I have been asked time without number in the later days what was the cause of my being retained through all administrations. The only reason that I can give is that I tried to mind my own business and let other people alone.- Isaac Bassett
On December 5, 1831, 12-year-old Isaac Bassett was appointed a page in the U.S. Senate. Thus began a career that spanned more than six notable decades in the history of the institution and the nation.
Eventually promoted to messenger and then assistant doorkeeper, Bassett remained at his post on the Senate Chamber floor until his death in 1895. He witnessed many of the great debates and compromises of the Senate's "Golden Age." He lived through the turbulence of Civil War. He watched the Senate struggle to reconstruct a shattered nation, then cope with America's emergence as a continental power and industrial giant.
For 64 years, the Chamber was Bassett's domain. Seated on the rostrum whenever the Senate met, he supervised staff and pages, discreetly ensured that senators' needs were met, and controlled access to the room. By the 1880s, the elderly Bassett, with his long gray beard and stately bearing, had become more than just a faithful employee. For both senators and the public, he symbolized the gentlemanly, statesmanlike qualities of the Senate at its finest. Senators came to regard him as an indispensable part of the institution, and honored him as the "venerable official" of the body.
We would know little of Isaac Bassett had he not decided late in life to write a memoir for publication after his death. Although he never completed this task, his descendants faithfully preserved his efforts and eventually transferred the papers and a number of artifacts to the Senate. Isaac Bassett's incomplete manuscript and some accompanying ephemera provide a vivid look at his relationship to the Senate during the pivotal 19th century.
Isaac Bassett originally wanted to weave a comprehensive narrative describing life in the Senate, but he never got beyond a rough draft. The surviving manuscript consists of a series of disparate anecdotes and observations, grouped generally according to subject, but without explanatory text. Although succeeding generations of his family attempted to organize and edit the papers in preparation for publication, their most enduring contribution was saving the manuscript, together with various paintings, photographs, and historical objects associated with Bassett's career.
In 1996 Anjanette Vail Van Horn, Bassett's great-great-granddaughter, transferred the papers and some associated memorabilia to the U.S. Senate. This rich collection has proven to be an invaluable resource for the study of daily life and personalities in the Senate during the 19th century. Bassett spent many hours recording his recollections of the Senate and its members. Many of his stories and anecdotes appear in this exhibit.
The purpose of this exhibit is not to produce the volume that Isaac Bassett originally intended to publish, or to provide a comprehensive history of the Senate, but rather to reproduce a colorful sample of Bassett's recollections. Editorial comment has been appended to provide the reader with context, and some of Bassett's punctuation and misspellings have been corrected to aid readability.
This exhibit organizes Bassett's papers into five categories: Events, Senators, Adventures and Anecdotes, Career and Recognition, and Traditions. This information has been presented on both a timeline and thematically. The amended transcript, as well as the original manuscript, can be viewed in this exhibit.
It should be remembered that Bassett's manuscript is the early draft of a book, with all the imperfections of such a draft. Bassett initially wrote hurriedly as reminiscences occurred to him. Later, he often revisited these notes, revising, rewriting, and expanding them. Sometimes, he is inconsistent in versions of the same recollection. At other times, he may add or subtract facts from one version to another. In still other instances, he may include information that he gleaned from sources other than his own experience. Despite his efforts, many stories remain tantalizingly incomplete. Sometimes, earlier drafts are more complete or more lively. Therefore, this exhibit occasionally displays several versions of one story. Also, Bassett’s writings have been transcribed to present the best possible readability while still reflecting his voice. To this end, Bassett’s misspellings have been corrected, and his sometimes ambiguous punctuation marks have been interpreted in accordance with context to provide the best sense of Bassett’s intent. Finally, please note that [. . .] indicates that a word or words have been omitted, and [?] implies that a word or phrase was indecipherable.