Reminiscences of Julia Ward Howe: Iv. Boston in the Forties and Fifties

IN the autumn of 1844 we returned from our wedding journey, and took up our abode in the near neighborhood of the city of Boston, of which, at intervals, I had already enjoyed some glimpses. These had shown me Margaret Fuller, holding high communion with her friends in her well - remembered conversations; Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was then breaking ground in the field of his subsequent great reputation ; and many another who has since been widely heard of. I count it as one of my privileges to have listened to a single sermon from Dr. Channing, with whom I had some personal acquaintance. The time was one in which the Boston community, small as it then was, exhibited great differences of opinion, especially regarding the new transcendentalism and the anti-slavery agitation, which were both held much in question by the public at large. While George Ripley, moved by a fresh interpretation of religious duty, was endeavoring to institute a phalanstery at Brook Farm, the caricatures of Christopher Cranch gave great amusement to those who were privileged to see them. One of these represented Margaret Fuller driving a winged team attached to a chariot on which was inscribed the name of her new periodical, the Dial, while the Rev. Andrews Norton regarded her with holy horror. Another illustrated a passage from Mr. Emerson’s essay on Nature — “I play upon myself. I am my own music ” — by depicting an individual with a nose of preternatural length, pierced with holes like a flageolet, upon which his fingers sought the stops. Yet Mr. Cranch belonged among the transcendentalists both by taste and by persuasion.

As my earliest relations in Boston were with its recognized society, I naturally gave some heed to the views therein held regarding the transcendental people. What I liked least in these last, when I met them, was a sort of jargon which characterized their speech. I had been taught to speak plain and careful English, and though always a student of foreign languages, I had never thought fit to mix their idioms with those of my native tongue. Apropos of this, I remember that the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck once said to me of Margaret Fuller, “ That young lady does not speak the same language that I do, — I cannot understand her.” Mr. Emerson’s English was as new to me as that of any of his contemporaries ; but in his case I soon felt that the thought was as novel as the language, and that both marked an epoch in literary history. The grandiloquence which was common at that time now appears to me to have been the natural expression of an exhilaration of mind which carried the speaker or writer beyond the bounds of commonplace speech. The intellect of the time had outgrown the limits of Puritan belief. The narrow literalism, the material and positive view of matters highly spiritual, abstract, and indeterminate, which had been handed down from previous generations, had become as irreligion to the foremost minds of that day. They had no choice but to enter the arena as champions of the new interpretation of life which the cause of truth imperatively demanded.

I speak now of the transcendental movement as I had opportunity to observe it in Boston. Let us not ignore the fact that it was a world movement. The name seems to have been borrowed from the German phraseology, in which the philosophy of Kant was termed “ the transcendental philosophy.” Furthermore, the breath which kindled among us this new flame of hope and aspiration came from the same source. For this was the period of Germany’s true glory. The intellectual radiance outshone and outlived the military meteor1 which for a brief moment obscured all else to human vision. The great vitality of the German nation, the indefatigable research of its learned men, its wholesome balance of sense and spirit, all made themselves widely felt, and infused fresh blood into veins impoverished by ascetic views of life. Its philosophers were apostles of freedom ; its poets sang the joy of living, not the bitterness of sin and death.

These good things were brought to us piecemeal, by translations, by disciples. Dr. Hedge published an English rendering of some of the masterpieces of German prose. Longfellow gave us lovely versions of many poets. John S. Dwight produced his ever precious volume of translations of the minor poems of Goethe and Schiller. Margaret Fuller translated Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe. Carlyle wrote his wonderful essays, inspired by the new thought, and adding to it daring novelty of his own. The whole is matter of history now, quite beyond the domain of personal reminiscence.

I have spoken of the transcendentalists and the abolitionists as if they had been quite distinct bodies of believers. Reflecting more deeply, I feel that both were features of the new movement. In the transcendentalists the enthusiasm of emancipated thought was paramount, while the abolitionists followed the vision of emancipated humanity. The lightning flash which illuminated the heaven of the poets and philosophers fell also on the fetters of the slave, and showed them to the thinking world as a disgrace no longer to be tolerated by civilized peoples.

I had formerly seen Boston as a petted visitor from another city would be apt to see it. I had found it altogether hospitable, and rather eager to entertain a novelty. It was another matter to see it with its consideration cap on, pondering whether to like or mislike a new claimant to its citizenship. I had known what we may term the Boston of the Forty, if New York may be called the city of the Four Hundred. I was now to make acquaintance with quite another city,— with the Boston of the teachers, of the reformers, of the cranks, and also — of the apostles. Wondering and floundering among these new surroundings. I was often at a loss to determine what I should follow, what relinquish. I endeavored to enter reasonably into the functions and amusements of general society, and at the same time to profit by the new resources of an intellectual life which opened out before me. One offense against fashion I would commit : I would go to hear Theodore Parker preach. My society friends shook their heads.

“What is Julia Howe trying to find at Parker’s meeting?” was asked one day, in my presence.

“ Atheism,” replied the lady thus addressed.

I said at once, “Not atheism, but a theism.”

The change had already been great from my position as a family idol and “ the superior young lady of an admiring circle ” to that of a wife overshadowed for the time by the splendor of her husband’s reputation. This I had accepted willingly. But the change from a life of easy circumstances and brilliant surroundings to that of the mistress of a suite of rooms in the Institution for the Blind at South Boston was much greater. The building was two miles distant from the city proper, the only public conveyance being an omnibus which ran but once in two hours. My friends were residents of Boston, or of places still more remote from my new home, and South Boston was then, as it has continued to be, a distinctly unfashionable suburb. My husband did not desire that I should undertake any work in connection with the Institution under his charge. I found its teachers pleasant neighbors, and was glad to have Laura Bridgman continue to be a member of the household.

During the first years of my residence at the Institution Dr. Howe delighted in inviting his friends to weekly dinners, which cost me many unhappy hours. My want of training and of forethought often caused me to forget some very important item of the repast. My husband’s eldest sister, who lived with us, and who had held the reins of the housekeeping until my arrival, was averse to company, and usually absented herself on the days of the dinner parties. In her absence, I often did not know where to look for various articles which were requisite and necessary. I remember one dinner for which I had relied upon a form of ice as the principal feature of the dessert. The company was of the best, and I desired that the feast should correspond with it. The ice, which had been ordered from town, did not appear. I did my best to conceal my chagrin, but was scarcely consoled when the missing refreshment was found, the next morning, in a snowbank near our door, where the messenger had deposited it without word or comment. The same mischance might, indeed does sometimes happen at this later date. I should laugh at it now, but then I almost wept over it. Our kitchen and dining room were on one floor, and a convenient slide allowed dishes to be passed from one room to the other. On a certain occasion, my sister being with me, I asked her whether my dinner had gone off well enough. “ Oh yes,” she replied ; " only the slide was left open, and through it I saw the cook buttering the venison.”

Dr. Howe had a fancy for a piece of property which lay very near the Institution. In due time he purchased it. We found an ancient cottage on the place, and made it habitable by the addition of one or two rooms. Our new domain comprised several acres of land, and my husband took great pleasure in laying out an extensive fruit and flower garden and in building a fine hothouse. We removed to this abode on a lovely summer day; and when we entered the grounds I involuntarily exclaimed, " This is green peace ! ” Somehow, the nickname, jocosely given, remained in use. The estate still stands on legal records as " the Green Peace Estate.” Friends would sometimes ask us, “ How are you getting on at Green Beans, — is that the name ? ” My husband was so much attached to this place that when, after a residence of many years in the city, he returned thither to spend the last years of his life, he spoke of it as Paradise Regained.

It partly amuses and partly saddens me to recall, at this advanced period of my life, the altogether mistaken views which I once held regarding certain sets of people in Boston, of whom I really knew little or nothing. The veil of prejudginent through which I saw them was not, indeed, of my own weaving, but I was content to dislike them at a distance, until circumstances absolutely compelled me to take a nearer and a truer view.

I had supposed the abolitionists to be men and women of rather coarse fibre, abounding in cheap and easy denunciation, and seeking to lay rash hands on the complex machinery of government and of society. My husband, who largely shared their opinions, had no great sympathy with either their methods or their personality. Theodore Parker held them in high esteem, and it was through him that one of my strongest imaginary dislikes vanished as though it had never been. The object of this dislike was William Lloyd Garrison, whom I had never seen, but of whose malignity of disposition I entertained not the smallest doubt.

It happened that I met him at one of Parker’s Sunday evenings at home. I soon felt that this was not the man for whom I had cherished so decided a distaste. Finding him gentle and unassuming in manner, with a pleasant voice, a benevolent countenance, and a sort of glory of sincerity in his ways and words, I could only wonder at the falsehoods that I had heard and believed concerning him.

The Parkers had recently received the gift of a piano from members of Mr. Parker’s congregation. A friend began to play hymn tunes upon it, and those of us who could sing gathered in little groups to read from the few hymn books which were within reach. Dr. Howe presently looked up and saw me singing from the same book with Mr. Garrison, He told me afterward that few things in the course of his life had surprised him more. From this time forth the imaginary Garrison ceased to exist for me. I learned to respect and honor the real one more and more, though as yet little foreseeing how glad I should be one day to work with and under him. The persons most frequently named as prominent abolitionists, in connection with Mr. Garrison, were Maria Weston Chapman and Wendell Phillips.

Mrs. Chapman presided with much energy and grace over the anti-slavery bazaars which were held annually in Boston through a long space of years. For this labor of love she was somewhat decried, and the sobriquet of “ Captain Chapman ” was given her in derision. She was handsome and rather commanding in person, endowed also with an excellent taste in dress. I cannot remember that she ever spoke in public, but her presence often adorned the platform at anti-slavery meetings. She was the editor of The Liberty Bell, and was a valued friend and ally of Wendell Phillips.

Of Mr. Phillips I must say that I at first regarded him through the same veil of prejudice which had caused me so greatly to misconceive the character of Mr. Garrison. I was a little softened by hearing that at one of the bazaars he had purchased a copy of my first volume of poems, with the remark, “ She does n’t like me, but I like her poetry.” This naturally led me to Suppose that he must have some redeeming traits of character. I had not then heard him speak, and I did not wish to hear him ; but I met him, also, at one of the Parker Sunday evenings, and, after a pleasant episode of conversation, I found myself constrained to take him out of my chamber of dislikes.

Mr. Phillips was entitled, by birth and education, to an unquestioned position in Boston society. His family name was of the best. He was a graduate both of Harvard College and of its Law School. No ungentlemanly act had ever tarnished his fame. His offense was that, at a critical moment, he had espoused an unpopular cause, — one which was destined, in less than a score of years, so to divide the feeling of our community as to threaten the very continuance of our national life. Oh, to have been in Faneuil Hall on that memorable day when the pentecostal flame first visited him; when he leaped to the platform, all untrained for such an encounter, and his eloquent soul uttered itself in protest against a low and sordid acquiescence in the claims of oppression and tyranny ! In that hour he was sealed as an apostle of the higher law, to whose advocacy he sacrificed his professional and social interests. The low-browed, chain-bound slave had now the best orator in America to plead his cause. It was the beginning of the end. Mr. Phillips, without doubt, sometimes used intemperate language. I myself have at times dissented quite sharply from some of his statements. Nevertheless, a man who rendered such great service to the community as he did should be judged by his best, not by his least meritorious performance. He was for years an unwelcome prophet of evil to come. Society at large took little heed of his warning ; but when the evil days did come, he became a counselor “ good at need.”

I recall now a scene in Tremont Temple just before the breaking out of our civil war. An anti-slavery meeting had been announced, and a scheme had been devised to break it up. As I entered I met Mrs. Chapman, who said. “ These are times in which anti-slavery people must stand by each other.” On the platform were seated a number of the prominent abolitionists. Mr. Phillips was to be the second speaker, but when he stepped forward to address the meeting a perfect hubbub arose in the gallery. Shrieks, howls, and catcalls resounded. Again and again the great orator essayed to speak. Again and again his voice was drowned by the general uproar. I sat near enough to hear him say, with a smile, “Those boys in the gallery will soon tire themselves out.” And so, indeed, it befell. After a delay which appeared to some of us endless, the noise subsided, and Wendell Phillips, still in the glory of his strength and manly beauty, stood up before the house, and soon held all present spellbound by the magic of his speech. The clear silver ring of his voice carried persuasion with it. From head to foot, he seemed aflame with the passion of his convictions. He used the simplest English, and spoke with such distinctness that his lowest tones, almost a whisper, could be heard throughout the large hall. Yerrinton, the only man who could report Wendell Phillips’s speeches, once told my husband that it was like reporting chain lightning.

On the occasion of which I speak, the unruly element was quieted once for all, and the further proceedings of the meeting suffered no interruption. The mob, however, did not abandon its intention of doing violence to the great advocate. Soon after the time just mentioned Dr. Howe attended an evening meeting, at the close of which a crowd of rough men gathered outside the public entrance, waiting for Phillips to appear, with ugly threats of the treatment which he should receive at their hands. The doors presently opened, and Phillips came forth, walking calmly between Mrs. Chapman and Lydia Maria Child. Not a hand was raised, not a threat was uttered. The crowd gave way in silence, and the two brave women parted from Phillips at the door of his own house. My husband spoke of this as one of the most impressive sights that he had ever witnessed. His report of it moved me to send word to Mr. Phillips that, in case of any recurrence of such a disturbance, I should be proud to join his bodyguard.

Mr. Phillips was one of the early advocates of woman suffrage. I remember that I was sitting in Theodore Parker’s reception room conversing with him, when Wendell Phillips, quite glowing with enthusiasm, came in to report regarding a woman’s rights convention recently held at Worcester. Of the doings there he spoke in warm eulogy. He complained that Horace Mann had written a non-committal letter, in reply to the invitation sent him to take part in the convention. Ralph Waldo Emerson, he said, had excused himself from attendance on the ground that he was occupied in writing a life of Margaret Fuller, which, he hoped, would be considered as a service in the line of the objects of the meeting.

This convention was held in October of the year 1850, before the claims of women to political efficiency had begun to occupy the attention and divide the feeling of the American public. When, after the close of the civil war, the question was again brought forward, with a new zeal and determination, Mr. Phillips gave it the great support of his eloquence, and continued through a long course of years to be one of its most earnest advocates.

The last time that I heard Wendell Phillips speak in public was in December, 1883, at the unveiling of Miss Whitney’s statue of Harriet Martineau, in the Old South Meeting House. Mrs. Livermore was one of the speakers of that occasion. When the stated exercises were at an end, she said to me, “ Let us thank Mr. Phillips for what he has just said. We shall not have him with us long.” I expressed surprise at this, and she said further, “ He has heart disease, and is far from well.” Soon after this followed his death, and the splendid public testimonial given in his honor. I was one of those admitted to the funeral exercises, in which friends spoke of him most lovingly. I also saw his remains lying in state in Faneuil Hall, on the very platform where, in his ardent youth, he had uttered his first scathing denunciation of the slave power and its defenders. The mournful and reverent crowd which gathered for one last look at his beloved countenance told, better than words could tell, of the tireless services, long continued, which had won for him the heart of the community. It was a sight never to be forgotten.

I first heard of Theodore Parker as the author of the sermon on The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity. At the time of its publication I was still within the fold of the Episcopal Church, and, judging by hearsay, was prepared to find the discourse a tissue of impious and sacrilegious statements. Yet I ventured to peruse a copy of it which fell into my hands. I was surprised to find it reverent and appreciative in spirit, although somewhat startling in its conclusions.

At that time the remembrance of Mr. Emerson’s Phi Beta address was fresh in my mind. This discourse of Parker’s was a second glimpse of a system of thought very different from that in which I had been reared. Not long after my marriage, being in Rome with my husband, I was interested to hear of Parker’s arrival there. As Dr. Howe had some slight acquaintance with him, we soon invited him to dine with us. He was already quite bald, and this untimely blemish appeared in strange contradiction of the youthful energy of his facial expression. He was accompanied by his wife, whose mild countenance, compared with his, suggested even more than the usual contrast between husband and wife. One might have said of her that she came near being very handsome. Her complexion was fair, her features were regular, and the expression of her face was naïf and gentle. A certain want of physical maturity seemed to have prevented her from blossoming into full beauty. It was a great grief both to her and to her husband that their union was childless.

Theodore Parker’s reputation had already reached Rome, and there as elsewhere brought him many attentions from scholars, and even from dignitaries of the Catholic Church. He remained in the Eternal City, as we did, through the winter, and we saw him frequently.

In the spring our eldest child was born, and I desired that she should be christened by Parker. This caused some uneasiness to my sisters, who were with me at the time. One of them took occasion to call upon Parker at his lodgings, and to inquire how the infant was to be christened, in what name. Our friend replied that he had never heard of any baptismal formula other than the usual one : “ in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” My sister was much relieved, and the baptism was altogether satisfactory.

This was the beginning of a family intimacy which lasted many years, ending only with Parker’s life. After our return to America my husband went often to the Melodeon, where Parker preached until he took possession of the Music Hall. The interest which my husband showed in these services led me in time to attend them, and I remember with deep gratitude the years in which I listened to Theodore Parker.

Those who knew Parker only in the pulpit did not half know him. Apart from the field of theological controversy, he was one of the most sympathetic and delightful of men. I have rarely met any one whose conversation had such a ready and varied charm. His idea of culture was encyclopædic, and his reading, as might have been inferred from the size of his library, was enormous. The purchase of books was his single extravagance. One whole floor was given up to them, and in spite of this they overflowed into hall and drawing room. He was generous in lending them, and I often profited by his kindness in this respect.

His affection for his wife was very great. From a natural love of paradox, he was accustomed to style this mild creature “ Bear,” and he delighted to carry out this pleasantry by adorning His étagère with miniature bears, in woodcarving, porcelain, and so on. His gold shirt stud bore the impress of a bear. At one Christmas time he showed me a breakfast cup upon which a bear had been painted, by his express order, as a gift for his wife. At another he granted me a view of a fine silver candlestick in the shape of a bear and staff, which was also intended for her. He even confided to me the first clauses of a little catechism, which ran as follows : —

“ What creature is this ? ”

“A bear.”

“ What sort of bear is it ? ”

“ The very best sort of bear.”

“ What shall it do to be saved ? ”

“ Have cubs.”

Which, alas ! the poor Bear did never accomplish.

To my husband Parker often spoke of the excellence of his wife’s discernment of character. He would say: “ My quiet little wife, with her simple intuition, understands people more readily than I do. I sometimes invite a stranger to my house, and tell her that she will find him as pleasant as I have found him. It may turn out so ; but if my wife says, ' Theodore, I don’t like that man ; there ’s something wrong about him,’ I always find, in the end, that I have been mistaken, — that her judgment was correct.”

Parker’s ideal of culture included a knowledge of music. His endeavors to attain this were praiseworthy, but unsuccessful. I have heard the late John S. Dwight say that when he was a student in Harvard Divinity School, Parker, who was then his fellow student, desired to be taught to sing the notes of the musical scale. Dwight volunteered to give him lessons, and began, as is usual, by striking the dominant do and directing the pupil to imitate the sound. Parker responded, and found himself able to sing this one note; but when Dwight passed on to the second and the third, Parker could only repeat the note already sung. He had no ear for music, and his friend advised him to give up the hopeless attempt to cultivate his voice. In like manner, at an earlier date, Dr. Howe and Charles Sumner joined a singing class, but both evincing the same defect were dismissed as impossible cases. Parker attended sedulously the concerts of classical music given in Boston, and no doubt enjoyed them after a fashion. I once tried to explain to him the difference between having an ear for music and not having one. I failed, however, to convince him of any difference.

The years during which I heard him most frequently were momentous in the history of our country and of our race.

They presaged and preceded grave crises on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe was going on the ferment of ideas and theories which led to the revolutions of 1848, and the temporary upturning of states and of governments. In the United States, the seed of thought sown by prophetic minds was ripening in the great field of public opinion. Slavery and all that it involved became not only hateful, but intolerable to men of right mind, and the policy which aimed at its indefinite extension was judged and condemned.

Parker at this time had need in truth of the two-edged sword of the Spirit. On the one hand he encountered the foes of religious freedom, on the other the advocates and instruments of political oppression. His sermons on theism belonged to one of these domains, those which treated of public men and measures to the other. Among the latter, I remember best that on Daniel Webster, and the terrible Lesson for the Day which denounced Judge Loring for the part which be had taken in the rendition of Anthony Burns.

The discourse which treated of Webster was indeed a memorable one. I recall well the solemnity of its opening sentences, and the earnest desire shown throughout to do justice to the great gifts of the great man, while no one of his public misdeeds was allowed to escape notice. The whole performance, painful as it was in parts, was very uplifting, as the exhibition of true mastery must always be. Its unusual length caused me to miss the omnibus which should have brought me to South Boston in good time for our Sunday dinner. As I entered the house and found the family somewhat impatient of the unwonted delay, I cried, " Let no one find fault ! I have heard the greatest thing that I shall ever hear! ”

At the time of the attempted rendition of the fugitive slave Shadrach a meeting was held in the Melodeon, at which various speakers gave utterance to the indignation which aroused the whole community. Parker had been the prime mover in calling this meeting. He had written for it some verses to be sung to the tune of “ Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” and he made the closing and most important address. It was on this occasion that I first saw Colonel Higginson, who was then known as the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, pastor of a Unitarian society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The part assigned to him in the exercises was to read portions of Scripture appropriate to the day. This he did with excellent effect. Parker, in the course of his address, held up a torn coat, and said, “ This is the coat of our brother Shadrach,” reverting in his mind to the Bible story of the torn coat of Joseph over which his father grieved so sorely. As I left the hall I heard some mischievous urchins commenting upon this. “ Nonsense ! ” cried one of them, “ that was n’t Shadrach’s coat at all. That was Theodore’s old coat.” Parker was amused when I told him of this.

From time to time Parker would speak in his sermons of the position which woman should hold in a civilized community. The question of suffrage had not then been brought into prominence, and, as I remember, he insisted most upon the claim of the sex to equality of education and of opportunity. On one occasion he invited Lucretia Mott to his pulpit. On another its privileges were accorded to Mrs. Seba Smith. I was present one Sunday when he announced to his congregation that the Rev. Antoinette L. Brown would address them on the Sunday following. As he pronounced the word “ Reverend,” I detected an unmistakable and probably unconscious curl of his lip. The lady was, I believe, the first woman minister regularly ordained in the United States. She was a graduate of Oberlin, in that day the only college in our country which received among its pupils women and negroes. She was ordained by an Orthodox Congregational society, and has since become better known as Antoinette Brown Blackwell, a strenuous advocate of the rights of her sex, an earnest student of religious philosophy, and the author of some valuable work on this and kindred topics.

I am almost certain that Parker was the first minister who in public prayer to God addressed him as “ Father and Mother of us all.” I can truly say that no rite of public worship, not even the splendid Easter service in St. Peter’s at Rome, ever impressed me as deeply as did Theodore Parker’s prayers. The volume of them which has been published preserves many of his sentences, but cannot convey any sense of the sublime attitude of humility with which he rose and stood, his arms extended, his features lit up with the glory of his high office. Truly, he talked with God, and took us with him into the divine presence.

I cannot remember that the interest of his sermons ever varied for me. It was all one intense delight. The luminous clearness of his mind, his admirable talent for popularizing the procedures and conclusions of philosophy, his keen wit and poetic sense of beauty, — all these combined to make him appear to me one of the oracles of God. Added to these were his fearlessness and power of denunciation, exercised in a community a great part of which seemed bound in a moral sleep. His voice was like the archangel’s trump, summoning the wicked to repentance, and bidding the just take heart. It was hard to go out from his presence, all aglow with the enthusiasm which he felt and inspired, and to hear him spoken of as a teacher of irreligion, a pest to the community.

As all know, this glorious career came too soon to an end. While still in the fullness of his powers, and at the moment when he was most needed, the taint of hereditary disease penetrated his pure and blameless life. He came to my husband’s office one day, and said, “ Howe, that venomous cat which has destroyed so many of my people has fixed her claws here,” pointing to his chest. The progress of the fatal disease was slow, but sure. He had agreed with Dr. Howe that they should visit South America together in 1860, when he should have attained his fiftieth year. But, alas ! in place of that adventurous voyage and journey, a sad exodus to the West, and thence to Europe, was appointed, — an exile from which he never returned.

Many years after this time I visited the public cemetery in Florence, and stood before the simple granite cross which marks the resting place of this great apostle of freedom. I found it adorned with plants and vines which had evidently been brought from his native land. A dear friend of his, Mrs. Sarah Shaw Russell, had said to me of this spot, “ It looks like a piece of New England.” And I thought how this piece of New England belonged to the world.

One of the most imposing figures in my gallery of remembrance is that of Charles Sumner, Senator and martyr. When I first saw him I was still a girl in my father’s house, from which the father had then but recently passed. My eldest brother, Samuel Ward, had made Mr. Sumner’s acquaintance through a letter of introduction given to the latter by Mr. Longfellow. At his suggestion we invited Mr. Sumner to pass a quiet evening at our house, promising him a little music. Our guest was newly returned from England, where letters from Chief Justice Story had given him access both to literary and to aristocratic circles. His appearance at that time was rather singular. He was very tall and erect, and the full suit of black which he wore added to the effect of his height and slenderness of figure. Of his conversation, I remember chiefly that he held the novels of Walter Scott in light esteem, and that he quoted with approbation Sir Adam Ferguson as having said that Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi was worth more than all of Sir Walter’s romances put together.

Mr. Sumner was at this time one of a little group of friends which an ironical lady had christened the Mutual Admiration Society. The other members were the poet Longfellow, George S. Hillard, Cornelius Felton, professor of Greek at Harvard College, of which at a later day he became president, and Dr. Howe. These gentlemen were indeed bound together by ties of intimate friendship, but the humorous designation just quoted was not fairly applicable to them. They rejoiced in one another’s successes, and Sumner on one occasion wrote to Dr. Howe, apropos of a new poem of Mr. Longfellow’s, " What a club we are ! I like to indulge in a little mutual.” The developments of later years made some changes in these relations. When the Boston public became strongly divided on the slavery question, Hillard and Felton were less pronounced in thenviews than the others, while Longfellow, Sumner, and Dr. Howe remained united in opinion and in feeling. Hillard, who possessed more scholarship and literary taste than Sumner, could never understand the reason of the high position which the latter in time attained. He remained a Webster Whig, to use the language of those days, while Sumner was elected to Webster’s seat in the Senate. Felton was a man of very genial temperament, devoted to the duties of his Greek professorship and to kindred studies. He was by nature averse to strife, and the encounters of the political arena had little attraction for him.

The five always remained friends and well-wishers. They became much absorbed in the cares and business of public and private life, and the club as such ceased to he spoken of.

In the days of their great intimacy, a certain grotesqueness of taste in Sumner made him the object of some good-natured banter on the part of the other “ Mutuals. " It was related that on a certain Fourth of July he had given his office boy, Ben, a small gratuity, and had advised him to pass the day at Mount Auburn, where he would be able to enjoy quiet and profitable meditation. Felton was especially merry over this incident; but he, in turn, furnished occasion for laughter when on a visit to New York, in company with the same friends. A man servant whom they had brought with them was ordered to carry Felton’s valise to the Astor House. This was before the days of the baggage express. The man arrived late in the day, breathless with fatigue, and when questioned replied, “ Faith! I went to all the oyster houses in Broadway before I could find you.”

Charles Sumner was a man of great qualities and of small defects. His blemishes, which were easily discerned, were temperamental rather than moral. He had not the sort of imagination which enables a man to enter easily into the feelings of others, and this deficiency on his part sometimes resulted in unnecessary rudeness.

His father, Sheriff Sumner, had been accounted the most polite Bostonian of his day. It was related of him that once, being present at the execution of a criminal, and having trodden upon the foot of the condemned man, the sheriff took off his hat and apologized for the accident. Whereupon the criminal exclaimed, “Sheriff Sumner, you are the politest man I ever knew, and if I am to be hanged, I had rather he hanged by you than by any one else! ” It was sometimes remarked that the sheriff’s mantle did not seem to have fallen upon his son.

Charles Sumner’s appearance was curiously metamorphosed by a severe attack of typhoid fever, which he suffered, I think, in 1843 or 1844. After his recovery he gained much in flesh, and entirely lost that ungainliness of aspect which once led a friend to compare him to a geometrical line, “length without breadth or thickness.” He now became a man of strikingly flue presence, his great height being offset by a corresponding fullness of figure. His countenance was strongly marked and individual, — the features not handsome in themselves, but the whole effect very pleasingly impressive.

He had but little sense of humor, and was not at home in the small cut-andthrust skirmishes of general society. He was made for serious issues and for great contests, which then lay unguessed before him. Of his literalness some amusing anecdotes have been told. At an official ball in Washington, he remarked to a young lady who stood beside him, “ We are fortunate in having these places; for, standing here, we shall see the first entrance of the new English and French ministers into Washington society.”

“ I am glad to hear it,” she replied.

“I like to see lions break the ice.”

Sumner was silent for a few minutes, but presently said, “ Miss ―, in the country where lions live there is no ice.”

I once invited Mr. Sumner to meet a distinguished guest at my house. He replied, " I do not know that I wish to meet your friend. I have outlived the interest in individuals.” In my diary of the day I recorded the somewhat ungracious utterance, with this comment : “ God Almighty, by the latest accounts, had not got so far as this.” Mr. Sumner was told of this, in my presence, though not by me. He said at once, “ What a strange sort of book your diary must be ! You ought to strike that out immediately.”

Sumner was often robbed in the street or at a railroad station; his tall figure attracting attention, and his mind, occupied with things far away, giving little heed to what went on around him. Members of his family were wont to say, “ It is about time for Charles to have his pocket picked again.” The fact often followed the prediction.

Mr. Sumner’s eloquence differed much in character from that of Wendell Phillips. The two men, although workers in a common cause, were very dissimilar in their natural endowments. Phillips had a temperament of fire, while that of Sumner was cold and sluggish. Phillips had a great gift of simplicity, and always made a bee line for the central point of interest in the theme which he undertook to present. Sumner was recondite in language and elaborate in style. He was much of a student, and abounded in quotations. A satirical lady once mentioned him as “ the moral flummery member from Massachusetts, quoting Tibullus ! ”

The first political speech which I heard from Mr. Sumner was delivered, if I mistake not, at a schoolhouse in the neighborhood of Boston. I found his oratory somewhat overloud and emphatic for the small hall and limited attendance. He had not at that time found his proper audience. When he was heard, later on, in Faueuil Hall or Tremont Temple, the ringing roll of his voice was very effective. His gestures were forcible rather than graceful. In argument, he would go over the same ground several times, always with new amplifications and illustrations of his subject. There was a dead weight of honesty and conviction in what he said, and it was this, perhaps, that chiefly gave him his command over an audience. He had also in a remarkable degree the trait of mastery, and the ability to present his topic in a large way.

I am not sure whether Sumner’s idea of culture was as encyclopædic as that of Theodore Parker, but he certainly aspired to he what is now called “ an all round man,” and especially desired to attain connoisseurship in art. He had not the many-sided power of appreciation which distinguished Parker, yet a reverence for the beautiful, rather moral than æsthetic, led him to study with interest the works of the great masters. In his later years, he never went abroad without bringing back pictures, engravings, or rare missals. He had little natural apprehension of music, but used to express his admiration of some favorite operas, among them Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Rossini’s Barbiere di Seviglia.

In the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which he was chairman for many years, his acquaintance with foreign languages was much valued. I remember a line of Tasso which he sometimes quoted when beautiful hands were spoken of : —

“ Dove ne nodo appar, no vena eccede.”

On the other hand, I have heard him say that mathematics always remained a sealed book to him; that his professor at Harvard once exclaimed, “Sumner, I can’t whittle a mathematical idea small enough to get it into your brain.”

The period between 1851 and the beginning of the civil war found Mr. Sumner at his post in the Senate of the United States. From the outset his position was a difficult one. His election had displaced a popular idol. His views regarding the heated question of the time, the extension of slavery to the territories, were far in advance of those held by the majority of the senatorial body or by the community at large. His uncompromising method of attack, his fiery utterances, contrasting strangely with the unusual mildness of his disposition, exasperated the defenders of slavery. These, perhaps, seeing that he was no fighting man, may have supposed him deficient in personal courage. He, however, knew very well the risks to which he exposed himself. His friends advised him to carry arms, and my husband once told Madam Sumner, his mother, that Charles ought to be provided with a pistol. “ Oh, doctor,” she replied, “ he would only shoot himself with it.”

In the most trying days of the civil war, this same old lady came to Dr. Howe’s office, anxious to learn his opinion concerning the progress of the contest. Dr. Howe referred her to her own son for the desired information, saying, “ Dear Madam Sumner, Charles knows more about public affairs than I do. Why don’t you ask him about them ? ”

“ Oh, if I ask Charles, he only says, ‘ Mother, don’t trouble yourself about such things.’ ”

I was in Washington with Dr. Howe early in the spring of 1856. I remember being present in the Senate Chamber when a rather stormy debate took place between Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, and Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts. Charles Sumner looked up, and, seeing me in the gallery, greeted me with a smile of recognition. I shall never forget the beauty of that smile. It seemed to me to illuminate the whole precinct with a silvery radiance. There was in it all the innocence of his pure and noble nature.

I asked my husband to invite Sumner to dine with us at Willard’s Hotel, where we were staying. “ No, no,” he said. “ Sumner would consider it infra dig. to dine with us at the hotel.” He did call upon us, however. In the course of conversation he said to me, “ I shall soon deliver a speech in the Senate which will occasion a good deal of excitement. It will not surprise me if people leave their seats and show signs of unusual disturbance.”

The promised speech soon followed. It was a direct and forcible arraignment of the slave power, which was then endeavoring to change the free territory of Kansas into a slave state. The disturbance which Mr. Sumner had foreseen did not fail to follow, but in a manner which neither he nor any of his friends had anticipated.

At the hotel I had remarked a handsome man, evidently a Southerner, with what appeared to me an evil expression of countenance. This was Brooks, of South Carolina, the man who, not long after this time, attacked Charles Sumner in his seat in the Senate Chamber, choosing a moment when the personal friends of his victim were not present, and inflicting upon him injuries which endangered his life and destroyed his health. I will not enlarge here upon the pain and distress which this event caused to us and to the community at large. For several weeks our Senator’s life hung in the balance. For a very much longer time his vacant seat in the Senate Chamber told of the severe suffering which incapacitated him for public work. This time of great trial had some compensation in the general sympathy which it called forth. Sumner had won the crown of martyrdom, and his person thenceforth became sacred, even to his enemies.

It was after a residence of many years in Washington that Mr. Sumner decided to build and occupy a house of his own. The spot chosen was next to the Arlington Hotel. The house was handsome and well appointed, adorned also with pictures and fine bronzes, in both of which he took great delight. Dr. Howe and I were invited to visit him there, one evening, with other guests. Among these was Caleb Cushing, with whom Mr. Sumner soon became engaged in an animated discussion, probably regarding some question of the day. So absorbed were the two gentlemen in their argument that each frequently interrupted the other. The one who was interrupted would expostulate, “ I have not finished what I have to say; ” at which the other would bow and apologize, but would presently offend again.

The last important aet of Mr. Sumner’s public life was the elaborate argument by which he defeated the proposed annexation of Santo Domingo to the United States. This question presented itself during the first term of General Grant’s administration. The proposal for annexation was made by the President of the Dominican Republic. General Grant, with the forethought of a military commander, desired that the United States should possess a foothold in the West Indies. A commission of three was accordingly appointed to investigate and report upon the condition of the island. These were Mr. Benjamin F. Wade, of Ohio ; Andrew D. White, at that time president of Cornell I Diversity ; and Dr. Howe. A thorough visitation of the territory was made by these gentlemen, and a report favorable to the scheme of annexation was presented by them on their return. Dr. Howe was greatly interested for the Dominicans, who had achieved political independence and separation from Haiti by a severe struggle, which was always liable to be renewed by the aggression of their former masters. Mr. Sumner, on the other hand, espoused the cause of the Haitian government so warmly that he would not wait for the report of the commission to be presented, but hastened to forestall public opinion by a speech in which he displayed all his powers of oratory, but showed something less than his usual acquaintance with facts. His eloquence carried the day, and the plan of annexation was defeated and abandoned, to the great regret of the commissioners and of the Dominicans themselves.

I had the great pleasure of twice visiting Santo Domingo in company with Dr. Howe. Our second visit there was made in the spring of the year 1874. I had gone, one day, to inspect a school high on the mountains of Samaná, when a messenger came after me in haste, bearing this written message from my husband : “ Please come home at once. Our dear, noble Sumner is no more.”

The monthly steamer, at that time the only one that ran to Santo Domingo, had just brought the news, deplored by many, to my husband inexpressibly sad.

Julia Ward Howe.

  1. Napoleon.