Book Review: The Great Abolitionist: Charles Sumner and the Fight for a More Perfect Union

The Great Abolitionist: Charles Sumner and the Fight for a More Perfect Union. By Stephen Puleo. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2024. Hardcover, 464 pp. $32.00.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

Over fifty years after the second of David Herbert Donald’s two-volume biography of Massachusetts senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner rolled off the presses, a new examination of the Bay State’s famous political son is now available. Author and historian Stephen Puleo’s The Great Abolitionist: Charles Sumner and the Fight for a More Perfect Union joins a relatively recent resurgence of abolitionist profiles and studies. Fresh looks at the lives of Frederick Douglass, Owen Lovejoy, Elijah Lovejoy, James Montgomery, and others, as well as studies covering fractures in the abolitionist community, abolitionist schools and colleges, and the post-emancipation lives of abolitionists, are all informing and reminding us about the important part this rather small, but extremely visible and vocal population played in the Civil War-era’s politics of change.

Puleo is not a novice when it comes to the life of Charles Sumner. One of his previous books, The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War (Westholme Publishing, 2012), thoroughly examines the backgrounds of Sumner and his assailant, South Carolina Congressman Preston Smith Brooks, the May 25, 1856 attack on the US Senate floor, and its repercussions. However, with The Great Abolitionist, Puleo obviously gives Sumner the full spotlight.

Divided into five parts and offering a prologue, 41 chapters, and epilogue, the book covers a tremendous amount of ground over its 404 pages of content text. Crafting Sumner’s life story around his efforts to create equal opportunities for Black Americans and his political work to end slavery in the United States, Puleo dates Sumner’s first exposure to slavery to a trip to Washington D.C. in 1834 at age 23 after completing this studies at Harvard Law School. Throughout the book Puleo injects events connected to race and slavery that shaped Sumner and his thinking and how he in turn influenced American policy and politics once he became a Massachusetts senator in 1851.

Puleo skillfully covers Charles Sumner’s extensive efforts and accomplishments on behalf of racial equality—before, during, and after the Civil War. Some of Sumner’s labors came with extreme physical pain, as witnessed with the previously mentioned Brooks assault, others left him alienated from friends, political associates, and family members. For example, Sumner argued for the racial integration of Massachusetts schools in 1849. In doing so, Puleo explains that “Sumner’s stirring argument was the first great charter drawn up for the entitlement of blacks to equal education—yet it was far more than that. The phrase equality before the law had entered into the American lexicon and, for the first time, offered a heretofore unimagined promise for equality for all citizens in every walk of life. (76) Soon after gaining a senate seat, Sumner also vehemently opposed the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law that had already and would continue to roil his home state and native city with early cases like Shadrach Minkins and Thomas Sims, and later ones like Anthony Burns. Through it all Sumner remained committed to the idea of a more perfect Union through equality.

Sumner’s efforts to contain slavery as a means of ultimately destroying it led to much personal grief. While Puleo does not go into extensive depth on the Brooks Affair—after all that is previously tilled ground for him—he does cover Sumner’s recovery from the beating, his attempts to return to his senate duties, and the many claims against him that he was making political capital by staying away from his seat. Puleo explains that the few friends that Sumner could claim helped sustain him in his toughest times. Despite Sumner’s seemingly social awkwardness and “inabililty or unwillingness to relax and engage in pleasant conversation or good-natured banter,” he had a handful of steadfast friends, including Henry Wadsworth and Frances Longfellow, whom he could truly count on. (26)

The senator’s accomplishments during the Civil War, including his deft diplomatic efforts in the Trent Affair, almost constant pressure on the Lincoln administration to end slavery in the Capital and with a general emancipation proclamation as a war measure, and his push for the Thirteenth Amendment all receive proper coverage. As does Sumner’s post-war career through Reconstruction, a failed marriage in his mid-fifties, and work on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which passed the year after his death.

Written for a popular audience, The Great Abolitionist does not contain customary citations with footnote or endnote references that one often finds in histories. Rather, Puleo offers a bibliographic essay, explaining that “this approach is more appealing—and revealing—than traditional bibliography and notes sections in which sources are simply listed.” (409) A thorough index helps readers find subject topics easily. However, the inclusion of images would have benefited a book that mentions many personalities, a number of whom are probably unfamiliar by sight to readers.

All in all, The Great Abolitionist is a welcome addition to the abolitionist historiography. Updating Sumner’s biography with sources and interpretations that have emerged since Dr. Donald’s two-volumes a half century ago clarifies and reemphasizes Sumner’s importance to American politics during the nation’s most trying era.

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