The Old Senate Chamber

The Senate Censures a President

In the mid-1830s, numerous clashes took place in the Senate chamber between members who supported and those who opposed the policies of President Andrew Jackson. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky led the opposition forces, who would soon come together in a new political alliance known as the Whig party. The events that unfolded in this chamber between 1833 and 1837 reflected and sharpened the divisions between Clay's Whigs and Jackson's Democrats.

The first of two dramatic events took place on March 28, 1834. On that memorable day, the Whig-controlled Senate "censured" President Jackson. There was no constitutional basis for this action. If Congress disapproves of a president's conduct, it may retaliate by refusing to pass legislation he desires, or it may impeach and remove him from office. In 1834, however, a large Democratic majority in the House of Representatives precluded an impeachment. Consequently, Senate Whigs conceived of a censure to show their disapproval after Jackson first vetoed Whig-inspired legislation that would have extended the life of the Bank of the United States and then refused to give the Senate a document related to that veto. Jackson believed that the bank was an unconstitutional, elitist institution that favored commercial classes in the northeast at the expense of southern and western interests, while the Whigs saw the bank as essential to the nation's economic development. The president sent the Senate a message denying its power to pass a resolution of censure; the Senate responded by refusing to receive the president's communication.

In the months following the censure, Democrats loyal to Jackson struggled to have it "expunged" from the Senate's official journal. When the election of 1836 produced a Democratic majority in the Senate, the removal action became a certainty. As an ailing President Jackson prepared to turn the White House over to his successor, the Senate voted on January 16, 1837, to direct its secretary to produce the 1834 journal and draw heavy black lines around the original resolution, with the notation, "Expunged by order of the Senate." The Democrats thrilled to their great symbolic victory, while Henry Clay, equally symbolically, dressed in black to mourn the death of the Constitution, lamentin g, "The Senate in no longer a place for any decent man."

For further reading:

Remini, Robert V. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York, 1991.