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by John Q McDonald --- 11 July 2010

Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War

by David H. Donald

Despite the complexity and virulence of our national debate and the regular polls that show Americans don't like where the country is going, there is nothing today that compares to the turmoil of this nation in the years before the breakout of the Civil War in 1861. Various historians and political interests today like to put their particular spin on the sectional conflict. Apologists say it was all about the right of the individual states to make their own policy against an overreaching Federal government. People continue to make that argument today, though most tend to end up flexible when it comes to Federal or state control over their pet causes, from gay marriage to abortion, to gun rights and environmental legislation. Ultimately, though, the simple argument that the war was about slavery is basically true. That the institution of slavery was ongoing in this country, long after European countries had abolished it, was a stain on America's pretentions of freedom and opportunity.

This surprising and compelling biography paints a vivid picture of the political and cultural environment of that time, and it is repeatedly amazing to encounter the many parallels between the politics of that time and ours, along with the traditions of delay and foot-dragging that are apparent in our legislature. Charles Sumner, the subject of this story, was a senator from Massachusetts who in 1851 came to power almost reluctantly (though he protests so much that it wasn't what he wanted that it must have been his most cherished dream), and who went on to become one of the loudest and most dedicated abolitionists in the nation. The way this book tells the story, it appears that Sumner was almost single-handedly responsible for preventing slavery from being permanently enshrined in the Constitution as part of a bizarre compromise by the Northern states to keep the secessionist Southern states in the Union. Ultimately, Sumner seemed to think that the brutal bloodletting that was the Civil War was necessary for the final abolition of slavery. Perhaps he was right. We can go back and forth forever on how things might have been different. Sumner had his rise in Massachusetts law and government, though showed little in the way of real brilliance and a lot in the way of political expediency. He did not particularly excel in his profession (though he was an extremely early advocate of school desegregation) and was given to enthusiasms and devotion to father figure mentors. But when he found his voice in the abolitionism he learned from his father he became a brilliant and beloved, if highly controversial, orator. He was disingenuous on the many times he offended figures high and low and portrayed himself as the innocent, morally strong and humble figure that he almost certainly was not in his private thoughts. He was a stubborn opponent of the South's "peculiar institutions" and stood against compromise at every turn. History has borne out his dedication to his cause, but at the time he was broadly popular and controversial in the North and vehemently detested in the South. He was beaten nearly to death on the floor of the Senate by a Congressman from South Carolina who felt the honor of his state was besmirched by Sumner's speeches. Though he was stunned for over three years by this attack, Sumner returned to the Senate to give his most vituperative speech against the compromises meant to preserve slavery and the Union. War became inevitable, and Sumner was joined in Washington by a similarly pragmatic and dedicated politician, Abraham Lincoln who, perhaps with Sumner's urging (among others, no doubt), made slavery the ultimate issue of the war and its abolition the central purpose toward restoring the promise of freedom that this nation is supposed to represent. The book ends with the start of the war, thirteen years before Sumner's death, but we know, also, that Sumner went on, after the war, to propose the first civil rights act that guaranteed equal rights on the basis of race in this country. That act became law in 1875, but was struck down in 1883 by a Supreme Court that couldn't look as far ahead as Sumner did, apparently on a regular basis. Sumner's law contained many provisions that would pass again only a century later, in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This is an engrossing history of a time of which we don't hear all that much in our national discourse. The book is compelling, informative and written with a deliberate clarity. Most highly recommended.

(For this book, Donald was awarded the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for biography. The book was re-released in 1989 and 2009 after Donald won a second Pulitzer for his biography of Lincoln.)

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