Over 1,700 United States congressmen once enslaved Black people, according to a new database from The Washington Post. The Post published on Monday what it calls the first-ever comprehensive list of every member of the U.S. Congress who enslaved Black people.
Compiling its findings in a searchable database, it concluded that 1,715 members were enslavers. To create the database, The Post researched all the 5,558 Congress members by examining 18th and 19th-century census records, journal articles, books, newspapers and many other texts.
The lawmakers who owned slaves were found to have represented 37 different states, including states in the South, every state in New England, states in the Midwest and the West. The lawmakers were also members of more than 60 political parties including the Republican and Democratic parties, and the little-known parties such as the Federalists, Whigs, Unionists, Populists, Progressives, Prohibitionists, the Post wrote.
The Democratic party had the highest number of lawmakers who enslaved Black people during their lifetimes. The Post said 606 Democrats in Congress were slaveholders while some 481 congressional Republicans also owned slaves. Indeed, the Post was able to confirm that hundreds of former congressmembers owned slaves but it is still investigating some 677 congressmen to know their slaveholding status.
Even though the outlet said work on the database is ongoing, it said the database “helps provide a clearer understanding of the ways in which slaveholding influenced early America, as congressmen’s own interests as enslavers shaped their decisions on the laws that they crafted.”
In other words, some congressmen used their political power to advance their own slave-related interests. For example, Sen. Elias Kent Kane, who enslaved five people in Illinois in 1820, made attempts to formally legalize slavery in the state.
Also, when Congress voted during the Civil War on the 13th Amendment (which included a ban on slavery to the U.S. Constitution), nine men who had been slaveholders remained in the Senate. According to The Post, only three of them voted to approve the amendment, while 35 out of 40 of those who did not own slaves voted yes.
“They were protective of the institution, that’s for sure,” historian Loren Schweninger told The Post. “There was brutality and there was all kinds of exploitation of slaves—but still there were laws.”
What is even more worrying now is that statues of many of these lawmakers can be found in town squares across the country. Streets and public schools have also been named after them while their slaveholding status has been ignored. Per The Post, Rep. John Peter Van Ness of New York was an enslaver but has a D.C. elementary school, a street and a Metro station named in his honor. Sen. Francis Preston Blair Jr. of Missouri also owned slaves and was against allowing Black citizens to vote after the Civil War. However, he has a statue in the Capitol and a homeless shelter named after him in Northeast Washington.
Having learned the stories of his predecessors, Democratic Sen. Corey Booker, who is just the fourth Black person elected to serve in the U.S. Senate, is championing a bill that would commission the first national study on reparations for the descendants of enslaved people. He believes that without acknowledging the pain and destruction caused by slavery, “it’s very hard to heal and move on.”
“We have never really tried, in any grand way as a country, to take full responsibility for the evil institution of slavery and what it has done,” he told The Post.
Click here to know more about the members of Congress who played a role in the harrowing institution of slavery.