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President Pro Tempore John Ingalls

February 26, 1887

John Ingalls

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. As one journalist observed: "During the exciting debate in the Senate the other day Mr. Ingalls sat in the president's chair with his elbows on the desk and his face in his hands. Spread open before him was a book in old-fashioned binding, and he bent his head low over it as it absorbed all his attention. The sands in the hour glass alongside him had run their course unnoticed; the eloquence of the gentleman [who was speaking] failed to attract him from his book. He was as intent as a schoolboy on a lesson that must be learned. He was preparing for a speech."

Preferring to make speeches rather than procedural rulings, Ingalls occupied the chair for many more hours than he would have preferred. His colleagues, many without private offices, spent most of their daytime hours in or around the cacophonous Senate Chamber. Next to preserving order, the most difficult challenge for the presiding officer—decades before the existence of a majority leader and parliamentarian—was deciding which legislation should receive priority attention. Some naturally optimistic senators believed it would be possible to make floor operations efficient and predictable simply by making the Senate's standing rules more precise. They quoted legendary Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who a generation earlier, had likened the rules of the Senate to "a beautiful machine by which business is conducted, legislation is molded, and debate is secured in all possible freedom."

Ingalls laughed at Sumner's view. Over the previous 20 years, the Senate had on three occasions thoroughly revised and expanded its rules in an attempt to make them a "beautiful machine" for producing legislation. Each revision, however, made matters worse. Concerns arose over possible threats to the Senate's cherished tradition of unlimited debate. Ingalls spoke for many of his colleagues when he said, "Rules are never observed in this body. They are only made to be broken. We are a law unto ourselves, and it is entirely immaterial in my judgment whether we have a code of rules or not."

Today, Ingalls is remembered by historians for his statement that captured the essence of late 19th-century politics. "The purification of politics," he said, "is an iridescent dream. Government is force. Politics is a battle for supremacy. Parties are armies. The [10 Commandments] and the Golden Rule have no place in a political campaign."