Scripture says that we do not wrestle against people (“flesh and blood;” Ephesians 6:12 ). People are not the “bad guys” in life, fallen sinful nature is. And fallen sinful nature is what caused Charles Sumner to be severely beaten and rendered disabled for a long time. Here’s the story.
Sumner was all business. The women of Washington offered a prize to any eligible young lady who could hold this bachelor in conversation for 15 minutes. It went unclaimed. When told that he was too serious, he replied, “You might as well look for a joke in the Book of Revelation.”
The product of a coldly formal lawyer father and a distant mother, Sumner grew up on the classics, as he trotted around Europe hobnobbing with kings and dukes. His conversation was sprinkled unpretentiously and innocently with quotes from Aristotle, Shakespeare and the lesser prophets of the Bible. Lettered, eloquent, magnificent in his gestures, deep rolling voice, he seemed born to be a senator.
He spoke for prison reform and opposed the 1848 Mexican War. But in the 1840s a paramount cause arrested his conscience. A cause men feared to trace out to its logical conclusion. It led to suffering, death and the four horsemen.
Sumner watched as black children – God’s image in ebony – tied one to another – were herded into a courtyard inn. They were watered at the horse trough and driven into sheds to cry themselves to sleep. They would never see their mothers again.
Not capable of halfwayism, Sumner called slavery a “vampire, murderer, assassin.”
Charles Sumner delivered a fiery three-hour speech to the Senate. Preston Brooks of South Carolina became molten with anger against him.
Thursday, May 22, 1856, though the Senate was not in session, a number of senators were on the chamber floor. Sumner was seated at his desk. Brooks announced to Sumner that his recent speech had slandered South Carolina and one of his relatives. Sumner started to stand up.
Breaking off speaking, Brooks swung a 5/8 inch thick hardwood cane in an arc, slamming it down on Sumner’s head. The stroke opened the scalp to the bone. Blood poured down Sumner’s face. Blinded, he tried to stand up. But the desk was bolted to the floor and the chair resisted his efforts to slide it back. Brooks, like a man cutting firewood, gripped the cane with both hands, landed five more blows before Sumner escaped his small prison.
While three people shouted at Brooks to stop, a Southerner swore at them and yelled to stay out of it. Sumner suffered another dozen blows until the cane broke. Even then, Brooks continued to pursue the slumping, blinded man.
Charles Sumner became an invalid. He could not stand. Even a few minutes of reading tired him. He felt like a man of 90 instead of his 45 years. A weight seemed to be spreading over his brain. Pale and thin, he went to Silver Springs to listen to the birds in the springtime.
A long trip to Europe did not help. Three years passed while his Senate chair remained vacant. “A perpetual speech,” the mocking Southerners called it. Brooks received canes in the mail from admiring Southerners.
In Europe, tortuous heat treatments restored Sumner to a measure of health, and four years after the beating, Charles Sumner returned to the Senate on June 4, 1860 to speak on “The Barbarism of Slavery.” Brooks was dead, “the victim of an unknown ailment which brought on strangulation.” Neither in conversation nor in letters did Charles Sumner ever initiate personal allusions to Preston Brooks. He had no feeling for the man whose cane had beaten him to the Senate floor. When asked about Brooks he said, “What have I to do with him? It was slavery, not he, that struck the blow.” Sumner had looked beyond the person who so wounded him to the issue that motivated the Southerner’s hatred. And what was behind Brooks’ support of slavery? The fallen sinful nature that is willing to exploit others for personal gain and control.