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President's Death Eases Senate Deadlock


September 19, 1881

Photo of William Mahone of Virginia

Rarely in its history has the Senate been evenly divided between the two major political parties. When the Senate of the 47th Congress convened on March 4, 1881, its membership stood at 37 Democrats, 37 Republicans, and 2 Independents. At stake was which party would have the power to name committee chairs and select Senate officers. One of the Independents, David Davis of Illinois, agreed to vote with the Democrats. The other Independent, William Mahone of Virginia, owed his election to a breakaway faction within his state's Democratic Party. Senate Democrats optimistically believed they could count on him in their bid to control the Senate.

The Republicans had come too close to give up without a stiff fight. If they could capture Mahone, the balance would be 38 to 38 and allow Republican Vice President Chester Arthur to provide the tie-breaking vote for his party.

Mahone, a freshman, exacted a high price from the Senate's Republicans. It included the chairmanship of the influential Agriculture Committee and the right to select the Senate's Secretary and Sergeant at Arms, both of whom controlled extensive patronage appointments. President James Garfield also reluctantly handed him control of Virginia's federal patronage. The day after Mahone's vote allowed the Republicans to organize the Senate's committees, a large basket of flowers from the White House conservatory appeared on his chamber desk.

When Republicans then moved to appoint Senate officers, Democrats balked. They employed various parliamentary tactics that brought the Senate to a standstill and blocked a long list of Republican executive nominees. To honor their promise to Mahone, Republicans threatened to "fight it out if it takes all summer."

The Republicans temporarily lost their majority in May, however, when New York senators Roscoe Conkling and Thomas Platt suddenly resigned in a clash over executive appointments with President James Garfield. The Senate adjourned a few days later.

The terms of the fight over the Senate changed dramatically when, on September 19, 1881, President Garfield died of wounds from an assassin's bullet. Vice President Chester Arthur assumed the presidency and called the Senate into extraordinary session in October.

During the summer, New York’s governor had appointed two new Republican senators, and in September, Republican Nelson Aldrich had been appointed to fill a vacancy for Rhode Island. When the extraordinary session began in October, 38 Democrats outnumbered 35 Republican senators, and they refused to allow the newly appointed Republicans to take the oath until a president pro tempore had been elected. Senate Democrats elected one of their own, Thomas Bayard of Delaware, as president pro tempore. Only then did the Senate accept the credentials of the new Republican senators, returning the party balance to 38 to 38. Facing yet another deadlock, the two sides reached a compromise. The Senate elected independent David Davis as the president pro tempore. Republicans maintained control of the Senate’s committees, but Democrats were allowed to elect the Senate’s other officers and enjoyed the influential power to fill patronage positions.