Hiram Rhodes Revels: First Black Republican Senator
Hiram R. Revels
Mississippi Seats Vacant for a Decade
In 1870, the state of Mississippi was rejoining the union. Its two senate seats had been empty for nine years. Hiram R. Revels was elected to fill the seat left vacant by Jefferson Davis, who had left the United States senate to serve as president of the Confederacy. When Revels entered the Senate chamber for the first time on February 23, 1870, he met with opposition from Democratic senators, who argued that Revels had not been a citizen for nine years.
Although Revels had been born free to free parents in North Carolina on September 27, 1822, the Democrats argued their points from the Constitution and the Dred Scott Case. Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution states that a person has to be a citizen of the United States for nine years to be eligible to serve as senator. The Fourteenth Amendment gave citizenship to blacks, but that amendment had been ratified only in 1868; thus, the Democrats argued that Revels had been a citizen for two years at most, if at all, since the Dred Scott Case of 1857 had stated that blacks could not be citizens.
Three Days of Senate Debate
The next three days saw the senate debating the merits of seating a black man as senator. They argued about the Civil War, about the Supreme Court, about the abilities of blacks in general.
The media covered the event lavishly, as the following excerpt from the February 25th addition of the New York Times demonstrates:
Mr. Vickers, of Maryland, opened the debate to-day, arguing against the admission, on the ground that Revels had not been a citizen for nine years, and therefore was not eligible. Mr. Wilson followed on the other side, and was succeeded by Mr. Casserly, who took a new departure and arraigned the entire reconstruction policy, charging that all the Southern Senators were put in their seats by the force of the bayonets of the regular army.
Democrats including Senators George Vickers of Maryland, Garret Davis of Kentucky, and Eli Saulsbury of Delaware strongly supported the fact that a black man could not ever be United States citizens, much less a senator. Republicans argued just a strenuously that the Dred Scott decision had been a travesty. They could not believe that anyone, let alone senators, would cite that hideous decision for any purpose.
Republican Senator James Nye of Nevada argued: "I never expected to hear read in the Senate of the United States, or any court of justice where authority was looked for, the Dred Scott decision." Republican Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan said he was nauseated that anyone would claim the status of blacks based on the Dred Scott decision. And Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts called the Dred Scott case, "a putrid corpse."
Revels Finally Seated
Despite all the protesting of the Democrats, the Republicans were able to welcome their colleague, and Revels was finally allowed to sit with the senate. Revels served only one year in the senate.
Biographical Sketch of a Renaissance Man
Born in North Carolina, Hiram Revels moved to Indiana, a free state, to further his education at Union County Quaker Seminary in Liberty, Indiana. He graduated from Knox College and was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Church. Revels traveled widely throughout Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, as well as through states in the south and west, later relocating to Baltimore and becoming the principal of a school for black children.
Revels served as pastor of a church, while serving as a principal of a school. At the beginning of the Civil War, Revels supported the Union, even though he lived in Maryland, a border state where loyalties were divided between North and South. Revels served in the military and organized two black troops in Maryland. In 1863, he moved to St. Louis and founded a school for African Americans; he also helped recruit African Americans for a Missouri regiment.
This accomplished man later served as a chaplain in the Union Army and as a provost marshal at Vicksburg. After the war, he and his family moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where he became an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The pastor/principal continued to found and organize new churches. Revels life was filled with activity as he served in educational, religious, and political work. He also served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate.
Revels died on January 16, 1901, in Aberdeen, Mississippi.
(Note: Readers who are interested further biographical information about other black politicians may find this collection useful: Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen. This volume also includes biographical information about Hiram Revels.)
First Blacks to Serve in the US Congress
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes