During the first 100 years of the Senate’s existence, members who made it into their second six-year term were considered long-time veterans. During any Congress of that era, as many as half the senators failed to serve out a full six-year term. In fact, the early 19th-century witnessed several complete turnovers of Senate membership within just 12 years.
Looking back to the Senate of the 19th century, when the average life expectancy of an American was slightly above the age of 40, few senators would have believed it possible to serve 30, let alone 40 years. Many hated the rigors of travel to the capital and back home several times a year. Travel by stage coach, river boat, or open railway cars extracted a great price in aches and pains. Lodging in rustic accommodations along the way often required senators to share a bed with one or more strangers.
Until the Civil War, up-and-coming politicians who aspired to roles as legislators usually focused their attention on their easier-to-reach state capitols. While they might serve a term or two in the U.S. Congress to gain broader name recognition within their states and to build out-of-state contacts, it was in state legislatures that members had the opportunity to have a direct impact on the daily lives of their constituents.
By the 1870s, however, the nation’s capital had become the principal arena for major legislative activity, as evidenced by brutal battles in state legislatures over the election of U.S. senators.
The first person to approach a 30-year service record in the U.S. Senate was Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton, who reached this milestone in 1851. Another 40 years passed, however, before another senator achieved the three-decade mark. Today, among the 1,865 who have ever served, 47 have logged at least 30 years.
In 2002, the Senate set a new record for member seniority. For the first time in history, as of November 7, the Senate included three incumbent members who had served 40 or more years—Senators Strom Thurmond, Robert C. Byrd, and Edward Kennedy. The start of the 108th Congress also saw a Senate with three 40-year veterans: Senators Byrd, Kennedy, and Daniel Inouye.
Only two others among all who have ever served share this 40-year distinction: Arizona’s Carl Hayden and Mississippi’s John Stennis.