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Henry B. Anthony, "Father of the Senate"


September 2, 1884

Photo of Senator Henry Anthony

At the height of his career, Rhode Island Republican Senator Henry B. Anthony was known to his colleagues as the “Father of the Senate”—the longest-serving member among them—a source of wisdom and stability in unsettled times.  

In 1868, when the chief justice of the United States directed the Senate clerk to call the roll at the climactic moment of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, Anthony’s name stood at the head of the alphabet. "Mr. Senator Anthony,” the chief justice intoned, “How say you? Is the respondent, Andrew Johnson, president of the United States, guilty or not guilty . . . ?” Anthony’s response—meaningful because it was the first to be given and because he was known to be a supporter of Johnson—echoed like a thunder clap across the tense chamber: “Guilty!”

A rough-and-tumble old-time politician, Anthony did not hesitate—in the words of one modern writer—to employ “political legerdemain and bribery” to gain his objectives. His break with Andrew Johnson came after the president began directing Rhode Island patronage appointments to Anthony’s political adversaries.

On September 2, 1884, Anthony died at age 69. This politically adroit former newspaper editor and state governor had served continuously in the Senate for the 25 years since 1859. Only two others in Senate history to that time had held longer terms.

In an era when the Senate selected its president pro tempore more for popularity than seniority, and made that choice each time the vice president was away from the Senate Chamber, members picked “Father” Anthony a record-setting 17 times.

Americans of his day knew Anthony as a powerful orator, who delivered famous funeral orations for notable senators including Stephen Douglas and Charles Sumner. Today, Anthony’s name is known only to a few for its association with a Senate rule designed to keep measures that have been cleared for floor action from being bottled up on the Senate calendar.

Long before the Senate developed the position of majority leader to decide which items on its calendar would be given priority consideration, the “Anthony Rule” attempted to limit floor debate by allowing senators to speak no more than five minutes on certain measures before voting. It has since fallen into disuse, perhaps underscoring a biographer’s assessment that Anthony was “one of the type of senators whose services lie rather in the exercise of judgment and practical wisdom than in any [lasting] contribution to law or practice.”