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Smoking Ban

March 9, 1914

Photo of Senator Ben Tillman

On March 9, 1914, the Senate unanimously agreed to ban smoking in its chamber. Although senators never smoked in the chamber during public sessions, they happily brought out their cigars whenever the Senate went into executive session to consider nominations and treaties. During most executive sessions, until 1929, doorkeepers cleared the galleries and locked the doors. No longer on public display, members removed their ties and jackets, and lit their cigars.  In this relaxed setting, senators more readily resolved their differences over controversial nominees and complex treaties.

In 1914, South Carolina Democrat Benjamin Tillman was one of the Senate's most senior members. Always a controversial figure, Tillman was best remembered for a speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention in which he prodded President Grover Cleveland to adopt policies that would aid economically strapped farmers of the South. Otherwise, he promised, he would go to the White House and “poke old Grover with a pitchfork.” For the rest of his colorful career, the fiery South Carolina senator would be known as “Pitchfork Ben.”

After 1910, however, a series of strokes slowed his pace. His precarious medical condition led him to try various unconventional health regimens. They included deep breathing, drinking a gallon of water each day, a vegetarian diet, and avoidance of tobacco.

Concerned for his own well-being, along with that of his colleagues, in the often smoke-filled chamber that he likened to a “beer garden,” Tillman introduced a resolution to ban smoking there. Noting the high death rate among incumbent senators—within the previous four years 14 had died, along with the vice president and sergeant at arms—he surveyed all members. Non smokers responded that they would like to support him, but worried that their smoking colleagues would consider this a selfish gesture.

The majority of smokers, however, responded in the Senate's best collegial tradition. They saw no reason why an old and sick senator should be driven from the chamber, his state deprived of its full and active representation, merely for the gratification of "a very great pleasure." In this spirit, the Senate adopted Tillman's resolution.

Following his death four years later, the Senate kept the restriction in force. The language of the Senate rule was drafted broadly. It prohibits not only the actual act of smoking, but also—perhaps to avoid the temptation to sneak a puff—the carrying into the chamber of “lighted cigars, cigarettes, or pipes.”

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