Investigative Report Shows 1700 Members Of U.S. Congress Owned Slaves: 7 Things To Know

Investigative Report Shows 1700 Members Of U.S. Congress Owned Slaves: 7 Things To Know


Photo: This undated engraving shows the scene on July 4, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pa. (AP Photo)

Over the past decade or so, the fact that former U.S. presidents owned slaves has come more into the light. But what about other elected politicians who owned slaves? A newly released investigative report highlights members of Congress who were slave owners.

The report by The Washington Post found that more than 1,700 people who served in the U.S. Congress in the 18th, 19th, and even 20th centuries owned slaves at some point in their lives. For the report, The Washington Post analyzed census reports and other historical records.

Here are seven things to know.

1. Extensive research

To create this database of 1,700 congressional slave owners, Washington Post reporter Julie Zauzmer Weil culled a list of every person elected to Congress who was born before 1840. This meant that the person had reached the age of 21 when the last census before the Civil War was conducted in 1860. Weil then researched each person on that list, examining various sources.

What Weil found was that there were slave owners in Congress. The members represented 37 states, including not just the South but every state in New England, much of the Midwest, and many Western states.

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2. Who they were

Congressional slave owners came from all sides of the aisle. They were members of more than 60 political parties including Federalists, Whigs, Unionists, Populists, Progressives, Prohibitionists, and more. But the most common political affiliation among enslavers was the Democratic Party — 606 Democrats in Congress were slaveholders, the Post reported. Of the Republicans, 481 were slave owners at some point in their elected careers.

Some enslavers also owned enormous plantations including Sen. Edward Lloyd V of Maryland, who had a vast plantation. He enslaved 468 people in 1832 on the same estate where abolitionist Frederick Douglass was enslaved as a child. 

Sen. Elias Kent Kane enslaved five people in Illinois in 1820. Kane tried to formally legalize slavery in the state.    

Ohio congressman John McLean, who later became a Supreme Court justice, dissented in the historic 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that ruled that Black Americans were not citizens under the Constitution. McLean was once an enslaver.

3. Half of congress owned slaves

For the first 18 years of American lawmaking, from 1789 to 1807, more than half the men elected to Congress each session were slaveholders.

4. Members from the North owned slaves

When the Northern states outlawed slavery, the number of congressmen who were slaveowners did decline. But some congressmen in New England continued to enslave people until at least 1820, the Post reported. Some representatives of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other Northern states also continued to enslave people for at least a decade longer.

In 1860 and 1861, 11 Southern states seceded and their lawmakers left Congress. This caused the number of congressional slaveholders to fall. Even so, more than 20 percent of the members who remained in Congress as the country fought the Civil War over slavery were current or former slaveholders.

5. Who owned slaves after Reconstruction

After Reconstruction, the period following the American Civil War from 1865 to 1877, there was a decrease in the number of congressmen who had been slaveholders. But people who had been slaveholders continued to serve in Congress well into the 20th century.

6. First female senator was an enslaver

Democrat Rebecca Latimer Felton, a suffragist and white supremacist, was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy in 1922. She briefly represented Georgia at age 87, making her the first woman ever to serve in the Senate. She was also a former slaveholder.

7. How owning slaves shaped congressional decisions

Slaveholding influenced early America. Congressmen’s personal interests as enslavers “shaped their decisions on the laws that they crafted,” the Post reported.

When Congress voted on the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which prohibited the expansion of slavery in the northern half of the country, the House and Senate contained a nearly equal number of slaveholders and non-slaveholders, the Post analysis found. Forty-four percent voted against the agreement, versus 25 percent of non-slaveholders.

“I’m very conscious of this as only the fourth Black person popularly elected to the United States Senate,” Sen. Cory Booker told The Post. “The very monuments you walk past … There’s very little acknowledgment of the degree that slavery, that wretched institution, shaped the Capitol. All around you, the very Capitol itself, was shaped by this legacy that we don’t fully know or don’t fully acknowledge.”

Photo: This undated engraving shows the scene on July 4, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pa. (AP Photo)