Wed 22 Oct, 2008
Tags: Historical amnesia, History, John McCain, Politics, Presidential election, Slaveowning
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.
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.