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Senate Stories

This collection of stories, written by Senate historians, reflects all areas of Senate activity from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and even whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, the stories provide clear impressions about the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

 

Senate Chamber Desks

Senate Chamber DeskOn 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 Constantin

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Vagabond Statue

Statue of George WashingtonOn July 31, 1841, a sailing vessel from Leghorn, Italy, docked at the Washington Navy Yard.  It carried a massive 10-foot-high, 12-ton marble statue of a seated man wearing only a Roman toga.  The artist was the noted American sculptor Horatio Greenough; the marble man, modeled after the Greek god Zeus, was George Washington.  Several years earlier, Congress had commissioned Greenough to prepare this work for permanent display in the recently completed Capitol Rotunda.

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Capitol Cornerstone Dedicated

Statue of Freedom Removed from Capitol DomeThe 2001 groundbreaking for the Capitol Visitor Center prompted questions about previous major Capitol expansions. In May 1993, a helicopter lifted the Statue of Freedom neatly off its perch atop the dome and placed it in the east front plaza for cleaning. Less than five months later, the helicopter gently returned the bronze goddess to her pedestal. These spectator-pleasing events highlighted the 200th anniversary of the Capitol's first cornerstone laying in 1793. Although efforts to locate the original cornerstone proved futile, the accompanying publicity emphasized the importance of knowing more about the Capitol's history and spurred planning efforts for the visitor center.

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Senate Seal

1831 Senate SealOn July 4, 1776, immediately after declaring the United States independent of Great Britain, the Continental Congress established a committee to design an official seal for the new nation.  The resulting Great Seal of 1782 became a principal symbol of American sovereignty and independence.

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Senate Donates Historic Desk

Photo of Alben Barkley of KentuckyIn the summer of 1938, a structural engineer climbed to the roof over the Senate Chamber. After completing a thorough examination of the 90-ton iron and glass-paneled ceiling, he concluded that its beams and supports, installed 80 years earlier, were obsolete, over-stressed, and a direct danger to those below. Discussion of his finding quickly expanded to the related problems of the chamber's inadequate ventilation, acoustics, and lighting. By the time additional studies were completed, however, World War II had engulfed Europe. Facing a wartime emergency, Congress deferred reconstruction of both its legislative chambers and provided for temporary supports that some senators likened to "barn rafters."

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The Senate's New Gavel

A visitor sitting in the Senate Chamber gallery on November 17, 1954, could have been excused for wondering what exactly was happening on the floor below. Just after 2 p.m., the Senate declared a recess. Instead of members heading away from the floor, many arrived and took their seats. Through the center doors appeared Majority Leader William Knowland and Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, followed by the vice president of India. The leaders guided their guest to the rostrum and introduced him to the vice president of the United States, Richard Nixon.

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A Shrine Restored

Old Senate ChamberThe heroes of this story include a Senate subcommittee chairman and a former first lady.  The villain—from the Senate’s perspective—was the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.  The object of their attention: the historic room in the Capitol that served as the Senate’s chamber between 1810 and 1859.

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"Lady Freedom Among Us"

Cleaning the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol Dome.A magnificent 19-foot-tall plaster statue rises in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall. This Statue of Freedom looks so fresh that a visitor might think it was created for just that space. In fact, it is 150 years old.

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