Charles Sumner was a man of vision. The senator from Massachusetts knew that slavery was wrong. He devoted his fiery oratory to denouncing the profound evil it represented, but Charles Sumner lacked a virtue I would call suppleness. What is that? It’s a combination of the classical virtues. It’s the prudence to bend a bit, because you truly are confident about “which way is up." It’s the justice to hear whatever measure of truth there is in your opponent’s viewpoint, realizing that you possess no patent on truth. It’s the temperance of attending the advent of the right, lest, in your haste, you destroy other goods. And finally, it’s the courage to grow and to adjust, to be spry in responding to life.
Charles Sumner lacked the suppleness to distinguish between the evil that people do and the inherent goodness of people themselves. As Amanda Foreman notes in her new history of Britain’s role in America’s Civil War, A World on Fire, Sumner
was incapable of trimming his actions or modulating his speeches to suit political expediencies. Sumner abhorred compromise: “From the beginning of our history,” he explained, “the country has been afflicted with compromise. It is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned.” Sumner was prepared to make a last, defiant stand against the forces of accommodation, and did so at every opportunity. On May 19, 1856, he began a two-day marathon of invective in the Senate. Congress had just learned that the border town of Lawrence, Kansas — which had held out against slavery — was surrounded by a thousand Border Ruffians. The tension in the chamber added force to his words, which needed no extra help. Sumner was already a mesmerizing orator; his speeches were emotional to the point of being histrionic. Between damning the South to hell, he accused Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina of being so attached to the idea of slavery that he was like an adulterer with his mistress. Then he scored some gratuitous blows by making fun of Butler’s infirmities. He also insulted Senator Stephen Douglas, who responded, “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damned fool.” (33)
Of course some would have argued that, as Sumner was absolutely correct about the evil of slavery, he was right to let the other side have it, just as some today call into question the patriotism of those who disagree with them, even ridiculously challenging the citizenship of a president they oppose. And there are those dispute the fidelity of any Catholic who clashes with them. They have no reluctance in banning alternative viewpoints from their fellowship. The Prophet Ezekiel has God himself respond to a charge of unfairness, as though the creature knew more than the creator about justice. What a lack of suppleness!
In the parable of Jesus, the first son bluntly tells his father that he will not serve. Later, he thinks better of his stand. Suppleness allows him to set arrogance aside and respond in courage to his Father’s request. And of course the Apostle Paul sings of the very suppleness of Jesus himself, the paragon of prudence who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2: 6-8).
Back to Foreman’s history:
Two days later, while Sumner was sitting at his desk in the nearly empty Senate chamber, one of the insulted Butler’s nephews, Congressman Preston Brooks, silently approached him from behind. After speaking a few words, Brooks raised his arm and smashed his heavy cane on Sumner’s head. Blinded by blood and in shock, Sumner struggled to get his long legs from under his desk. He finally managed to stand up while Brooks continued beating him with increasing ferocity. According to horrified observers, Sumner tried to stagger away only to be grabbed by Brooks, who held his lapel with one hand while raining down blows with the other. By his own count, he struck Sumner about thirty times before his cane splintered. His mission completed, Brooks calmly walked away unmolested. Within a few minutes, he was strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue as if nothing had happened.
The House of Representatives failed to muster enough votes to expel Brooks, and, although he immediately resigned his seat, South Carolinians expressed their views by prompting reelecting him. To Southerners, infuriated by Northern abolitionists, Brooks was a hero. They had long felt beleaguered by the persistence of Northern attempts to curtail slavery. For many, Brooks had acted out their greatest fantasy against abolitionists. Thousand of canes arrived at his house, some with gold or silver tips and one that bore the words “Hit Him Again.” (33-34)
Of course this was the eve of civil war! America hasn’t been that polarized since the late sixties. True, but, whatever their good points, the rise of opinionated cable news channels, of web sites that stridently spout a single point of view, or even of parishes that cater to a particular type of Catholic suggest that we are in danger of losing the suppleness that a common education, a shared media, and the mutual bonds of a common parochial faith were meant to ensure.
Preston Brooks was a violent man; Charles Sumner was not, but both lacked suppleness, both found it difficult graciously to tolerate, to bend. Unlike their contemporary, Abraham Lincoln, neither now sits, benignly gazing upon the capitol from a temple height built to honor his temperance, among his other virtues.
Being supple. It made us a nation. Our Church needs it. And life itself is the fuller for it.
Terrance W. Klein