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07.15.04 Sumner, Charles, a biography in 2 volumes by David Herbert Donald, published in 1960 and 1970 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Notes Concerning the Author:

David Herbert Donald (1920-2009) was born in Goodman, Mississippi and received his bachelor degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and went on to get his PhD, under noted Lincoln scholar James G. Randall, at the University of Illinois, in 1946.  “His dissertation eventually became his first book, Lincoln’s Herndon, which is also on the Society’s Recommended Reading List.  Following attainment of his PhD, Donald taught at Columbia University and Johns Hopkins.  Following the publication of his second volume on Sumner, Donald went to Harvard University, where he taught until retirement.  He died in 2009 at the age of 88 years.

Three of his books are on the Society’s Recommended Reading List: Lincoln’s Herndon (1948), Charles Sumner (1960 and 1970) and Lincoln (1996).


To understand the politics of political sectionalism that swept across the northern States between the early 1850’s and the 1860 election, and gave rise to the sectional Republican Party and the secession of seven States, four biographies are essential.  One is the biography of Stephen Douglas of Illinois (we recommend Johannsen’s of 1973).  Another is the biography of Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (we recommend Current’s of 1942).  The third is the biography of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois (we recommend three here — by Donald, by DiLorenzo and by Herndon), and the fourth is the Charles Sumner work discussed herein.

Charles Sumner (1811-1874) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Charles Pinckney Sumner.  The father ran a law practice that barely made a living for the family, although in later life he became the Sheriff, affording greater success.  The mother had worked as a seamstress prior to the marriage.  Young Charles attended Boston schools and then Harvard College, graduating in 1830, followed by Harvard Law School, graduating in 1834, and was admitted to the bar soon thereafter.

Sumner was neither diligent nor practical-minded in the practice of law and was never successful at it.  But he did make a name for himself when he borrowed money for a grand tour of Great Britain and Europe during 1837, and Donald’s account of those travels and the people he met is an eye-opening read.  From the outset Sumner was involved in political activity which focused on the emotional side of life.  There seemed not to be a cause in fashion that did not attract Sumner.  From the outset, his personality, which “real men” reading of his life would consider rather effeminate, predestined him to have no romantic inclinations.  He never married (oh, there would be one late in life that would last a few months) and he had no children.   

His big break came when the Massachusetts Free Soil Party aligned with the Massachusetts Democratic Party and divided up the spoils from the State elections of 1850.  The dominant Massachusetts party, the Whigs, had fallen one vote short of a majority in the State legislature and no candidate had won a majority in the race for Governor, thereby throwing that contest into the Legislature.   So Free Soilers and Democrats (two groups with very different agendas) agreed to combine their vote to elect a Democrat to the office of Governor and Charles Sumner to a 6-year Senate term.  If Massachusetts Whigs had won two more seats that year, how history would have been changed!

Charles Sumner went on to become the emotional, speech-making guru in the Federal Senate from April 1851 to his death in March 1874.  When the Free Soil Party men (never more than a small group) switched to the Republican Party in 1854, Sumner switched, too.  Sumner would never be a leader in the Senate in the style of the vote gather and the deal maker, for his personality inclined him toward the grand oration, published in scores of newspapers across the northern States.  His trip to Great Britain and Europe during 1837 inclined him toward the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and it was from that power base that he exerted his influence.

Sumner had no significant personal experience with the southern States or African American slavery, but was notably passionate about leading the fight to emancipate bonded African Americans in the southern States, this passion originating with his early role in the Free Soil Party.  Sumner loved to travel thousands of miles East to view Europe, but always seemed timid about traveling a few hundred miles South to view the other major section of the country in which he lived and about which he legislated. 

Following the Republican sweep in the 1860 election, Republicans held firm, and Sumner was dutifully cooperative, in refusing to accommodate Democrats from the Southern States, thereby giving seven States, as their voters saw it, no alternative to secession.

Donald’s first volume, published in 1860, concludes with Abe Lincoln’s efforts to incite Confederates to fire on Fort Sumter in April 1861.  Lincoln had kept that secret from all but his Cabinet, so Sumner had known nothing about it.  But when the news of the cannon fight arrived in Washington, Sumner went to Lincoln and expressed his hearty approval.  But Sumner knew little about war.

Donald’s second volume, published in 1970, continues the story through Sumner’s remaining life, concluding in 1874.  Of the two volume’s, the first seems more frank and truthful in presenting Sumner’s life.  The second gives you the feeling that pressures to be “politically correct” had become more influential.  Nevertheless, David Donald’s Mississippi roots held him reasonably close to the task of telling a truthful story of the man, even though he was writing from his offices in north-eastern universities.

You can find Sumner biographies by other historians, but we see no need to go to any work other than that of David Herbert Donald.

Availability of this Book

David Donald’s two volumes of his Charles Sumner biography can be obtained as print books, reprint books and as a Kindle e-book.  The two volumes can also be obtained as one thick paperback book.  Go to Amazon or similar sellers for offerings.