Benjamin Disraeli never forgot his first attempt to deliver a speech as a brand new member of the British House of Commons. It was, perhaps, a legislator’s worst nightmare. As he began to speak, other members started laughing. The more he spoke, the harder they laughed. Finally, humiliated, he gave up and sat down. As his parting shot, this future two-time prime minister pledged, “The time will come when you shall hear me.”
From the Senate’s earliest days, new members have observed a ritual of remaining silent during floor debates for a period of time—depending on the era and the senator—that ranged from several months to several years. Some believed that by waiting a respectful amount of time before giving their so-called maiden speech, their more senior colleagues would respect them for their humility.
On April 19,1906, Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette was anything but humble. A 20-year veteran of public office, with service in the House and as his state’s governor, he believed he had been elected to present a message that none of his more seasoned colleagues was inclined to deliver. La Follette waited just three months, an astoundingly brief period by the standards of that day, before launching his first major address. He spoke for eight hours over three days; his remarks in the Congressional Record consumed 148 pages. As he began to speak, most of the senators present in the chamber pointedly rose from their desks and departed. La Follette’s wife, observing from the gallery, wrote, “There was no mistaking that this was a polite form of hazing.”
A year later, in 1907, Arkansas Senator Jeff Davis shocked Capitol Hill by waiting only nine days. The local press corps, keeping a count of such upstart behavior, noted that Davis was the fourth new senator in recent years who “refused to wait until his hair turned gray before taking up his work actively.”
Today, all that survives of this ancient Senate tradition is the special attention given to a member’s first major address. When university libraries organize a collection of a former senator’s papers, the chronology of that member’s career almost always includes the date of his or her maiden speech.
What has not survived of this tradition, of course, is the yearlong waiting period. As one longtime floor observer notes, “the electorate wouldn’t stand for it.”