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Charles Sumner Letters

An inventory of his correspondence at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: KM
Date: Aug 1987

Biographical History

Charles Sumner (1811-1874) was an American politician, lawyer, and orator from Massachusetts. A learned statesmen, he specialized in foreign affairs and worked closely with Abraham Lincoln; with Thaddeus Stevens, he led the antislavery faction in Massachusetts and in the United States Senate. He was an early proponent of civil rights for blacks, believing that anything which inhibited a man's right to grow to his full potential was inherently evil. As early as 1849 he represented the plaintiffs in one of the first lawsuits to challenge segregation, Roberts v. Boston, and during Reconstruction he continued his efforts to gain voting and civil rights for the newly-freed blacks in the South.

His uncompromising and outspoken opposition to slavery earned him both supporters and detractors, and in 1856 it nearly cost him his life. In May of that year Sumner delivered a rousing condemnation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its authors, Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Offended by Sumner's remarks, Butler's nephew Preston Brooks, also a congressman from South Carolina, attacked Sumner in his Senate chambers and beat him nearly to death. Butler became a hero to many in the South while Sumner was equally championed in the North.

Sumner was eventually able to return to the Senate where in March 1861 he was named chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, a position he used in part to block any actions which might bring Britain or France into the growing conflict between North and South. One of his achievements as chairman was the diplomatic recognition of Haiti. After the war, Sumner became a leader of the Radical Republicans and during Reconstruction he was a fierce advocate of harsh penalties for the former Confederacy, viewing them as conquered territories. His reputation in Britain, formerly excellent, suffered when he proposed that Britain turn over Canada to the Unites States as payment for actions which, Sumner claimed, had prolonged the Civil War, and in 1871 he was removed from the chairman position. He died in Washington in 1874.

Sumner began his Senatorial career with the words, "The slave of principles, I call no party master," and his political life bore out that promise. He changed parties several times during his career, preferring to act as his ethics and principles demanded rather than bind himself to a party platform.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Charles Sumner Letters consist of three letters. One, outgoing, is to Henry Dilworth Gilpin (1801-1860), a Quaker lawyer who served as Attorney General of the United States from 1840-1841. One, outgoing, is to James A. Dix. The last, incoming, is from Benjamin Perley Poore (1820-1887), a newspaper correspondent, editor, and author.


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Subject Headings


Dix, James A.
Gilpin, Henry D. (Henry Dilworth), 1801-1860.
Poore, Benjamin Perley, 1820-1887.
Sumner, Charles, 1811-1874.


Authors, American.
Legislators, United States.

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Charles Sumner Letters
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

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