Meet Hiram R. Revels
Article I, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution spells out the qualifications for becoming a senator by telling us who can’t: “No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.”
In late February 1870, there was no question whether the first black senator-elect in American history — and one of the first Mississippi had sent to Washington since the Civil War — was old enough or resided in the Magnolia State. Hiram Rhodes Revels, 42 (at a time when the life expectancy of an average American man was mid-40s), had been born free to mixed-race parents in North Carolina in 1827, before even Andrew Jackson was president. After receiving seminary training in Indiana and Ohio, Revels had traveled the country as an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and eventually pastored churches in St. Louis and Baltimore. He had studied at Knox College in Illinois. He had helped organize and minister to black troops during the late rebellion. Following the emancipation, he had opened churches and schools for the freed people of Mississippi and served as an alderman and state senator. He impressed many political observers with his oratorical gifts and moderate temperament.
So, no, there was no question about Sen.-elect Revel’s age or his residency — or about the powerful new voting bloc behind him. As W.E.B. Du Bois detailed in his classic 1935 study, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, Mississippi already had a majority-black population before the Civil War; and, with its slaves now free and under the protection of federal troops, 60,137 blacks registered for the vote in 1867 compared to 46,636 whites.
Blacks also comprised the majority in 32 of Mississippi’s counties, and in the state’s first Reconstruction legislature, convened in 1870, they netted 40 seats, though, as Du Bois points out, based on their numbers, it should have been more. (Until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, state legislatures, not voters, decided who would represent them in the U.S. Senate.) What Eric Foner has called “America’s Unfinished Revolution” was just beginning, and the former slaves of the Deep South were on the verge of reinventing government — they thought, forever.
‘Dred Scott’ Redux
This was raw political power that the Republican Party was eager to embrace and Southern Democrats feared. (Remember, Abraham Lincoln had only been dead five years.) So by the time Revels reached the senate on Feb. 23, 1870 — and so soon after Appomattox — he was showered by applause from the gallery, but met resistance from the Democrats on the floor. Particularly galling to them was the fact that Revels was about to inhabit a seat like the one that their former colleague, Jefferson Davis, had resigned en route to becoming president of the Confederacy in 1861. When Davis was still in the Senate, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) had still been good law, they knew, and it had gone out of its way to reject blacks’ claims to U.S. citizenship — the critical third test any incoming senator had to pass.
Jefferson Davis looking over his shoulder at Hiram Revels in U.S. Senate (Thomas Nast, 1870; loc.gov)
In staring down Revels, the Democrats’ strategy wasn’t to rake over his birth certificate (an absurd tactic left to our own time) but to proceed as though nothing had happened in between 1857 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. (Both of those measures had clarified blacks’ status as citizens, blunting Dred Scott’s force as precedent — the 14th Amendment as a matter of constitutional law.) As a result, by the Democrats’ calculus, Revels, despite having been born a free man in the South and having voted years before in Ohio, could only claim to have been a U.S. citizen for two — and at most four — years, well short of the Constitutional command of nine. It was a rule-based argument, as rigid as it was reactionary. It twisted the founders’ original concerns over allowing foreign agents into the Senate into a bar on all native-born blacks until 1875 or 1877, thus buying the Democrats more time to regain their historical advantages in the South.