Charles Sumner in Reconstruction: History & Explanation

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the role of Senator Charles Sumner in Reconstruction. Learn more about the senator's fight for equality and civil rights, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Senator Charles Sumner

Sumner's Views on Slavery and Equality

Members of the United States Senate watched in horror as Charles Sumner lay bleeding on the Senate floor on May 21, 1856. The Massachusetts senator and abolitionist absorbed a beating from South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks that nearly killed him. Butler took exception to Sumner's speech two days earlier in which Sumner argued that Kansas should enter the Union as a free state. It took three years for Sumner to recover, but the incident did nothing to soften Sumner's outspoken views on abolishing slavery. When the Civil War ended in 1865 and Reconstruction began, Sumner led the Radical Republicans in their push for nothing less than total equality for African Americans. Over the 12 years of Reconstruction, Sumner led the effort to establish laws to help African Americans assimilate into a society dominated by whites.

Freedmen's Bureau

On one hand, ex-slaves who were suddenly granted freedom were overjoyed. On the other hand, there was some fear and confusion about what would happen next. Many wondered where they would live and work or where their children would go to school. Most ex-slaves could not read a contract or sign their names because it had been illegal to teach them to read and write. Sumner realized this and introduced a bill in June 1864 that would create a bureau to be 'a bridge from slavery to freedom.' The Freedmen's Bureau was created in March 1865. It was only supposed to exist for a year but Congress renewed the program in 1866. Despite lack of support from white Southerners and inadequate funding, the program provided food, medical care, legal assistance, and schools for millions of African Americans before it ended in 1872.

13th and 14th Amendments

On February 8, 1864, Sumner proposed a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. He added that African Americans should be granted equal rights but the version of the amendment that passed did not include that provision. Still, slavery was abolished when the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865. Sumner also helped draft the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. It overturned the Dred Scott Decision, which ruled that neither slaves nor their descendants were citizens. The amendment's clause that says states cannot 'deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws' sounds very similar to what Sumner said in December 1865. He proposed a loyalty oath for former Confederate states that included the phrase 'all men shall enjoy equal protection and equal rights.' When the 14th Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868, Sumner declared the government was now 'the custodian of freedom.'

Sumner and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Sumner and President Andrew Johnson had vastly different views about Reconstruction. Johnson believed that the federal government was only responsible for keeping peace and preventing further rebellion. He also favored leniency for the Confederate states, which infuriated Sumner. He believed that the South was conquered land and that the government had the right to force compliance with federal laws. Sumner wanted Johnson out of office and nearly got his wish when Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from his cabinet without approval from Congress. This was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act and Sumner led the call for impeachment. Johnson was impeached on February 4, 1868. At his trial, Sumner spared no words in his criticism of the president, calling him 'the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power.' In May, Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote.

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