This 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.
One example: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, a Post analysis found. Almost twice as many slaveholders, 44 percent, voted against the agreement, compared with 25 percent of non-slaveholders. The law was crafted by a slaveholder, Henry Clay, who is so renowned as one of America’s greatest statesmen that 16 counties across the country are named for him.
When Congress voted during the Civil War on the 13th Amendment, which added a ban on slavery to the U.S. Constitution, nine men who had been slaveholders remained in the Senate. Just three of them voted to approve the amendment, while 35 out of 40 non-slaveholders voted yes.
Historian Loren Schweninger,who spent years driving to more than 200 courthouses across the South to collect records on slavery, notes the importance of lawmakers’ personal stake in slavery as they passed laws codifying the practice. “They were protective of the institution, that’s for sure,” Schweninger said of state and federallawmakers’ relationship with slavery. “There was brutality and there was all kinds of exploitation of slaves — but still there were laws.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said he thinks about that history in the halls of Congress, from the portraits on the walls to the votes once taken there.
“I’m very conscious of this as only the fourth Black person popularly elected to the United States Senate. … The very monuments you walk past: There’s very little acknowledgment of the degree that slavery, that wretched institution, shaped the Capitol,” Booker said in an interview. He added, “All around you, the very Capitol itself, was shaped by this legacy that we don’t fully know or don’t fully acknowledge.”
The same is true of the White House. Of the first 18 U.S. presidents, 12 were enslavers, including eight during their presidencies.
To Booker, those stories about his predecessors in Congress call for action from their counterparts today — namely, a bill he has championed that would commission the first national study on reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.
Without acknowledging the harm and trauma caused by slavery, both for the enslaved and their descendants, “it’s very hard to heal and move on,” Booker said. “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.”
Good on Booker for pushing the reparations debate ahead, though I can already hear the whiny tears of white people falling.