Assigning Senate Seats

"United States Senate Chamber."
Thomas Doney, after James Whitehorn

Senate Chamber Desk
Thomas Constantine


Senate Seats Spoken for When Vacant

It has been the custom from the formation of the Senate that when a seat becomes vacant the first senator that speaks for that seat is entitled to it. The officer of the Senate who filled the place that I now occupy had charge of the chairs and desks of the Senate and whenever a senator thought a seat would be vacant he spoke to the officer for that seat. That custom is still kept up. On the 3 of March whenever there is to be a change of senator it is my custom to go round and see the senators that change their seats so as to make the changes on the evening of the 4 of March so that everything will be in order when they meet on the fifth. With what effort some senators make to obtain seats, when vacant, they have called on me at my house before sunrise in the morning and late at night to speak for a seat that they thought had not been spoken for. When I tell them they are too late they are surprised.

One of the most unpleasant duties I had to perform was to assign seats to senators. Oh what a vast difference in men. Some mild and pleasant others very haughty and wanting the best seats in the Senate.

On several occasions I have had senators come to me and accuse me of favoritism, and intimating that I had given certain senators preference, which I can say I never did. The senator speaking first always got the seat. [21A3A-21A3C]

The chairs and desks of senators are made of mahogany. I think the old ones were built in 1810. Whenever there is a new state admitted in the Union there is two new ones made of the same pattern. For a great number of years I have watch[ed] the seats and chairs with great care. One of the old senators when I was quite a youth told me to note what desk and chairs Clay, Webster, Calhoun, [and] Benton occupied for they would be sought for in after days. Ever since I have noted what senators occupied those, and want to know how it is done? I tell them a certain senator has spoken for that seat six months ago.

The seats in front of the vice president are mostly sought for on the right and left, halfway on both sides.

I will give a few instances of what difficulty I have to contend with. Senator Manderson was down for Senator Logan’s seat. I called on him and asked him if I should change his seat to where Senator Logan sat. He told me to wait he would sit where he was until it was decided whether Logan would be reelected, that if he was he would not take it. So I did not.

I also called on Senator Miller of New York. He was down for Senator Blair’s seat. I took the liberty to say to him that Mr. Blair expected to return to the Senate in a few days. Senator Miller replied to me, “Am I not booked for his seat when vacant?” I replied, “Yes sir.” “Then I want it.” [21A4A-21A4C]

Editor's Note:

When the Senate elected Isaac Bassett as assistant doorkeeper in 1861, it handed him one of the most difficult of all his duties—assigning desks to the senators. Today these historic desks are assigned by seniority, but in Bassett’s time they were assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Chairs and desks - 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 originals, which were destroyed in 1814, when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812. The desks purchased in 1819 remain in use in the Senate Chamber, but the chairs have been replaced.
  • Henry Clay (Democratic Republican, National Republican, Whig - KY) U.S. senator 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.
  • Daniel Webster (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian, Whig - MA) U.S. senator 1827-1841 and 1845-1850.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Charles Frederick Manderson (Republican - NE) U.S. senator 1883-1895.
  • John Alexander Logan (Republican - IL) U.S. senator 1871-1877 and 1879-1886.
  • Warner Miller (Republican - NY) U.S. senator 1881-1887.
  • Henry William Blair (Republican - NH) U.S. senator 1879-1891.