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Organizing a Senate in Turmoil


Even the most routine tasks were a challenge for the Senate of the 37th Congress, meeting in March 1861 as the country edged closer to the brink of civil war. Even the customary task of adopting an organizing resolution to determine committee ratios and membership presented the Senate with a dilemma: how to determine committee assignments for absent Southern senators who had withdrawn or failed to appear in the months following the election of Abraham Lincoln? Having not yet agreed on how to formally recognize such absences, the Senate simply chose to exclude most of these Southern senators from the committee rosters. The Senate unanimously agreed to the organizing resolution on March 8, 1861. Six days later, after a heated debate, the Senate passed another resolution declaring the seats of six of their departed colleagues “vacant” and authorizing the secretary of the Senate to strike their names from the Senate roll.