On August 26, 1852, forty-one-year-old Charles Sumner rose to give his first speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He proposed to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act. Friends warned that attacking slavery so directly would be politically and personally dangerous, but Sumner insisted. He could not stay silent, he said, because he believed “that, according to the true spirit of our Constitution and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government.”1

It was the prologue to a senatorial career that would last more than two decades and make him—as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—arguably the country’s most powerful politician. Many came to resent Sumner’s ideological purity. But his uncompromising integrity made Sumner an indispensable player in the drama that climaxed with the abolition of slavery. . . .

Endnotes

1. Charles Sumner, “Freedom National; Slavery Sectional” (1852), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Freedom_National;_Slavery_Sectional (accessed August 23, 2019).

2. William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York: Vantage Books, 1998), 268.

3. Miller, Arguing About Slavery, 469.

4. Charles Sumner, “The Promises of the Declaration of Independence: A Eulogy on Abraham Lincoln” (June 1, 1865), 65.

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