Charles Sumner (January 6, 1811 – March 11, 1874) was an American politician and United States Senator from Massachusetts. As an academic lawyer and a powerful orator, Sumner was the leader of the anti-slavery forces in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans in the U.S. Senate during the American Civil War. During Reconstruction, he fought to minimize the power of the ex-Confederates and guarantee equal rights to the freedmen. He fell into a dispute with fellow Republican President Ulysses Grant on the question of taking control of Santo Domingo. Grant’s allies stripped Sumner of his power in the Senate in 1871, and he joined the Liberal Republican movement in an effort to defeat Grant’s reelection in 1872.
Sumner changed his political party several times as anti-slavery coalitions rose and fell in the 1830s and 1840s before coalescing in the 1850s as the Republican Party, the affiliation with which he became best known. He devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, the influence over the federal government of Southern slave owners who sought the continuation and expansion of slavery.In 1856, a South Carolina Congressman, Democrat Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner with a cane on the Senate floor two days after Sumner delivered an intensely anti-slavery speech titled “The Crime Against Kansas.” In the speech, Sumner characterized the attacker’s cousin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, a Democrat, as a pimp for slavery. The widely-reported episode left Sumner severely injured and famous. (In the South, Brooks was a hero, remembered in Brooksville, Florida and Brooks County, Georgia.) It was several years before he could return to the Senate; Massachusetts not only did not replace him, it reelected him, leaving his empty desk in the Senate as a reminder of the incident. The episode contributed significantly to the polarization of the country, leading up to the Civil War.
During the war, Sumner was a leader of the Radical Republican faction that criticized President Abraham Lincoln for being too moderate on the South. One of the most learned statesmen of the era, he specialized in foreign affairs and worked closely with Abraham Lincoln to keep the British and the French from intervening on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Sumner’s expertise and energy made him a powerful chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
As the chief Radical leader in the Senate during Reconstruction, Sumner fought hard to provide equal civil and voting rights for the freedmen on the grounds that “consent of the governed” was a basic principle of American republicanism, and to block ex-Confederates from power so they would not reverse the gains made from the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Sumner, teaming with House leader Thaddeus Stevens, battled Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction plans and sought to impose a Radical program on the South. Although Sumner forcefully advocated the annexation of Alaska in the Senate, he was against the annexation of the Dominican Republic, then known by the name of its capital, Santo Domingo. After leading Senators to defeat President Ulysses S. Grant’s Santo Domingo Treaty in 1870, Sumner broke with Grant and denounced him in such terms that reconciliation was impossible. In 1871, President Grant and his Secretary of State Hamilton Fish retaliated; through Grant’s supporters in the Senate, Sumner was deposed as head of the Foreign Relations Committee. Sumner had become convinced that Grant was a corrupt despot and that the success of Reconstruction policies called for new national leadership. Sumner bitterly opposed Grant’s reelection by supporting the Liberal Republican candidate Horace Greeley in 1872 and lost his power inside the Republican Party. Less than two years later, he died in office.