Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American ever elected to the United States Senate. He represented the state of Mississippi from February 1870 to March 1871.
In 1870 Revels was elected by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi State Senate to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the US Senate, which had been left vacant since the Civil War. Previously, it had been held by Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the US Senate in 1861 when Mississippi seceded.
When Revels arrived in Washington, DC, Southern Democrats opposed seating him in the Senate. For the two days of debate, the Senate galleries were packed with spectators at this historic event. The Democrats based their opposition on the 1857 Dred Scott Decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that people of African ancestry were not and could not be citizens. They argued that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and thus Revels could not satisfy the requirement for nine years’ prior citizenship.
Supporters of Revels made a number of arguments, from the relatively narrow and technical to fundamental arguments about the meaning of the Civil War. Among the narrower arguments was that Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry (an “octoroon”) and that the Dred Scott Decision ought to be read to apply only to those blacks who were of totally African ancestry; supporters also argued that Revels had long been a citizen (and indeed had voted in Ohio) and that he had met the nine-year requirement before the Dred Scott decision changed the rules and held that blacks could not be citizens. The more fundamental arguments Revels supporters made boiled down to this idea: that the Civil War, and the Reconstruction Amendments, had overturned Dred Scott. The meaning of the war, and also of the Amendments, was that the subordination of the black race was no longer part of the American constitutional regime, and that therefore, it would be unconstitutional to bar Revels on the basis of the pre-Civil War Constitution’s racist citizenship rules. One Republican Senator supporting Revels mocked opponents as still fighting the “last battle-field” of the War. On February 25, 1870, Revels, on a strict party-line vote of 48 to 8, with only Republicans voting in favor and only Democrats voting against, became the first African American to be seated in the United States Senate. Everyone in the galleries stood to see him sworn in.
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