The beginning of the twentieth century found Senate Democrats in disarray. In the final twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, they had controlled the Senate for only two Congresses. The election of 1900 continued Republican William McKinley’s tenure in the White House. When an assassin’s bullet struck him down in September 1901, Theodore Roosevelt roared into the Executive Mansion, filled with restless energy to push through Republican legislative programs.
At the start of the Fifty-eighth Congress, in March 1903, the Senate party ratio stood at 57 Republicans to only 33 Democrats. For the previous four years, Senate Democrats had operated without Maryland’s Arthur Gorman, the legislative master strategist who had been caucus chairman for most of the 1890s. Although Gorman had lost his reelection bid in 1899, he won his state’s other Senate seat early in 1903–in time to return as caucus chairman for the March 1903 special session.
Arthur Gorman’s first challenge as leader was to unite his faction-ridden caucus. He later observed that without an effective caucus, “we should have passed through the session with divisions as wide upon this side as it is possible to conceive within a party.” Gorman took several significant steps to promote greater party stability. For the first time, Democrats adopted a “binding caucus” rule by which all members agreed to support any issue that received a two-thirds vote of the whole caucus. They also created the post of Democratic Conference Secretary to assist the chairman in keeping track of Conference votes and decisions. That post went to Tennessee Senator Edward Carmack.
Today we remember Carmack for an event that took place on March 16, 1903. Secretary Carmack produced the first formal minutes of the Democratic Conference. In those minutes, recently published for the first time, Carmack recorded two caucus substitute amendments to the pending Panama Canal treaty. By adopting these amendments, the Democratic Conference signaled its resolve to exploit Republican divisions in influencing this controversial treaty. Within ten years, the Democrats regained their majority to coincide with the presidential election of Woodrow Wilson. A rich record of relations between Wilson and Senate Democrats fills 250 pages of the newly released caucus minutes, documenting a fascinating chapter in American political history.