HOW THE BAY STATE READ THE GOLDEN
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
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
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:
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!"