On Biography

One of Salmon Chase’s best friends was Charles Sumner, the antislavery leader from Massachusetts. They first met in the 1840s, mainly through the mail, and they served together in the United States Senate in the 1850s, when they were among the most ardent opponents of the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. During the Civil War, they were in almost daily touch, with Sumner in the Senate and Chase in the Treasury, and Sumner was one of those who pressed Lincoln hardest to make Chase the Chief Justice. Chase and Sumner continued to talk, in person and by letter, right up until Chase’s death in 1873.

Among the books I checked out of the UCI library yesterday is the first volume of David Herbert Donald’s great two-volume biography of Sumner. Reading Donald’s preface, I found myself nodding and agreeing with every word, so much so that I thought I should quote a few paragraphs.

“Finding Sumner materials has, indeed, been less of a problem than assimilating them. I found, once I had begun this project, that I should have to know not merely something of Massachusetts and national politics, but a good deal of fields where I have no technical training–constitutional law; rhetoric; medicine; and psychology. The following pages, I fear, reveal that I am still too inexpert in these matters, but I have tried to learn and, as my acknowledgments will show, I have been fortunate enough to have some of the best teachers in the world to help me.

I wish I could say that I have unraveled the riddle of Sumner and that I am now presenting the ‘definitive’ biography. Of course I make no such claims. Virtually every sentence in the following chapters should have an interjected phrase like ‘it seems to me,’ or ‘to the rest of my knowledge,’ or ‘in my opinion.’ Out of charity to the reader I have omitted such qualifiers; out of charity for the author he will supply them for himself.

While I was preparing this book, interested friends–perhaps recalling that a leading American jurist once called Sumner the most objectionable figure in American history–kept asking: ‘Is your biography going to be a sympathetic one?’ I have never, I think, been able to answer the question satisfactorily. Certainly I started my research without conscious preconceptions or partialities. The longer I worked, the less relevant the question of sympathy became. After living with Sumner for a decade, after learning more about him than I know about any other human being, alive or dead–a great deal more, in some respects, than he ever knew about himself–I think of him almost as I would a member of my family. Rarely does it occur to one to ask whether he really ‘likes’ his father or mother or any other member of his family; these are the people with whom one lives, who are important in his life, and whom he tries to understand.

My purpose has been to understand Sumner and his motives, to recreate a very complex personality, not to hale him for trial before the bar of history. Where he was misinformed, or partially informed, or actually in error, I have not hesitated to set the record straight, but I have not felt it my proper function to sit in moral judgment upon his career, handing down verdicts of either praise or condemnation for his actions.”

I wish I could write the same sort of introduction for my new book, but of course the publisher would not allow it. I do have a legal training, but whether my training and reading is sufficient to make clear the work of Chase and the Supreme Court, I do not know. And there are so many other subjects one must master: just yesterday I realized, while reading Chase’s letters to his wife suffering and dying from tuberculosis, that I need to know more about nineteenth century tuberculosis. The publisher will want to claim that mine is the definitive Chase biography, even though no book answers all the questions; every book leads to other books. And I will include some evaluation, some judgment, at the end, although like Donald I think my most important job is to understand and explain, not to praise or condemn.