal law should facilitate it outside their state boundaries. Sumner joined others like Salmon P. Chase in opposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Unsuccessful in this effort, he helped organize the opponents into the new Republican Party. After his attack by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina in the Senate chamber, Sumner suffered damage to his physical health that persisted for years, but his political health was perfected in Massachusetts and his re-election to the Senate was assured. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Sumner was an abolitionist but did not favor war to achieve that end. The outbreak of hostilities, however, put him firmly behind the Union cause for the duration. After the war, Sumner was prominent among the Radical Republicans. He became disillusioned with Andrew Johnson's moderate approach to Reconstruction and in the impeachment proceedings against him, voted enthusiastically to convict. Sumner's uncompromising devotion to principles gradually put him at odds with the more practical leaders of the Republican Party, who were more concerned with supporting business interests than the freedmen in the South. His disagreements with the Grant administration over foreign policy led to his being deprived of the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations committee in March 1871. In 1872, Sumner was enough disaffected that he split with the Republican to support the candidacy of Horace Greeley under the Liberal Republican banner. He attended the Senate for the last time on March 10, 1874. He suffered a heart attack that evening and died the next day.