Beginning with this blog posting, I will highlight chapters from my work-in-progress, Congressional Lions: Influential Members of Congress and How They Shaped American History. The book examines the lives and times of important members of Congress throughout American history to understand their role in shaping the life of the nation. The manuscript is divided into three sections: trailblazing legislators, influential leaders, and congressional “firsts.”
In Part I, trailblazing legislators were those members of Congress who sponsored or championed legislation that fundamentally affected the lives of Americans for years to come. Part II covers effective congressional leaders—Speakers of the House of Representatives as well as majority and minority leaders in both chambers. These figures were not always associated with landmark legislative achievements, but they used their leadership positions to shape the policy agenda. Part III highlights public figures that did not always enjoy longevity in office or sponsor significant legislative initiatives, but they became important symbols of diversity and inclusiveness in the U.S. Congress.
I intend to discuss the chapters in reverse order, beginning with Part III, congressional “firsts.” Accordingly, this posting will cover Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first person of predominantly African-American ancestry to serve in the United States Senate.
A prominent minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Revels was born free in North Carolina in 1827. He came to Natchez, Mississippi, after the end of the Civil War and gradually assumed political responsibilities during the Reconstruction era. He served as a Natchez alderman and a member of the Mississippi State Senate. In 1870, he won election to a United States Senate seat from Mississippi that had been left vacant since the state seceded from the Union in 1861.
Southern Democrats vehemently protested the election of a black man to Congress, leading to a fierce debate. The United States Constitution, southerners pointed out, states in Article I, Section 3, that no person may serve as a senator unless he has been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years. The antebellum U.S. Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, announced in 1857, held that blacks could not be citizens of the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that all persons born in the United States are American citizens, but the amendment had been ratified only two years earlier, in 1868. Even if the Fourteenth Amendment obviated the Dred Scott case and made Revels a citizen, he had only been a citizen since the date of ratification (two years), not for the constitutionally prescribed length of time (nine years).
The irony of Revels’ predicament was lost on no one. For generations, southerners had been content to deny blacks their rightful place in the American polity by treating them as subhuman beings. Now that the fiction had been abolished with ratification of the Civil War amendments, southerners sought to use a different section of the Constitution to perpetuate yet another injustice against a person of color by using blacks’ previous condition of servitude as a pretext for denying a duly-elected representative the right to enter Congress and fight on behalf of historically disadvantaged persons.
Revels’ supporters presented two slightly different arguments on his behalf. First, they sought to distinguish the Dred Scott case from the current situation, contending that the legal holding only applied to blacks, while Revels was part white, Native American, and black, in effect, an Octoroon. Second, they argued that even if Revels were black, Dred Scott had been overruled and no longer applied. Moreover, Revels should be seated as a senator because he had voted and acted as a citizen in free states for much longer than nine years.
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a Radical Republican known as fairly progressive on race, summarized the pro-Revels position. “The time has passed for argument,” he said. “Nothing more need be said. For a long time, it has been clear that colored persons must be senators.” After three days of hotly contested debate, the Senate agreed to seat Revels by a 48-to-8 vote.
Revels served for a little more than a year in the Senate. He was not usually successful in his efforts to elevate the condition of the newly emancipated slaves. During his brief tenure, he opposed a measure to continue segregating schools in Washington, D.C. He also nominated a black man to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, although the candidate ultimately was denied admission. He fought successfully to allow black workers to labor in the Washington Navy Yard, perhaps his only major legislative victory. Revels’ major contribution to American history was his personal example. He demonstrated that people of color were qualified to serve as members of Congress, making him an important congressional “first.”