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Idea of the Senate | “Traditions of the Senate”

Mrs. John A. Logan, 1901
Image of Mrs. John A Logan

Long before women served in the Senate as elected members, their presence was a mainstay of the political and social atmosphere of the Capitol. As visitors to the Senate gallery, as newspaper correspondents, and as lobbyists, they frequented sessions of both the House and Senate and proved to be keen observers of Senate action throughout the 19th century—as illustrated by many surviving diaries, letters, and news columns. One such woman was Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, better known as “Mrs. John A. Logan,” who accompanied her lawyer-turned-statesman husband to Washington on the eve of the Civil War. While “Black Jack Logan” served 10 years in the House followed by 13 years in the Senate, the astute, educated, and talented Mary Logan had many opportunities to observe both houses of Congress in action.

Born in Missouri in 1838 to Irish-American parents, Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan led a storybook life that took her from the western frontier to the centers of military and political power. Her father—John H. Cunningham—served as U.S. marshal and Illinois state legislator and fought in the Mexican War. Recognizing Mary’s intelligence at an early age, her parents enrolled her in the Convent of St. Vincent near Morganfield, Kentucky, one of the best girls’ schools in the area. Upon graduation in 1855, Mary served as assistant to her father, then the registrar of the U.S. Land Office in Shawneetown, Illinois. Unlike many of her contemporaries, therefore, Mary Cunningham was well educated and experienced in clerical and financial duties at a young age, training that would serve her well as a politician’s wife.

Coincident with her graduation, John Alexander Logan—who had served under John Cunningham in the Mexican War—came to Shawneetown as the district’s prosecuting attorney. In November of 1855, 17-year-old Mary Cunningham married 29-year-old John Logan. Thus began a happy 31-year partnership that ended only with John Logan’s death in 1886. During those three decades, Mary Logan assisted her husband in all his professional duties, as lawyer, soldier, and statesman. When the Civil War pulled John back into military service, Mary often accompanied him on military excursions and frequently secured sorely needed supplies for her husband’s Union army soldiers. When he was badly wounded, Mary hurried to her husband’s bedside to nurse him back to health. With recovery and the end of the war, the Logans again turned to political life. By the time John Logan became a U.S. senator in 1871, Mary was an accomplished hostess, efficient secretary, skilled politician, and shrewd commentator on Washington life.

Well into the 20th century, it was common for wives or daughters and sons of senators to serve in clerical positions, and often they took on the equivalent role of today’s office managers. Long before the Senate began providing such support, family members helped senators meet the onerous tasks of paperwork, correspondence, and constituent requests. Mary Logan, throughout her husband’s long career, epitomized that role of wife as political partner. When Logan accepted the vice presidential nomination in 1884, on the Republican ticket with James G. Blaine, Mary proved to be an energetic campaigner as well, gaining a national reputation as one of the country’s best known and most respected women.

John Logan died unexpectedly in 1886. He left behind a 48-year-old widow and two grown children. “After his death,” Mary Logan later recalled, “my naturally active temperament and the inspiration of his career kept me in touch with the pulse of national affairs.” In the remaining 37 years of her life, most of which were spent in Washington, D.C., she championed the cause of women’s suffrage, authored a series of articles for Home Magazine, which she also edited, and contributed a semi-weekly column to William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper syndicate. After the turn of the century and years of observing Congress at work, she turned her attention to her memoirs, publishing Thirty Years in Washington, or Life and Scenes in Our National Capital in 1901, which included this apt description of the Senate and its ways.

Thirty Years in Washington

Making our way [from the House of Representatives] to a seat in the Senate gallery we find ourselves in an entirely different atmosphere. It is not because the men are so very different, for they are not. Most of them have been members of the House earlier in their careers. The difference lies altogether in the way of doing business and in the traditions which have come down from the First Congress. When Congress was sitting in Philadelphia previous to 1800, a writer in one of the newspapers of the day said:—“Among the senators is observed constantly during the debates the most delightful silence, the most beautiful order, gravity and personal dignity of manner. . . .”

The dignified pace set by the first senators has changed but little. . . . Time has modified somewhat the early dignity of the body, but it is hardly perceptible. The bitterness of partisan feeling seldom shows itself in the calm and dignified serenity which is the traditional senatorial demeanor. There is a slight moving about; senators come in and are called out, but so quietly do they move on the soft carpets that no one is disturbed. Occasionally there is a sharp hand-clap, and one of the pages, all bright-looking, smartly-dressed youngsters, trips lightly up to some senator to do his bidding—to get a book or paper from his committee room, or to take a telegram to the operator in the corridor. These page-boys, when disengaged, are seated on the carpeted steps to the Vice-President’s platform, and, when there has been nothing to distract them, they have been known to have a quiet little game of marbles behind the Vice-President’s chair, but in such a silent and decorous manner that the dignity of the Vice-President was not ruffled by a knowledge of it. Congressmen who always have the privilege of coming on the floor during open sessions of the Senate, drop in often, especially if some great debate is on, but they leave their house manners outside the door. The people in the galleries adapt themselves unconsciously to the calmer and higher atmosphere. If they should be so rash as to applaud anything a senator said, the gallery would be cleared. While the Republicans are seated on one side and the Democrats on the other, it is a common thing to see a senator of one political persuasion walk over to the seat of one of the opposite faith and talk with him with every evidence of sincere good nature, and as if there was no such thing as differences in political belief. Even in the stormy days when Calhoun was the lightning, Webster the thunder, and Clay the rainbow of the Senate, and in those still more tempestuous days just preceding the Civil War, there were few occasions when senatorial courtesy was damaged by passionate outbursts of feeling. . . .

. . . As one-third of the body is elected every two years, the larger part is always experienced, the more so as most elections are re-elections, and the absolutely new members are readily assimilated. They quickly find that nothing offends so much as violations of Senate traditions of dignity and respect and courtesy. The one unpardonable sin in the Senate is to be unsenatorial. 1

With her daughter as co-author, Mary Logan went on to publish The Part Taken by Women in American History in 1910, and later wrote a series of articles for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine that were compiled into Reminiscences of a Solder’s Wife: An Autobiography (1913). Combined, these publications provided a record of a long and useful life and offered a manual for newcomers to Washington, particularly for the wives and families of new members of Congress. “Mary Logan set the standard for achievement,” wrote one biographer, “at a time when conscientious people sought role models.” Mary Logan indeed served as a role model for countless women who sought a larger political role in American society long before they gained elected office.

Mary Logan died in 1923, at the age of 84. Following a funeral service marked by military and state ceremony in which members of Congress served as pallbearers, she was buried beside her husband in Soldier’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading:

Linsenmeyer-Keyser, Helen W. “Mary Logan—An Extraordinary Illinoisan.” Illinois Magazine 25 (November-December, 1986): 5-8.

Logan, Mrs. John A (Mary). Thirty Years in Washington, or Life and Scenes in Our National Capitol. Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington & Co., Publishers, 1901.

Logan, Mrs. John A. (Mary). Reminiscences of a Solder’s Wife: An Autobiography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.

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1. Mrs. John A. Logan, Thirty Years in Washington, or Life and Scenes in Our National Capital (Hartford, Conn: A.D. Worthington & Co., 1901), 112-115.