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About the Sergeant at Arms | Charles P. Higgins, 1913–1919

It was four in the morning. Several dozen irritated and sleep-deprived senators waited impatiently for the Sergeant at Arms to do his job. On that chilly early morning of March 2, 1919, Senate Sergeant at Arms Charles Higgins had a handful of problems. More precisely, he had fifty-three problems. Fifty-three of the Senate's ninety-six members chose not to come to the Senate chamber to answer a quorum call. Lacking a majority of its members and with just a few hours remaining before the term of the 65th Congress was to expire at noon on March 4, the Senate was unable to transact any business. That business included a stack of appropriations bills necessary to keep the government in operation. Two-thirds of the absent senators were Republicans, many of whom wished to stall the pending legislation until the new Congress convened. In that Congress, as a result of the 1918 elections, control of the Senate would shift from the Democrats to the Republicans.

The Senate needed a quorum of 49 members present, but only 42 answered the early-morning roll call. Several senators refused to leave the party cloakrooms just off the chamber. Others simply stayed home. A frustrated Democratic floor leader moved that the Senate order the arrest of members in the cloakrooms; another member amended that motion to include any senator known to be elsewhere in the city.

At 4:55 a.m., the Senate formally directed sixty-year-old Sergeant at Arms Higgins–the only Senate officer with the power to arrest a senator–"to use all necessary means to compel the attendance of absent senators, excepting those away on account of sickness." Within a half-hour, Higgins sent a messenger to the chamber to report that he had managed to locate six absentees. Two of them complained they were too sick to attend; another said that he was "unable to come." Three others promised to arrive "immediately." Several other senators wandered into the chamber, but the Senate was still several votes short of a quorum.

Within minutes, Higgins sent in another report naming the fourteen senators who failed to answer their telephones. This prompted a sarcastic outburst from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Furnifold Simmons, the North Carolina Democrat responsible for overseeing many of the blocked appropriations bills. "Mr. President, I do not wish to say anything reflecting upon the Sergeant at Arms. I have no doubt he is doing what he can; but I think he ought not to rely upon telephoning Senators, but that he ought to send messengers to their houses if they do not answer the telephone. It does not accomplish any purpose to telephone a Senator when no answer is received. I think it is the duty of the Sergeant at Arms to do more than that." As Higgins began to dispatch the messengers, three more senators arrived. This gave the Senate its necessary quorum and the presiding officer directed Higgins to call off his search.

As of March 1919, Charles P. Higgins had been sergeant at arms for six dramatic years. He had won election to that post in March 1913, just as the Democrats came into the majority for the first time in eighteen years. On March 7, 1913, a jubilant caucus of Democratic senators convened to elect a new slate of Senate officers. Meeting just three days after Woodrow Wilson's presidential inauguration, the caucus faced difficult choices for the patronage-rich positions of Sergeant at Arms and Secretary of the Senate. For the office of Sergeant at Arms, the two senators from the recently admitted state of Arizona nominated a candidate. So did an influential senator from Oklahoma. But these three had little chance against the more senior senators from Missouri, who lobbied quietly for Charles Higgins.

Their candidate had been born in St. Louis in 1858. After graduating from high school, Higgins became a telegraph operator and rose through the ranks of several companies to become manager of the Western Union office in the St. Louis Merchants' Exchange. Later, he took up duties as superintendent of that city's police and fire telegraph operations. By his thirties, Higgins was actively engaged in Missouri Democratic politics and served as a delegate to state and national party conventions. By the 1890s, Higgins had become a protege of Democratic Governor William Stone, who appointed him chairman of the state board of election commissioners.

In March 1913, as the Democrats prepared to take control of the Senate for the first time in eighteen years, the former Governor William Stone had been a senator for ten years and was posed to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Although he carried considerable influence in his party's Senate caucus, he had to fight for Higgins. Only after three separate ballots did Stone's candidate get the job.

Immediately after Higgins' election, a special committee of the Democratic caucus reported on its recent survey of Senate patronage positions. The incoming majority party intended to ensure that patronage jobs were evenly divided among Democratic senators and that the Republicans in the minority had no greater patronage advantage than did the Democrats during their minority years. The caucus committee also reviewed the effectiveness of the individual employees to protect those "who by efficient experience, capacity, and diligence, expedite business to the credit of the Senate and the comfort and advantage of the individual Senators."

Exempted from this review were staff listed on the "Old Soldiers' Roll" (OSR). The OSR consisted of Union army veterans, many of whom were either disabled or otherwise beyond their productive years. Most OSR listees owed their appointments to Republican senators, whose party proudly associated itself with the Union's Civil War victory. Two years earlier, Senate Republicans had moved to protect the old soldiers against the increasing possibility of a Democratic takeover. To do this, they adopted a Senate resolution allowing all Union veterans on the Senate payroll to hold their positions until they voluntarily retired. When the Democrats took the reins in March 1913, they honored this provision, but noted that it offered no guarantee against salary reductions.

In early 1913, the Sergeant at Arms' office had approximately 250 employees, including 25 old soldiers. Seventy others among the 250 were guaranteed continuation in their jobs "on account of character of service rendered." This left 106 positions to be filled by the Sergeant at Arms "on nomination by senators." Forty-five other jobs were to be abolished on the grounds of being unnecessary.

In trying to balance the need for competent and experienced staff with the natural patronage demands of a political institution, the Senate Democrats were following a tradition that Senate Republicans had maintained during their earlier years in control. Later, when the Republicans resumed the majority in 1919, they continued that tradition.

During the six tumultuous years that Charles Higgins served as Sergeant at Arms, the Senate enacted far-reaching economic legislation, modernized its floor operations, and addressed the growing requirement for American involvement in the First World War. Higgins organized funerals for fourteen senators who died in office while Congress was in session and played a major role in planning ceremonies at the Capitol for President Woodrow Wilson's second inauguration in March 1917. Weeks later, on April 2, 1917, Higgins led the procession of senators to the House chamber to hear the president ask Congress to declare war against Germany, launching the United States into that most horrible of conflicts.

When the Republicans regained control of the Senate on March 4, 1919–two days after Higgins' search for the fugitive senators–the Sergeant at Arms turned in his resignation to prepare for the appointment of a Republican successor. That appointment came in May, when President Wilson called Congress into a special session to pass the appropriations bills that had been blocked during the filibuster in the closing hours of the previous Congress.

Charles Higgins, perhaps happy to be relieved of his responsibilities for rounding up reluctant senators, returned to his hometown of St. Louis, where he went to work for the Missouri-Warrior Barge Service. In January 1922, he developed a severe form of kidney disease and died from that ailment on August 19.