cover image The Great Abolitionist: Charles Sumner and the Fight for a More Perfect Union

The Great Abolitionist: Charles Sumner and the Fight for a More Perfect Union

Stephen Puleo. St. Martin’s, $32 (464p) ISBN 978-1-250-27627-8

Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner’s lifelong devotion to equal rights was akin to “digging a deep well with nothing more than a spoon... yet he never stopped digging,” according to this rousing biography from historian Puleo (Voyage of Mercy). As a young lawyer in 1849, Sumner coined the phrase “equality before the law,” a concept that rapidly propelled universal suffrage to the forefront of abolitionism. Elected senator in 1852, for the next 23 years Sumner was “the nation’s most passionate and inexhaustible” antislavery and equality advocate—someone who not only embraced controversy but would “grab it around the waist, and dance it across speaker platforms.” Sumner’s antagonism of pro-slavery colleagues—he often got “personal”—came to a head in 1856, when enraged South Carolina representative Preston Brooks famously attacked the abolitionist with a cane. A painful and lonely three-year recovery followed, during which Sumner’s vacant Senate chair, an ever-present reminder of the assault, catalyzed the nation’s political polarization. As a trusted wartime adviser to Abraham Lincoln, it was Sumner, according to Puleo, who ultimately guided the president toward emancipation. Postwar, Sumner championed universal suffrage as a pillar of Reconstruction. Puleo’s easygoing narrative style (“The people couldn’t get enough of Sumner”) is peppered with insight, including into how the “personality difficulties” that made empathizing with others impossible for Sumner contributed to his relentless, fact-based argumentativeness. Readers won’t be able to get enough of Puleo’s indomitable Sumner. (Apr.)