Charles Sumner III (1811-1874)
Bill Long 8/8/05
After the Civil War
Insufferably vain, unremittingly pugilistic, willing to take on larger and larger political opponents until he became, in the words of one commentator, the most powerful man in Washington save Lincoln during the Civil War, Charles Sumner continued his outspoken ways on the floor of the US Senate. Critical of Lincoln for his moderate stance, disdainful of Johnson for his prevarications, Sumner's "day," if it could be so denominated, came in the 39th Congress which set up shop during the first week of December, 1865. A supine South had been invited back into the Union by President Johnson, himself a Southerner (TN), but the Radical Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens in the House refused to recognize the representatives of those states. Paradoxically, these Southern states, all of which, except Mississippi, eagerly voted at the behest of Johnson in Fall 1865 to adopt the 13th Amendment--outlawing slavery--were not able to vote on any legislation in the next two Congresses. Not until they ratified the 14th Amendment, in 1868 or 1870, would the Southern states be let back into the Union and to the halls of Congress.
Without the Southerners and their canes to stick in his craw or grace his skull, Sumner vigorously and with less opposition pursued a plan in 1865 that surprisingly looks like the shape of Congressional civil rights legislation over the next decade. Though he was not a part of the 15-member Joint Committee on Reconstruction, out of which came the wording of the 14th Amendment, he was a looming presence behind, and in front of, all scenes in those days.
Even before President Johnson addressed the legislature at the outset of the 39th Congress, Sumner saw to it that his proposals for equal rights were already introduced on the floor. This essay will present one of those proposals, noting, where space permits, the language or ideas that will become part of our legal culture.
Sumner's Proposal on Restoration of the Rebel States
He introduced the following measure, which had lain over from an earlier session. The preamble, too long to quote here, explained that there were five non-negotiable steps the South had to take to be readmitted to the Union. They were:
"(1)The complete reestablishment of loyalty, as shown by an honest recognition of the unity of the Republic, and the duty of allegiance to it at all times, without mental reservation or equivocation of any kind."
Comment: This "loyalty oath" was required, to a lesser extent, by Lincon as early as 1863 and by the Davis-Wade bill in 1864. Since this had to "pass" in the affected states, Sumner was asking for a 51% margin expressing loyalty. This requirement eventually "morphed" into state acceptance of the 14th Amendment. Notice the last phrase--I think I heard Demi Moore or Tom Cruise or someone like that use these words in a movie. As a result, most of my fellow moviegoers surely thought Moore and Cruise were very eloquent.
"(2) The complete suppression of all oligarchical pretensions, and the complete enfranchisement of all citizens, so that there shall be no denial of rights on account of color or race; but justice shall be impartial, and all shall be equal before the law."
My goodness, this was the focus of the 15th Amendment (ratified 1870), but the promise of it was not realized until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yesterday there were marches in the street to urge Congressinal reauthorization of the VRA. A very contemporary issue indeed. And, note the last phrase. This is a harbinger of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the most celebrated Constitutional clause of the 20th century.
"(3) The rejection of rebel debt, and at the same time the adoption, in just proportion, of the national debt and the national obligations to Union soldiers, with solemn pledges never to join in any measure, direct or indirect, for their repudiation, or in any way tending to impair the national credit."
All you have to do is study Sec. 4 of the 14th Amendment, a section that few know and no one cites, to see that Sumner's thought, if not his precise words, is represented there. I have never seen a study that shows how the South "assumed" the debt of the US, but I assume it meant that a pro-rata share of national indebtedness would be taxed to them. As for the last phrase, we would also have to wait for modern Congresses to do that.
"(4) The organization of an educational system for the equal benefit of all without distinction of color or race."
If in some of the other articles Sumner was being progressive or politically astute, in this one he was being visionary and even prophetic. An educational system for the equal benefit of all, without racial distinction, is still a desideratum in the United States. This principle, as most know, was submerged under the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessey v. Ferguson of the late 1890s and became the clarion call behind probably the most significant Supreme Court decision of the 20th Century, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As young people would say today, "Hey, that Charles Sumner, he really rocks!"
"(5) The choice of citizens for office, whether State or national [my comment--interesting that the Congressional Globe capitalizes "State" and not "national"], of constant and undoubted loyalty, whose conduct and conversation shall give assurance of peace and reconciliation."
This language of Sec. 4 of the 14th Amendment is different, but the concept is very similar.
You can draw your own lessons from Sumner's speech and resolution as you choose. As for me, however, the major lesson I draw is that it sometimes the very best insights in life come after midnight and from 140 year-old documents buried deep in obscure books. And, that sometimes (correct that, almost always) these documents give me a much better feel for the texture of the times than "official" or "standard" secondary treatments. Turn to the sources yourself, if you have the courage.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long