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Idea of the Senate | The Senate's Rules

Vice President Thomas Jefferson, 1801

On a quiet December morning in 1800, a well-dressed gentleman knocked on the door at the Capitol Hill residence of publisher Samuel Smith. When the publisher’s wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, greeted him, she had no idea who he was. But she liked him at once, “So kind and conciliating were his looks and manners.” Then her husband arrived and introduced her to the vice president of the United States—Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had come to deliver a manuscript for publication. Mrs. Smith admiringly noted the vice president’s “neat, plain, but elegant handwriting.” Weeks later, on February 27, 1801, Jefferson returned to receive a copy of his newly printed book. It bore the title, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States.

In 1797, three years before publication of his Manual, Jefferson had approached his single vice-presidential duty of presiding over the Senate with trepidation. John Adams, who had held the job since the Senate’s founding in 1789, knew a great deal about Senate procedure and—of equal importance—about British parliamentary operations. Yet, despite Adams’ knowledge, senators routinely criticized him for his arbitrary and inconsistent parliamentary rulings.

In his first days on the job as vice president, Jefferson decided to compile a manual of legislative procedure as a guide for himself and future presiding officers. He believed that such an authority, distilled largely from ancient books of parliamentary procedure used in the British House of Commons, would minimize senators’ criticism of presiding officers’ rulings. In those days, such rulings were not subject to reversal by the full Senate. Jefferson appreciated the House of Commons’ rules because he found that they elicited a true sense of the entire body’s wishes. Always wary of the power of majorities, he underlined the importance of procedure as “a shelter and protection to the minority, against the attempts of power.”

Jefferson arranged his manual in 53 topical sections, running alphabetically from “Absence” to “Treaties.” He began the section entitled “Order in Debate” with a warning to members based on his own extensive observation of legislative behavior. Even today, his admonition might suitably appear on the wall of any elementary school classroom. “No one is to disturb another [person who is speaking] by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another.”

Jefferson’s new book would become a classic statement of the founding generation’s views of how the Senate should properly conduct its proceedings.

A Manual of Parliamentary Practice

Considering . . . the law of proceedings in the Senate as composed of the precepts of the constitution, the regulations of the Senate, and where these are silent, of the rules of Parliament , I have here endeavoured to collect and digest so much of these as is called for in ordinary practice, collating the Parliamentary with the Senatorial rules, both where they agree and where they vary. I have done this, as well to have them at hand for my own government [as Senate presiding officer], as to deposit with the Senate the Standard by which I judge and am willing to be judged. . . .

. . . I have begun a sketch, which those who come after me will successively correct and fill up, till a code of rules shall be formed for the use of the Senate, the effects of which may be accuracy in business, economy of time, order, uniformity, and impartiality. . . .

Mr. Onslow, the ablest among the Speakers of the House of Commons, used to say, “it was a maxim he had often heard when he was a young man, from old and experienced members, that nothing tended more to throw power into the hands of administration and those who acted with the majority of the House of Commons, than a neglect of, or departure from, the rules of proceeding: that these forms, as instituted by our ancestors, operated as a check and controul on the actions of the majority, and that they were in many instances, a shelter and protection to the minority, against the attempts of power.” So far the maxim is certainly true, and is founded in good sense, that as it is always in the power of the majority, by their numbers, to stop any improper measures proposed on the part of their opponents, the only weapons, by which the minority can defend themselves against similar attempts from those in power, are the forms and rules of proceeding, which have been adopted as they were found necessary from time to time, and are become the law of the house; by a strict adherence to which, the weaker party can only be protected from those irregularities and abuses, which these forms were intended to check, and which the wantonness of power is but too often apt to suggest to large and successful majorities.

And whether these forms be in all cases the most rational or not, is really not of so great importance. It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is; that there may be an uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the Speaker [presiding officer], of captiousness of the members. It is very material that order, decency, and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body.

With its emphasis on order and decorum, Jefferson’s Manual changed the way the Senate of his day operated. Looking back on his vice-presidential experience, he observed that recourse to these written rules and precedents had saved the Senate the procedural chaos that had been evident in the earlier Continental Congress and in the contemporary House of Representatives. His Manual was, he avowed, “the Standard by which I judge, and am willing to be judged.”

In 1837, acknowledging Jefferson’s brilliance as a parliamentary scholar, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted what it considered relevant portions of his Senate Manual as a partial guide to its own proceedings. The Senate also recognized the Manual’s continuing importance by regularly publishing the 1801 edition in a separate volume along with a contemporary set of Senate rules. In 1888, as a reflection of the increasing institutional complexity of its operations, the Senate began publication of a reference book entitled Rules and Manual of the United States Senate. This volume brought together the laws, rules, regulations, and other information that guide Senate operations. Jefferson’s Manual was included in each biennial edition of this book until 1977, when its editors decided they needed the space it occupied for the rapidly expanding section entitled “General and Permanent Laws Relating to the United States Senate.”

Until the mid-1970s, various editors sought to perfect Jefferson’s style in successive Senate editions, changing punctuation and inserting text reflecting procedural developments agreed to long after Jefferson left the Senate’s dais. In 1991 the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, in commemoration of the forthcoming 250th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, directed that his Manual be brought back into print in an edition that restored the text of 1801. On that occasion, committee chairman Wendell Ford hoped “that this classic work will continue to inform the Senate in its proceedings, as well as those of other legislatures, for many years to come.”

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