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Origins and Development

Chapter 1: Constitutional Design of the Senate, 1787
Chapter 2: Organizing the New Government, 1789–1794
Chapter 3: The 19th Century
Chapter 4: The 20th Century
Chapter 5: Senate Committees & Powers
Chapter 6: Conclusion

Constitutional Design of the Senate, 1787

The framers of the Constitution created the United States Senate to protect the rights of individual states and safeguard minority opinion in a system of government designed to give greater power to the national government. They modeled the Senate on governors' councils of the colonial era and on the state senates that had evolved since independence. The framers intended the Senate to be an independent body of responsible citizens who would share power with the president and the House of Representatives. James Madison, paraphrasing Edmund Randolph, explained in his notes that the Senate's role was "first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led."

To balance power between the large and small states, the Constitution's framers agreed that states would be represented equally in the Senate and in proportion to their populations in the House. Further preserving the authority of individual states, they provided that state legislatures would elect senators. To guarantee senators' independence from short-term political pressures, the framers designed a six-year Senate term, three times as long as that of popularly elected members of the House of Representatives. Madison reasoned that longer terms would provide stability. "If it not be a firm body," he concluded, "the other branch being more numerous, and coming immediately from the people, will overwhelm it." Responding to fears that a six-year Senate term would produce an unreachable aristocracy in the Senate, the framers specified that one-third of the members' terms would expire every two years, leaving two-thirds of the members in office. This combined the principles of continuity and rotation in office.

In the early weeks of the Constitutional Convention, the participants had tentatively decided to give the Senate sole power to make treaties and to appoint federal judges and ambassadors. As the convention drew to a close, however, they moved to divide these powers between the Senate and the president, following Gouverneur Morris' reasoning that "As the president was to nominate, there would be responsibility, and as the Senate was to concur, there would be security." Due to the concern of individual states that other states might combine against them, by a simple majority vote, for commercial or economic gain, approval of a treaty would require a two-thirds vote. In dealing with nominations, the framers believed that senators—as statewide officials—would be uniquely qualified to identify suitable candidates for federal judicial posts and would confirm them along with cabinet secretaries and other key federal officials, by a simple majority vote.

Organizing the New Government, 1789–1794

The United States Senate convened for the first time on March 4, 1789, in an elegant second-floor chamber of New York City's newly remodeled Federal Hall. Only eight of the 22 eligible members (from the 11 states that had already ratified the Constitution) were present on that day. On April 6, 12 members were present to establish a quorum and the Senate got down to work. As its first item of business, the Senate elected New Hampshire's John Langdon president pro tempore and invited the House of Representatives to its Chamber to count the electoral ballots for president and vice president. On April 21 John Adams took his oath as vice president, thereby assuming his responsibility under the Constitution to serve as the Senate's president and presiding officer. Nine days later, House members again crowded into the Senate Chamber to witness George Washington's inauguration.

In its early weeks, the Senate turned to various organizational matters. Members appointed a six-member staff, including a doorkeeper, a secretary, a chaplain, and two clerks. Temporary committees were established to formulate a code of rules that would guide the Senate's proceedings, and to draft legislation to give shape to the government's judicial branch. The Senate divided its members into three equal and sectionally balanced classes, with the terms to expire at two, four, and six-year intervals. As new states entered the Union, their senators would be assigned to two of the three classes.

In its first session the Senate cautiously engaged its constitutional responsibilities, mindful of the precedent-setting nature of its every interaction with the House of Representatives and the president. Senators gave serious attention to their duty to provide advice and consent to the president's nominations and treaties. A Georgia senator's objection to an appointment of a naval officer in his state resulted in the first Senate rejection of a presidential nominee, reflecting the understanding that senators were the best judges of appointees from their states to which other members would defer as a matter of "senatorial courtesy." When President Washington visited the Senate in August 1789 to consult about a recently negotiated Indian treaty, he expected an immediate response. To his great frustration, the Senate decided to refer the issue to committee for further study. After Washington finally received Senate approval of that treaty, he vowed he would never again seek that body's advice and consent in person.

The Senate's workload increased greatly during the final weeks of the first session in 1789. This reinforced the framers' notion that the House of Representatives would serve as the principal workshop for crafting legislation, while the Senate would polish and rework that legislation in consideration of what were presumably the nation's broader and longer-term interests.

The second session of the first Congress convened in January 1790 and lasted seven months. During this period the Senate turned to legislation that would place the nation on a firm financial footing, and provided for a permanent seat of government in a special federal district along the Potomac River. While that site was being prepared, Congress agreed to move the government to Philadelphia, where the final session of the First Congress met between December 1790 and March 1791.

During its 10-year residence in Philadelphia, the Senate conducted its proceedings in the second-floor chamber of that city's recently reconstructed "Congress Hall." During the 10 years the Senate met in that chamber, political parties became the principal determinant of legislative debate and accomplishment.

Like the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, but in contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate in 1789 had decided to conduct its sessions behind closed doors. A clash in 1794 between Federalists and Anti-federalists over the seating of newly elected Pennsylvania Senator Albert Gallatin brought a partial abandonment of the Senate's closed-door policy. Members of the Federalist majority feared that their planned rejection of Gallatin, an Anti-federalist, would trigger charges of improper behavior if done in secret. Calls for an open-door policy were not new. Demands for open sessions came principally from the state legislatures, whose members argued that secret sessions did not allow them to effectively assess the conduct of the senators they had elected. Also, press coverage of open sessions in the House of Representatives helped popularize its legislative role in the new government, but the Senate's less visible action put it in danger of becoming the forgotten chamber. Consequently, the Senate took the opportunity of Gallatin's contested election to open its doors for all legislative business. (Doors generally remained closed, however, for executive business related to presidential nominations and treaties until 1929.)

The 19th Century

On November 21, 1800, the Senate took up residence in basement quarters in the unfinished Capitol in Washington, D.C. Ten years later, it moved to a grander chamber on the Capitol's second floor (now known as the "Old Senate Chamber") where it remained until 1859. This large, semi-circular room, with its plain walls and low-vaulted domed ceiling, provided an ideal setting, both acoustically and dramatically, for the Senate as it moved into an era of great prominence. Although the Senate had operated in the shadow of the larger and more boisterous House of Representatives during its earliest years, by the 1820s it dominated the House and the presidency, with the exception of the Civil War years, for the remainder of the 19th century. In its elegant second-floor chamber, the Senate became the agent of compromise that helped avoid civil war for four decades.

In 1833 the Senate's membership had risen to only 48, compared with 242 in the House of Representatives. With fewer numbers and an equal balance between slave and free states, the Senate offered a forum better suited to lively and discursive debate. In the face of growing national tensions associated with federal authority versus states' rights, and the extension of slavery into the nation's territories, the Senate served as a workshop for fashioning major compromise agreements. In this era Daniel Webster of Massachusetts most dramatically articulated northern interests, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina those of the South, and Henry Clay of Kentucky, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and Stephen Douglas of Illinois spoke for the West. The sectional accords they vigorously debated bought time for a maturing nation. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, four decades of compromises had allowed the national government time to gain the experience, balance, and strength it needed to survive the ordeal.

The nation's territorial expansion throughout the 1800s resulted in new states that required additional quarters in the Capitol to accommodate the arriving senators and representatives from these states. Consequently, on January 4, 1859, just two years before the Civil War began, the Senate's 64 members moved to a large chamber in the Capitol's newly completed north wing. This room, where the Senate continues to meet today, witnessed the crisis of the Civil War. In 1868, amidst the turmoil of postwar reconstruction, it provided the setting for President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial. It also witnessed the evolution of the Senate from agent of compromise to an elite club of powerful committee chairmen. While most members viewed the Senate as a temporary way station in a political or business career and served a single term, a few long-serving senators capitalized on their seniority to control the Senate's legislative agenda. The 19th century ended with the Senate effectively controlled by a handful of these powerful leaders, such as Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, William B. Allison of Iowa, Orville Platt of Connecticut, and John Spooner of Wisconsin—collectively known as "The Senate Four."

The 20th Century

A major change in the Senate's institutional structure occurred in 1913 with the ratification of the Constitution's Seventeenth Amendment, providing for direct popular election of senators. Selection of senators by state legislatures had worked reasonably well for the Senate's first half-century. Eventually, however, deadlocks began to occur between the upper and lower houses of those bodies. This problem delayed state legislative business and deprived states of their full Senate representation. By the start of the 20th century, direct popular election of senators had become a major objective for progressive reformers who sought to remove control of government from the influence of special interests and corrupt state legislators. Although this amendment did not significantly affect the quality of persons subsequently elected to the Senate, its passage marked the only structural modification of the framers' original design of the institution.

During the 19th century Senate leadership came mostly from committee chairs and other senior members, but in the early 20th century the position of party leaders—majority and minority leader—developed. Democrat John Worth Kern of Indiana and Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts unofficially assumed such leadership roles by 1915, and in 1921 the Democrats designated their first official "floor leader"—Oscar W. Underwood of Alabama. In 1925 the Republicans chose Charles Curtis of Kansas as their first "majority leader." In the years that followed, the positions of majority and minority leader gained respect and power. Today, leaders are elected by their fellow senators at the beginning of each Congress. Senate precedent requires that the presiding officer recognize the leaders before other senators present in the Chamber, giving them first chance to propose legislation, offer amendments, and control the legislative agenda of the day.

Senate Committees & Powers

Senate Committees

In its earliest years, the Senate relied on temporary committees to draft specific legislative language after the entire body had reached a consensus regarding a measure's general objectives. The War of 1812 demonstrated the need for consistently available expertise based in permanent, or standing, committees. In 1816, the Senate established permanent committees organized according to the broad categories of the president's annual message. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Senate committees proliferated. By the turn of the 20th century, when the Senate awarded staff and office space only to its committee chairmen, the number of committees nearly equaled the number of members. In 1920 and again following the Second World War, the Senate eliminated many committees and reorganized others. Since the 1950s the Senate has employed professional staff on committees and has established reforms to minimize the autocratic control by committee chairs that had existed earlier. Today, there are 16 standing committees, each with its own set of subcommittees to address the vast array of legislation considered by the Senate each year.

In the 20th century Senate committees have also taken on a greater investigative role. Among the more notable special investigations conducted by Senate committees have been oil leasing in the 1920s, securities regulation in the 1930s, war profiteering in the 1940s, organized crime in the 1950s, the Vietnam war in the 1960s, Watergate in the 1970s, covert intelligence operations in the 1980s, campaign finance in the 1990s, and the energy industry in the early twenty-first century.

Senate Powers

Although much has changed in the Senate in the past two centuries, the Constitution's framers would likely recognize several of the modern Senate's roles, particularly its unique constitutional responsibility to provide advice and consent to nominations and treaties. During the years the Senate has rejected very few cabinet nominees, reflecting an attitude that presidents were entitled to choose their own advisers, unless those officials clearly demonstrated unfitness to serve. The Senate gave greater scrutiny, however, to judicial nominees with lifetime tenure. Directing particular attention to the Supreme Court, the Senate has rejected approximately twenty percent of those nominated to the nation's highest tribunal. Of the thousands of treaties submitted, the Senate has turned down fewer than two dozen, but it routinely influenced treaty negotiations with threats of modification through the addition of various amendments, reservations, or understandings.

The framers would also find much in the Senate, as in modern America, that would surprise them. They would surely be amazed that the Senate has grown to 100 members, with 7,000 staff members housed in three large office buildings, and that senators now view service in the body as a long-term career. They would also be surprised at the importance the Senate accords to its committee system.


Looking back on more than two centuries of Senate history, the Constitution's framers would appreciate the Senate's passion for deliberation, its untidiness, its aloofness from the House of Representatives and its suspicion of the presidency. Neither they nor most of the more than 1,800 persons who served as senators during that time would be greatly surprised at the continuing calls for reform. Viewed over the broad sweep of its history, the Senate has balanced faithfulness to the Constitution's principles with requirements for measured change in response to the complex demands of a diverse society.

Further Reading: U.S. Congress. Senate. The Senate, 1789-1989, by Robert C. Byrd. S. Doc. 100-20, 100th Congress, 1st session, Washington: GPO. Volumes I and II, Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, 1989, 1991; Volume III, Classic Speeches, 1830-1993, 1994; Volume IV, Historical Statistics, 1789-1992, 1993.