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Capt. Isaac Bassett

Capt. Isaac Bassett, for over sixty years an employee of the U. S. Senate, in the act of turning back the hands of the Senate clock at the close of a session of Congress.
by Harry O. Hall
Photograph, black and white, 1890 ca.
Image with text measurement
      Height: 4.0625 inches  (10.31875 cm)
      Width:  5.9375 inches  (15.08125 cm)
Cat. no. 38.00502.001

Isaac Bassett worked in the Senate as a page, messenger, and assistant doorkeeper from 1831 to 1895. His most abiding legacy is a manuscript he wrote, recording some of the more dramatic incidents and personalities in the Senate’s history, and providing an unparalleled chronicle of the institution in the 19th century. According to his account, his most celebrated and unusual duty began on March 4, 1845, the last day of the 28th Congress. President pro tempore Willie Mangum, fearing that an appropriations bill would not pass before the Senate was scheduled to adjourn, instructed Bassett to turn the hands of the Senate Chamber clock back 10 minutes. The senator stated, "I know of no one who could do it better than you."[1] While Bassett continued to carry out this task for over half a century, in his memoir he expressed dismay, particularly when senators–some jovial, others not–called into question the constitutionality of the action. Bassett recounted, "I have been called often by all of the presiding officers of the Senate since to move the clock back. There have been many instances when it was absolutely necessary to have it done. Many an extra ordinary [sic] session has been saved when I have moved the hands back."[2]

1. Papers of Isaac Bassett, Office of the Curator, U.S. Senate, 11 C 36-37.
2. Ibid., 11 C 38.