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Young Charles Sumner and the legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811--1851

Anne-Marie Taylor, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Charles Sumner is one of America's greatest yet most neglected statesmen. A founder of the Free Soil and Republican parties, perhaps the most outspoken anti-slavery leader in the United States Senate from 1851 to 1874, and its powerful Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sumner must be included in any history of the American anti-slavery movement and of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Yet he is often dismissed as a narrow zealot, while the intellectual and moral principles that propelled him into public life and guided his career are misunderstood or ignored by historians, including his most influential twentieth-century biographer, David Donald. By examining his life until his 1851 election to the Senate, this dissertation seeks to recover Sumner's true intellectual outlook and character, and thus to help restore him to his true stature in American history. ^ Born in Boston, in the afterglow of the American Revolution and of the Enlightenment, Sumner was deeply influenced by the republican principles of duty, education, and liberty balanced by order, as well as by Moral Philosophy, the dominant strain of American Enlightenment thinking, which embraced cosmopolitanism and the dignity of man's intellect and conscience. As a young lawyer, Sumner was greatly attracted by the related principles of Natural Law, which since ancient times had conjoined law and ethics. These influences are symbolized by Sumner's closeness to John Quincy Adams, William Ellery Channing, and Joseph Story. Sumner, with many early nineteenth-century American intellectuals, desired to build an American culture that would combine the principles of American liberty with European culture. He thus eschewed law for reform—including education, promotion of the arts, prison discipline, international peace, and anti-slavery—and eventually politics, not from rashness or ambition, but from the belief in each individual's duty to work for the public good and in the humanistic ideals of the Enlightenment. Sumner grew increasingly disillusioned as the controversy surrounding these reforms divided Boston and the nation over the significance of that Enlightenment legacy, but he devoted his entire public career to the realization of the Enlightenment's vision of a civilized nation, both cultivated and just. ^

Subject Area

Biographies|American history

Recommended Citation

Taylor, Anne-Marie, "Young Charles Sumner and the legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811--1851" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9932351.