The 1820s brought a decided shift away from the previously unhurried pace of Senate chamber floor activity. Debates over the Missouri Compromise suddenly thrust issues of slavery and territorial expansion onto the Senate's agenda. The resulting turmoil caused the body's leaders to look for ways to streamline floor procedures.
They decided that the time had come to change the way that the Senate selected its committee chairmen and members. From its earliest years, the Senate had laboriously voted separately for each chairman and each member. With the emergence of stronger political parties in the early 1820s, this slow process offered unlimited opportunities for endless partisan wrangles.
In 1823, the Senate abandoned this system in favor of allowing the presiding officer to appoint committees. At a time when the vice presidency was vacant for several years, or otherwise occupied by infirm individuals who seldom appeared in the Senate chamber, members thought of the "presiding officer" as the Senate president pro tempore—one of their own number. No one doubted that the president pro tempore would make selections satisfying to the majority.
All of this abruptly changed in March 1825 with the arrival of a vigorous new vice president—South Carolina's John C. Calhoun (pictured), a former House member and war secretary, and active presidential aspirant. Senators immediately recognized his brilliance and its attendant dangers.
By the time he took office, Calhoun had split with President John Quincy Adams and the president's powerful ally, Secretary of State Henry Clay. He believed Adams and Clay had corruptly influenced the outcome of the 1824 presidential election, which had been decided in the House of Representatives. Allies of Adams and Clay watched carefully as Calhoun became the first vice president to make Senate committee assignments under the 1823 rules change. To no one's surprise in that bitterly partisan era, Calhoun appointed prominent administration opponents to the chairmanships of the Senate's major standing committees.
Within weeks, Adams and Clay partisans arranged for a Senate rules change. Once again, the full Senate would elect all committee chairmen and members. And, for the first time, the Senate allowed its members to appeal and reverse decisions made by the presiding officer. Never again would a vice president enjoy the power that, ever so briefly, had fallen into the hands of John C. Calhoun.
Portrait of John C. Calhoun
Niven, John. John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.