Move from the Old to the New Chamber

"The United States Senate in Session in Their New Chamber."
Unidentified Artist, after John McNevin
Harper's Weekly
December 31, 1859


There were events of much interest in the old Senate Chamber. On the 4 of January 1859 the galleries were filled and the floor much crowded. Senator Crittenden asked to be indulged in a few words.

Vice President Breckinridge delivered a long address reviewing the formation and history of the government, after this address the Senate, preceded by the president [of the Senate] and other officers, formed a procession and march[ed] to the new Chamber. The vice president took his chair and called the Senate to order. On the removal to the new Chamber the galleries were crowded. [2C272]

The Old Senate Chamber and Seats

I went but a few days ago and stood in the precise places where the desks and chairs of Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Benton, Cass, [and] Hayne were. When in the old Chamber Clay and Webster sat on the left of the presiding officer. Benton Calhoun Cass and Hayne were on the right. The only alteration is in the removal of the circular gallery that has been taken away and a large glass chandelier, which hung in the center. Many a day and night have I spent in its sacred walls. When a messenger I had charge of the center door of the Senate, have seen the sunrise and set and rise without leaving my post. While the Compromise measures was under discussion the same desks and chairs that were used then are now used in the new Senate Chamber. Whenever there is a new state admitted in the Union there is two new desks and chairs made of the same pattern. [2B274-2B275]

The New Senate Chamber and Senators

We came over on 4 January 1859. Marched in a body. Mr. Breckinridge was vice president. When the Senate had taken their seats he called them to order and proceeded with the business of the Senate. It is much larger than the old one, pleasanter to speak in and accommodates a lot, twelve hundred persons. I have seen sad scenes within its walls. Soon after the Senate came over the rebellion broke out. Senator after Senator arose from the seats, and left never again to return, Mason, Slidell, Toombs, and a host of other Southern senators. I shall never forget the appeal that Senator Johnson of Tennessee made to them to remain. It was one of his greatest efforts of his life, but it had no effect, go they would. In a few days after, the seats on the Democratic side of the Senate looked deserted, everything about the Senate was gloomy. Still, the business of the Senate went on and struggled through it all. Now every state in this glorious Union has two senators, and the country is saved. Part of what has transpired as the senators from Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida were about to retire from the Senate all the Democratic senators crowded around them and shook hands with them. Messrs. Hale and Cameron were the only Republican senators that did so. [14A6-14A8]

Editor's Note:

The Old Senate Chamber was occupied by the Senate from 1810 to 1859. It is located on the second floor of the north section of the Capitol. During its residency in that chamber, the Senate evolved into the primary forum for the great national debates of that era. By 1850 the number of states in the Union had risen to 31, and the Chamber was extremely crowded. Congress soon added new north and south wings to the Capitol, which contained larger chambers for the Senate and the House of Representatives. On January 4, 1859, Vice President Breckinridge, as president of the Senate, led a procession from the Old Senate Chamber down the hall to the current Senate Chamber.

People, Places, & Things:

  • John Jordan Crittenden (Democratic Republican, Whig, American (“Know-Nothing”), Unionist - KY) U.S. senator 1817-1819, 1835-1841, 1842-1848, and 1855-1861.
  • John Cabell Breckinridge (Democrat - KY) vice president of the United States 1856-1860.
  • Officers - Officers of the Senate ensure that the business of the Senate runs smoothly. These include the president of the Senate (the vice president of the United States), president pro tempore, secretary of the Senate, sergeant at arms (originally the doorkeeper), and the Senate chaplain.
  • 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.
    5. Daniel Webster (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian, Whig - MA) U.S. senator 1827-1841 and 1845-1850.
  • Henry Clay (Democratic Republican, National Republican, Whig - KY) U.S. senator 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.
  • John Caldwell Calhoun (Democratic Republican, Nullifier, Democrat - SC) U.S. senator 1832-1843 and 1845-1850.
  • Thomas Hart Benton (Democratic Republican, Jacksonian, Democrat - MO) U.S. senator 1821-1851.
  • Lewis Cass (Democrat - MI) U.S. senator 1845-1848 and 1849-1857.
  • Robert Young Hayne (Jackson Republican, Jacksonian, Nullifier - SC) U.S. senator 1823-1825, 1825-1831, and 1831-1832.
  • Presiding officer - The presiding officer sits in a chair in the front of the Senate Chamber and announces vote results, controls debates by calling on members to speak, and may rule on any point of order. The Constitution mandates that the vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate and as such is the presiding officer of the Senate, but does not vote except to break ties. The Constitution also authorizes the Senate to elect a president pro tempore (traditionally the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service) to preside in the vice president’s absence. Today the president pro tempore does not normally preside over the Senate, but instead delegates that responsibility to junior senators of the majority party.
  • Compromise measures - The Compromise of 1850 was a series of legislative measures that sought to balance the interests of the free states and the slaveholding states. The vast territory acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) would eventually be organized into states, with the result that new senators would be added to Congress. If slavery were outlawed in all of the new territory, free states would gain clear control of the Senate. If slavery were allowed, the balance of power would shift the other way. The issue was so important that it threatened to cause war, so a compromise was struck. The compromise measures included:
    1) admitting California as a free state;
    2) providing financial compensation to Texas for releasing lands west of the Rio Grande;
    3) defining the New Mexico territory (including present-day Arizona and Utah) without any specific prohibition of slavery;
    4) abolishing the slave trade (but not slavery itself) in Washington, DC; and
    5) passing a stricter fugitive slave law, requiring all U.S. citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves.
  • Desks and chairs - The Senate purchased 48 mahogany desks and chairs for its chamber in 1819, adding two new desks each time a state joined the Union. These replaced the original desks and chairs, which were destroyed in 1814 when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812. The 48 desks purchased in 1819 remain in use in the Senate Chamber, but the chairs have been replaced.
  • Rebellion - This refers to the Civil War (1861-1865).
  • James Murray Mason (Democrat - VA) U.S. senator 1847-1861.
  • John Slidell (Democrat - LA) U.S. senator 1853-1861.
  • Robert Augustus Toombs (Whig, Democrat - GA) U.S. senator 1853-1855 and 1855-1861.
  • Andrew Johnson (Democrat - TN) U.S. senator 1857-1862 and 1875; vice president of the United States 1865; president 1865-1869.
  • Democratic Side - The custom of dividing Senate seating by party goes back to the creation of political parties in the United States, but has not always been rigidly followed. In the Old Senate Chamber an equal number of desks were placed on each side of the center aisle, requiring a few members to sit across from the rest of their party. Since 1877, however, the practice has developed of moving desks back and forth across the aisle to permit all members of each party to sit on the appropriate side.
  • John Parker Hale (Independent Democrat, Free Soil, Opposition, Republican - NH) U.S. senator 1847-1849, 1849-1853, 1855-1857, and 1857-1865.
  • Simon Cameron (Democrat, Republican - PA) U.S. senator 1845-1849, 1857-1861, and 1867-1877.