So, instead of Sen.-elect Revels taking the oath of office upon his arrival in Washington, he had to suffer two more days of debate among his potential colleagues over his credentials and the reach of Dred Scott. While the Democrats’ defense was constitutionally based, as Richard Primus brilliantly recounts in his April 2006 Harvard Law Review article, “The Riddle of Hiram Revels” (pdf), there were occasional slips that indicated just what animus — at least for some — lurked behind it. “Outside the chamber,” Primus writes, “Democratic newspapers set a vicious tone: the New York World decried the arrival of a ‘lineal descendant of an ourang-otang in Congress’ and added that Revels had ‘hands resembling claws.’ The discourse inside the chamber was almost equally pointed.”
Primus continues, “Senator [Garrett] Davis [of Kentucky] asked rhetorically whether any of the Republicans present who claimed willingness to accept Revels as a colleague ‘has made sedulous court to any one fair black swan, and offered to take her singing to the altar of Hymen.’ ” Can you imagine a senator using such suggestive sexual language on the Senate floor today? (OK, maybe on Twitter.)
Foolishly drawn into the debate, some of Revels’ own supporters contorted themselves trying to work within the Democrats’ framework. Notably, one Republican senator, George Williams of Oregon, staked his vote on Revels’ mixed-race heritage (as Primus indicates, Revels was “called a quadroon, an octoroon, and a Croatan Indian as well as a negro” throughout his life). It was a material fact to Williams, perhaps because, as President Lincoln’s former attorney general Edward Bates had signaled in an opinion during the Civil War, just one drop of European blood was technically enough to exempt a black man from Dred Scott’s citizenship ban against African pure-bloods.
Fortunately for all future black elected officials (just think of the pernicious effects of such a rule, however short-lived, on those who could not claim any obvious white heritage), other Republicans in the caucus refused to play along. As Primus recalls, “Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania [asked his colleagues,] ‘What do I care which pre-ponderates? He [Revels] is a man [and] his race, when the country was in its peril, came to the rescue … I admit that it somewhat shocks my old prejudices, as it probably does the prejudices of many more here, that one of the despised race should come here to be my equal; but I look upon it as the act of God.’ “
The more decisive act for Republicans, as Cameron’s backhanded comments indicated, was the Civil War, which (hello!) in four years had claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans, rewriting the Constitution in blood. To Republicans, before the country had spoken through the Civil Rights Act or Reconstruction Amendments, Dred Scott had, effectively, been overturned by what Sen. James Nye of Nevada called “the mightiest uprising which the world has ever witnessed.”
Charles Sumner, the radical Republican senator from Massachusetts, understood the costs of that uprising, having shed his own blood beneath the cane of Preston Brooks in one of the most violent episodes in the lead-up to the war — right at his own Senate desk. And Sumner wasn’t about to concede any ground to Dred Scott, which, to him, had been “[b]orn a putrid corpse” as soon as it had left the late Chief Justice Taney’s pen. “The time has passed for argument,” Sumner thundered, as quoted in my book, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 . “Nothing more need be said … ‘All men are created equal’ says the great Declaration; and now a great act attests this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality. For a long time in word only, it now becomes a deed. For a long time a promise only, it now becomes a consummated achievement.”