Charles Sumner, pre- and post-France

Charles Sumner, traveling in Maryland (February 24, 1834): "The whole country was barren and cheerless; houses were sprinkled very thinly on the road, and when they did appear they were little better than hovels [. . .] For the first time I saw slaves, and my worst preconception of their appearance and ignorance did not fall as low as their actual stupidity. They appear to be nothing more than moving masses of flesh, unendowed with any thing of intelligence above the brutes. I have now an idea of the blight upon that part of our country in which they live."

Charles Sumner, studying in Paris (January 13, 1838): "[The lecturer] had quite a large audience, among whom I noticed two or three blacks, or rather mulattoes,— two-thirds black, perhaps, — dressed quite a la mode, and having the easy, jaunty air of young men of fashion, who were well received by their fellow students. They were standing in the midst of a knot of young men; and their color seemed to be no objection to them. I was glad to see this; though, with American impressions, it seemed very strange. It must be, then, that the distance between free blacks and the whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things."

David McCullough, in The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris:

It was for Sumner a stunning revelation. Until this point he is not known to have shown any particular interest in the lives of black people, neither free blacks nor slaves. On his trip to Washington a few years earlier, traveling by rail through Maryland, he had seen slaves for the first time. They were working in the fields, and as he made clear in his journal, he felt only disdain for them. [. . .] He was to think that way no longer.

It would be a while before Sumner's revelation--that attitudes about race in America were taught, not part of "the nature of things"--would take effect in his career, but when it did, the consequences would be profound. Indeed, of all that Americans were to "bring home" from their time in Paris in the form of newly acquired professional skills, new ideas, and new ways of seeing things, this insight was to be as important as any.

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