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Idea of the Senate | Senatorial Courtesy and Discipline

Ralph Flanders, 1961
Ralph Flanders

Ralph Flanders spent a dozen years as a Republican senator from Vermont observing the manners and traditions of the U.S. Senate, coming to appreciate how much they contributed to the legislative process. He left his mark on its history by filing a resolution to censure one of his colleagues for conduct unbecoming a United States senator. He also published a memoir, Senator from Vermont, in which he reflected on his own lessons in the appropriate conduct for a member of the Senate.

Ralph Flanders came to the Senate from a career in business. Born in Barnet, Vermont, in 1880, he grew up in Pawtucket and Central Falls, Rhode Island. He attended public schools, but his family’s limited finances precluded his going to college. Instead he became a machinist’s apprentice and worked his way up in the machine tool industry. In many ways the classic self-made man, Flanders also benefitted by marrying the daughter of the owner of the Jones and Lampson Tool Company in Springfield, Vermont, and became the company’s manager. Flanders’s interests extended far beyond machine tools. He headed the policy committee for the Committee for Economic Development, and briefly served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Flanders harbored political ambitions as well. In 1940 he ran in the Vermont Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, losing to the state’s popular governor, George Aiken. In 1946 President Harry Truman appointed Vermont’s other Republican senator, Warren Austin, to be ambassador to the United Nations, and Flanders ran to fill the Senate vacancy. Once he had won the Republican primary he was so assured of victory in what was then a rock-ribbed Republican state that he bought a house in Washington some weeks before the election. Being elected to fill a vacancy, he was sworn in four days after the election. Republicans added 15 new senators in the election of 1946 to win the majority for the first time since 1932. For his party, Flanders noted, the 80th Congress would be “an oasis after a long journey through the desert.” Since he was filling a vacancy, Flanders was sworn in just a few days after the election, giving him two months of seniority over the rest of his incoming class.

The rest of the freshman class was due to be sworn in on January 3, 1947, but a battle occurred over the seating of Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo, preventing Republicans from organizing the Senate. Although swearing in occurred alphabetically, the freshman senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, was eager to take his oath—and begin his seniority—before the Bilbo fight stalled the process. McCarthy prevailed on Wisconsin’s senior senator, Alexander Wiley, to arrange for him to be sworn in out of sequence. Senator Robert Taft, the de facto leader of the Senate Republican Party, worked behind the scenes to persuade Wiley to withdraw his motion, but the incident provided Flanders’s first exposure to the tactics and character of Joe McCarthy.

Initially, Flanders found the Senate’s elaborate courtesies and florid oratory amusing, but an early incident caused him to reassess his attitudes. He shares this attitude–altering experience in his memoir as follows...

Senator from Vermont

. . . I had an early personal introduction to that manner of speaking known as “Senatorial courtesy.” In addressing me on the floor Senator [Alben] Barkley, the Democratic Floor Leader, said, “I may say to the Senator, with the greatest respect and admiration, because I entertain for him the highest personal admiration and respect, that he could have accomplished the purpose he now has in mind more rapidly and certainly by voting for the amendment I offered earlier today.” A few weeks later in a spirit of fun I caricatured the sacred Senatorial courtesy in my remarks on some now-forgotten subject. A little later Barkley came over and sat beside me. He gently suggested that after I had served in the Senate a little longer I would find that Senatorial courtesy has its uses. It can express in a gentlemanly way anything from real, deep admiration on the one hand, to a harassing doubt as to a fellow Senator’s intelligence on the other. All of this is done in words to which no exception can be taken. In my twelve years of Senate service there was no case of a resort to physical violence or to a threat thereof. In the House, which lacks some of the traditions of the Senate, physical encounters occasionally, though rarely, occur. . . .

. . . From all of my twelve years’ service in the Senate I cannot recollect a single case of an important but controversial measure which could have been passed by a strictly party vote. The decisive vote for each was composed of yeas and nays from each side of the aisle. In a very large measure the judgment which decides the vote is an individual one. There is no firm base for party discipline and party policy, since each Senator is there in the first instance because he was nominated by his own initiative in the party primaries. After he has been nominated, his party has a responsibility to elect him. But first of all he is there by his own effort. This is not a good foundation on which to erect a rigid party discipline. Therefore there is none. 1

Since the days when Vice President Thomas Jefferson presided over the Senate, there had existed a notion that political issues could be so incendiary that the legislative process operated best when senators treated each other with respect and dignity. Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice instructed senators not to speak impertinently, not to use indecent language in debate, not to use “reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words” against another member, nor mention another member by name—hence the commonplace use of “my distinguished colleague.” As Ralph Flanders came to understand the importance of such senatorial behavior, he also became increasingly aware of a colleague who consistently violated the spirit of those rules of behavior with seeming impunity.

On the Banking and Currency Committee, Flanders amended a public housing bill promoted by the Truman administration, but when the Flanders amendments were debated on the floor, Senator McCarthy, also a member of the committee, sought to substitute his own amendments in order to take credit for the bill. A “sharp battle” occurred over parliamentary procedure, in which the Wisconsin senator eventually achieved success. Flanders noted ruefully: “It was hard to beat him in any contest in which deviousness and complexity were factors.”

Joseph R. McCarthy burst into national headlines in 1950 by making sensational charges of alleged Communists holding jobs in the State Department. To investigate these allegations, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appointed a special subcommittee, chaired by veteran Maryland Democrat Millard Tydings. Flanders privately warned Tydings that his investigation would be “a losing political game,” because no one in the Senate was better equipped to defend himself than Joe McCarthy. “Nothing was pinned on him that stuck.” Indeed, Tydings went down to defeat in the election that year after McCarthy orchestrated a campaign against him.

Ralph Flanders’ opposition to Joe McCarthy was due to his behavior rather than his ideology. Indeed, Flanders was a staunch anticommunist himself. When McCarthy became chairman of the Government Operations Committee in 1953 he called hundreds of witnesses in search of subversion and espionage. That year, while on vacation in Australia, Flanders was startled when reporters constantly asked him, “What about McCarthy?” It became clear to him that “in the outside world McCarthy was the United States and the United States was McCarthy.” He returned convinced that he must do something about this.

When the televised Army-McCarthy hearings began, the senator’s bullying tactics were broadcast to the nation. Flanders observed that other senators disapproved of McCarthy’s tactics but were unwilling to take direct action against a colleague. On July 11, 1954, Flanders introduced Senate Resolution 261, charging McCarthy with unbecoming conduct and calling for his removal as committee chairman. Observing that McCarthy skillfully used the media to promote himself, Flanders decided to share some of the senator’s advantages. He walked into the crowded Senate Caucus Room where the day’s Army-McCarthy hearings were underway and handed a letter to Senator McCarthy informing him that he planned to speak in the Senate Chamber about his activities that afternoon and asking him to be present. McCarthy read the letter aloud and dismissed it contemptuously. “I think they should get a net and take him to a good quiet place,” he joked with reporters.

No joking matter, the Flanders resolution prompted an investigation by a special committee that ultimately recommended McCarthy’s censure. In December of 1954, by a vote of 67 to 22, the Senate condemned McCarthy for conduct “contrary to Senate traditions.” McCarthy’s censure permanently terminated his national influence, but Ralph Flanders insisted that he bore his colleague no animosity. He went out of his way to resume personal relations by inviting the Wisconsin senator to join him for lunch in the Senators’ Dining Room. That was the way be believed senatorial courtesy ought to work.

Further Reading:

“Grover W. Ensley: Executive Director, Joint Economic Committee, United States Congress, 1949-1957,” Oral History Interviews, Senate Historical Office, 1986.

Flanders, Ralph. Senator from Vermont. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961.

Griffith, Robert. The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Jefferson, Thomas. A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, First Edition 1801. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1993.

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1. Ralph Flanders, Senator from Vermont (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961), 218, 241.