My fifth greatest American appears briefly in the new Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln. At the time of the movie, Charles Sumner had already led the passage of the 13th Amendment in the US Senate, so he has only a passing role in Lincoln. Yet his role to “liberty and justice for all” was immense.
Charles Sumner was elected to the US Senate in 1851 and served until his death in 1874. He believed in equal rights for all and continually spoke out strongly against slavery on the Senate floor saying things like: “Slavery is odious as an institution, if viewed in the light of morals and Christianity.” And “Where slavery is liberty cannot be; and where liberty is slavery cannot be.” Historians consider him “the Senate’s leading opponent of slavery”. Because of this, Charles Sumner was hated by many people.
On May 22, 1856, Senator Sumner was beaten unconscious with a cane on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks, a member of the US House of Representatives, because of his anti-slavery stand. Sumner’s sever injuries kept him away from his Senate duties for three years, until December 1859.
On his return to the Senate he continued to work for the end of slavery and equal rights for all. After the Civil War, Sumner led the “radicals” in the Senate who wanted to give citizenship and voting rights to the freed slaves. He said: “It will do us no good to make the blacks as free as the whites unless we learn to have good feelings toward them and treat them well.” Due mainly to his influence in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens‘ influence in the House of Representatives, three “Civil Rights” amendments were added to the US Constitution giving blacks citizenship, voting rights, and equal rights under the law.
Although these amendments were gradually set aside and made ineffective by the Supreme Court, leading to almost a century of segregation, racial terrorism, and Jim Crow laws, they remained in the Constitution. When the Civil Rights movement began in earnest in the 1950’s, the leaders had Constitutional rights to stand on, thanks in large part to the moral courage of Charles Sumner — my fifth greatest American.
Sumner said: “It is never too late to do right.” And “By the law of slavery, man, created in the image of God, is divested of human character and declared to be a mere chattel.”