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Announcing my next book (number 8)!

THE GREAT ABOLITIONIST: Charles Sumner’s Fight for a More Perfect Union

The first full biography of Charles Sumner, abolitionist U.S. senator from Massachusetts, in more than a half-century!

I’m thrilled to finally announce the topic of my next book (my eighth!) – the first full biography of Charles Sumner, abolitionist U.S. senator from Massachusetts, in more than 50 years. I think you’ll truly enjoy THE GREAT ABOLITIONIST: Charles Sumner’s Fight for a More Perfect Union, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2024 (exact publication date to come). 

Many readers will recall that I first dealt with Sumner (briefly) in my book, A City So Grand (2010), and later more extensively in The Caning (2012), the latter of which essentially concludes with the onset of the Civil War. During the research and writing of those books, I realized what a force Sumner was throughout the 1850s and 1860s, and into the 1870s, and knew I needed to research and explore his achievements and contributions further. I also needed to learn more about this complex man. 

Now, with the research and writing completed, and with The Great Abolitionist on the way to publication, I feel as if I know Sumner as well as anyone, and I feel confident in saying this: Charles Sumner is among a handful of the most influential non-Presidents in American history (and far more influential than many presidents) – standing alongside Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Susan B. Anthony.  

For me, this book is a first – my first biography! And actually, I’m calling it a “biographical history,” since Sumner’s life encompassed the life of the nation during this period. He stood tall and ramrod straight at the center of events that millions of Americans would experience in his era, and then learn about and study for 175 years (and counting).

His contributions were everywhere: his unrelenting efforts to abolish slavery and fulfill the nation’s promise of civil, political, and racial equality; his expertise in foreign affairs that helped the United States avoid a potentially devastating war with England even as the country battled the Confederacy; his close working relationship with President Abraham Lincoln (Sumner was at Lincoln’s bedside the night the President was assassinated); and his influence upon virtually every major debate and issue that the country tackled in the decade prior to the Civil War, the war itself, and during Reconstruction. 

The Conscience of the North

For a quarter of a century, including twenty-three consecutive years in the Senate from 1851 until his death (which encompassed a three-year absence as he recovered from his caning injuries), it was Charles Sumner – not Lincoln, not William Lloyd Garrison, not Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child, or anyone else – who was the nation’s most passionate, vociferous, unrelenting, and inexhaustible anti-slavery and equal rights champion. 

Before and during the Civil War, at a great personal sacrifice, he was the conscience of the North and the strongest and most influential voice in favor of abolition. Throughout Reconstruction, no one championed the rights of the emancipated Freedmen more than Charles Sumner. Through the force of his words and his will, he first moved his state, and then the nation, toward the twin goals of abolitionism – which he achieved in his lifetime – and equal rights, which eluded him and the country, but for which he fought literally until the day he died.  

In so doing, he laid the cornerstone arguments that civil rights advocates would build upon over the next century as the country strove to achieve equality among the races. To Sumner, the two concepts of abolitionism and equal rights were inseparable and could not be untethered. Freedom and equality embodied the founding principles of the United States as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and in the Constitution’s guarantee of a republican form of government; only by enshrining these rights forever could the United States survive.  This view was first considered radical and unworkable, dismissed as the ranting of rabble-rousers on the fringe – positions at first not held even by Lincoln and other anti-slavery Republicans.  

But Sumner’s influence gradually took hold, permeated the party’s dogma, and finally became the prevalent and official view of Lincoln and the nation.

A Biographical History Since Sumner’s Story and America’s Story are Intertwined 

I call The Great Abolitionist a “biographical history,” since Sumner stood tall and ramrod straight at the center of events that millions of Americans would experience in his era, and then learn about and study for the next 175 years (and counting). 

These include the Fugitive Slave Law; the Kansas-Nebraska Act; the battle for the soul of Kansas that became a symbol of abolitionist and pro-slavery tensions; the founding of the Republican Party; Lincoln’s election in 1860; the secession of Southern states; as head of the Radical Republicans throughout the war; the Trent Affair in which Sumner was the primary force in averting war with England; the Emancipation Proclamation, which he repeatedly beseeched Lincoln to issue and whose language he helped shape; Lincoln’s remarkable and unexpected re-election in 1864; the President’s assassination; the crafting of Reconstruction policy; the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson; the Reconstruction amendments; as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant; and as the architect of a proposed sweeping civil rights bill that called for an end to all government and private sector discrimination.  

As the nation literally fought for its life, Charles Sumner influenced, altered, and often defined America’s course – in the moment and for the future. In the face of repeated insults, ridicule, personal setbacks, and a devastating physical attack, Charles Sumner’s voice and his ideas moved a nation, slowly, even grudgingly at first, but eventually with a surety that accompanies righteousness.  

Sumner Believed in America

For Charles Sumner, freedom and equality were America’s national birthright, and slavery and racist laws were a perversion of those ideals. He saw the government’s tolerance and support for the growth of slavery as an ignorant misreading of the country’s founding documents, not an inevitable condition flowing from them.  

In the end, Charles Sumner truly believed in America. He believed in it as he held up a mirror to its flaws and challenged the country to live up to its ideals. He believed in it as he ferociously battled slavery and inequality. He believed in it as he endured and recovered from a vicious beating for speaking his mind. As one Congressional eulogist declared, Sumner “believed in his country, in her unity, her grandeur, her ideas, and her destiny.”  

Dour and disconsolate as he often appeared, he was an idealist at heart. He told all who would listen that his often lonely fight to create a more perfect union was a burden well worth shouldering – that the fulfilled promise of America could literally change the world.

The Great Abolitionist Is Sweeping In Scope and I’m Confident You’ll Enjoy the Story!

You’ll find that The Great Abolitionist is sweeping in its scope, but rather than focusing on Sumner’s every movement and utterance between childhood and death, this “biographical history” traces the arc of his antislavery and equal rights leadership as he stood at the center of the storm that swept across the nation during the 1850s and 1860s.  

From the moment Charles Sumner stepped onto the public stage, he made his fight America’s fight. I’ve tried to tell the story — Sumner’s story, the nation’s story — with the same fast-paced narrative style and an exciting story arc that you’ve become accustomed to in my previous books. 

If you’ve enjoyed my other work, I believe you will enjoy The Great Abolitionist, too!

I’ll have more to say about The Great Abolitionist in the future, so please stay tuned! Meanwhile, check out my latest blog for a few more insights about Charles Sumner’s courage and authenticity. And be sure to schedule some reading time for early next year!

Photos show Charles Sumner in 1855 and 1859; a painting of his caning attack by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks; Sumner later in life with his dear friend, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Sumner’s deathbed scene, where he is surrounded by friends, including former slave Frederick Douglass; a magazine cover announcing his death in which former slaves are depicted paying him tribute; and his statues at Harvard and on Boston’s Public Garden.



Dining Room Signings

Let me know if you need a “dining room” inscribed book

If you’re unable to attend one of my appearances, a “Puleo dining room signing” might be for you.

Let me know if you’d like an inscribed or autographed book for a friend or loved one (or as a gift to yourself!). Email me at to find out how to get your copy. 

I’ve done this many times for readers and it has worked out well. To fulfill your request in time, though, please contact me as soon as possible. Thanks, as always, for your support! 

Molasses Flood Artwork on Display at the Boston Public Library

And now for something really cool and unique, and of special interest if you’re a fan of my book, Dark Tide! 

The Boston Public Library (BPL) has commissioned a composite tile mosaic from artist Duke Riley entitled Enchafed Flood, which depicts the Great Boston Molasses Flood. To get a sense of scale, the tile mosaic is 41 3/8 x 81 1/2 inches. 

Riley, an artist of international fame who has been the subject of front-page articles in the New York Times, draws, sculpts, tattoos, engraves and paints subjects that blend history, fact, fiction, and myth. He currently has a major exhibition on view at the Brooklyn Museum: Death to the Living, Long Live Trash. 

The BPL’s description of Enchafed Flood reads in part: “Riley’s work depicts the cataclysm and near-biblical tumult of this incident in vast tilework that recalls the color and lines of his trademark ink-on-paper drawings.” 

Duke was kind enough to give me permission to use the image of Enchafed Flood. He said he has read Dark Tide and added: “It’s great, and I reference it all the time.” 

Enchafed Flood is the first work acquired by the Arts Department at the BPL for permanent view in the historic McKim Building since 1919! It’s on view in the first-floor elevator lobby at the Central Library in Copley Square. 


Duke 1 collage

I hope to see you at one of my events soon!

My Spring 2023 schedule has some great events coming up! If you’d like to schedule me for your event, simply email me at

Up next in 2023:

  • April 13 Everett High School and Parlin Library in Everett MA
  • April 19 North End Branch of Boston Public Library
  • April 27 Ventress Memorial Library Marshfield MA

The best way to get details and keep up with my appearances is to visit the Events page on this website.


A great visit with Canadian readers!

Meet Sean Polreis and Andrea Book, residents of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who invited me to lunch at L’Osteria Italian restaurant (one of my faves!) in the North End during their recent trip to Boston.

Sean and Andrea love the city of Boston and are also loyal Puleo readers, for which I’m very grateful (their interest in the city first led them to my book, A City So Grand). So, I was honored when they reached out and asked if we could get together! Boston is basically their second home; they enjoy the city’s theater, food, culture, history, and “walkability.” And they are HUGE Boston sports fans.

Those of you who have followed me here and elsewhere know how much I enjoy connecting with readers. My thanks to Sean and Andrea for giving me another opportunity to do so!


Excerpts from Voyage of Mercy


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Enjoy these excerpts from Voyage of Mercy I’ve included two excerpts from Voyage of Mercy here that I think you’ll enjoy. The first, a longer excerpt, was published in “The History Reader,” the St. Martins Press website devoted to history topics. It focuses on Father Theobald Mathew, who worked hard in Ireland on behalf of victims. The second short excerpt describes the beginning of the USS Jamestown voyage to Ireland under the command of Captain Robert Bennet Forbes.

Voyage of Mercy: “The Distress is Universal”

Posted on March 17, 2020, by Stephen Puleo

Ireland, 1846. Father Theobald Mathew implores assistant secretary at the British Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, to provide aid to Ireland as the potato blight ruins crops across the country. Read on for an excerpt from Voyage of Mercy. December 16, 1846, city of Cork, County Cork

When night finally came, a bone-weary Father Theobald Mathew dipped the nib of his pen into the ink and scratched the full measure of his despondency onto the page.

He aimed for precision with his writing, but he also needed to modulate his description of a truly appalling situation. Bold, direct words were necessary, but overly inflammatory language would raise skeptical eyebrows in London, damage his credibility, and, most importantly, put thousands of additional lives at risk. This was his fifth letter since August to Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary at the British Treasury responsible for famine relief efforts, each more desperate than the last. Now, just days before Christmas, Mathew wrote with renewed urgency, hoping that his reputation for directness and honesty, and as a champion for the poor, would convince Trevelyan of his veracity.

“I am grieved to be obliged to tell you that the distress is universal,” he lamented at the outset of his letter. “Men, women, and children are gradually wasting away.” It was not the first time Father Mathew had underlined passages to emphasize the urgency of his message, and it would not be the last. Reviewing his opening words, he debated whether he had succumbed to the very temptation he sought to avoid—the use of sensational rhetoric. In the end he decided to let the letter stand: he knew of no more accurate way to describe the heartbreak he witnessed each day. These imperiled citizens were not anonymous “famine victims” but people he knew and loved—neighbors, parishioners, followers, friends.

He would speak for them.

In some ways, these were the most frustrating and dispiriting hours for the fifty-six-year-old priest, sitting quietly at his desk, fighting exhaustion, his eyes straining by his lantern’s pallid light in the otherwise dark parlor, his desktop covered with ink-stained pages and the floor beneath him strewn with correspondence. Daytime hours were a blur, physically draining and mentally dispiriting—Mathew had just returned from several weeks’ work in different parts of Ireland, assessing the potato blight, organizing relief efforts, comforting the sick, ladling soup to the hungry, kneeling at their deathbeds and praying for their souls, presiding over their burials. Upon his return to Cork he discovered that his city and county were among the hardest hit by the famine; again his daytime hours were consumed with tending to those burning with fever or filling their stomachs with “cabbage leaves and turnip tops . . . to appease the cravings of hunger.” The night offered time to reflect, to be sure, but these were unwelcome and damnable hours, for it was while he sat alone in the darkness that the full tragedy of the widespread hunger, coupled with the futile sorrow that he could do little or nothing to stop it, pressed upon him like a great stone.

* * * * *

The destruction of the potato crop had occurred—or, rather, revealed itself—almost overnight. Mathew himself was one of the first to observe and report on the disaster. In late July, he was traveling from Cork to Dublin and saw fields of potato plants blooming “in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest,” a sight that heartened him after widespread potato-crop failure a year earlier had resulted in severe food shortages, but not full-scale famine. But six days later, August 3, during his return trip to Cork, Mathew’s spirit was shattered when he “beheld, with sorrow, one wide waste of putrefying vegetation.” The blight, caused by a fungus that thrived and multiplied in Ireland’s damp climate, had reproduced with lightning speed. In many places along the road, “the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly against the destruction that had left them foodless.”

Four days later Mathew expressed the worst in a letter to Trevelyan: “The food of a whole nation has perished.” The Times of London concurred: “From the Giants Causeway to Cape Clear, from Limerick to Dublin, not a green field is to be seen.” Indeed, on September 2, the Times declared that “total annihilation” had befallen the Irish potato crop. At this point, more than one-third of the entire Irish population depended exclusively on the potato for food and as a cash crop, but among poor tenant farmers, the proportion was even higher; a strong potato crop was their only hope for sustenance, for nourishment, for life itself.

Even pre-famine, survival had been precarious in Ireland, as tenant farmers and peasants scratched out a living raising and selling potatoes, or perhaps traded a pig or a cow for other goods. Food shortages were a near-constant peril, and temporary migration was a lifeline for many Irish families engaged in agricultural work, particularly those from western counties; seasonal trips to the grain-growing areas of the eastern counties, and to England, were commonplace. In the first half of the nineteenth century, seasonal migrants, often accompanied by their livestock, walked along Ireland’s dusty roadways in search of work and food.

Now such searches proved more and more futile.

Since Mathew’s August letter, the downward spiral had progressed with alarming speed. Now, he wrote to Trevelyan, more than 5,000 “half-starved wretched beings from the country” were begging on the streets of Cork city; “when utterly exhausted, they crawl to the work- houses to die.” He estimated that more than a hundred people a week were dying in his parish. And because of the frightful calamity that had swept the countryside, where food was all but nonexistent, thousands of peasants straggled into the city in search of something to eat, further straining scarce resources. Ten to twelve people a day died from starvation in the village of Crookhaven, where the community organized a collection to purchase a public bier upon which to place the bodies of those whose families could not afford coffins. Mathew was filled with dread, not only for the current state of affairs, but for the unknown depth of the abyss that lurked ahead.

“This country is in an awful position,” he stressed to Trevelyan, “and no one can tell what the result will be.”

The USS Jamestown en route to Ireland – March 1847

Sheets of cold rain lashed the decks of the USS Jamestown and gale-force winds battered the three-masted American sloop of war through the swells of the North Atlantic. Captain Robert Bennet Forbes barked orders as his energetic but inexperienced crew scrambled to haul up the mainsail, a daunting task on this moonless night of raging seas, on April 2, 1847. Weak light leaked from deck lanterns, but beyond the ship’s raised prow and forward riggings, the darkness was total — “black as Erebus,” as Forbes described it in the captain’s log, referring to the mythological netherworld that serves as the passageway to Hades.

For the sixth straight day since leaving the Charlestown Navy Yard, the ship and its crew were pounded by miserable weather as they fought their way toward Ireland. Snow, sleet, hail, and cold rendered all ropes “stiff as crowbars . . . and the men also,” and wind and waves left the Jamestown, despite her solid oak frame, “bounding like an antelope” and unable to carry as much sail as Forbes wished. Dense wet fog rendered visibility to near zero. Snow slickened the ship’s decks, crew members lurched with seasickness, ice floes hampered passage, and worst of all, the Jamestown leaked badly, at times taking on as much as ten inches of water an hour. Most of the water poured through the rudder case in the wardroom when the sea rose aft or the ship settled. Crew members were forced to pump often and, finally, bore holes in the wardroom deck to allow water to run off into the hold.

As midnight approached, the wind howled and every rope froze “as hard and stiff as January,” but Forbes, a Bostonian who in his forty-two years had savored much joy and endured deep sorrow, remained unflappable in the captain’s chair, determined to reach his destination ahead of schedule, and resolute in the righteousness of his mission.