Where Was Charles Sumner? II
Bill Long 5/29/07
A Moving Account of Friendship and Loss
When Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater at about 10:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 1865, Charles Sumner was in Washington DC at the home of Senator John Conness of California. Conness (1821-1909) had been recently elected to the Senate (1863) and only would serve one term in the US Senate. Through Sumner's "pull" and friendship, he actually became one of Lincoln's pallbearers. So strong was the friendship of Conness and Sumner that Conness decided to move to Massachusetts after serving out his term in the Senate in 1869, and is buried in a cemetery in Dorchester, MA.
Upon hearing that Lincoln was shot, Sumner then rushed to the White House, then to Ford's theater, and finally to the house opposite the theater. He arrived there, according to Edward Lillie Pierce's Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner (p. 237), about half an hour after the President was shot, and he remained by the President's side until he died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865. Here is the unforgettable account of an eyewitness, printed in the April 15 issue of the New York Herald and mentioned in David Donald's second volume on Charles Sumner (pp. 214-17) as well as the Pierce work:
"Senator Sumner was seated on the right of the President's couch, near the head, holding the right hand of the President in his own. He was sobbing like a woman, with his head bowed down almost on the pillow of the bed on which the President was lying."
We also know that others were there--General Todd, Robert Lincoln, and Rufus Andrews, among others. The President's son, someone reported, was resting on the arm of Senator Sumner.
No wonder I remembered this quotation when I read it in 2006. Wouldn't you? Why wouldn't Debby Applegate have known this just from general knowledge of events around the end of the Civil War? Well, I can't answer that one, but I can say that she is incorrect--Charles Sumner wasn't in Charleston, SC during the day of Saturday, April 15, 1865, when Beecher and others were shopping for "relics" of the Civil War battles.
I don't want to pursue the subject of who else might not have been there with Beecher, but it did make me wary about where she got her information and why she had said this. Maybe she just put it in there knowing it was a mistake, hoping against hope that at least one of her glowing reviewers would have caught it. In that case she would be doubly clever--she not only wrote a brilliant book but cleverly slipped in an error here and there to see if her readers were alert.
A Few Other Errors or Imprecisions
So, I kept reading, becoming enchanted with many of her stories about Beecher and especially about family dynamics in the Beecher household. I was a little startled with her imprecision when she referred to "the Westminster Catechism" on p. 33, a catechism in which young Beecher was educated, because there were two Westminster Catechisms from the Westminster Assembly of 1643-48. She probably means the Shorter Catechism, since that was mostly used in the education of the young, but there was also the Larger Catechism, used primarily in the education of ministers, but still possibly used by the Beecher clan. So, which is it? Precision in historical fact narration doesn't mean that you have to tell me which questions of which catechism little Henry Ward was reciting, but a really good author would know how to pack a sentence with information that would not only tell me which catechism was in view, but also some interesting facts about such catechism or specific questions asked by the document. Instead of writing:
"Harriet Porter quizzed the children in the Westminster Catechism, a long series of questions and answers that laid out the Calvinist creed," (p. 33)
she could have said something like, "Harriet Porter daily (weekly?) quizzed the children in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), a 107-question and answer precis of Calvinism, covering everything from the decrees of God in creation and providence to an exposition of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer." Of course I have given a few more words than she has, but I am trying to go for a type of precision in writing that maximizes the knowledge creation and communication as one writes. That is, I think the great challenge for an author is to combine rich narrative texture and, at the same time, a fulness of precision and historical detail and to do so in such a way that the reader just swims pleasantly along in the narrative. I think that she has sacrificed precision in this instance in the hope of attaining a "flow."
One More Instance
Well, I don't want to belabor my criticisms too much, but I did notice, as I was reading, some numbers that just didn't seem right. In this last instance Ms. Applegate may not technically be making a mistake--she is just quoting someone who made a mistake without clarifying the numbers for us. When she tells the story of William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery anti-slavery orator and publisher, she refers to the adventitious character of his metoric rise in the anti-slavery world. He published the first issue of the Liberator in January 1831, just seven months before Nat Turner led a slave insurrection in Virginia. People, therefore, were "on edge," to say the least, regarding the slavery issue in 1831-1832. In 1832, then, Garrison published Fiery Thoughts on African Colonization, in which he attacked the wimpiness of those who started the American Colonization Society (begun by American Evangelicals in Dec. 1816 as a way of resettling Black slaves back in Africa, first in Sierra Leone and then in Liberia). Applegate tells it this way:
"Colonization was not only impractical, he argued (estimating that in fifteen years fewer than fifteen hundred blacks had been sent to Liberia, while the population of slaves was increasing at an annual rate of 150,000), but it was immoral..." (p. 106).
She should have made mention of the fact that these were Garrison's numbers and that, in fact, the actual numbers were quite different--even though the ACS's numbers were not appreciably different.
The "Real" Numbers
Even though the Colonization Society was chartered at the end of 1816, it took a while for them to get their work underway. From 1819-1829 (the only easily-accessible statistics I could find), the ACS sent back more than 2,600 Africa-Americans to Africa. It certainly isn't an impressive record, but Applegate ought to have set the record straight.
But the number that is more disconcerting is Garrison's characterization of the annual increase of the number of slaves in America. He says it increased at the rate of 150,000 per year. That didn't sound right to me. So I checked it out. Here are the statistics for the number of slaves in the United States from the national census of 1810, 1820, 1830, and 1840. Since Garrison was writing in 1832, the number of slaves in the decades after 1840 isn't relevant to the issue. Here is what I discovered:
In 1810 there were approximately 1,103,000 slaves in the US.
In 1820 there were approximately 1,509,000 slaves in the US.
In 1830 there were approximately 1,983,000 slaves in the US.
In 1840 there were approximately 2,481,000 slaves in the US.
Thus, the "official" numbers show that the increase of slaves held in the United States was about 400,000 in the decade of the 1810s (an average increase of 40,000 per year); 474,000 in the decade of the 1820s (about 47,000 per year) and about 500,000 in the 1830s (about 50,000 per year). Thus, Garrison's statistics, as you might imagine, skewed the numbers pretty dramatically, even though the actual numbers would also have made his case pretty well.
I am not so concerned with Garrison's skewing of the numbers. Advocates almost always read the data in a way that maximizes the numbers for their own benefits. But I am concerned that Debby Applegate didn't either put a footnote in the text or insert a clarifying comment that Garrison's numbers were off by a third or more in each instance.
She does know how to be precise and, apparently, precisely right. For example, on the page right after the Garrison information, she relates that Henry Ward Beecher's Amherst College Commencement was on August 27, 1834. I have no reason to doubt that she is correct, and I didn't go back to "check it out." Yet her imprecision in a few instances and mistake in one has made me a bit wary in reading her book. I am still caught up in the finely textured narrative and great insight she shows into human character and aspirations. But every time I see a number I tend to make sure it "adds up." I think I already do that to a small extent as a reader, but I am now doing so much more regularly with her. I guess I don't mind it, because it makes me a much more active reader. But this isn't the kind of active reading that she probably had in mind.