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The Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress: A Historical Introduction


Welcome to the on-line version of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. For over a century, the Biographical Directory has provided valuable information about the more than 13,000 individuals who have served in the national legislature, including the Continental Congress, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Those listed also include territorial delegates, resident commissioners, and vice presidents. First published in 1859 as the Dictionary of the United States Congress, the Biographical Directory was most recently published to coincide with the 1989 bicentennial of the U.S. Congress. The Senate Historical Office and the Legislative Resource Center of the House of Representatives, working under the direction of the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House, have updated the Biographical Directory  through the current Congress for on-line publication. This searchable database builds upon past efforts and will be regularly revised to reflect recent scholarship on former members and up-to-date information about each current member of Congress.

Appropriate to the vast new possibilities of internet publication, the on-line version goes well beyond the scope of the printed Biographical Directory to include images from the large photo collections of the Senate Historical Office and the Legislative Resource Center, links to other sources of congressional information, and continuously updated entries that provide biographical information in clear and easy-to-read formats.

Many entries in the on-line version include information previously published in three separate volumes: Guide to Research Collections of Former United States Senators; Senators of the United States: A Historical Bibliography; and Guide to Research Collections of Former Members of the House of Representatives.

A History of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

The last printed edition of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1989) was the fifteenth in a series of such reference works published since 1859, when Charles Lanman (author, journalist, and former secretary to Daniel Webster) gathered the first collection of biographies of former and sitting members of Congress for his Dictionary of Congress, published by J.B. Lippincott & Co. Lanman intended his Dictionary of Congress to serve primarily as a guide for sitting members of Congress, much as the Congressional Directory functions today. Following the private publication of the first edition, Lanman sent complimentary copies to all senators and representatives and sought congressional support for subsequent editions.

In 1864 the United States Senate and the House of Representatives approved the publication, by the recently established Government Printing Office, of an updated version of Lanman's Dictionary. When the House Committee on Printing failed to report a Senate resolution for publication of Lanman's latest revision in 1866, the Senate approved its publication as a Senate document. This edition also included for the first time biographical entries for delegates to the Continental Congress. After Congress offered Ben Perley Poore, a journalist and clerk of the Senate Committee on Printing and Records, the job of preparing a congressional directory with biographical sketches and the kind of reference information found in the Dictionary of Congress, Lanman responded with a new edition of his work in 1868, privately published by T. Belknap and H. E. Goodwin of Hartford, Connecticut. Poor sales and the need to prepare another updated version a year later discouraged Lanman, and he discontinued preparation of the Dictionary of Congress.

In anticipation of the centenary of American independence, and in search of a market not served by Poore's Congressional Directory, Lanman prepared a Biographical Annals of the Civil Government of the United States in 1876, published by James Anglim of Washington. This volume combined the biographies of the Dictionary of Congress with entries for other governmental officials who had served since 1776, as well as expanding the reference tables. Competing with Lanman, Poore included a historical volume with his 1878 Political Register and Congressional Directory, published by Houghton, Osgood and Company of Boston. Poore clearly derived much of his biographical information from Lanman's work, but he also expanded the scope by including the first references to party affiliation. In 1887 Joseph M. Morrison published a revised edition of Lanman's work, titled Biographical Annals, the final private publication of the congressional biographical directory.

In 1903 Congress authorized the publication of a Biographical Congressional Directory. Compiled under the direction of O.M. Enyart, this was the first volume prepared by congressional staff. It drew on the Lanman and Poore editions as well as on biographical information printed in the Congressional Directory (which began including such information with the Fortieth Congress). A second edition of the Biographical Congressional Directory, published in 1913, reflected the first serious effort to verify the information contained in the nineteenth-century directories. These initial volumes prepared by congressional staff represented an attempt to provide an authoritative historical record as well as a reference source for sitting members of Congress.

The most thorough and systematic revision of biographical entries attempted prior to the bicentennial volume came with the Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1927.  Published in 1928, this volume owed much to the diligent efforts of Ansel Wold, Chief Clerk of the Joint Committee on Printing. In an effort to verify existing data and to search for any additional information available, the staff of the Joint Committee on Printing distributed questionnaires through postmasters in the home towns of former members, including those from the earliest congresses. They also pored through books, searched newspapers and obituaries, and even tracked down burial sites to gain needed statistics from inscriptions on tombstones. The resulting entries reflected the responses of governmental clerks, descendants and acquaintances of members, local historians, and countless others. Conducted in the 1920s, this survey yielded more detailed and consistent biographies than had been found in the nineteenth-century editions or in the earlier volumes compiled by congressional staff. And yet, the frequent reliance on family legends and personal recollections still allowed a good deal of inaccuracy into the volume. Although Congress authorized revised editions in 1950, 1961, and 1971, the entries from the 1928 edition remained virtually intact in the three subsequent updates.

The Bicentennial Edition

The creation of the Senate Historical Office in 1975 and the Office for the Bicentennial in the House of Representatives in 1983 provided the first opportunity for professional historians to revise and update the Biographical Directory. A printing resolution for the Bicentennial Edition of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress 1774-1989, approved by the Ninety-ninth Congress in December 1985, directed the Joint Committee on Printing to print an edition for which the Senate Historical Office would prepare all entries for senators, including the more than 600 House members who had also served in the Senate. The resolution charged the House Office for the Bicentennial with preparation of entries for all others who served in the House of Representatives since 1789 and for delegates to the Continental Congress. The Joint Committee on Printing prepared updated rosters for congresses since 1971, as well as providing the Senate and House offices with drafts of biographical entries compiled since the printing of the 1971 edition.

Under the guidance of editors-in-chief Kathryn A. Jacob and Bruce A. Ragsdale, the House Office for the Bicentennial and the Senate Historical Office completed the compilation of entries for all members through the One Hundredth Congress. They also reviewed all entries from previous editions of the Biographical Directory of the American Congress, which clearly demonstrated the need for substantial revisions and additions in order to bring the new edition into line with current historical scholarship and accepted standards of accuracy and consistency.

The Bicentennial Edition editorial staff reviewed all entries in the previous edition of the Biographical Directory and where possible sought to verify data through comparison with other standard reference works and primary sources. In many cases the Biographical Directory was the only published record of former Members, and thus verification of the many standing entries based solely on family reports, oral traditions, and local histories had to be an ongoing project.

To bring consistency and accuracy to the new edition, the editors devised more uniform categories of information in the biographical entries, created a more consistent and logical sequence to the data presented, and attempted to standardize phrasing. Although broad variations in individual entries and institutional differences between the House of Representatives and the Senate prevented absolute adherence to set categories, the editors did establish a standard format as a guideline for preparation of the biographies, which remains the format used today for the on-line version and subsequent print editions.

Whereas earlier editions of the Biographical Directory and their nineteenth-century predecessors offered curiously little information on congressional careers other than terms of service, the bicentennial edition provided a more complete record of the individual members' years in office. For the first time, entries included all standing committee chairs and all major, formal leadership positions. Perhaps the most serious source of error and confusion in previous editions had been the designations of party affiliation. Many of the party labels added to the editions of 1913 and 1928 were anachronistic, claiming for the two modern parties senators and representatives elected to Congress before the modern Democratic or Republican parties existed. Other entries ignored the frequent shifts in party affiliation during the nineteenth century or omitted reference to short-lived and regional political parties, thus failing to reflect the vigor and diversity of nineteenth-century politics. In the Bicentennial Edition, the editors reviewed all party designations in an effort to reflect contemporary electoral labels and current understanding of party development.

In an effort to guide readers to more biographical information than could be contained in brief entries, for the first time bibliographical citations for members were included whenever possible. Consequently, for the first time all entries noted Dictionary of American Biography essays, when available, and cited up to two other sources, including biographies, monographs, journal articles, dissertations, autobiographies and documentary publications. The bibliographies for on-line Senate entries are updated regularly, and now note inclusion in the American National Biography series or the Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. In cases where individuals had lengthy bibliographies due to long and wide-ranging careers, citations were chosen to focus on congressional service.

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We hope you find the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress valuable to your research. If you have comments or questions, please contact the Senate Historical Office at 202-224-6900 or the Clerk of the House at 202-225-7000.