Charles Sumner and “the oblivion of past differences,” Part 2

In Part 1, we saw Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner condemned by his home state’s legislature for his proposal to remove the names of Union victories from the U. S. Army’s regimental colors and from the Army register.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier and many other distinguished Bay Staters, longtime Sumner supporters, started a petition campaign to rescind the condemnatory resolution. The petition professed “a jealous regard to the honor and good name of the state and…a proud and grateful appreciation of the character and public services of Mr. Charles Sumner.” Many of the top “Brahmins” of Boston rallied around Sumner. In opposition, the populist ex-general Benjamin Butler, a power in state politics, joined and reinforced the sentiment against Sumner. Former abolitionists were divided. William Lloyd Garrison testified against Sumner in the legislature. Wendell Phillips took Sumner’s side, saying other countries didn’t require soldiers to march under banners commemorating victories over their own people. But the legislators were still against Sumner’s behavior. A bill vindicating Sumner failed in the state House, 49-167, and the resolution of censure remained on the books. The Chicago Evening Mail rejoiced at Sumner’s defeat: “Considering the number of Negroes Massachusetts sent to the war, and the thorough and life-long treachery of Sumner to the principles of freedom, the actions of the Representatives cannot be wondered at!”[i]

Yet that was not the end. Sumner repaired matters with his Massachusetts political base. He sought to broaden his political appeal to both capital and labor in the state. He returned his share of the unpopular Congressional “salary grab” to the Treasury. In a public exchange of letters with C. Augustus Haviland of Chicago, Sumner clarified that his resolution only applied to future banners and army registers, and would not mutilate existing banners.[ii]

George Hoyt, the state legislator who had sponsored the anti-Sumner resolution, may have sabotaged his own political career. Opponents alleged that Hoyt showed up drunk in the state House chamber and boisterously joined the debate. His behavior was supposedly so embarrassing that his colleagues halted legislative proceedings. The New York Tribune, the late Horace Greeley’s former paper, declared of Hoyt: “This is the man who has led Massachusetts into the disgraceful act of censuring Charles Sumner!” The voters of his district rejected Hoyt in the 1873 legislative elections. Supporters of Sumner thought that Hoyt’s political defeat could clear the way for a renewed attempt to vindicate Sumner. And with the election of more sympathetic members, the legislature might be a more hospitable climate for a pro-Sumner resolution. His supporters got to work. A newspaper poll indicated a majority for Sumner.[iii]

In the New York Herald’s words, “a perfect avalanche of petitions” supporting Sumner confronted the legislators.[iv]

Sumner’s health was seriously declining, actually a point in his favor among people who did not want to see a distinguished figure like him depart this world with a legislative stigma stuck to him.[v]  While not all Bay Staters supported the Senator’s views on Civil War memory, many of them wanted to be seen as respecting Sumner’s memory.

In February, 1874, the Massachusetts state Senate voted to rescind the legislature’s previous condemnation. When the Senate resolution reached the state House, it went to the Federal Relations committee. The chairman of that committee was Joshua Bowen Smith, the representative from Cambridge. Smith was a prominent black businessman – a caterer who had supervised meals at, among other places, Harvard. Smith had been an abolitionist before the war, when he’d befriended Sumner. Now it fell to Smith to enthusiastically defend his committee’s recommendation: that the House concur with the Senate to rescind Sumner’s condemnation.[vi]

File:Joshua Bowen Smith.jpg
Joshua Bowen Smith, 1874, Wikimedia Commons

In his speech (as reported by the Boston Post), Smith said that his committee “believed there was something due to the sentiment of peace. The soldier will have more honor in the future in the results of the war than he will have in all the resolutions that can be passed.” Smith declared that “[a]s a representative of the colored race he desired peace. He believed Mr. Sumner was right. If we were going to live [as] a people here, we must wipe the past out. As men who are living for the future, let us make our main idea to be peace, and hand it down to our posterity.”[vii]

On February 13, 1874, the state House agreed with the Senate, and thus the legislature officially rescinded the condemnation of Sumner which it had approved just over a year before. Sumner, from his sickbed, had been anxious to have his name cleared in his beloved home state before he died, and soon Joshua Bowen Smith brought the Massachusetts resolution to Congress, where Senator George Boutwell (R-MA) officially presented it to his colleagues. Sumner died on March 11, just under a month after his exoneration.[viii]

After Sumner’s death, the Senate considered his Civil Rights bill. Probably inspired partly by respect for Sumner’s memory, his former Senate colleagues adopted the bill, which ultimately passed after being watered down in the House (the Supreme Court gutted the law in 1883).[ix]

Both houses of Congress set aside time to honor Sumner. One of the members of the House of Representatives who gave a eulogy for the great abolitionist was a Democratic Representative from Mississippi. Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar was the only Democrat representing the still-Republican state in Congress. Lamar had been a secessionist politician, a Confederate soldier, and the Confederate emissary to Russia. Now he wanted to end Republican rule in Mississippi and the South, as well as to promote Northern acceptance of a Democratic South as an integral part of a reunited nation. Lamar had been seeking an opportunity to promote his views of reconciliation, but he feared the North was not disposed to listen to such appeals from a member of the traditional Southern ruling class, associated as it was with the former Confederacy. But Lamar’s eulogy of Sumner finally gave the former an excellent platform to put his ideas in front of Northerners. And in front of Southerners as well, though Lamar would have to be cautious in praising a person who had been so widely hated by most Southern whites. The speech Lamar gave was described by John A. Mayne as “a masterpiece of wirewalking.” The political risks were high enough that John F. Kennedy later deemed Lamar’s effort worth describing in Profiles in Courage, portraying Lamar’s speech as a brave and pathbreaking attempt at sectional reconciliation.[x]

File:Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II - Brady-Handy.jpg
Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, between 1870 and 1880. Library of Congress, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Lamar’s speech cleverly hailed Sumner as an advocate of North/South unity. To be sure, Sumner had promoted some ideas Lamar didn’t agree with (abolition of slavery, equal rights regardless of race), but Sumner held to those ideas with a dedication and courage worthy of respect even by opponents. Lamar claimed Sumner as an advocate of national unity, closing his eulogy by saying what he said Sumner himself would say: “My  countrymen! know one another, and  you  will love one  another.” As Lamar had hoped, this speech was publicized in the North, where it was widely heralded by numerous Americans eager for sectional reconciliation. Lamar’s Mississippi constituents put up with the speech’s praise of Sumner.[xi]

In the speech, the devil was in the details. Lamar brought up Sumner’s flag resolution as an example of the deceased’s commitment to binding up sectional wounds. Lamar politely disagreed with the resolution itself, however. The South “cannot but cherish the recollection” of their own struggle. “And respecting, as all true and brave men must respect, the martial spirit with which the men of the North vindicated the integrity of the Union, and their devotion to the principles of human freedom, they [Southerners] do not ask, they do not wish the North to strike the mementoes of her heroism and victory from either records or monuments or battle flags. They would rather that both sections should gather up the glories won by each section: not envious, but proud of each other, and regard them [as] a common heritage of American valor.” Americans should remember the war as “a war of ideas” in which each side bravely and sincerely held to its interpretation of the Constitution and of liberty.[xii]

To Lamar, Sumner’s vision of official oblivion for the Civil War was useful in showing the Massachusetts statesman’s conciliatory attitude toward the South. But Lamar did not share Sumner’s vision of officially forgetting the Civil War and emerging into a multiracial republic of equal rights. In Lamar’s contrasting vision, advanced while ostensibly honoring Sumner himself, memories of Confederate heroism would boost morale in a new, de-reconstructed South, while Southerners would not challenge the North’s celebrations of Union soldiers’ heroism. Keeping the battlefield honors of both sides would paradoxically provide a basis for unity, while sidelining racial questions. Lamar’s vision would for a long time prove more powerful than Sumner’s.

Neither vision seems to dominate today. Lamar’s wish to sideline race is seen less positively now. And instead of Sumner’s vision of official oblivion, there is plenty of official recognition of the soldiers of the Civil War and their sacrifices.


[i] “Sumner’s Flag Resolution,” New York Herald, February 21, 1873, p. 3; “Massachusetts Refuses to Rescind the Censure of Sumner,” The San Francisco Examiner, p.3; Donald, 565-66, 569-70; Chicago Evening Mail, March 20, 1873, p. 1; “Sumner’s Flag Resolution,” Knoxville Daily Chronicle, March 20, 1873, p. 1.

[ii] Donald, 572-73, 576-79; “Interesting from Sumner,” The Missouri Republican, May 14, 1873, p. 2.

[iii] Wathena Reporter, December 4, 1873, p. 2; Chicago Evening Post, November 21, 1873, p. 2; “Marking them down.”

[iv] “Sumner’s Patriotism,” New York Herald, January 31, 1874, p. 3.

[v] Donald, 583-84.

[vi] “Rescinded,” The Des Moines Register, February 12, 1874, p. 1; “The Sumner Resolutions,” Boston Post, February 14, 1874, p. 4; Ryan Hurst, “Joseph Bowen Smith (1813-1879),” June 11, 2008,; “Joshua Bowen Smith,”

[vii] “The Sumner Resolutions.”

[viii] Ibid; “Sumner’s Battle-Flag Resolution,” The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial, March 7, 1874, p. 1; “Sumner and the Battle Flag,” The Tennesean, March 14, 1874; “Charles Sumner,”

[ix] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “The Civil Rights Act of 1875,” The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. (December 1965), 763-775.

[x] James B. Murphy, L. Q. C. Lamar: Pragmatic Patriot (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 34-78, 106-120; John A. Mayne, “L. Q. C. Lamar’s ‘Eulogy’ of Charles Sumner: A Reinterpretation,” The Historian, Vol. XXII, No. 3 (May, 1960), 296-311 (“wirewalking” quote at 304); John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harper and Row, 1964 (memorial edition)), 172-83. Kennedy also profiled two other examples of Lamar’s courage: his acceptance of Rutherford B. Hayes as President, and his defense of hard money against the wishes of his constituents. See Kennedy, 183-97.

[xi] Edward Mayes, Lucius Q.C. Lamar: his life, times, and speeches. 1825-1893 (Nashville: Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South), 184-87; Mayne.

[xii] Mayes, Lamar, 186.



2 Responses to Charles Sumner and “the oblivion of past differences,” Part 2

  1. Yes, excellent research, very interesting.
    This Boston guy, in the pre-Internet era, drove through the Sumner Tunnel for years assuming it was named for Charles Sumner. My second guess would have been General Edwin Sumner…which also was wrong.
    It was named for a third Massachusetts Sumner, William H., who developed Noddle’s Island as an extension of Boston now known as East Boston, which connects to downtown Boston via the Tunnel.

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