Recent news reports have publicized the fact that John McCain’s family owned slaves in the pre-Civil War South. As Douglas Blackmon related on the pages of the Wall Street Journal last Friday, Senator McCain’s great-great-grandfather owned a 2,000-acre plantation in Teoc, Mississippi where about 120 slaves labored in bondage.

Today at the Huffington Post, Abby Ferber explores the parallels between McCain’s story and that of the slave-trading DeWolf family, as chronicled in Traces of the Trade and Inheriting the Trade.

This history is hardly a secret in the McCain family. In fact, the McCain family and the descendants of their slaves, many of whom bear the name McCain, remained closely connected in Teoc over the generations. One of Senator McCain’s cousins still owns most of the original plantation, and today, various relatives, including Senator McCain’s brother, attend family reunions with descendants of those slaves.

Ferber focuses on the wealth gap between white and black Americans, and uses our two family stories to suggest that much of this gap can be attributed to the transmission of earlier advantages across the generations. She notes, for instance, that the McCain plantation is still largely in his family’s hands, while the descendants of the McCain slaves had to struggle to make their way in our society.

Ferber could also have noted, in keeping with her analysis of the white/black wealth gap, that less tangible privilege was likely operating in the case of the McCain family. The white McCain family, for instance, were wealthy plantation owners before and after the Civil War. This background likely contributed to the ability of McCain’s grandfather to attend the Naval Academy in the early 20th century and to rise to the rank of admiral. Senator McCain, in turn, undoubedly benefited from the fact that his grandfather and father were admirals, which ensured that he would have sufficient encouragement, resources, and motivation to attain similar goals himself.

There are other striking parallels between the McCain and DeWolf family stories. As Traces of the Trade explains to viewers, the DeWolf slave traders used existing laws, and skirted the law with political favors, to further their slave trading. Likewise, McCain’s family took advantage of post-Civil War laws—and, most likely, extralegal customs in the Jim Crow South—to continue exercising a measure of control over free blacks that was to have been abolished by emancipation. According to Blackmon’s account, for instance, the widow and brother-in-law of Senator McCain’s great-great-grandfather arranged with a local court to take legal custody of three young black girls, whom the family had owned prior to emancipation.

McCain is also known to have visited his family’s ancestral plantation frequently, and often for extended stays, when he was a child. We can only speculate what the experience of visiting this land, and staying in the old plantation house, might have meant to him. But his brother, Joe, speaks of thinking of the plantation as his “blood ground” and cherishing visits there. It’s not far-fetched to suppose that this experience might have given the future senator an experience of heritage and privilege not unlike those discussed by many DeWolf family members today.

In the most astonishing parallel, however, McCain appears to have grown up with the same amnesia about his family’s role in history that many DeWolf descendants did, despite the fact that their family history was out in plain sight. According to the story in the Wall Street Journal, McCain reports that he “grew to adulthood largely unaware of his family’s ties to slavery,” despite being intimately familiar with his family’s southern plantation.

This would seem to be merely another example of our society’s remarkable ability to hide unpleasant truths in plain sight, whether on southern plantations or in the former slave-trading capitals of the north.

9 Responses to “McCain’s family ties to slavery”

  1. Traces of the Trade » Huffington Post on John McCain and Traces of the Trade says:

    […] For more on the parallels between the McCain and DeWolf family stories, see this blog entry. […]

  2. Louise says:

    I saw CNN's piece by Jason Carroll this past week. I was absolutely surprised by it! Who would have thought that John McCain's family owned slaves. It really blew me away and made me want to know more … so, just like every other person, I went to the internet and found your piece. He (Senator John McCain) has some explaining to do! You just can't sweep something like this under the rug and hope it will just go away (it's not). John McCain is running for the highest office in the United States … address it and acknowledge it! Peace, love and blessings!

  3. Obama's aunt is illegal immigrant - Page 2 - SLUniverse Forums says:

    […] Originally Posted by Surreal Farber whoa….. got links? It was originally in the WSJ. Here is some background and the links to the stories: McCain’s family ties to slavery | The Living Consequences […]

  4. Obama and McCain’s slave-owning ancestors | The Living Consequences says:

    […] I’ve mentioned previously, John McCain’s family owned 120 slaves on a 2,000-acre cotton plantation in Carroll County, […]

  5. veronica mccain-davi says:

    my name is veronica mccain -davis im a memeber of the mccain family and dont think it was john mccains fault that his grand father owned slaves yes maybe he grew up with the slaves . im one of the which you would consider onr of the black side of the family.

  6. James says:

    Thank you for commenting, Veronica. I agree with you that it isn't in any way John McCain's fault that his family owned slaves.

    I do, however, think that this history has clearly impacted Senator McCain's own opportunities in life, as well as those of people descended from the family's slaves, in ways that our current national discourse often denies. McCain is where he is, in no small part, because of his family's history of enslaving other human beings, and the same applies to those descended from his family's slaves, as I believe you're saying you are. This is what runs against the grain of our nation's talk of individual merit, hard work, and equal opportunity, as well as suggestions that our nation's long history of slavery no longer matters at all in contemporary society.

  7. veronica mccain-davi says:

    thank you james for replying to me im one of the mccains which we have a long line of them. im also trying to do a family tree for myself and my children and grands so they will know some of where they came from. its hard that our people had to go through hard times but we cant change things i know some times we wish that we could. but god doesnt make mistakes but we learn and move on . i know that alot of people dont like john s. mccain but it wasnt him who started slavery.but to me it matters that we still as the black or mixed side of the mccains still have alot to be proud of. we ourselves have come a long way.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I thought John McCain's wealth was built on marrying well? Now, let's see how HER family got filthy rich…….evidently from poor stock who made money selling booze in Arizona. No connection to slavery at all. How bout dat?

    Class is mostly about money in America, but also family history and "position." Did they really help all the multiple divorces and remarriages that occurred on both sides of the John McCains of Arizona rise to power? If we can't agree on what caused the Civil War, that one will be tough to untwind as well.

    No body alive today started slavery but the Republican Party today is all about re-establishing it. Indeed, we should all know our history.

  9. bobbo, read often, s says:

    I post again as my address didn't connect on #8. James–the current PBS Special on Abraham Lincoln covers "motives" for the Civil War very much along the lines of our previous discussions but it too avoids the legacy of slavery in the North as one sided as you like to present it. Where did the abolition movement come from?

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