Senator Daniel Webster delivered one of the most notable speeches ever presented to the Senate. Webster's classic three-hour "Seventh of March" oration called upon the Senate to approve compromise measures designed to relieve the sectional tensions created by territorial expansion. Moderates praised his remarks, but northern abolitionists charged that the Massachusetts senator had sold his soul to the devil. The address ended Webster's political career. With his support, and with the assistance of Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, Congress passed revised versions of the measures. The so-called Compromise of 1850 became law in September 1850.
March 8, 1917
In 1917, as calls grew louder for American entry into World War I, a Senate filibuster threatened President Woodrow Wilson's proposal to arm merchant ships. Frustrated, Wilson denounced the Senate as "a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own," who rendered "the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible." In this context the Senate approved a rule that essentially preserved its tradition of unlimited debate, but put into place a mechanism to force a vote on a bill. The cloture rule required a two-thirds majority to end debate and permitted each member to speak for an additional hour before voting on final passage.
March 9, 1914
The Senate unanimously approved a resolution to ban smoking in the Senate Chamber. Four years earlier Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina had suffered the first of several debilitating strokes prompting him to try a regimen of medical treatments, including completely avoiding tobacco. Tillman claimed that the smoke-filled Senate Chamber, which he likened to a "beer garden," had become a hazard to his health. In the best of collegial tradition, senators saw no reason why an old and sick colleague should be driven from the chamber to protect what they termed the "very great pleasure" of smoking.
March 10, 1871
In response to the growing number of contested election cases that occurred during the Reconstruction Era, the Senate created a Committee on Privileges and Elections. Four days later, the Senate sent to the committee pending cases from Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. In the Senate's earliest years it had referred contested election cases to committees specially appointed for the purposes. From the 1850s to the 1870s the Judiciary Committee reviewed such cases. The Committee on Privileges and Elections continued to handle most contested elections until after World War II, when the newly established Committee on Rules and Administration assumed jurisdiction.
March 12, 1959
John Kennedy (D-MA)
In 1956 a bipartisan committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy surveyed the nation's leading historians and political scientists to select five outstanding former senators for special honor of having their portraits permanently displayed in the Reception Room, adjacent to the Senate Chamber. A year later, the committee announced its unanimous choice for what became known as "the Famous Five": Henry Clay (KY), Daniel Webster (MA), John C. Calhoun(SC), Robert La Follette (WI), and Robert Taft (OH). Committee chairman Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson presided at the unveiling of the five portraits on March 12, 1959.
March 14, 1841
The Senate Chamber erupted with applause following Henry Clay's apology to Alabama Senator William King. Leader of the Senate's Whig majority, Clay had characterized an earlier speech by King as "a slanderous, base, and cowardly declaration." When the Alabama Democrat challenged the Kentucky Whig to a duel, the Senate Sergeant at Arms arrested both men and turned them over to a civil authority. Clay posted a $5,000 bond as assurance that he would keep the peace "particularly towards William R. King." Clay acknowledged that he would have been wiser to have kept his feelings to himself, and both men shook hands.
A Pioneer on Senate Staff
In 1901 Leona Wells joined the Senate staff, beginning a long tenure of Senate employment that lasted until 1930. First hired by Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, Wells was one of the first women to gain a professional, clerical position. She gained notoriety in 1911 when the Boston Daily Globe named her “Uncle Sam’s Highest Salaried Woman” and indicated that she was the first female staff member “to be placed in charge of the affairs of a big committee.” Wells was not allowed access to the Senate Chamber, however, even to discuss committee business. She routinely waited just outside the chamber door to follow debate and send messages to Senator Warren.
Hattie Caraway Presides
On October 19, 1943, a woman formally took up the gavel as presiding officer, when the duties of the chair were assigned to Senator Hattie Caraway. Caraway had presided once before. In 1932 she briefly filled in for Vice President Charles Curtis, but there was no official recognition of the event. Caraway took note. “Made history,” she wrote in her diary. Other precedents followed – she became the first woman to chair a committee and the first woman to stand in for the floor leader. By 1943 Caraway had grown accustomed to breaking the Senate's gender barriers.