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Executive Sessions


1878-1920

March 6, 1888
Executive Sessions

For more than half of the Senate's existence, its members enjoyed conducting business with the Senate Chamber's doors locked. The framers of the Constitution had assumed that the Senate would always meet in secret. After six years of operation, however, pressure from the state legislatures then electing senators caused a change in policy. In a compromise, the Senate agreed to open its legislative proceedings, but to conduct all executive business related to nominations and treaties in private. Reports of those closed sessions, leaked by senators sworn to secrecy, conjure up images of members removing their jackets, lighting up cigars, and totally dispensing with formal floor procedures. Unfortunately for our understanding of how the 19th-century Senate operated—through the haze of cigar smoke and brandy—official reporters of debates were not usually permitted in those sessions

In the 1880s, pressures emerged that ultimately doomed secret sessions for executive business. The specific issue in 1888 was the possibility of going to war with Canada. In February of that year, Great Britain and the Democratic administration of President Grover Cleveland signed a treaty designed to reduce tensions over fishing rights off the northeastern coast of North America. Two years earlier, following the expiration of a previous fishing agreement, Canadian authorities had seized U.S. fishing boats. Americans retaliated by capturing Canadian seal fishing vessels off the coast of Alaska. War seemed to be a distinct possibility

The new treaty with Great Britain spawned intense anti-British opposition among Americans of Irish descent. To fuel this dissent, the Republican-controlled Senate, in March 1888, amended the Chamber's executive session rules to allow a treaty to be considered in open session for the first time. With the closely contested presidential election of 1888 approaching, Senate Democrats called foul and asserted that the Republican majority had engineered this first open executive session to improve their chances of winning New York State's crucial 36 electoral votes. Republicans hoped they could sway that state's considerable Irish-American population with revelations against Great Britain from the secret treaty negotiations. If successful, they could win the narrowly divided state and thus the presidency

Senate Republicans put on a great show. They publicly debated the Canadian Fisheries Treaty throughout the summer, before rejecting it. Two weeks before the election, they leaked a secret letter from the British ambassador saying that the government of Great Britain quietly supported reelection of Democratic President Cleveland. Publication of that correspondence consolidated Irish-American support for the Republicans and put their nominee, former Senator Benjamin Harrison, in the White House.

The Senate routinely continued holding closed sessions on treaties and nominations until 1929. Yet, news from these secret sessions routinely leaked out to the press, enabling newspapers to publish full accounts of what transpired. Reporters joked that if the Senate wanted fuller coverage, it should do all of its business in secret.