Skip to main content

Eulogy for Charles Sumner: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on March 16, 1874



Washington National Republican, 17 March 1874.

On the evening of 16 March 1874 the “most prominent of Washington’s
colored citizens” gathered at the Sumner School for a memorial service for
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who had died on 11 March. John
F. Cook presided, as he had at the arrangements meeting held on 12 March at
Union League Hall, where Douglass also spoke briefly on his friend’s life.
Along the walls of the school’s auditorium, which were draped in mourning,
were quotations and inscriptions commemorating Sumner’s political career,
and behind the platform hung a crayon portrait of the senator. After the
invocation, the school choir sang a hymn and the mourners unanimously
adopted resolutions summing up Sumner’s commitment to full civil rights for
black Americans. The Reverend J. Sella Martin delivered the first eulogy,
followed by Congressman James T. Rapier, A. M. Green, P. B. S. Pinchback,
Daniel A. Straker, Douglass, and Congressman Richard Harvey Cain. At the
conclusion of Cain’s brief remarks, Martin announced, on behalf of the
building’s trustees, that the Sumner School would “hereafter be known as the
Sumner Memorial Hall.” The service concluded with the singing of “Nearer,
My God, to Thee” and the benediction. Washington National Republican, 13
March 1874; Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, 13 March 1874; NNE, 19
March 1874.

He was here to pronounce no formal eulogy upon Charles Sumner, but to
make one of a vast procession of mourners on the day when his dust had
been committed to the soil of his native State amid extraordinary tokens of
sorrow of those who know him well and loved him extremely.

Mr. Sumner’s character was remarkable and singular within our day
and generation. It has been well said of him that he was in some sense a
theorist, and he thought this class of greatness was the highest. One of the
proudest minds of New England has said there are three grades of human
greatness—first, the greatness of administration; second, that of organiza-
tion; but a higher form still is the power to discover truth—to know just
where it may be found.1Douglass briefly summarizes Theodore Parker's evaluation of greatness as discussed in the introductory section of his sermon marking the death of John Quincy Adams in 1848. Theodore Parker, Historic Americans, ed. Samuel A. Eliot (Boston, 1908), 204-12. In this Mr. Sumner excelled. All the distance
between man’s mind and God’s mind is filled with truths, to be organized


into forms of human aid. Truths which to us are self-evident, known and
spoken by our children at school and the fireside, has cost immensely in
feeling and suffering. Truth is born of agony, sweat, tears and blood. Man's
right to form his own opinions, to think for himself, what has not this right
to think cost? Go back but three centuries, and you view men torn to pieces
for asserting their right to think—the flesh torn from the bones—men and
women tied with fagots and burnt up for asserting this right.2An allusion to the Spanish Inquisition.

Now take this right of the black man to his freedom—very plain, it
seems. What was the great truth for which Sumner struggled, and made his
name dear to every colored man’s heart? Simply that each individual man
belongs to himself—that his arms, his conscience, and his affections are
his; and yet for asserting this but a few years ago our deceased friend was
struck down beneath the dome of yonder Capitol, and his warm red blood
made to stain the floor supposed to be sacred to freedom of speech.

Mr. Sumner has been accused of being unpractical. The speaker had
once mentioned this to him, and he unraveled the whole mystery. He said to
prepare the Senate to vote was the work, the vote was only the shout of
victory. His mission was to rock the cradle of principles until they were able
to stand and walk alone. He was far in the advance when the hour for voting
came—he had been to that point and gone on. He could not attempt his
eulogy, here; notwithstanding his efforts for the fugitive slave bill, and his
work to save the virgin soil of Kansas from the hell-born, black curse of
slavery, the speaker thought Mr. Sumner’s best work for us was after the
close of the late war, when there was a cry to reconstruct the rebellious
State governments.

He opposed every step towards reconstruction without a full, clear,
complete recognition of the rights of the colored man. He chided Mas-
sachusetts for her haste, and his voice did more to reconstruct the Union on
a true basis than that of any other man in the United States. He sympathized
with the beautiful types of the former speakers, but held that there is a
rainbow over the chasm made by the death of our friend; the stone crashes
amid the solid rock below; the principle still lives though the man has died.
The man is now living who will seize the banner laid down by Charles
Sumner and lead us to higher plains of privilege. Massachusetts has no
second Charles Sumner, but were he to select a man to tread in his footsteps
he could find a champion of liberty still living, and though she has lost
Charles Sumner she has a Wendell Phillips.


Were he an office seeker he might suppress what he now said. He had
one regret about his relations to Charles Sumner, one cause of complaint
against himself—when the Presidential campaign was upon us, having the
opportunity, he did not place the name of Charles Sumner at the head of the
column of names.3The “opportunity” to which Douglass alludes may be the meeting of the New York Electoral College on 3-4 December 1872 in Albany. The state Republican convention, meeting at Utica on 21 August, nominated Douglass by acclamation to be a presidential elector-at-large. Douglass, who throughout the campaign of 1872 ignored his own unsought nomination for vice president by the National Radical Reformers' (People's) party headed by Victoria Woodhull, cast his votes, as did the other thirty-four members of the electoral college, for U. S. Grant and Henry Wilson. The electors appointed Douglass as the messenger to deliver the ballots to the president of the U.S. Senate. Proceedings of the New York Electoral College, Held at the Capitol in the City of Albany, December 3d and 4th, 1872 (Albany, 1873); Bangor (Me.) Daily Whig and Courier, 23 August 1872; Washington National Republican, 24 August 1874; Lutz, Created Equal, 219-20; Quarles, FD, 263-65, 267. He regretted and ever should regret that, as a colored
man, he did not lift his name aloft among the broken fetters of four million
slaves, and, shaking those fetters, demand that we lift the man who broke
them to the first place of the nation.

The speaker said he was not one of the forgetting and forgiving kind.
What was Millard Fillmore compared with Charles Sumner in his connec-
tion with the fugitive slave law? History is given us for a purpose.

Fillmore represents at Buffalo the old dispensation when this land was
the hunting grounds for slaves—the dispensation of the lash and the blood-
hound. He is gone; how tame, how limited, how narrow is the stream of
feeling awakened by his death, though he filled the Presidential chair.4Former president Millard Fillmore died in Buffalo, New York, on 8 March 1874. DAB, 6: 380.

Here is a man gone who represented the coming time. Mr. Sumner took
hold of our cause when no man loved us, and has made himself glorious in
the eyes of all Christendom.

We need not stand here to talk, for it is only talk. Words are vain; we go
away from this place feeling how utterly worthless are all our utterances.
We feel as if we had been looking at Niagara, listening to heaven’s pealing
thunder and yet dare not venture a description of it.

Mr. Sumner had wrought a work that will be his monument through all
generations. With all his greatness he was eminently childlike, especially
when dealing with colored men; and while he could stand up against a
Brooks, Keitt and Clay,5Preston Brooks, Lawrence Keitt, and Henry Clay. Born in Orangeburg District, South Carolina, Lawrence Massillon Keitt (1824-64) graduated from South Carolina College (University of South Carolina) and practiced law before serving in the state legislature (1843-52). Radically proslavery, Democrat Keitt sat in the U.S. House of Representatives from 4 March 1853 until 16 July 1856, when he resigned after the House censured him for attempting to prevent interference during Preston Brooks's caning of Sumner on 22 May 1856. Promptly reelected and reseated on 6 August 1856, Keitt left Congress in December 1860. He served in the South Carolina secession convention and in the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy before raising and commanding the Twentieth South Carolina Regiment in 1862. Mortally wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia (1-3 June 1864), he was a brigadier general at the time of his death. David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, 1960), 296, 308; BDAC, 1217; DAB, 10: 294. and breast the torrent of a pro-slavery press, and


these would touch him nowhere, let a colored man drop a word of gratitude
in his ear, and it went straight to his heart and made his face as childlike as
that of the babe dandled on the knee.

We do well to be here this evening; these meetings do us credit, which
no other meetings have ever done us.

The New York Tribune, in noticing the past, brands the colored man
with ingratitude for not following Mr. Sumner in voting for Mr. Greeley.
He never shared this reproach; he believed that the colored men had sense
enough and devotion enough to do what they thought to be right.

When the Presidential nomination was a matter of doubt, there was
great mystery about what he thought and would do. Many have since
censured him, but he must share his censure. The speaker seized the
opportunity to call his attention to the fact that he had been over-ruled by
his party, and advised him to wrap his Senatorial robes around him and be
inactive—not to help our enemies.6In the wake of the Grant-Sumner split over the issue of annexing Santo Domingo, Senate supporters of the president sought to strip Sumner of his powerful position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. James W. Nye of Nevada warned in January 1871 that Sumner intended “to hand this Administration over into the hands of the enemy [the Democrats]," while Senators Roscoe Conkling and Zachariah Chandler argued that Sumner had already taken an antiadministration stance “more bitter than has proceeded from any Democratic member of this body." Secretary of State Hamilton Fish also supported removing Sumner from the committee, an action that was accomplished in March 1871 when the Senate accepted the Republican caucus's decision to reassign Sumner to the new Committee on Privileges and Elections. Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 3d sess., 241-42, 246; Donald, Sumner and the Rights of Man, 475-97.

For some weeks it looked as if the Greeley party would go into power,
and he (the speaker) withdrew his advice formerly tendered and said that he
would rejoice if he could only speak his words for General Grant, but that if
he could not go for us to go for Greeley, for a neutral position was the worst
possible one, for both himself and the colored race. The speaker believed in
General Grant then and believed in him now. Mr. Sumner said the only
thing which caused him any hesitation was the prospect of the coalition
party upon the interests of the colored race.7Although opposed to Ulysses S. Grant's reelection in 1872, Sumner hesitated in endorsing the Liberal Republican candidate, Horace Greeley, partly because of the lack of support for his civil rights legislation by Liberal Republicans and their Democratic supporters. Not until after the Democratic National Convention on 9 July also nominated Greeley and pledged to protect the rights of all citizens did he publicly announce his preference for Greeley. In a letter of 29 July 1872 to black citizens of Washington, D.C., he attempted to block fears of the Democratic support of Greeley by emphasizing that they “have accepted the Cincinnati [Liberal Republican] platform with its . . . promises, and intend in good faith to maintain it. Democrats cannot turn back." Charles Sumner: His Complete Works, 20: 186; Donald, Sumner and the Rights of Man, 544-55. The help of our race was in
this, as in all other events of his life, his guiding star.


It was meet and right to sing of him and speak of him in loving words
on all occasions, for he was our friend—more devoted to the colored man’s
interests than the colored men themselves. This is philosophical; the re-
deemer always comes from heaven. The reformed man never has the purity
of one who never has fallen. A man who handles a grubbing-hoe will
hardly feel a cambric needle if put in his hand. Living in the heaven of
liberty, nursed and cultured in beauty and tenderness all his life, Charles
Sumner had a deeper sense of our wrongs and a purer appreciation of our
rights than we could have. Frequently has he stood in the Senate and
demanded rights for us which we said we were not ready to accept.

Excelsior has been our motto; but the more Charles Sumner got for us
the more he wanted for us. Each higher level he brought us to only prepared
us for another still higher. There are coming up from the North, South, East
and West men who will speak mightier words than any yet spoken.

All might well speak on an occasion like this. Let us go home and teach
our children the name of Charles Sumner; tell them his utterances, and
teach them that they, like him, can make their lives sublime by clinging to
principles. While stars were falling all around us Charles Sumner shone
brightly, untainted by corruption—pure, spotless, stainless. When men of
the Young Men’s Christian Association were going down, this great man
kept his skirts clear.8Though the Young Men's Christian Association claimed to serve the religious needs of all men regardless of race, local chapters in fact practiced segregation. C. Howard Hopkins, History of the Young Men's Christian Association in North America (New York, 1951), 211-20. We commend his as the model.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


March 16, 1874


Yale University Press 1991



Publication Status