Learning About Charles Sumner, Thinking About 19th Century America

SumnerI went to a talk tonight about Charles Sumner, who we all know from the caning incident (which is unfortunately how we tend to know him). He was a passionate abolitionist, was unafraid to speak out against the slave-owners who sat next to him in the Senate, and apparently was a good friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The two of them were friends for over thirty years, and exchanged critiques, Sumner to Longfellow about his poetry, Longfellow to Sumner about his speeches. Sumner himself might have had literary/writing aspirations as well, which explains the close friendship.

I didn’t take notes, so I don’t have a mini-bio for you on Charles Sumner; they’re all things you can find on the internet anyhow. But I have to say that 1850s America, especially 1850s Boston, was an interesting place. You had five canon books written during that time (Walden, Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, Scarlet Letter, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). You had the nation starting to split apart at the seems over slavery. You had states threatening to leave. You had abolitionists clashing with anti-slavery advocates, who wanted to send everyone to Liberia. You had the Fugitive Slave Act pass (nuff said). You also had free African American citizens have voting rights in Boston when the Irish were villianized and couldn’t even get jobs. You had (as I found out tonight) Henry David Thoreau helping one of John Brown’s raiders escape to freedom. You had Transcendentalism, essentially the first American philosophical system. You had the rise of Unitarianism and the decrease of Calvinism. And you had Brooks beating Sumner in the Senate with a cane and getting congratulated. Oh, and then the Civil War happened.

The politics and current events of this period are something that I know I need to learn more about (I was at the Union Oyster House a few months back, and someone asked, “Who was Daniel Webster?” and I have to pull out my phone to Google. Yikes.). You can’t study the authors of a time period without being acutely aware of the culture they inhabited, the politics going on, the societal dynamics around them. I know the merry band of Concord writers liked to keep themselves in Concord, and unlike today, they would have been less affected and aware (no Twitter in 1850), but they still would have known the climate of the time. I’m lacking in 1840s/1850s socio-political context, but I hope to gain that knowledge in the near future. Charles Sumner seems like an interesting guy to start with.

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