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First Doorkeeper


April 7, 1789

Image of U.S. Capitol in 1800

James Mathers did not know exactly how old he was in 1789, but he guessed that he was close to 45. He knew for sure that he had been born in Ireland and that his family had moved to New York before the Revolutionary War. As a young man, he enlisted in the Continental Army, served throughout the long conflict, and suffered a serious wound that would trouble him for the rest of his life.

After the war, with a large family to support, Mathers took a job as a clerk for the Continental Congress. In 1788, this one-chambered national legislature, then located in New York City, appointed Mathers to be its principal doorkeeper. He assumed those duties just as that body was about to go out of existence to make way for the Congress established under the newly ratified Constitution of 1787.

The Senate of the First Congress achieved a quorum for business on April 6, 1789. The following day, it elected Mathers as its first doorkeeper. The post of doorkeeper was particularly important for a legislature that intended to conduct all its sessions in secret, just as the Continental Congress had.

With one assistant, Mathers tended the chamber door, maintained the Senate's two horses, and purchased firewood. In May 1790, as Congress prepared to move to Philadelphia for a 10-year residence while the new national capital was being constructed in Washington, D.C., he supervised shipment of the Senate's records and furnishings. When the Senate decided to open its sessions to the public in 1795, Mathers became responsible for enforcing order in the galleries. Three years later, on the eve of the Senate's first impeachment trial, members realized that they needed an officer with the police powers necessary to arrest any who refused an order to appear before that proceeding. Consequently, Mathers took on the expanded title of "sergeant at arms and doorkeeper."

When the Senate finally moved to Washington in 1800, Mathers helped establish the Senate's new quarters and remained on the job until 1811, when he died after falling down a flight of stairs. This Irish immigrant of humble origins maintains the distinction of holding the post of Senate sergeant at arms longer than any of his successors. He is truly one of the Senate's "founding fathers."