Bassett Reflects on His Career

[U.S. Senate Chamber with Isaac Bassett and Pages]
Unknown Artist
ca. 1890

"Sketches in the United States Senate." (detail) Bassett is on the left.
Unidentified Artist, after Edward W. Kemble
Harper's Weekly
March 12, 1887


My experience is that if I had my time to go over again I never would enter the Senate as a page, messenger, or an officer. I have spent my whole life in its service, and the consequence is that I have had a very limited education. Could only go to school during the recess of the Senate and then only for a short time, [for I] was compelled to come and fold speeches in the folding room of the Senate. I have tried to do my duty and act honestly. Consequently I have very little of this world’s goods. In my long service have had many opportunities to make money. Frequently have had money offered to me. Not only that but at the door of the Senate when I had charge of the center door men and I must say women has put twenty dollar gold pieces in my hand and insisted on me receiving it. It was on the days that Mr. Clay, Calhoun, Webster were to speak. I always returned it with the remark that I was paid by the government for doing my duty, and could not receive it. On one occasion a distinguished officer in the army went to the then sergeant at arms of the Senate (I was then a messenger) and told him that I was the most conscientious man that he had ever come across, that he had ordered Mr. Todd a hatter on the Avenue to make me one of his best hats, and that Mr. Todd sent to me for my number, that I refused to give it to him and would not receive the hat. I have been asked time without number in the later days what was the cause of my being retained through all administrations. The only reason that I can give is that I tried to mind my own business and let other people’s alone. [1A5-1A6]

Editor's Note:

In 1829 the Senate hired a young boy, Grafton Hanson, as the first page of the U.S. Senate. Two years later, at the request of Daniel Webster, 12-year-old Isaac Bassett was appointed the second page. There are now up to 30 pages working in the Senate, responsible for preparing the Senate Chamber for sessions, serving as messengers, and carrying bills and amendments to the clerk’s desk. Today, the Senate pages come from all over the United States and live in a dormitory and attend classes at the U.S. Senate Page School. In Bassett’s day, the Senate employed local boys and made no provisions for housing or schooling.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Page - For more than 175 years, messengers known as pages have served the U.S. Senate. Page duties consist primarily of delivering correspondence and legislative material within the Capitol complex. Other duties include preparing the Senate Chamber for Senate sessions, and carrying bills and amendments to the presiding officer’s desk.
  • Messenger - Messengers delivered documents, brought messages, and informed members of a roll call vote.
  • Officer - Officers of the Senate ensure that the business of the Senate runs smoothly. These include the president of the Senate (the vice president of the United States), president pro tempore, secretary of the Senate, sergeant at arms (originally the doorkeeper), and the Senate chaplain.
  • Folding room - The folding room was a multi-purpose office that prepared documents and bills for distribution and mailing
  • Henry Clay (Democratic Republican, National Republican, Whig - KY) U.S. senator 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.
  • John Caldwell Calhoun (Democratic Republican, Nullifier, Democrat - SC) U.S. senator 1832-1843 and 1845-1850.
  • Daniel Webster (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian, Whig - MA) U.S. senator 1827-1841 and 1845-1850.
  • Sergeant at Arms - This position was originally that of doorkeeper, and was established in 1789. The doorkeeper tended the Senate Chamber door and enforced order in the galleries. Over the years, the title and duties grew; the title is now "sergeant at arms and doorkeeper." The sergeant at arms serves the Senate as its chief law enforcement officer, protocol officer, and executive officer.