For America’s political elite, family links to slavery abound

By Tom Lasseter, Lawrence Delevingne, Makini Brice, Donna Bryson and Tom Bergin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As U.S. lawmakers commemorated the end of slavery by celebrating Juneteenth this month, many of them could have looked no further than their own family histories to find a more personal connection to what’s often called America’s “original sin.”

In researching the genealogies of America’s political elite, a Reuters examination found that a fifth of the nation’s congressmen, living presidents, Supreme Court justices and governors are direct descendants of ancestors who enslaved Black people.

Among 536 members of the last sitting Congress, for example, Reuters determined at least 100 descend from slaveholders. Of that group, more than a quarter of the Senate – 28 members – can trace their families to at least one slaveholder.

Among those lawmakers from the 117th Congress are Democrats and Republicans alike. They include some of the most influential politicians in America: Republican senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton, and Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth and Jeanne Shaheen.

In addition, Reuters determined that President Joe Biden and every living former U.S. president – except Donald Trump – are direct descendants of slaveholders: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and – through his white mother’s side – Barack Obama. Two of the nine sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices – Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch – also have direct ancestors who enslaved people.

In 2022, 11 of the 50 U.S. states also had governors who are descendants of slaveholders, Reuters found. They include eight chief executives of the 11 states that formed the Confederate States of America, which seceded and waged war to preserve slavery. Two are seeking the Republican nomination for president: Asa Hutchinson, the former governor of Arkansas, and Doug Burgum of North Dakota.

Reuters found that at least 8% of Democrats in the last Congress and 28% of Republicans have such ancestors. The preponderance of Republicans reflects the party’s strength in the South, where slavery was concentrated. Although white people enslaved Black people in Northern states in early America, by the eve of the Civil War, slavery was almost entirely a Southern enterprise.

South Carolina, where the Civil War began, illustrates the familial ties between lawmakers and the nation’s history of slavery. Every member of the state’s nine-person delegation to the last Congress has an ancestral link. The state’s two Black members of Congress – Senator and Republican presidential candidate Tim Scott and Representative James Clyburn, a powerful Democrat – have forebears who were enslaved. Each of the seven white lawmakers who served in the 117th Congress is a direct descendant of a slaveholder, Reuters found. So too is the state’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster.

The new insights into the political elite’s ancestral links to slavery come at a time of renewed and intense debate about the meaning of the institution’s legacy and what, if anything, lawmakers should do about it. Such topics include what to teach about slavery and racism in America’s classrooms; the future of affirmative action in college admissions; and how to address the persistent inequality in income and wealth for Black households, including monetary reparations.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll for this report showed that white respondents who said they’re aware of having a slaveholding ancestor were more likely than other white people to support paying reparations: 42% backed the idea, compared to 24% who said their ancestors did not enslave people.

The Reuters examination reveals how intimately tied America remains to the institution of slavery, including through the “people who make the laws that govern our country,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr, a professor at Harvard University who focuses on African and African American research and hosts the popular television genealogy show Finding Your Roots on PBS.

Gates said identifying those familial connections to slaveholders is “not another chapter in the blame game. We do not inherit guilt for our ancestors’ actions.”

“It’s just to say: Look at how closely linked we are to the institution of slavery, and how it informed the lives of the ancestors of people who represent us in the United States Congress today,” Gates said. “This is a learning opportunity for each individual. It is also a learning opportunity for their constituency … and for the American people as a whole.”

In addition to the political elite Reuters identified — which include lawmakers representing northern states such as New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts — “there are millions of Americans who are descendants of enslavers as well,” said Tony Burroughs, a genealogist who specializes in helping Black Americans trace their ancestries.

Census figures from 1860 indicate that 1 in 4 households in states where slavery was legal enslaved people, according to data from IPUMS’ National Historical Geographic Information System. What’s unclear is how the proportion of lawmakers who descend from slaveholders compares to that of all Americans. Among scholars, there is no agreement on precisely how many Americans today have a forebear who enslaved people.

To be sure, many white Americans whose ancestors came to America before the Civil War have family ties to the institution of slavery, and Northerners and Southerners alike reaped enormous economic benefits from enslaved labor.

Ancestral ties to slaveholders have been documented previously for a handful of leaders, including Biden, Obama and McConnell. Scholars and journalists have also extensively examined slavery and its legacy, including how the North profited from the institution, and the role slavery played in decisions of past political leaders during the formation of America and after emancipation.

The Reuters examination is different. It focuses on the most powerful U.S. officeholders of today, many of whom have staked key positions on policies related to race. It reveals for the first time, in breadth and in detail, the extent of those leaders’ ancestral connections to what’s commonly called America’s “original sin.” And it explores what it may mean for them to learn – in personal, specific and sometimes graphic ways – the facts behind their own kin’s part in slavery.

To trace the lineages of the political elite, Reuters assembled tens of thousands of pieces of information contained in thousands of pages of documents. Reporters only considered evidence of slaveholding that occurred after the founding of the United States. Journalists also limited their research to direct lineal descendants of the present-day elite rather than building sprawling family trees that included distant cousins.

In its reporting, Reuters analyzed U.S. census records, including antebellum tallies of enslaved people known as “slave schedules,” as well as tax documents, estate records, family Bibles, newspaper accounts, and birth and death certificates. The records – in some cases, family wills that show enslaved human beings bequeathed along with feather beds and farm animals – provide a visceral link between today’s decision makers and slavery.

The Reuters research was then vetted by board-certified genealogists, who reviewed each case linking a contemporary leader to a slaveholding ancestor. In instances in which journalists identified politicians with multiple slaveholding ancestors, Reuters focused on the lineage tracing to the ancestor who enslaved the most people.

In many cases, journalists identified politicians for whom there was strong evidence of an ancestral slaveholder, but insufficient underlying documentation to be certain. Those notables were not included in the Reuters analysis. And because other records that could demonstrate slaveholding have been lost or destroyed over time, “it’s a great possibility that you have an undercount,” Burroughs said.

Among the examples of lawmakers and their ancestral ties to slavery:

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: The great-great-great-grandfather of Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. After the death of Graham’s direct ancestor, Joseph Maddox, a receipt from the sale of his property was prepared. Dated February 1, 1845, it shows the purchase of eight people Maddox had enslaved. Among them were five children: Sela, Rubin, James, Sal and Green. The “Negro man Sam” was sold for $155.25. Their names are listed alongside items including a sorrel horse ($10.50) and a folding table ($9.87).

“Senator Graham has called slavery ‘the original sin of the country,’” an aide said in a short written statement in response to a detailed briefing on the Reuters findings about Maddox. Graham didn’t respond to an interview request. In past public remarks, he has spoken about the need to focus on building “a more perfect union rather than looking backward.”

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY MACE: The great-great-great-grandmother of Representative Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina. The ancestor, Drucilla Mace, had a son, John Mace, who was also a slaveholder. Decades after emancipation, a formerly enslaved man was interviewed and recalled being made to work for John Mace, who in 1860 enslaved seven people. John Mace is the great-great-grandfather of Nancy Mace.

In an interview in 1937, the man, Hector Godbolt, recounted watching an overseer summoned by John Mace’s wife put an enslaved person over a fence plank and whip him 75 times with a “cat o’nine tails,” named for the nine knotted strands that ensure each lash inflicted searing pain. After 75 lashes, Godbolt recalled, “Blood run down off him just like you see a stream run.”

Nancy Mace initially agreed to an interview, then canceled. She later provided this statement in response to the family tree Reuters provided: “I don’t recognize these people named and can’t confirm they are relatives, but slavery was a stain on this country and we as Americans should be grateful for the progress we’ve made since the 1860s.”

SENATOR TAMMY DUCKWORTH: The great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois. Duckworth described the facts Reuters unearthed as “gut-wrenching.” In an 1829 appraisal of the estate of her ancestor, Henry Coe, the names of the enslaved – and their assessed dollar values – are bookended by farm animals: seven sheep and a lamb, and a bull calf.

Coe left to various family members “my negro woman Margaret until she shall arrive at the age of forty years, and my negro boy Isaac until he is thirty-six years old, also my negro boy Warner until he is thirty-six years old …” and “my negro boy George … till he is thirty-six years old.” The will said that each would be freed when reaching the stated age. Reuters could not determine what became of three of the enslaved. But a Freedom Suit in Virginia in 1858 shows that Isaac Franklin – the child named Isaac mentioned in the Coe will – sought emancipation at age 36. By the 1860 census, he was listed in Frederick County, Virginia, living as a free man and working as a blacksmith.

Duckworth is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a service organization of women descended from veterans of the Revolutionary War. She said she hadn’t known about her familial ties to slavery. “There’s definitely political implications of the subject,” Duckworth said in an interview, when asked if she was reluctant to discuss it. “But I think it’s a disservice to our nation and our history to walk away from this. If I am going to claim – and be proud that – I am a Daughter of the American Revolution, then I have to acknowledge that I am also a daughter of people who enslaved other people.”

None of the 118 leaders identified by Reuters disputed the findings that at least one of their ancestors had enslaved people. In a letter describing the project to them, Reuters made clear that it was not suggesting they were “personally responsible for the actions of ancestors who lived 160 or more years ago.” Even so, few leaders were willing to discuss their family ties to slavery.

Reporters contacted each of the 100 current or former members of Congress and the 18 presidents, governors or justices, providing the letter along with a family tree and documents showing their ancestral link to a slaveholding forebear. Of the 100 congressional lawmakers, 24 responded to the materials Reuters delivered. Another nine said they had no comment. The remaining 67 offered no reply.

To explore more about the connections to slavery of each of the 118 leaders, to see how they responded to the Reuters findings, and to explore documents that list the names of the enslaved people held by some of their ancestors, click here.

In researching America’s political elite, Reuters found names – almost always just a first name – of 712 people enslaved by the ancestors of the political elite. Even with a first name, tracing those individuals forward to a census where they are recorded in full is often exceedingly difficult.

Genealogists say white people who excavate their ancestry could help Black Americans by finding information that enables them to trace their own ancestries. Black genealogy faces a special hurdle: Before 1870, census takers almost never recorded the names of the enslaved in the United States, instead listing ages and genders. But white families may have other documents – such as wills, plantation records or family Bibles that list the names of the enslaved – or know where to find them.

In conjunction with the Reuters series, Legacy Family Tree Webinars is making about 15 webinars from its library available each month through 2023, for free. The webinars will range from guidance for novice genealogists to challenges faced by Black Americans and can be found here.

(This series was reported by Tom Bergin, Makini Brice, Nicholas P. Brown, Donna Bryson, Lawrence Delevingne, Brad Heath, Andrea Januta, Gui Qing Koh and Tom Lasseter. Contributed: Grant Smith and Maurice Tamman. Edited by Blake Morrison.)

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