Chapter 27


He great senator paced the floor of the Senate chamber. It was a way he had. Restlessness had become a habit; walking was helpful to thought, and motion was at once ease and rest. For, ever since the brutal blow that struck him down, and the even more terrible ordeal of fire and pain through which skillful surgery brought him back to life, Charles Sumner could not long keep still.

The senior senator from Massachusetts was not exactly playful in disposition, though he did have a certain suggestion of humor and good-fellowship; but he had a way of rewarding the boy pages who ran errands in the Senate with appreciative pinches of the ear. Great great men and little great men sometimes use that method of showing appreciation for services rendered; it was one of Napoleon’s historic traits.

On this especial day in December, 1872, the great senator was on his feet, walking the floor, deep in thought; and as one of the smaller pages, a boy in whom he had shown considerable interest, returned with a reply to some message with which he had been entrusted, Sumner coupled his deep-toned thanks with the customary ear pinch. Then, lapsing again into




thought, he quite forgot to remove his fingers from the page’s ear.

The boy scarcely felt justified in calling out "Let go! " to the senator of whom all the pages and a good many grown-up people stood in such awe. So for some minutes the dignified Senate of the United States was highly amused to see its most illustrious although decidedly absent-minded member and a small but very wide-awake boy parading the floor of the Senate. But even though the senator pinched glad to remember his " close connection" with Senator Sumner?

That page remembered it certainly, and, years after, duly recorded it.

"As the senator was a tall man," he says, "and I was a very small boy in comparison, I had to walk on tiptoe to ease the pain, and even then it seemed as if my ear would come off my head. . . . With long strides



he mechanically paced up and down, while I danced a mild war dance for some minutes,—it seemed to me hours,—to the intense amusement of all who observed it. The more I struggled, the more did I increase the agony; but I at last managed to wriggle away from his grasp. The sudden emptiness of his hand caused him to realize the state of affairs, and he begged my pardon energetically, while the spectators smiled audibly."

It was a time of thoughtfulness in the great senator’s life. He had a duty on his mind; and Charles Sumner was never a man to neglect or shirk a duty.

The war had long been over. Distressing differences of opinion on questions of policy and statesmanship, on which he took the unpopular side, had alienated the supporters and disturbed the friends of the senator from Massachusetts, —differences with his old-time associates; differences with the great soldier who had served the republic as general, and was serving it, as he felt, along the line of duty, as President; above all, differences as to the right course of action toward those who, once in arms against the government, were now fellow-countrymen again, Americans all.

In January, 1869, Massachusetts, for the fourth time, had elected Charles Sumner her senior senator. The oldest senator of the United States in years of continuous service, he had become an historical figure, dignified, laborious, eloquent, faithful, great in all the things that make statesmanship and manhood.

But that fourth term of service had been full of difficulties and differences, and in no way more so than in the results attendant upon his attitude toward the South.



Charles Sumner was the champion of equal rights. But to him "equal" meant equal; "all men" meant all men; and while he labored to his dying day for civil rights" to all, white and black alike, his noble nature had no tinge of resentment, jealousy, prejudice, spite, or hate.

When, by criticism and cartoon, both alike reckless and brutal, those who dissented from his methods charged him, as they expressed it, with "placing flowers on the grave" of the man who struck him down, Sumner’s manly and indignant reply was, "What have I to do with that poor creature? It was slavery, not he, who struck the blow." And so he preached the great and Christian doctrine of peace and reconciliation. But in 1872 men were not yet ready to rise to that high and noble level, even though Charles Sumner was.

He openly proclaimed his demand for simple justice, forbearance, and equal rights. "From the beginning," he wrote to Whittier, poet of peace and freedom, "while insisting upon all possible securities and safeguards, I have pleaded for ‘reconciliation’! This word recurs frequently in my speeches. The South insisted that I was revengeful. Never! And now the time has come for me to show the mood in which I acted."

The time was ripe on that December day in 1872 when he quite forgot himself and the page who suffered under his appreciation. His mind was full of a great thought,—though to him it seemed as simple as truth.

Painfully he rose in his seat in the Senate chamber,— for the old wound still sapped his strength and vigor,— and asked leave to introduce a bill. It was this:



"WHEREAS, The national unity and good will among fellow-citizens can be assured only through oblivion of past differences, and it is contrary to the usages of civilized nations to perpetuate the memory of civil war; therefore, be it enacted that the names of battles with fellow-citizens shall not be continued in the Army Register, or placed on the regimental colors of the United States."

Magnanimity, forgiveness, charity, brotherly love, all virtues that Christianity inculcates and its mighty founder preached were in that simple resolution,—these, and, besides, the "usage of civilized nations."

But men had not yet learned to read aright the golden rule. There was a storm of dissent; a false patriotism broke into protest; there was criticism and clamor all over the North; and Massachusetts made a mighty mistake.

Boston had fallen a prey to disaster. The great fire of November, 1872, had destroyed business property to the value of eighty millions of dollars, and laid a great section of the old town in ruins. The whole world expressed its sympathy and offered aid. An extra session of the legislature had been called in view of this great disaster. It was a time for helpfulness and charity.

And yet, that very legislature of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, when it heard of the noble resolution introduced into Congress by its greatest senator, made wreck of a golden opportunity, went wild with rage, and, through the member from Athol, drafted and passed a resolution of censure, condemning that manly act of Charles Sumner as "an insult to the loyal soldiery



of the nation, depreciating their grand achievements in the late rebellion, and meeting the unqualified condemnation of the people of the commonwealth."

That was the mistake of Massachusetts, and bitterly has the commonwealth repented it. Its legislature, yielding to a supposed public opinion which was really only a thoughtless popular clamor, censured Charles Sumner, its champion for freedom and civil rights, himself the most notable victim of the evil which he had overthrown and was now ready to forgive and forget.

But Charles Sumner was not one to retreat. "I cannot comprehend this tempest," he wrote to his old friend and sympathizer, Wendell Phillips. "1 know I never deserved better of Massachusetts than now. It was our State which led in requiring all safeguards for liberty and equality; I covet for her that other honor of leading in reconciliation. First in civilization, Massachusetts must insist that our flags shall be brought into conformity with the requirements of civilization."

The tempest slowly spent itself. The better thought of the commonwealth rallied to the support of her great and noble senator. His wisdom and purpose were appreciated. In the very next session of the legislature a notable petition was presented, signed by soldiers and merchants, politicians and workingmen, black and white citizens alike, antislavery veterans and veterans of the victorious blue, asking that the resolutions of censure be rescinded and annulled. Patriots in other States appealed to Massachusetts for justice to her noblest man. But to no purpose. The ignoble resolution stood. The mistake was not yet retrieved.



Honorable men throughout the world condemned this monumental obstinacy. But Charles Sumner, too, remained firm. He knew that he was right, and, with him, to be right was greater than to be popular.

"Where is Massachusetts’s civilization?" he demanded. "Thus far our commonwealth has led in the great battle of liberty and equality. By the blessing of God, she shall yet lead again in smoothing the wrinkled front of war."

The months went by. Sober second thought came at last to those who opposed him, and in February, 1874, the legislature of Massachusetts put itself on record as regretting its mistake, and, by a great majority, rescinded the resolution of censure.

"The folly of the extra session of 1872 is wiped out thoroughly," wrote Whittier, joyfully.

A prominent negro of Boston, the lifelong friend of Sumner, hastened to Washington with the official news, and presented copies of the action of Massachusetts to her representatives at the capital. The senator’s victory was complete. But his only words were: "I have nothing to say. The dear old commonwealth has spoken for me, and that is enough."

The word of Massachusetts came just in time. The day on which its rescinding resolution was announced to the Senate of the United States was Charles Sumner’s last day in the Senate, of which he had so long been a member. It was his last day on earth.

The very next day he died, the 11th of March, 1874. A son of the republic, a son of the commonwealth, his duty on earth was done. Almost his last



words were to his friend Judge Hoar of Massachusetts, still thinking of his life work: "Take care of my bill, my Civil Rights Bill." Then the last breath passed; and Judge Hoar, who held his friend’s hand, laid it tenderly down, and said solemnly: "Well done, good and faithful servant: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!"