Skip Content
U.S. Flag

About the Sergeant at Arms | Historical Overview

On April 7, 1789, the Senate created the position of doorkeeper and appointed James T. Mathers, a former doorkeeper for the Continental Congress, to the position. Vice President John Adams urged the Senate to appoint a sergeant at arms with the title of “Usher of the Black Rod,” as such officer was styled in the British House of Lords. The Senate did not adopt Adams’s suggestion.

As the Senate originally conducted its sessions behind closed doors, the primary responsibility for the doorkeeper was to secure the Chamber. In 1795, when the sessions were opened to the public, the doorkeeper controlled access to the Senate and maintained order in the Senate Chamber and in the galleries.

In 1798 the Senate appended “sergeant at arms” to Mathers’s title, mirroring the title already in use in the U.S. House of Representatives. In preparation for its first impeachment trial—that of Senator William Blount—the Senate passed a resolution stating that it would be the duty of the sergeant at arms to “execute the commands of the Senate and, from time to time, all such process as shall be directed to him by the President of the Senate.”

Soon after imparting the new title, the Senate enlisted the sergeant at arms in combatting the problem of absent members. The Constitution states that “to constitute a Quorum to do business, the Senate requires the presence of a majority of its members.” In June 1798 the Senate adopted a resolution allowing a majority of present senators “to send the sergeant at arms . . . for any and all absent members” who had not obtained approval for their leave. For example, in 1826 the Senate ordered the sergeant at arms “to summon and command the absent members to be and appear before the Senate immediately.” Later orders merely instructed the sergeant at arms “to request the attendance of absent members.” The exact formulation of the rule has changed over the years, but the sergeant at arms continues to be available to compel the attendance of a member at the order of the Senate.

The Senate has from almost its beginning imparted to the sergeant at arms and doorkeeper various administrative and supervisory responsibilities. In 1792 Congress passed a statute instructing the doorkeepers of both houses “to take care of the apartments occupied by the respective houses, and provide fuel and other accommodations for their subsequent session.” The sergeant at arms supervised messengers in the Chamber beginning in 1792 and in later years managed Senate pages. In 1854 the Senate created the position of Senate postmaster, who operated out of the sergeant at arms’s office. Today the Senate Post Office continues to operate under supervision of the sergeant at arms. The sergeant at arms became the Senate’s wagon master and keeper of the Senate stables. Later, when the Senate purchased its first automobile in 1913—used by the vice president—the sergeant at arms assumed responsibility for automobile leasing and maintenance, traffic control, and parking around the Capitol.

In the 19th century the sergeant at arms was granted greater responsibility over law enforcement on Capitol grounds. In 1867 Congress passed a statute giving the sergeants at arms of the House and Senate authority to appoint the members of the Capitol Police. In addition, the same law authorized the sergeants at arms to make regulations to preserve the peace and protect the Capitol and the public property within, including the power to make arrests of anyone violating those rules. In 1873 Congress created the Capitol Police Board, on which sat the Senate and House sergeants at arms and who also rotated as chairman.

As head doorkeeper, the sergeant at arms has responsibility for the Senate Press Gallery. The scope of this role expanded in 1897, when James D. Preston, a doorkeeper in the Senate Press Gallery under the sergeant at arms, started collecting legislative bills and other information for reporters and facilitating interviews with senators. Preston eventually assumed the title of superintendent of the Press Gallery. In the 1930s and 1940s, superintendents oversaw new Press Galleries for radio and television, periodical press, and press photographers.

Since the 19th century, the sergeant at arms has assisted Senate offices with communications. When communication was chiefly by paper, the sergeant at arms supervised the Senate Folding Room. By the 1950s, the sergeant at arms provided enough services that the folding room was renamed the Senate Service Department. As technologies advanced, so too did the responsibilities of the sergeant at arms. When telephones were installed in the Capitol in the late 19th century the sergeant at arms operated, jointly with the clerk of the House, the U.S. Capitol Telephone Exchange. In the mid-1900s, the office started providing telephones, typewriters, mimeographs, and dictaphones to Senate offices. In the 1970s and 1980s, the tools changed to fax machines, computers, copiers, and automated systems.

Today the Office of the Senate Sergeant at Arms includes a chief information officer to meet the Senate’s technology and communications needs.