Turning Back the Clock

[Capt. Isaac Bassett]
Harry O. Hall
ca. 1890

"The Impeachement Trial—The Members of the House of Representatives Proceeding to the Senate Chamber."
Unidentified Artist, after Theodore R. Davis
Harper's Weekly
April 11, 1868


The Senate Clock

Turning back the hands of the clock in the Senate Chamber. It has always been a mystery to me why I should have been selected for that duty.

As far back as President Pierce’s administration, I have been called on to perform that duty.

There was an iron railing all around the Old Senate Chamber on the west side of the Chamber and in the center of the gallery is where the old clock stood, and it now stands in the corridor near the entrance of the present Senate Chamber.

I never will forget the anxiety of Mr. Dickens the then secretary of the Senate to have that old clock put in the new Chamber, it was impossible to find a suitable place for it there. He came to me and said, “Bassett can’t you suggest some place for that clock[?] I see it cannot go in the Senate Chamber.” I told him that was the best place for the present, pointing to the niche in the corner of the lobby. “Well,” he said, “if we can’t get in the Senate, let us put it as near as we can.” So there the old clock went and there it stands to this day. Soon after we came over to the new Senate Chamber the sergeant at arms ordered a new clock of smaller dimensions to be placed over the door of the main entrance to the Senate Chamber, and I have continued to turn the hands of that clock back at the close of every session. I wish it distinctly understood that I never did so until I received the order from the vice president or president pro tem of the Senate. A number of the most important appropriations bills have been saved and an extra session avoided. I have nothing to say whether it was constitutional or not, but never in my life while in the service of the Senate disobeyed an order from the vice president. On a great many occasions where I have put the clock back a great many of the senators would call me to their seats and question me as to what authority I acted upon. I always answered with great dignity, “By order of the president of the Senate of the United States.” They would say, “By what authority does he order you to do that?” I told them that it has always been the custom at the last hour of the session when they were waiting for important appropriations bills to come from the House to turn the clock back.

In olden times when I turned the hands of the clock back the senators all understood it but in these latter days all seems different. On one occasion when I was through turning the hands back Senator Hill of Georgia arose in his seat and called the attention of the Senate to the fact and declared that it was all wrong and there was nothing in the Constitution that warranted it. His remarks were winked at and several senators called out, “All right Hill, Constitution or not,” which created a great laugh all over the Senate Chamber. [19A11-19A12]

Editor's Note:

Until the 20th Amendment in 1933, the terms of the president, vice president, and both houses of Congress all ended on the same day, March 4th. The result was a last-minute crush of legislation in the final hours of March 3rd in every election year. On those nights, the Senate’s presiding officer often ordered Isaac Bassett to perform one of his most unusual duties—turning back the hands of the Senate Chamber clock to delay “midnight” until final bills could be passed. The clock in the background of the image, “The Impeachment Trial—The Members of the House of Representatives Proceeding to the Senate Chamber,” is the one that Isaac Bassett first turned back. It once stood in the Old Senate Chamber, but when the current Senate Chamber was completed in 1859, the clock did not fit, so it was placed in the hall outside the Chamber, where it stands to this day. A new clock was purchased and hung over the doors of the current Senate Chamber.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Franklin Pierce (Democrat - NH) president of the United States 1853-1857.
  • Secretary of the Senate - The secretary of the Senate is an officer elected by the Senate since 1789, originally tasked with keeping minutes and records, and purchasing supplies. Today, the secretary has expanded responsibilities, including legislative, financial, and administrative functions.
  • Sergeant at Arms - This position was originally that of doorkeeper, and was established in 1789. The doorkeeper tended the Senate Chamber door and enforced order in the galleries. Over the years, the title and duties grew; the title is now "sergeant at arms and doorkeeper." The sergeant at arms serves the Senate as its chief law enforcement officer, protocol officer, and executive officer.
  • Vice President - Under the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate. In the Senate Chamber, the vice president sits on the platform at the front of the Senate. He is allowed to vote only in the case of a tie. The president pro tempore, or others designated by that officer, presides in the absence of the vice president.
  • President Pro Tempore - A constitutionally established officer of the Senate who presides over the Senate Chamber in the absence of the vice president. The president pro tempore (or, "president for a time") is elected by the Senate and is, by modern custom, the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service.
  • House - The U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Benjamin Harvey Hill (Democrat - GA) U.S. senator 1877-1882.