Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.
For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.
| 202007 29The Senate Oral History Project
July 29, 2020
Learn about the U.S. Senate through the stories of those who helped to shape it. Since the 1970s, Senate historians have conducted oral history interviews with senators, officers, and staff. These interviews preserve the individual experiences of a diverse group of personalities who witnessed events firsthand and offer unique perspectives on national events, politics, and policy, as well as the evolution of the Senate. Each interview provides a unique perspective on Senate history, offering a deeper and more nuanced understanding of congressional action and life on Capitol Hill.
Learn about the U.S. Senate through the stories of those who helped to shape it. Since the 1970s, Senate historians have conducted oral history interviews with senators, officers, and staff. These interviews preserve the individual experiences of a diverse group of personalities who witnessed events firsthand and offer unique perspectives on national events, politics, and policy, as well as the evolution of the Senate. The interviews below represent a small sample of the larger collection.On January 3, 1993, Carol Moseley Braun became the first woman from Illinois and the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. As one of only seven women senators and the only African American in the Senate at the time, Moseley Braun experienced a level of constituent demands rarely seen before. “I had a job to do. I had to represent the people of Illinois. That means attending to their business. That means being a legislator. That means constituent service work … That's how I saw what I was supposed to do.” Elizabeth Letchworth began her Senate career as a page in the 1970s and moved on to serve in the Republican cloakroom and as a floor assistant. In these positions, she often worked at the heart of the action in the Senate Chamber. In 1995 senators elected her Republican Party secretary, the first woman to serve in that position. “Because of the nature of the job, because it’s not a job where you can learn from reading books or going to classes, it is the epitome of on-the-job training.” Carl Marcy served for 18 years as chief of staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the height of the Cold War. Marcy recalls that pivotal era as one in which the trust between Congress and the White House steadily eroded, most notably over the war in Vietnam. “It was during that summer [of 1965] that I think the administration began to worry a little bit about what [Foreign Relations Chairman Bill] Fulbright's attitude was. He was a bit too independent for them.” These and other stories are found in the many interviews that make up the Senate Oral History Project. The Historical Office recently redesigned the online presentation of its oral histories. A wide-ranging selection of interviews can now be searched by name, position, or era, and by a select number of subjects and events. Each interview provides a unique perspective on Senate history, offering a deeper and more nuanced understanding of congressional action and life on Capitol Hill.
| 202006 5A Generation of World War II Veterans
June 5, 2020
Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during the Second World War, more than 100 later served as U.S. senators. While the heroic actions of some of them are well known—John F. Kennedy leading the crew of PT-109, for example—what about the others who went on to serve as senators? Here are a few of their stories.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during the Second World War, more than 100 later served as U.S. senators. While the heroic actions of some of them are well known—John F. Kennedy leading the crew of PT-109, for example—what about the others who went on to serve as senators? Here are a few of their stories.On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of beach on the coast of Normandy, France. This extraordinary military operation marked the beginning of a strategic plan to liberate continental Europe from Nazi occupation. Philip Hart waded ashore at Utah Beach that day with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division. As he and his fellow soldiers advanced on fortified German targets, an artillery shell hit his right arm, severing the main artery. He slowed the bleeding with a hastily made tourniquet and insisted that medics attend first to a fallen comrade before consenting to his own evacuation. Hart was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He later served 17 years in the Senate, from 1959 to 1976, representing the state of Michigan.Miles east of Hart’s location, Lee Metcalf, a commissioned officer with the army’s 5th Division, stormed Omaha Beach. Two thousand Americans died in a single day in a battle that came to be known as Bloody Omaha. American journalist Ernie Pyle later confessed what many thought at the time: “It seemed to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all.” After Omaha, Metcalf helped to liberate Paris and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Discharged in 1946, he returned to his home state of Montana, where voters elected him to four terms in the House of Representatives, followed by three terms in the Senate, from 1961 to 1978.While Allied forces took Normandy beaches, James Strom Thurmond crash landed miles inland at an apple orchard near Sainte-Mère-Église, France, as part of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Thurmond sustained minor injuries, spent the next few days in combat, and later helped to organize local provisional governments. He was awarded the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with Valor device, and the Purple Heart. The native South Carolinian represented his state in the Senate from 1955 to 2003.Other future senators also fought with distinction. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Edward Brooke, a former ROTC cadet and recent graduate of Howard University, was assigned to the U.S. Army’s segregated 366th Combat Infantry Regiment. In addition to the hazards of combat, Brooke encountered daily reminders of the second-class status given to African American soldiers who fought bravely in the European theater while facing intimidation and even violence from military officials. The U.S. military barred black soldiers from the PX and officers’ clubs and granted them access to the base movie theaters only at designated times. Later promoted to captain, Brooke earned the Bronze Star and a Distinguished Service Medal. Brooke represented the state of Massachusetts in the Senate from 1967 to 1979.Throughout the war, American air power offered crucial support to Allied ground forces. Army Air Corps Lieutenant George McGovern flew a B-24 bomber on 35 missions over wartime Europe and never lost a man on his crew. The army awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of his “high degree of courage and piloting skill … intrepid spirit … and rare devotion to duty.” He later served three Senate terms for the state of South Dakota, from 1963 to 1981, and was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.In the spring of 1945, the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division began an offensive to gain control of northern Italy. Robert Dole, a combat infantry officer in the division, was critically wounded while leading his platoon on a mission to neutralize a pocket of German resisters holed up in a farmhouse. Dole spent nine agonizing hours on the battlefield awaiting his medical evacuation. The army awarded the future senator two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star with Valor device for his leadership and courage under fire. Dole represented Kansas in the Senate for 27 years, from 1969 to 1996, and won the Republican presidential nomination in 1996.That same month, another future senator fought in the Italian countryside. When the U.S. military dropped its enlistment ban on Japanese Americans in 1943, Daniel Inouye joined the U.S. Army’s segregated all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. On a Tuscan battlefield in April 1945, Inouye was shot in the stomach while leading a flanking maneuver. He refused medical treatment and then organized a second attack. That’s when a German rifle grenade nearly severed his arm. Doctors later amputated it. For Inouye’s effort and perseverance, the Army awarded him the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, while recuperating in a Michigan hospital, he befriended Philip Hart and Robert Dole, both of whom were recovering from their own injuries in the same hospital. Inouye represented the state of Hawaii in the Senate for 49 years, from 1963 to 2012.These men, and more than 100 other veterans of the Second World War, shaped the Senate for decades to come. In 2013 the Senate’s last World War II veteran, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, died in office. Each year, as we commemorate D-Day on June 6, the war memorials that dot the coastline of Normandy serve as reminders of the sacrifices made by Allied forces during World War II, including the future senators who served in so many theaters of war. “We are duty bound to keep [their memory],” the Omaha Beach Museum states simply, “that future generations may never forget at what cost our freedom came.”
| 202005 4Charles Sumner: After the Caning
May 4, 2020
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts is best remembered for his role in a dramatic incident in Senate history. On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked the senator at his desk in the Senate Chamber. The “Caning of Sumner” is a famous event, but of course the story did not end there. To understand the importance of Sumner’s enduring legacy as statesman and legislator, particularly in the realm of civil rights, we must explore what happened after the caning.
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts is best remembered for his role in a dramatic and infamous event in Senate history—what has become known as the “Caning of Sumner.” Just days earlier, Sumner had delivered a fiery speech entitled “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he railed against the institution of slavery and unleashed a stream of vitriol against the senators who defended it. In retaliation, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Sumner at his desk in the Senate Chamber, beating him with a heavy walking stick until the senator was left bleeding and unconscious on the Chamber floor.Sumner convalesced, returning only intermittently over the next three years. He resumed full-time duties in 1859 and over the next 15 years became a trailblazing legislator who left an indelible mark on the Senate and the country. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1861 to 1871, Sumner wielded great influence over the nation’s diplomacy, but his tireless efforts in the realm of abolition and civil rights were what truly defined his career.Sumner was among the first members of Congress to argue that the Civil War had to be fought to end slavery as much as to save the Union. In fact, he said the two goals were inextricably linked. He called slavery “the main-spring of Rebellion” and insisted, “Let the National Government . . . simply throw the thing upon the flames madly kindled by itself, and the Rebellion will die at once.” He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to prevent moderate Republicans in Congress and in Abraham Lincoln’s administration from compromising on the question of abolishing slavery. When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed slaves in the rebelling states, Sumner praised Lincoln’s action but quickly added that the presidential proclamation did not go far enough. Only national abolition, immune from action by the Supreme Court, could guarantee an end to the heinous institution—and that meant a constitutional amendment.To gain Senate approval of what would become the Thirteenth Amendment, Sumner collaborated with a number of antislavery activists and forged a unique alliance with members of the Women’s National Loyal League. Created by stalwart reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the Women’s National Loyal League held its first convention in May of 1863 and began a campaign to collect one million signatures on a petition demanding a constitutional amendment for the total abolition of slavery. To receive this and other petitions, Sumner asked the Senate to create a special committee “to take into consideration all propositions . . . concerning slavery.” The Senate complied and named Sumner as chairman.By early 1864, the National Loyal League had collected 100,000 signatures. Never one to miss a moment of high drama, on February 9, 1864, Sumner entered the Senate Chamber accompanied by two tall African American men who carried a pair of massive steamer trunks filled with petitions. Sumner presented the petitions to the Senate, calling the signers “a mighty army, one hundred thousand strong. . . . They ask for nothing less than universal emancipation.” Sumner’s speech became known as “The Prayer of One Hundred Thousand.”Sumner hoped to use his position as chairman of the new committee to promote total abolition. In February of 1864, just before delivering his “Prayer” speech, he introduced a constitutional amendment to end slavery, asking that it be referred to his Select Committee on Slavery and Freedmen, although Senate practice dictated otherwise. Judiciary Committee chairman Lyman Trumbull objected, insisting that his committee was the proper one to consider such proposals. The Senate sided with Trumbull.When the Judiciary Committee reported its version of an abolition amendment to the full Senate, Sumner thought it was not strong enough. He had insisted that any amendment must include a provision that all persons were “equal before the law,” but few senators were ready to take such a bold step. Making all persons “equal before the law,” argued one senator, might lead to dangerous consequences, such as providing voting rights to women. Instead, the committee approved more modest language that echoed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Although the statement was less than Sumner had hoped for, he joined his colleagues in voting for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in April of 1864.In the years following the Civil War, Sumner recognized that abolition was only the beginning of the battle for civil rights. He used what power he could muster to protect the gains that African Americans had made in the South and urged his colleagues to approve mobilization of federal resources to do so. He emerged as a leading opponent of President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, which Sumner and other Radical Republicans believed were designed to reinstate white supremacy in the former Confederate states. He supported impeachment and removal of the president in 1868, though the Senate came up one vote short of conviction.Sumner’s steadfast defense of his principles often led him to oppose compromise measures. He believed that the government owed former slaves a guarantee of their suffrage rights, along with support for education and land ownership. Sumner initially opposed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which declared that African Americans were citizens entitled to equal protection of the laws, because it did not contain a clear guarantee of voting rights. Ultimately, he cast his vote in favor of the amendment. Never shy about chastising his fellow Republicans for not going far enough, Sumner took every opportunity to place the question of equal rights before the Senate. Such radical views stirred action, but they also made enemies. “If I could cut the throats of about half a dozen senators,” confessed William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, “Sumner would be the first victim.”In 1870 Sumner introduced what he considered to be his most important piece of legislation, a civil rights bill to guarantee to all citizens, regardless of color, “equal and impartial enjoyment of any accommodation, advantage, facility, or privilege.” Sumner had characterized segregation and other anti-black laws in the South as “nothing but the tail of slavery,” and he predicted his civil rights bill would be the greatest achievement of Reconstruction. “Very few measures of equal importance have ever been presented,” he proclaimed.Unfortunately, Sumner’s idealistic and uncompromising stance had alienated him from many of his Senate colleagues, and the bill failed. In 1871 he even lost his influential position atop the Foreign Relations Committee when he entered into a fierce public battle with President Ulysses S. Grant over plans to annex Santo Domingo. The party caucus sided with Grant and removed Sumner as chairman. Despite becoming increasingly isolated within his party, Sumner persisted and continued to introduce the civil rights bill. After suffering a heart attack in 1874, Sumner’s final thoughts remained with his bill. The dying Sumner pleaded with Frederick Douglass and others at his bedside: “Don’t let the bill fail. You must take care of [my] civil rights bill.” Sumner did not live to see the fate of his bill.When Sumner died on March 11, 1874, his supporters mourned him as a national leader. Thousands passed by his casket in the Capitol Rotunda, where it was placed on the same catafalque that had held President Lincoln’s casket a decade before. Thousands more lined the train route by which the senator’s body was transported north and were present upon its arrival in Massachusetts. As he lay in state in the Massachusetts State House, soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, composed of African American soldiers who had fought in the Civil War, stood guard. The Springfield Republican lamented: “The noblest head in America has fallen, and the most accomplished and illustrious of our statesmen is no more.”As a final tribute to their often-difficult colleague, senators passed an amended version of Sumner’s bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, but again Sumner proved to be ahead of his time. The Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional in 1883. It would take another 80 years for Sumner’s ideas to gain full legislative endorsement—with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.If you seek the source of Sumner’s fame, look to the caning. To truly understand the importance of Sumner’s enduring legacy as statesman and legislator, however, you need to explore the career that came after the caning.
| 202004 2Discovering the Role of the Senate in Women’s Fight for the Vote
April 2, 2020
Congress Week—celebrated each April to commemorate the week in 1789 when the House of Representatives and the Senate first achieved a quorum—was established to promote the study of Congress and to encourage a wider appreciation of the vital role of the legislative branch in our representative democracy. This year, in recognition of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, we celebrate Congress Week by exploring how Senate historians used congressional collections to develop the online feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote.”
Congress Week—celebrated each April to commemorate the week in 1789 when the House of Representatives and the Senate first achieved a quorum—was established to promote the study of Congress and to encourage a wider appreciation of the vital role of the legislative branch in our representative democracy. This year, in recognition of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, we celebrate Congress Week by exploring how Senate historians used congressional collections to develop the online feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote.”Formally proposed in the Senate for the first time in 1878, the Nineteenth Amendment was finally approved by the Senate 41 years later, on June 4, 1919. Ratified the following year, the amendment extended to women the right to vote. To tell the story of the suffragists’ protracted campaign to win that right, Senate historians delved into a variety of primary sources, including petitions, congressional hearings and reports, and the personal papers of U.S. senators.Records of CongressThe Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives (where congressional records are stored) houses a vast collection of woman suffrage records. The bulk of these records consists of petitions created by tens of thousands of suffragists who exercised their First Amendment right. Their petitions come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are as brief as a telegram, while others include hundreds of signatures pasted or stitched together and rolled up in large bundles. Senate historians combed through scores of petitions to understand not only the suffragists and their demands but also those who opposed woman suffrage.Senate historians also consulted speeches printed in the Congressional Record and committee hearing transcripts and reports to understand senators’ evolving attitudes toward woman suffrage. When California senator Aaron Sargent introduced the woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution in 1878, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections agreed to allow women to testify in support of the amendment. After hearing from witnesses, including suffrage pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Reverend Olympia Brown, the committee’s majority remained unconvinced and recommended that Sargent’s proposal be “indefinitely postponed.” A few senators voiced their dissent. “The American people must extend the right of Suffrage to Woman or abandon the idea that Suffrage is a birthright,” concluded Senators George Hoar (R-MA), John H. Mitchell (R-OR), and Angus Cameron (R-WI).In 1913, following a historic suffrage parade in the nation’s capital, a Senate subcommittee investigated the chaotic and hostile conditions endured by suffragists along the parade route. The voluminous testimony and photographs published in these hearing volumes provide compelling evidence of lewd comments, physical assaults, and intimidation, as well as the volatility of the massive crowds of people that converged along the parade route. In the wake of these dramatic hearings, the committee concluded that the police had acted with “apparent indifference and in this way encouraged the crowd to press in upon the parade.”Senators’ PapersTo delve deeper into this rich and engaging story, the historians also ventured outside the Senate’s official holdings at the National Archives to explore the personal papers of individual senators and suffragists, as well as the records of suffrage organizations housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Correspondence between senators and their constituents often revealed the motivation behind a senator’s decision to support or oppose the amendment.Idaho senator William Borah, for example, who opposed the national suffrage amendment, insisting it was an issue best left to the states, justified his opposition to the amendment in letters to concerned constituents. “I am aware . . . [my position] will lead to much criticism among friends at home,” he wrote. “I would rather give up the office,” he continued, “[than] cast a vote . . . I do not believe in.” Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette succinctly explained his support for the proposal in a letter to Anne Fitzhugh Miller: “A government of equal rights cannot justly deny women the right of suffrage. It will surely come.” Like the petitions in the National Archives, such letters offer a palpable sense of the engagement of citizens with their senators.Organizational Archives and Other Primary SourcesSenate historians reviewed archival materials housed at the National Woman’s Party (NWP) at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, including materials related to the organization’s complex lobbying operation and a political cartoon collection by artist Nina Allender. Many of Allender’s cartoons prominently featured the Senate.A deep dive into the extensive photographic collection at the Library of Congress turned up a host of illuminating images to illustrate suffrage campaign activities at the Capitol and the Senate Office Building, as suffragists assembled to deliver their petitions and to demand the right to vote.An exhaustive review of historical newspapers and periodicals revealed personal testimonials and editorials. Particularly informative was the series of articles written by suffragist Maud Younger and published in McCall’s magazine in 1919, just after congressional passage of the amendment. Entitled “Revelations of a Woman Lobbyist,” Younger’s intimate account provides an insider’s view of the extensive lobbying campaign suffragists waged to win House and Senate approval of the Nineteenth Amendment.Primary sources such as photos, petitions, speeches, published hearings, correspondence, historical newspapers, and periodicals are all essential to the historian’s work. Our special feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote,” which drew upon all of those resources and more, demonstrates the value and importance of congressional archives. Without these records, the important role played by suffragists and their allies in the Senate’s long battle over the suffrage amendment would be lost or forgotten.
| 202003 9Two Women Take the Oath
March 9, 2020
A long-standing feature of the Senate’s traditional biennial oath-taking ceremony is the escorting of newly elected or reelected senators to the well of the Chamber. In January of 2019, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, a record-breaking 14 women senators took the oath of office. Eight of those women were escorted by another female senator. As the number of women in Congress grows, these symbolically important moments are becoming more commonplace, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1961, the sight of two women taking the oath together caused quite a stir!
In celebration of Women’s History Month, this Senate Story highlights a historic day in 1961 when—for the first time in Senate history—two women took the oath of office on the same day. One of the Senate’s most enduring traditions is the biennial oath-taking ceremony. A long-standing feature of this ritual is the escorting of newly elected or reelected senators to the well of the Chamber. Marching down the center aisle in pairs, or occasionally in groups of three, current and former senators, traditionally from the same state as the newly elected or reelected senator, then stand by to witness this much-anticipated moment in every Senate career. In January of 2019, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, a record-breaking 14 women senators took the oath of office. Eight of those women were escorted by another female senator. As the number of women in Congress grows, these symbolically important moments are becoming more commonplace, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1961, the sight of two women taking the oath together caused quite a stir!The 1960 election had already set a milestone. For the first time, two women candidates faced off against each other for the same Senate seat. One candidate was the Republican senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, whose courageous stand against McCarthyism had won her national acclaim and placed her on the list of America’s most admired women. First elected to the Senate in 1948, Smith was reelected in 1954, and in 1960 she was seeking a third term. Political observers predicted an easy win for Smith, but the Democrats had a plan for victory. Their carefully chosen candidate was state representative Lucia Cormier. The only way to beat Smith, the Democrats insisted, was with another woman.The Smith-Cormier contest quickly gained national attention. Despite the many accomplishments of both women, the press often reported the campaign in sexist terms. It was a contest of “widow vs. spinster,” declared the Los Angeles Times. We expect to see “a real fur-flying political cat fight,” predicted the Washington Post, between “a scrappy ex-school teacher” and “the snowy-maned, frosty-mannered Republican ‘queen bee.’” The campaign heated up even more in February of 1960 when Maine’s junior senator, Edmund Muskie, personally championed Cormier’s campaign. Muskie even went so far as to escort the Democratic candidate to the Senate Chamber. He introduced Cormier as “the next senator from Maine” and urged her to take a seat at one of the historic desks. This was a clear breach of Senate etiquette and something that Senator Smith did not forget.Margaret Chase Smith won the election (and another in 1966). There were no post-election hard feelings between Smith and Cormier, who had been friends and colleagues for years, but as Smith returned to Washington to take the oath for a third time, she was none too pleased with Ed Muskie.Less publicized but equally important, another woman made Senate history that year. On November 8, 1960, Democrat Maurine Neuberger was elected as the first (and to date, only) woman senator from the state of Oregon. A teacher, writer, photographer, and activist for consumer rights, Neuberger had served in the Oregon state legislature in the 1950s but came to Washington, D.C., when her husband, Richard, was elected to the U.S. Senate. They quickly became a high-profile Washington “power couple.” When Richard died in 1960, Maurine Neuberger ran for election to his seat, winning both a special election to fill out the remainder of his term and a general election to the full six-year term beginning in 1961. For the first time in Senate history, two women were elected to a full term in the same election and would take the oath of office on the same day. “The gap between the two parties, the distance between Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon, will be bridged” by two women, promised a reporter.As the opening day of the 87th Congress arrived in January of 1961, the press paid a good deal of attention to the two women senators. Margaret Chase Smith, who for much of her career had been the only female senator, welcomed the company of another woman. Smith was also an astute politician. She understood that the oath-taking ceremony provided a perfect opportunity for a display of female solidarity in the Senate. It also provided an opportunity for some political payback.On January 3, 1961, when Margaret Chase Smith entered the Chamber to take the oath of office, she ignored Senate tradition. In a rebuke of her Maine colleague, she walked into the Chamber arm in arm with Maurine Neuberger. The two women got a standing ovation, women in politics got a hefty boost, and Margaret Chase Smith got even with Edmund Muskie.
| 202002 25Hiram Revels: First African American Senator
February 25, 2020
One hundred and fifty years ago, on February 25, 1870, visitors in the packed Senate galleries burst into applause as Senator-elect Hiram Revels, a Republican from Mississippi, entered the Chamber to take his oath of office. Those present knew that they were witnessing an event of great historical significance. Revels was about to become the first African American to serve in the United States Congress.
Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. In recognition of Black History Month, our first blog post celebrates the sesquicentennial of the swearing in of Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American senator. One hundred and fifty years ago, on February 25, 1870, visitors in the packed Senate galleries burst into applause as Senator-elect Hiram Revels, a Republican from Mississippi, entered the Chamber to take his oath of office. Those present knew that they were witnessing an event of great historical significance. Revels was about to become the first African American to serve in the United States Congress. Just 22 days earlier, on February 3, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Revels was indeed “the Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood,” as his contemporary, the civil rights activist Wendell Phillips, dubbed him.Hiram Revels was born a free man in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 27, 1827, the son of a Baptist preacher. As a youth, he took lessons at a private school run by an African American woman and eventually traveled north to further his education. He attended seminaries in Indiana and Ohio, becoming a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1845, and eventually studied theology at Knox College in Illinois. During the turbulent decade of the 1850s, Revels preached to free and enslaved men and women in various states while surreptitiously assisting fugitive slaves.When the Civil War began in 1861, Revels was serving as a pastor in Baltimore. Before long, he was forming regiments of African American soldiers in Maryland, serving as a Union army chaplain in Mississippi, and establishing schools for freed slaves in Missouri. He settled in Natchez, Mississippi, at war’s end, where he served as presiding elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1868 he gained his first elected position, as alderman for the town of Natchez. The next year he won election to the state senate, as one of 35 African Americans elected to the Mississippi state legislature that year.In 1870, as Mississippi sought readmission to representation in the U.S. Congress, the Republican Party firmly controlled both houses of Congress and also dominated the southern state legislatures. That, along with the pending ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, set the stage for the election of Congress’s first African American members. One of the first orders of business for the new Mississippi state legislature when it convened on January 11, 1870, was to fill the vacancies in the United States Senate, which had remained empty since the 1861 withdrawal of Albert Brown and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Representing around one-quarter of the state legislative body, the black legislators insisted that one of the vacancies be filled by a black member of the Republican Party. “An opportunity of electing a Republican to the United States Senate, to fill an unexpired term occurred,” Revels later recalled, “and the colored members after consulting together on the subject, agreed to give their influence and votes for one of their own race for that position, as it would in their judgement be a weakening blow against color line prejudice.” Since Revels had impressed his colleagues with an impassioned prayer at the opening of the session, legislators agreed that the shorter of the two terms, set to expire in March 1871, would go to him.Mississippi gained readmission on February 23, 1870, and Senator Henry Wilson, one of the Senate’s strongest civil rights advocates, promptly presented Revels’s credentials to the Senate. Immediately, three senators issued a challenge. They charged that Revels had not been a U.S. citizen for the constitutionally required nine years. Citing the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, they argued that Revels did not gain citizenship until at least 1866, with passage of that year’s civil rights act, and perhaps not until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868. By this logic, Revels could claim that he had been a U.S. citizen for, at most, four years.Revels and his supporters dismissed the challenge. The Fourteenth Amendment had repealed the Dred Scott decision, they insisted, and they pointed out that long before 1866 Revels had voted in the state of Ohio. Certainly that qualified him as a citizen. “The time has passed for argument. Nothing more need be said …. For a long time it has been clear that colored persons must be senators,” Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner declared, bringing the debate to an end with a stirring speech. “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration, and now a great act attests to this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality.” By an overwhelming margin, the Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat Revels. Escorted to the well by Senator Wilson, Revels took the oath of office on February 25, 1870.Three weeks later, the Senate galleries were again filled to capacity as Revels rose to deliver his maiden speech. Seeing himself as a representative of African American interests throughout the nation, Revels spoke against an amendment to the Georgia readmission bill that could be used to prevent blacks from holding state office. “Perhaps it were wiser for me, so inexperienced in the details of senatorial duties, to have remained a passive listener in the progress of this debate,” he began, acknowledging the Senate tradition of waiting a year or more to deliver a major address, “but when I remember that my term is short, and that the issues with which this bill is fraught are momentous in their present and future influence upon the well-being of my race, I would seem indifferent to the importance of the hour and recreant to the high trust imposed upon me if I hesitated to lend my voice on behalf of the loyal people of the South.”Revels made good use of his time in office, championing education for black Americans, speaking out against racial segregation, and fighting efforts to undermine the civil and political rights of African Americans. When his brief term ended on March 3, 1871, he returned to Mississippi, where he later became president of Alcorn College.During the Reconstruction Era, a total of 17 African Americans served in the United States Congress, 15 in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. In 1874 the Mississippi legislature elected Blanche K. Bruce to a full Senate term. Bruce, who had escaped slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War, became the first African American to preside over the Senate in 1879. Another eight decades passed before Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts followed in Revels and Bruce’s historic footsteps to take office in 1967.The significance of the courageous and pioneering service of Revels, Bruce, and the other African American congressmen of the Reconstruction Era cannot be overstated. Although the struggle to fully achieve equality would continue for years to come, their remarkable accomplishments opened doors for others to follow.