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"Byrd's History"

March 21, 1980

Portrait of Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia

Throughout the Senate's long history, a select company of senators have sought to describe and explain the institution to a larger audience by preparing diaries, letters, memoirs, and narrative histories. The earliest of these participant-observers was Pennsylvania senator William Maclay, who kept a diary during the First Congress, from 1789 to 1791. Despite Maclay's generally acerbic view of Senate proceedings, his diary serves as a unique source of information about a time when the Senate met exclusively behind closed doors.

The 19th century's first decade produced three notable record-keeping senators: William Plumer of New Hampshire, Samuel Mitchill of New York, and John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. Later, in 1851, Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri became the first senator in history to serve 30 years. Today, we are indebted to him for his classic two-volume, 1,600-page memoir entitled Thirty Years' View. While Benton worked on the second volume in 1855, his house caught fire. The conflagration destroyed his nearly completed manuscript, along with his books and papers. Without these research materials, the former senator relied on his prodigious memory and labored from dawn to dusk to successfully reconstruct that text.

Among the early 20th-century Senate's most notable member-observers were Henry Cabot Lodge, the first Harvard Ph.D. in political science; Henry Ashurst, who represented Arizona from 1912 until 1941; and California's Hiram Johnson, whose three decades of Senate diary letters were published in seven volumes.

By any standard, Robert C. Byrd holds a secure place among these noted senatorial member-observers. On March 21, 1980, a quiet Friday with little business scheduled, Majority Leader Byrd launched a unique historical project. With his granddaughter and her fifth-grade class looking on from the Senate Chamber gallery, he decided "it might be well if they had something to go back to school and talk about." Thus began an unprecedented series of addresses on the Senate's history and operations. Over the next 10 years, Senator Byrd delivered more than 100 speeches on topics ranging from a review of the Senate's impeachment powers to a survey of how the Senate has been portrayed in literature and film. These essays, revised and edited in two richly illustrated volumes, became the centerpiece of the Senate's 1989 bicentennial commemoration and prompted one leading American political historian to proclaim them "the most ambitious study of the United States Senate in all our history."