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Help Wanted--The Senate Elects a Secretary


April 8, 1789

Image of Samuel Otis of Massachusetts

Here is a job posting that could have appeared in the spring of 1789. "Newly established legislative body seeks experienced public administrator. Successful candidate must be able to maintain confidence of demanding individuals holding diverse political views. Specific duties include journal-keeping, bill management, payroll preparation, and stationery acquisition. Administrator must be able to supervise a three-member staff, keep secrets, and write neatly. Salary: $1,500."

On April 8, 1789, the Senate filled that position by electing Samuel Otis to be the first Secretary of the Senate. A protege of Vice President John Adams, the 48-year-old Otis was well qualified for the job. He had been quartermaster of the Continental army during the Revolutionary War, speaker of the Massachusetts house of representatives, and a member of Congress under the Articles of Confederation.

Otis's early duties combined substance with symbolism. In addition to engaging the many tasks associated with establishing a new institution, he had the high honor of holding the Bible as George Washington took his presidential oath of office. As the Senate set down its legislative procedures and carefully negotiated relations with the House and President Washington, Otis became a key player. At a time when senators spent less than half of each year on the job in the nation's capital, Otis was on the job year round.

During the 12 years that John Adams served as vice president and then president, Otis enjoyed great job security. The situation changed, however, in 1801, when control of the Senate shifted from the Adams Federalists to the Jeffersonian Republicans. When John Quincy Adams became a senator in 1803, he reported to his father that Otis "is much alarmed at the prospect of being removed from office." Through the considerable political turbulence in the years ahead, Samuel Otis held on as Secretary, despite occasional complaints from senators about the Senate Journal not being kept up to date or records being kept in a "blind confused manner."

During his 25 years in office, a record unbroken among his successors, Secretary Otis never missed a day on the job. To the very end of his life, he remained intensely devoted to the Senate. Suffering a terminal illness early in 1814, he held on until April, when the Senate completed its work for the session. Only then did he die.