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The Senate Opens Its Doors

December 9, 1795


Question: Who was the first employee hired by the Senate? Answer: The doorkeeper. His job was particularly important to the Senate of 1789 because members intended to conduct all their sessions behind closed doors. The doorkeeper's orders: No public and no members of the House of Representatives!

The framers of the Constitution assumed that the Senate would follow their own practice, as well as that of the Continental Congress, of meeting in secret. They believed that occasional publication of an official journal, with information on how members voted on legislative matters, would be sufficient to keep the public informed. In the Senate, defenders of secrecy looked with disdain on the House, where members were tempted to play to a gallery of hissing and cheering onlookers. In an era before reliable shorthand reporting, press accounts of House activity were notoriously incomplete and distorted along partisan lines.

Opposition to the closed-door policy increased steadily over the first five years of the Senate's existence. At a time when senators owed their election to state legislatures, those bodies loudly complained that they could not effectively assess their senators' behavior from outside a closed door. Eventually, individual senators recognized that their legislative positions could more easily win popular support if publicly aired. The growing notion of the Senate as a "lurking hole" in which conspiracies were hatched against the public interest had to be put to rest. Additionally, press coverage of the House helped popularize that body's role and the public began to use the words "House" and "Congress" interchangeably. The Senate was in danger of becoming the forgotten chamber.

The opportunity for change arrived with a dispute over the seating of Pennsylvania's controversial senator-elect Albert Gallatin. Senators, then meeting in Philadelphia, realized the delicacy of the situation in which they were questioning the action of the Pennsylvania legislature, which at that time met in the building next door. Wishing to avoid the charges of "Star Chamber" that would surely follow a secret vote to reject Gallatin, the Federalist majority agreed, on February 11, 1794, to open Senate doors just for that occasion. Several days later, on February 20, the Senate decided to open its proceedings permanently as soon as a suitable gallery could be constructed. After an initial eruption of curiosity when that gallery opened on December 9, 1795, however, the press showed little sustained interest in covering Senate debates, which lacked the fire and drama of those in the other body.

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