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Charles Sumner: A Featured Biography

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts

As Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner sat writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber on May 22, 1856, he was brutally assaulted by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Angered by Sumner's "Crime against Kansas" speech, in which Sumner criticized South Carolina senator Andrew Butler, Brooks struck Sumner repeatedly with a heavy cane. During the long recuperation that followed, Sumner's empty desk in the Senate Chamber stood as a powerful symbol of the tensions between North and South in the years before the Civil War. This dramatic event was just one episode in a long Senate career that lasted from 1851 to 1874. When Sumner returned to full-time Senate duties in 1859, he continued to fight for abolition. With the end of war and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, he concentrated on providing full political and civil rights to African Americans and went on to author one of the nation's first civil rights bills. Sumner died in 1874.