Mitch McConnell and slavery: A dark fable of America's past — and present

Mitch McConnell had slave-owning ancestors. He will have no epiphany — but the rest of us might learn something

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 10, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell (Getty/Alex Wong)
Mitch McConnell (Getty/Alex Wong)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell believes that reparations for the crimes done to black Americans, both during centuries of white-on-black chattel slavery and then 100 years of Jim Crow American apartheid are not deserved. On this point, McConnell said last month, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, when none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.”

McConnell can try to outrun history and thus escape its grasp. But America's ignoble history is looking him (and many other white people) in the face every day when he looks in the mirror. Researchers working with NBC News have discovered that McConnell's great-great-grandfathers were slave-owners who held at least 14 black people as human property.

Given how widespread the sexual assault and other abuse of black women and black men (as well as black boys and black girls) was during chattel slavery, Mitch McConnell more likely than not has African-American relatives by direct blood relationship. This is common across the Americas and elsewhere: Approximately 25 percent of black Americans have "white ancestry," mostly as a result of white-on-black sexual assault before, during and after the era of slavery.

NBC News provides these details:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said recently he opposes paying government reparations to the descendants of American slaves, has a family history deeply entwined in the issue: Two of his great-great-grandfathers were slave owners, U.S. census records show.

The two great-great-grandfathers, James McConnell and Richard Daley, owned a total of at least 14 slaves in Limestone County, Alabama — all but two of them female, according to the county “Slave Schedules” in the 1850 and 1860 censuses.

The details about McConnell’s ancestors, discovered by NBC News through a search of ancestry and census records, came in the wake of recent hearings on reparations before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

In many ways, McConnell's family story of slavery is quite representative of America's history. Chattel slavery was foundational for American Empire. Historian Edward Baptist summarized this in a 2014 essay for Salon:

The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation — not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing U.S. politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible. The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.

Economists and other experts estimate the value of black human property, adjusted for inflation, to be at least $13 trillion. This would make black enslaved people the most valuable capital good in America, worth more than railroads, factories and other industry combined. Thousands of white families owned black people across the United States. But chattel slavery was mostly concentrated in the South where it is estimated that at the height of the country's slave regime, 4 million black Americans were held in bondage.

In 1860, a small percentage of white families (1 percent or less) owned 40 or more slaves. In that year, one-third of black slaves were imprisoned on plantations where there were 40 or more bondspeople. A majority of black human property was imprisoned on farms where there were between 7 and 39 bondspeople.

These plantation slave labor camps were organized along many of the same labor time management and productivity principles as industrial factories.

Families like Mitch McConnell's constituted the economic "middle" and "upper middle class" of the white American slaveocracy. Most white Southerners did not own black people as human property. However, they were still deeply invested, both materially and psychologically, in this system of white supremacy and racial capitalism.

Owning black people as property was a means of accruing wealth and of climbing the economic ladder. It is estimated that an adult black male slave in his "prime years" could be worth more than $50,000 dollars, adjusted for inflation to the present day. Mitch McConnell's ancestors, who owned at least 14 enslaved people, could easily be regarded as millionaires when other variables such as leasing, financing and other forms of profit-maximizing labor and exploitation are taken into account.

For example, black human property was an investment and a type of collateral that could be used to secure bank loans and other wealth-generating opportunities. This system should be very familiar to most Americans: White-on-black chattel slavery was not part of some long-gone feudal past. Its economic logic continues on today.

As historian Caitlin Rosenthal shows in her new book "Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management," chattel slavery was foundational to modern American capitalism.

To defend and secure this vast amount of black human gold, the American South was effectively a militarized, authoritarian racial surveillance state. The North and other parts of the United States were societies that happened to have slaves — where giving up the practice was relatively noncontroversial, because it was not central to the economy.

For most of American history — if not all of it — the nation can accurately be described as a racialized democracy. This feature was built into the founding of the United States, as seen in a Constitution which was both pro-slavery and pro-Southern and an Electoral College system which protected the interests of the slave-owning South. The poisoned fruit of this arrangement helped to produce Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election — a contest she won by nearly 3 million votes.

In other ways, Mitch McConnell's slaver ancestors were atypical. Most white Americans did not own black human property. Moreover, they most certainly did not own at least 14 black people. The fact that Mitch McConnell's two great-great-grandfathers owned black women and girls (also listed as "mulattoes" on the tax schedules) and only two black boys suggests that McConnell's ancestors may have been keeping these black women for the purposes of sexual slavery.

But in their unusual circumstances, McConnell's slaver ancestors shared something with other white slave masters, specifically, and white society as a whole: Black people resisted and fought back against their bondage at almost every opportunity, in ways both small and large. McConnell's great-great-grandfathers experienced this directly: almost all of their black human property self-manumitted.

Black people had a deep understanding of both their material value as well as what historian Daina Berry describes in her recent book, "The Price for Their Pound of Flesh,” as their "soul value"

The University of Texas News describes Berry's scholarship on this subject:

But slaves weren’t tied to their human bodies. Instead, Berry says they recognized their intrinsic value as beings — what she calls their “soul value.”

The evidence is in their last words to each other at auction — the mother who holds her child’s face in her hands one last time and tells him they’ll meet again. It’s the slave who cuts off her fingers to make herself less desirable to a new owner so she can stay with her family. It’s the slave mother who leaves her baby in the woods, alone, while she looks for a safer place to hide. And it’s the slaves — sometimes joined by ally abolitionists — who resort to riots in the pursuit of emancipation.

They could accept the terms and the risks because they didn’t attach the same monetary values to themselves as white society did. They didn’t participate in their own commodification except to buy each other out of slavery, once one family member had been granted freedom. They believed their souls, if not appreciated in this life, would be valued in the next.

This same article also highlights Berry's work on the financialization of the black slave body, from the womb to the tomb, and the de facto reality of "slave breeding":

Girls and young women, on the verge of fertility, were sold at a premium for their “increase,” a term used in antebellum America to describe a female slave’s anticipated ability to breed. The possibility that she could produce offspring, regardless of any other attribute, made her a good investment, the same way a rancher might buy a new heifer or sow. Her offspring could be kept to work the plantation or could be sold — at any age — to bring in additional income.

Although the civil rights movement tore down de jure American apartheid in the 1960s, the legacy of slavery lives on in the America of the 21st century.

There is an enduring racial wealth gap: White American families have at least 10 times the median wealth of black American families, and some estimates suggest that the gap is higher still.  Much of that disparity can be traced back to chattel slavery and how after emancipation the former human property were never properly compensated for their stolen physical, emotional, intellectual and creative labor. America's policy makers and other elites continued to actively deny black Americans wealth and income creation opportunities — which in practice meant subsidizing white America's prosperity — throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

These material wages of whiteness were extended to newly arrived European immigrants as well.

In many ways such policies continue at present, through discrimination against black people and other nonwhites in housing, banking, lending, employment, education, law enforcement, health care, the environment, technology and other areas of American life.

Today's Republican Party is the United States' largest white identity organization. It seeks to keep nonwhites from voting through gerrymandering, voter suppression and other tactics, both legal and otherwise. Donald Trump and his regime have embraced white supremacy and cruelty to nonwhites as one of their primary means of winning and keeping power. In service to that goal, Republicans are working to undermine or roll back the civil and human rights of nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians, and any other group they view as the enemy Other.

In total, the Republican Party has now fully melded white racism, white racial animus, nativism and (under  Trump) overt white supremacy together with "conservatism" — although it would be more accurate to describe it as destructive backwards revanchism.

As the new book "Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics" demonstrates, the racial authoritarianism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party has its roots in the old Southern slave-holding regime and the treasonous Confederacy. Moving beyond the common explanations provided by an over-reliance on the "Southern strategy," new research shows that those areas in the South which had higher numbers of black slaves are now much more likely to vote Republican.

Here, white "racial conservatism" (i.e., racism) is shown again to be a key attribute of the Republican Party. This is not limited to attitudes and public policies related to the color line: Racial animus rooted in the American slaveocracy and then the Jim Crow era also manifests as hostility towards organized labor, women's rights, the social safety net and other efforts to create a more humane and just society.

There are other horrible echoes of America's long history of overt white supremacy and racial terrorism in the present as well. Those parts of the South that experienced higher Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1960s (presumably in defiance against the black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement) are now reliably Republican.

Some naively believe that Mitch McConnell, upon learning about his family's financial enrichment from owning black human property, could have some great epiphany. In this fantasy, he would suddenly understand that reparations for the centuries of crimes committed against black Americans are an ethical, legal and moral imperative.

Perhaps McConnell could also read Edward Ball's bestselling book "Slaves in the Family" (Ball's ancestors owned up to 4,000 black enslaved people in South Carolina) and learn from some of the author's wisdom about his own struggle with his family's legacy:

My father had a little joke that made light of our legacy as a family that had once owned slaves. "There are five things we don't talk about in the Ball family," he would say. "Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes."

"What does that leave to talk about?" my mother asked once. "That's another of the family secrets," Dad said, smiling."

Mitch McConnell and other white Americans — both those whose families owned black human property and others who continue to benefit from a society organized around accruing, defending and protecting white privilege — would greatly benefit from reflecting on Edward Ball's answer in a 1998 interview with the Baltimore Sun about the difference between "accountability" and "responsibility."

I could not have controlled the deeds of my ancestors and therefore I'm not responsible for what they did. It's a matter of whether one is culpable, like a criminal who is culpable for a crime — or accountable, which is, for example, as a government is accountable for treaties it undertakes.

I freely admit that the legacy of the plantation has given me great benefits, because the plantations created a caste society in which we live still today. So with that reality in mind, I feel that I am accountable for what happened on the Ball plantations. I am called on to explain it, to speak honestly about it, not to run from it, not to dress it up, to make a record of it that might be useful for black Americans especially, but also for whites.

You see, I didn't inherit any money from the slave past, there's no dirty money left over, the wealth was destroyed a hundred years ago. The Balls own no land and we own no capital that was handed down, but we have a great deal of cultural capital, social capital, and what I'm trying to do is acknowledge the fact.

Of course this will not happen.

On Twitter, historian Ibram X. Kendi recently said this about Mitch McConnell, who has been one of the most powerful leaders in the Republican Party and its crusade against America's multiracial democracy: "People can turn a different page from their ancestors. The descendant of racist slaveholders can be an antiracist advocate of reparations. But not Sen. McConnell. Same old racist tree. Newer apple. Then and now subjugating Black people for their own gain."

How did Mitch McConnell respond on Tuesday when asked about his slave-owning great-great-grandfathers?

McConnell told reporters: “I find myself once again in the same position as President Obama. We both oppose reparations. We both are the descendants of slave owners.”

To summon the country's first black president's name, as a perverse way of claiming some sort of shared values and beliefs, but with the evident goal of stopping any reflection, conversation or meditation about the harm done to black Americans — in this case by McConnell's own family — is poor taste, twisted logic and gross insincerity. And that's saying something, considering the standards of the Machiavellian master of the U.S. Senate. Same tree; new apple.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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