HOW THE HIGH SHERIFF’S PROPHECY CAME
The high sheriff of Suffolk County in the commonwealth
of Massachusetts, as became such a high official of that State, believed
in three things, —law, liberty, and order. Two things he hated above all
others,—rum and slavery. One thing he was pledged to absolutely,—equal
rights for all.
And when he saw how the error of ownership in men was
stirring the people of the land to wrangling and strife, he looked down
upon his solemn little nine-year-old son and said to him solemnly:
"Some day our children’s heads will be broken on this slavery
How really prophetic this utterance of the high sheriff
of Suffolk was history has recorded. It came true with startling nearness
to his own flesh and blood. It was his son who, thirty-six years after,
was to make that prophecy true, as on the floor of Congress he fell
stricken down, his head literally broken by the champion of the cause
which father and son alike had battled. For the high sheriff of Suffolk
County in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, in the year 1820,
was Charles Pinckney Sumner, and his
nine-year-old son was that Charles Sumner whom men now honor as the
foremost statesman of the Civil War period, the great senator from
He was the schoolmate and college mate of Wendell Phillips. Like
Phillips, handsome and well-bred, a scion of the "blue blood"
of Boston,—like Phillips, too, a brilliant lawyer, a powerful speaker,
and a logical thinker,—he might have
made himself selfishly rich in his profession.
Instead, he preferred principle to profit, and his first public
appearance, in 1846, was at Faneuil Hall, like that of Wendell Phillips,
at a meeting presided over by that heroic old champion of equal rights,
John Quincy Adams, to protest against sending back into slavery a
captured fugitive slave.
Freedom is national; slavery is sectional." That
was the central thought of all Charles Sumner’s splendid utterances.
It was the truth he proclaimed for forty years. It was the keynote to
the first articles he published in 1841, to the first speech he made in
Congress, and to all the appeals and arguments, the orations, speeches,
and public acts, that filled his days from that first speech in Faneuil
Hall to the final triumph of the cause he so nobly championed.
But that devotion to principle made the prophecy of his father, the
high sheriff of Suffolk, come true, and well-nigh wrought his death.
In Massachusetts the opposition to the extension of slavery in the
republic broke in pieces the old Whig
party, which succeeded to Sam
Adams’s Revolutionary party and George Washington’s Federalist
party, and which was said to take its odd name from the first four
letters of its motto: " We Hope In God." Out of some of these
pieces was formed first the Liberty party of 1840, and then, in 1848,
the Free-soil party—the forerunners of the great Republican party that
came into power with Abraham Lincoln.
This Free-soil party Charles Sumner helped to form.
It sent him to Congress as a senator from Massachusetts in i8~o, and
kept him there until the day of his death, long after the Free-soilers
had become Republicans.
In Congress he represented Massachusetts grandly; but
still more did he represent liberty and that growing conscience of the
republic which finally proclaimed equal rights to all. He was no
extremist, like Wendell Phillips, who was sometimes very nearly a
fanatic in his actions as an agitator, and said things unwise and
seemingly unpatriotic. Charles Sumner was, above all, an American, and
so true and high-reaching an American that often his own countrymen
misunderstood and misjudged him, because he was restless under anything
that seemed to limit American ideals or stain American honor. His faith
was founded on the Declaration of Independence; his desire was a right
reading of the Constitution.
So at forty Charles Sumner became a senator of the
United States. A grand and impressive figure, his very first speech was
the expression of his belief: "Freedom is national; slavery is
For sixteen years he kept that truth before his col
leagues and the country, defying
in an unfriendly Senate the whole force of the slavery power.
He stood his ground manfully. Nothing dismayed,
nothing disheartened him. Unruffled by detraction, i unharmed by
sarcasm, unmoved by threats, he maintained his position,
and kept up the fight, stern, solid, unyielding,
determined, a strong and sure bulwark of the cause he championed,—"
the noblest contribution made by Boston and Massachusetts to the
antislavery cause," as has well been said.
Those were the days of arrangement and compromise,
when less determined men than Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner were
ready to do anything, concede anything, to avoid trouble. And thus the
South got all the benefits, and slavery grew.
But when at last, in violation of constitutional
rights and solemn agreements, it was attempted to settle the newly
organized Territory of Kansas as a slave State, then Charles Sumner
boldly threw down the gage of battle, with the life of Kansas as the
prize. " The
issue is before us," he exclaimed, with an earnestness that aroused
both friend and foe. "To every man in the land it says with clear,
penetrating voice: ‘Are you for freedom or are you for slavery? ‘
Massachusetts was deeply interested in this now
historic event,—the settlement of Kansas. The freemen of the
commonwealth determined to~ make the new Territory a free State.
Colonization societies were formed, and emigration and colonization
schemes were fostered.
While Massachusetts, with men and money, was help-
ing the cause of freedom in
Kansas, Charles Sumner in Congress was doing his part by argument,
speech, and vote.
His efforts culminated in his famous two-day speech,
in May, 1856, known from its subject as the "
Crime against Kansas."
It depicted in strong, unsparing language the wrong
against freedom wrought by the slave power in America, especially in the
new Territory of Kansas, solemnly pledged to freedom. The speech was
pitiless in its invectives and personalities,—" the severe and
awful truth which the sharp agony of the nation demanded," said the
gentle but determined and liberty-loving Whittier.
It told the truth;
it was unanswerable. It was not answered by words; but one Preston S.
Brooks of South Carolina, who was a member of the House of
Representatives, and a relative of one whom Sumner had there personally
arraigned, was stung to madness by the speech of the Massachusetts
senator, and vowed vengeance. He strode into the Senate cham
ber, and, while Sumner sat bent
over his desk, absorbed in letter-writing, Brooks fell upon him, and
with a heavy cane savagely and relentlessly beat the unprotected man
over the head until, stunned and bleeding, Charles Sumner fell senseless
to the floor.
Thus was the high sheriff’s prophecy fulfilled. But
Kansas became a free State. May Kansas never forget at what a cost to
Massachusetts her birthright was assured!
Sumner, after years of untold agony and suffering,
recovered. But the blow that struck him down awoke the whole land~ to
action, and started the movement toward protest and assertion that
finally crowned with triumph the long struggle for equal rights.
The attack on Charles Sumner stirred Massachusetts to
its center. Indignation meetings were held throughout the commonwealth,
and, as was said by Henry Wilson, the other Massachusetts senator, and
later Vice-President of the United States, "Of the twelve hundred
thousand people of Massachusetts, you cannot find in the State one
thousand, administration office holders included, who do not look with
loathing and execration upon the outrage on the person of their senator
and the honor of their State." Massachusetts at once voted to
assume all the expenses of its great senator’s illness; but Sumner,
when he heard of this action, as promptly declined the honor.
"Whatever Massachusetts can give," he said, "let it all
go to suffering Kansas."
Charles Sumner, during his torturing illness, was
overwhelmingly reelected to the Senate; and during his four years of
absence his vacant seat was Massachusetts’s
eloquent testimony to his
sacrifice; for the great senator, as Tacitus said of a similar vacant
seat in the Senate of old Rome, "was the more conspicuous because
But he returned at last to do valiant service. And
for fourteen years longer, until his death in 1874, he stood boldly for
Massachusetts as her most honored senator, the sagest head—saving
always the mighty Lincoln—in the councils of the nation which he had,
at such a cost, helped into greatness and freedom as the wisest,
noblest, grandest champion of the equality of man before the law.