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Origins of the Modern Senate: 1878-1920

This collection of brief essays describes important events and personalities in Senate history, and highlights recurring themes in the Senate's institutional development during the years 1878 to 1920. Many elements of the modern Senate developed during this period, including the evolution of Senate leaders, modernization of committees, and the establishment of direct election of senators (click on title for full story).


Senator for Three States
January 22, 1879

James Shields holds a Senate service record that no other senator is ever likely to surpass. Beginning with his election to the United States Senate from Illinois in 1849, he went on to represent Minnesota in the Senate in 1858, and then Missouri in 1879. He is the only senator to have represented three different states.

 
Former Slave Presides over Senate
February 14, 1879

When Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi took up the Senate gavel in 1879, it was a historic moment.  Only the second African American to serve in the Senate, Bruce became the first  to preside over the Senate.

 
A Dramatic Tie-breaker
March 18, 1881

As the constitutional president of the Senate, the vice president alone can cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.  In 1881, with the Senate divided between 37 Republicans and 37 Democrats (along with two independents), Vice President Chester Arthur's tie-breaking vote decided some of the most important issues of the day.

 
Both New York Senators Resign
May 16, 1881

It was a gamble, but flamboyant New York Senator Roscoe Conkling was a gambler by nature. Angered over President James Garfield's refusal to abide by the tradition of "senatorial courtesy" in filling a patronage position, Conkling and fellow senator Thomas Platt resigned in protest, hoping to be quickly re-elected by the state legislature.

 
President's Death Eases Senate Deadlock
September 19, 1881

For the first time in its history, the Senate stood evenly divided between the two major parties.  The balance of power, along with the ability to organize Senate committees and choose officers, rested on the votes of two Independents and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Chester Arthur.  A fierce battle erupted to win those key votes.  When the assassination of President James Garfield elevated Arthur to the presidency, however, senators called a truce.

 
Harry S. Truman
May 8, 1884

Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884. In January 1935 he took his oath for the first time as United States senator from Missouri. Truman quickly became popular among his colleagues, who appreciated his folksy personality, his modesty, and his diligence.

 
Henry B. Anthony, "Father of the Senate"
September 2, 1884

Many considered Senator Henry B. Anthony of Rhode Island to be the "father of the Senate."  At the time of his death in 1884, Anthony had served in the U.S. Senate for a quarter century. Today, he is remembered mostly for the "Anthony Rule," which allowed for efficient processing of noncontroversial bills.

 
Senate Seal
March 31, 1885

The Senate Seal, based on the Great Seal of the United States and used to authenticate impeachment and treaty documents, dates back to 1885 and represents the third design of the seal since 1789.

 
The Senate's Oldest Art Collection
May 13, 1886

In 1886 the Senate honored former Vice President Henry Wilson, who had died in office 11 years earlier, with a finely sculpted marble bust by Daniel Chester French. Three years later, to celebrate the Senate's centennial, the marble likenesses of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were unveiled.  With the three statues in place in the Capitol, the Senate began its oldest (and still continuing) art collection.

 
The Interstate Commerce Act Is Passed
February 4, 1887

On February 4, 1887, both the Senate and House passed the Interstate Commerce Act, which applied the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause”—granting Congress the power “to Regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States”—to regulating railroad rates. The legislation showed that Congress could apply the Commerce Clause more expansively to national issues if they involved commerce across state lines. After 1887, the national economy grew much more integrated, making almost all commerce interstate and international. That development turned the Commerce Clause into a powerful legislative tool for addressing national problems.

 
Executive Sessions
March 6, 1888

For more than half of the Senate's existence, its members enjoyed conducting business with the Senate Chamber's doors locked. After six years of operation, however, pressure from the state legislatures then electing senators caused a change in policy.

 
President Pro Tempore John Ingalls
March 10, 1888

John Ingalls represented Kansas in the Senate in the late 19th century. A dynamic and caustic orator, Ingalls served as president pro tempore from 1887 to 1891, spending many hours in the presiding officer's chair.

 
Confederate General Becomes Secretary of the Senate
August 7, 1893

The Democratic Party seized control with the 1892 elections, capturing the presidency and both houses of Congress for the first time since the Civil War. It was clear a new era had arrived when Senate Democrats chose a former Confederate general to serve as secretary of the Senate.

 
Quorum Busting
October 1893

The framers of the Constitution sought to prevent a lack of quorum by providing that a minority of members may “compel” absent colleagues to attend.  But the Constitution leaves it up to each chamber to determine precisely how. Throughout the Senate's history, members have devised a variety of tactics for "quorum busting," as well as tactics to compel attendence.

 
Senate Service Record Set
June 17, 1894

Senator John Sherman hoped to become president in 1880, but his party chose instead to nominate James Garfield.  Denied the presidency, the veteran senator continued to serve in the Senate for nearly two decades, sponsoring the "Sherman Antitrust Act" in 1890 and becoming the longest-serving senator in 1894.

 
Mark Hanna and the 1896 Election
November 3, 1896

Marcus A. Hanna of Ohio excelled in business before applying his considerable talent and enormous wealth to politics. He served in the Senate from 1897 until his death in 1904, but his greatest fame rests not in his Senate service but rather in his role as presidential “kingmaker.” Beginning in the 1870s, Hanna used his political acumen and personal wealth to bolster the presidential campaigns of several fellow Ohioans, including Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield. In 1896 it was Hanna who devised the successful strategy that put William McKinley in the White House.

 
Capitol Gas Explosion
November 6, 1898

On November 6, 1898, a gas leak in the basement of the U.S. Capitol resulted in an explosion, just north of the rotunda on the Senate side, which heaved the floor upward spewing brick, plaster, and dense black smoke in all directions.  As the intense fire raced up an elevator shaft to the upper floors, it melted steel, cracked stone, and incinerated priceless records.

 
Justin S. Morrill
December 28, 1898

Justin S. Morrill spent 12 years representing the state of Vermont in the U.S. House of Representatives, and another 32 years in the U.S. Senate. He became an expert on the nation's financial affairs and chaired the Senate FInance Committee for 17 years--a record that still stands. Justin Morrill died on December 28, 1898.

 
Senate Fistfight
February 22, 1902

Senator John McLaurin of South Carolina burst into the Senate Chamber on Washington's Birthday in 1902 and accused his fellow South Carolinian, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, of a "willful, malicious, and deliberate lie."  The ensuing fistfight threw the Senate into chaos and resulted in new Senate rules on decorum and behavior.

 
Senate Democratic Caucus Organized
March 6, 1903

The Senate Democrats were in disarray in 1903.  Unable to hold control of the Senate since the Civil War, they turned to Maryland Senator Arthur Gorman to chair the Democratic caucus. To organize the party, take back the Senate, and effectively shape legislation, Gorman adopted a "binding rule" to maintain party unity.

 
Conference Minutes
March 16, 1903

In 1903, the Senate Democratic caucus, under the leadership of Maryland Senator Arthur Gorman, 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. Within ten years, the Democrats regained their majority in the Senate.

 
Senate Office Building Authorized
April 28, 1904

A constant demand for space on Capitol Hill, fueled by the addition of new states to the Union and therefore the arrival of new members of Congress, resulted in a new Senate wing in the 1850s, expansion of terrace offices in the 1890s, and finally the construction of the first of three Senate office buildings in 1904.

 
"Treason of the Senate"
February 17, 1906

Hired by publisher William Randolph Hearst, novelist David Graham Phillips published a series of investigative articles titled "The Treason of the Senate."  Even though Phillip's "muckraking" reports were based largely on exaggeration and innuendo, the articles shaped public opinion and played a key role in the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which established direct popular election of U.S. senators.

 
Astounding News
April 18, 1906

Early in the afternoon of April 18, 1906, senators received a message by telegraph that a massive earthquake had, that morning, turned San Francisco and its surrounding areas into a zone of unimaginable human suffering. The Senate promptly suspended other business and proposed an emergency appropriation of $500,000 for the War Department to provide necessary supplies and transportation.

 
Maiden Speeches
April 19, 1906

During the early years of the Senate, it was not uncommon for a new senator to wait a year, or maybe two, before delivering his "maiden speech" in the Senate Chamber. This tradition has diminished through the years, but a new senator's "maiden speech" is still an important event.

 
High Court Upholds Senator's Conviction
May 21, 1906

In 1864, Congress passed a statute banning current members from representing the interests of private clients before the federal agencies whose appropriations Congress controlled. In 1905, Kansas Senator Joseph Burton was found guilty of taking money to help a St. Louis company scuttle a U.S. Post Office mail fraud investigation. On May 21, 1906, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Burton's conviction.

 
Russell Building Cornerstone
July 31, 1906

When workers laid the cornerstone for the first Senate office building in 1906, few paid any attention to the quiet ceremony. When the building opened three years later, however, there was a good deal of attention, especially press coverage  of the building's grand Beaux Arts architecture, lavish furnishings, and ornate offices.

 
The Seating of Reed Smoot
February 20, 1907

In the early 20th century, the Senate faced the issue of whether Utah Republican Reed Smoot--a Mormon--should be allowed to serve. Soon after Smoot's election, the Senate received a petition protesting his seating. In 1904, the Senate launched its investigation.

 
Woodrow Wilson's Changing Views of the Senate
April 12, 1907

A half dozen years before he became president, Woodrow Wilson delivered a series of lectures on the U.S. Congress in which he described members of the Senate as experienced, professional, and wise.  After a few years in the White House, however, Wilson dismissed that same group of men as "a lot of old women" and a "little group of willful men."

 
A Deadly Drink
May 29, 1908

During a filibuster, Wisconsin Republican Robert La Follette drank spoiled eggnog. Despite the toxic level of bacteria in his drink, and its subsequent ill effects, La Follette managed to set a single-speech record of 18 hours and 23 minutes.

 
William Allison Dies
August 4, 1908

It is a record still unbroken. William Boyd Allison of Iowa chaired the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations for a quarter century.  When he died in 1908, an era died with this "Old Lion" of the Senate.

 
Barry Goldwater of Arizona
January 1, 1909

With the 1960 publication of his widely-read book, The Conscience of a Conservative, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater became the leader of a new conservative political movement. Goldwater’s influence grew in 1964 when he was the Republican nominee for president. Following his defeat by Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater returned to the Senate for another three terms. As Arizona’s elder statesman, he nurtured the conservative movement he helped to found.

 
Russell Building Opens
March 5, 1909

On March 5, 1909, the Russell Senate Office Building opened for business. the structure won wide approval for its classical beauty and "architectural simplicity." Today, architectural historians consider it one of Washington's greatest buildings.

 
Senator Wagner and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
March 25, 1911

On March 25, 1911, 146 women who labored in the garment industry lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City. In response, the state created the New York State Factory Investigating Committee, chaired by Assemblyman (later Governor) Al Smith, and State Senator (later U.S. Senator) Robert F. Wagner. Wagner carried his concerns about working conditions to Washington when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1926.

 
House Member Introduces Resolution to Abolish the Senate
April 27, 1911

Representative Victor Berger was frustrated.  Continuing scandals involving corrupted state legislatures electing U.S. senators led many to join the reform movement that eventually brought about the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.  Berger took it a step further.  His resolution called for an amendment to abolish the United States Senate.

 
Senate Deadlocked
May 11, 1911

As the Senate moved into the twentieth century, gone were many of the "old guards" of the previous century—Republican senators who controlled action in committee and on the floor. One such senator was William Frye of Maine, the long-time president pro tempore.  With Senate Democrats on the rise to challenge the Republican control, however, choosing a new president pro tempore was no easy matter.

 
Hubert Humphrey’s Centennial
May 27, 1911

In 2011 the Senate passed a special resolution to commemorate the centennial of Hubert Humphrey’s birth on May 27, 1911. As senator from Minnesota, as vice president, and as presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey was a powerful and influential advocate for civil rights and economic equality. He served as floor manager for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 
Senate Guarantees Tenure to Union Vet Employees
July 14, 1911

In the aftermath of the Civil War, tens of thousands of disabled veterans sought some means of support.  Some survived on pensions, while others sought charity.  Many hoped to obtain government jobs.  Republican senators, in the majority in all but four years from 1861 to 1913, used their power of patronage to employ as many Union veterans as possible.  When the Democrats gained control of the Senate in 1913, 29 of these "old soldiers" were still on the Senate payroll.

 
Senator Ousted
July 13, 1912

Mark Twain captured it in his novel, The Gilded Age.  Prior to the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which established direct popular election of U.S. senators, the process of state legislatures choosing senators had become flawed and corrupted. One such case of corruption, involving Senator Samuel Pomeroy's bribery of a state legislator, fueled reform, ended a Senate career, and gained a form of fictional immortality.

 
Key Pittman Barely Elected
January 28, 1913

Key Pittman of Nevada won a seat in the Senate by the smallest of margins, just 89 votes, and he won that seat by a direct popular vote months before the 17th Amendment to the Constitution established direct election of senators.

 
Senate Banking Committee Established
March 15, 1913

In response to a series of economic crises since 1907, and the development of the new Federal Reserve System, the Senate created a Committee on Banking in 1913.  To chair the new committee, senators turned to Robert Owen of Oklahoma, a man of Native-American descent who had built a career on financial and banking expertise.

 
Senators Require a Whip
May 28, 1913

The Democrats had majority control of the Senate in 1913, but they struggled to keep their members organized and united.  In order to enforce attendance at caucus meetings and round up votes, senators created the position of "party whip."

 
Senators Disclose Finances
June 2, 1913

President Woodrow Wilson warned the nation of the insidious influence of lobbyists on Capitol Hill in 1913.  In response, and in the midst of a media frenzy, the Senate launched an investigation into Wilson's charges and demanded full public disclosure of senators' finances.

 
The Senate Passes the Federal Reserve Act
December 23, 1913

It took many months and nearly straight party-line voting, but on December 23, 1913, the Senate passed and President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act.

 
Smoking Ban
March 9, 1914

Ailing and aged, Senator Ben Tillman worried about his colleagues, who worked in a Senate Chamber so filled with tobacco smoke that he likened it to a beer garden. To ease his own discomfort and protect the health of others, Tillman resolved to ban smoking in the historic chamber.

 
Bomb Rocks Capitol
July 2, 1915

To protest the United States' growing involvement in World War I, former Harvard professor Erich Muenter slipped into the U.S. Capitol late one night and placed a deadly time bomb in the Senate wing. As he watched from the safe distance of Union Station, the bomb rocked the Capitol causing great damage to the historic Senate Reception Room.

 
Cloture Rule
March 8, 1917

In March 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, after suffering a series of legislative losses owing to filibusters, demanded that the Senate adopt a cloture rule. On March 8, 1917, the Senate agreed to a rule that required a two-thirds majority to end debate and permitted each member to speak for an additional hour after that before voting on final passage.

 
Senator Attacks Constituent
April 2, 1917

It was a tense day on Capitol Hill. President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.  As senators faced a vote on the issue, constituents bombarded them with opinions. One such confrontation between senator and constituents ended in violence.

 
"Free Speech in Wartime"
October 6, 1917

On October 6, 1917, Robert La Follette delivered the most famous address of his Senate career—a classic defense of the right to free speech in times of war. Although this three-hour address won him many admirers, it also launched a Senate investigation into possible treasonable conduct.

 
A Vote for Women
September 30, 1918

It seemed that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing female suffrage, would die--once again--on Capitol Hill. Facing growing pressure from suffragists, and bending to the pressures of war-time realities, Woodrow Wilson asked the Senate to put aside its objections and allow the amendment to pass.

 
November 5 Election in Doubt
October 25, 1918

Until October 25, 1918, few responsible political observers would have predicted the outcome of that year’s November 5  congressional elections.  Although the Democrats controlled the Senate and House, a shift of just a few seats in each chamber could return both bodies to Republican control for the first time in eight years.

 
Jeannette Rankin
November 5, 1918

One of the most famous names in congressional history is that of Jeannette Rankin.  The Montana Republican carries the distinction of being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. What is less well known about Jeannette Rankin is that she is the first woman to organize a major campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate.  

 
Woodrow Wilson Addresses the Senate
July 10, 1919

President Wilson cared so deeply about the Treaty of Versailles that he delivered the document in person to the United States Senate.  As he made his case for approving the treaty, however, his failing health and weakened condition became all too obvious to everyone present.

 
A Bitter Rejection
November 19, 1919

On November 19, 1919, the Senate rejected a peace treaty for the first time in its History. Many factors led to this vote--most notably, the bitter animosity between Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge.

 
Democratic Leadership Deadlock
January 15, 1920

The death of Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Martin in November 1919 touched off a battle among Senate Democrats that revealed a deeply divided party.  On January 15, 1920, members of the Senate Democratic caucus met to elect a new floor leader. Preliminary headcounts indicated that the two candiates each had 19 votes. Something had to be done to break the deadlock.

 
Spring Comes to the Senate
May 12, 1920

In recent times, the Senate has noted the arrival of spring with a poetic speech of welcome by Senator Robert C. Byrd.  While Senator Byrd faithfully follows the calendar, senators in the early twentieth century heralded that season by following the habits of a junior senator from Colorado named Charles Thomas.

 
Senate Eliminates 42 Committees
May 27, 1920

By the dawn of the twentieth century, there were more than 60 Senate committees in existence, many of them serving no purpose other than providing space and clerical assistance to a senator.  In 1920, as part of a larger effort to modernize government, the Senate eliminated 42 of these obsolete committees.

 
A Senator Becomes President
November 2, 1920

Many think of a seat in the Senate as a stepping stone to the presidency, but history reveals a different story.  In fact, since 1789 only three incumbent senators have successfully made that leap from the Senate Chamber to the White House.

 
 
 
  

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