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Senate Guarantees Tenure to Union Vet Employees

July 14, 1911

Photo of Senator Weldon Heyburn of Idaho

The Civil War took more casualties than all other American wars combined. Well into the 20th century, tens of thousands of disabled veterans throughout the nation bore witness to that conflict's horrible cost. Many of those veterans and their relatives thronged the Capitol's corridors in the postwar era desperately seeking support through government pensions or congressional jobs.

Up to the time of World War I, the Senate staff included Civil War veterans working as clerks, elevator operators, and doorkeepers. Predominately soldiers of the Union Army, most of these men owed their appointments to Republican senators, who controlled the Senate—and thus the majority of its patronage—for all but four years between 1861 and 1913.

In 1911, the Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives and narrowed the Republican majority in the Senate. The prospect of a Democratic-controlled Senate by 1913 inspired Idaho Republican Weldon Heyburn to sponsor a resolution guaranteeing permanent tenure to all Union veterans still on the Senate payroll. One of the last senators to "wave the bloody shirt" of hostility to the former Confederacy, Heyburn had won national notoriety for opposing federal funding of Confederate monuments. On July 14, 1911, the Senate unanimously adopted Heyburn's resolution.

Two years later, after they did win control of the Senate, the Democrats met to decide whether to rescind the Heyburn Resolution as part of a larger review of Senate staffing allocations. From the minutes of Democratic Caucus deliberations, first published in 1998, we learn of their concern, shared by Republicans, to protect productive workers and weed out malingerers—regardless of party allegiance. We learn also of their desire to treat the Republican minority, in allocating patronage appointments, as the Republicans, over the years, had treated the Democratic minority.

Among the approximately 300 employees then on the Senate payroll, the majority caucus agreed to keep the 29 "old soldiers." They reasoned that a repeal of the Heyburn Resolution would "arouse a hostile excitement which would not be justified by the results." But the caucus also recommended that these aging veterans be reassigned to less challenging, lower-paid positions. By the standards of the times, this proved to be a politically suitable compromise—supporting veterans while reducing the Senate payroll.