Thomas Constantine, Cabinetmaker
On June 23, 1818, Speaker of the House Henry Clay received 13 bids on a project to completely refurnish the House Chamber, following the Capitol’s near destruction by invading British forces. Speaker Clay sought carpets, wall hangings, lamps, 187 chairs, and 51 tables. In ordering group tables, in preference to individual desks, Clay continued the House practice of seating members together, presumably to symbolize their equality and interdependence. Aiming for utility and durability, rather than elegance and style, the frugal Clay selected the lowest bid. It came from a 27-year-old New York City cabinetmaker named Thomas Constantine.
The more deliberative Senate took much longer to arrange for its new postwar furnishings. The Chamber’s presiding officer, Vice President Daniel Tompkins, a victim of chronic alcoholism and distracting personal financial difficulties, waited for more than a year before concerning himself with this task. Unlike Speaker Clay, Vice President Tompkins did not bother to advertise for bids among numerous eligible East-Coast cabinetmakers. With only six weeks remaining before the December 1819 convening of the 16th Congress, Tompkins simply turned to the cabinetmaker the House had selected—Thomas Constantine. To Constantine’s delight, the deadline-pressed vice president offered him a no-bid, spare-no-expense furnishings contract that included construction of 48 mahogany armchairs and desks as well as other furnishings.
Constantine based his design of the throne-like Senate armchairs—today’s chairs are copies—on a sketch from an 1807 book on English furniture. His chairs reflected the influence of the then-popular French Empire and English Regency designs. Unlike the more commonplace House chairs, which he upholstered in black horsehair fabric, Constantine covered the Senate pieces in red morocco leather to confer upon their occupants an image of power and authority.
It is not known with certainty which of today’s 100 desks were among the original 48. Constantine fashioned each Senate desk to fit in a unique position in the semicircular Old Senate Chamber seating plan. To conform to the curve of the room, some desks are more angled, like a trapezoid, while others are more square.
Constantine received no advance funding for this costly project. Nonetheless, he faithfully delivered his chairs, desks, and other furnishings in time for the opening of the new Congress. Unfortunately, the Senate was not so timely with its payment. Nine years later, shortly after the death of 50-year-old former Vice President Tompkins, Thomas Constantine was still trying to collect in full on their original agreement.
For further information on Thomas Constantine, see Matthew A. Thurlow’s article, “Aesthetics, Politics, and Power in Early-Nineteenth-Century Washington: Thomas Constantine & Co.’s Furniture for the United States Capitol, 1818-1819" in American Furniture (Chipstone Foundation, 2006).