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Senate Stories | Archives and Research


Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.

Page from the Senate Journal Noting the First Quorum, April 6, 1789 202404 6Treasures from the Senate Archives: The Long Journey to Quorum
April 6, 2024
Each year, during the first week of April, the Senate commemorates “Congress Week.” Tied to the date when the Senate established a quorum for the first time—April 6, 1789—Congress Week is an annual reminder of the importance of saving and preserving the records of Congress. This year’s collection of treasures from the Senate Archives along with correspondence from manuscript collections tells the story of this very event—the Senate’s long journey to a quorum in the late winter and early spring of 1789.

Each year, during the first week of April, the Senate commemorates “Congress Week.” Tied to the date when the Senate established a quorum for the first time—April 6, 1789—Congress Week is an annual reminder of the importance of saving and preserving the records of Congress. This year’s collection of treasures from the Senate Archives along with correspondence from manuscript collections tells the story of this very event—the Senate’s long journey to a quorum in the late winter and early spring of 1789. The Framers of the Constitution included a formula for its ratification. As stated in Article VII: “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution.” When the necessary ninth state—New Hampshire—ratified the Constitution on June 21, 1788, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation began the transition to form a new federal government. On September 13, that soon-to-expire Confederation Congress issued an ordinance giving states authority to elect their first senators and set the convening date for the First Federal Congress—March 4, 1789. As it turned out, that was the easy part.1 When the convening date arrived, the First Congress was to meet in the newly refurbished and renamed Federal Hall in New York City to count the electoral votes for president and vice president, inaugurate the winners, and proceed with its business. Writing to his wife that momentous day, Pennsylvania senator Robert Morris described the dramatic transition taking place in the city: “Last Night they fired 13 Canon [sic] from the Battery here over the Funeral of the Confederation & this Morning they Saluted the New Government with Eleven Cannon being one for each of the States that have adopted the Constitution,” he wrote. (Rhode Island and North Carolina had not yet ratified the Constitution.) “[R]inging of Bells & Crowds of People at the Meeting of Congress gave the air of a grand Festival to the 4th of March 1789 which no doubt will hereafter be Celebrated as a New Era in the Annals of the World.” The New York Daily Advertiser reported that “a general joy pervaded the whole city on this great, important and memorable event; every countenance testified a hope that under the auspices of the new government, commerce would again thrive … and peace and prosperity adorn our land.”2 The exultation soon transitioned to disappointment, however, when both houses fell short of reaching the quorum required by the Constitution to conduct their business (30 representatives and 12 senators). Only 13 of the 59 representatives and only 8 of the 22 senators from the 11 states were present to offer their credentials (certificates of election) and be sworn in. "The number not being sufficient to constitute a quorum, they adjourned," reads the first entry in the Senate Journal.3 “We are in hopes these Numbers will Appear tomorrow,” an optimistic Morris wrote. News reports were likewise hopeful. “It is expected that a sufficient number to form a quorum will arrive this evening. Should that be the case the votes for President and Vice-President will be counted to-morrow,” the New York correspondent to the Massachusetts Centinel explained. In the subsequent days, the ongoing delay diminished such confident expectations and tested the patience of an anticipative country, including the punctual group of eight senators. Day after day, these senators appeared in the Senate Chamber only to be disappointed, harboring growing concerns of the government’s inability to operate.4 The image of a government paralyzed by absenteeism was all too familiar. The Confederation Congress had encountered similar problems, and in its final months, that legislature remained practically powerless to conduct business due to a lack of quorum. Thus, when only eight of the senators elected to the new federal government under the Constitution presented themselves on March 4, many feared a continuation of the old difficulty. "The members of the First Federal Congress who were on hand in New York on the appointed first day of the session were anxious to avoid any image of impotence caused by the lack of a quorum,” one historian explained. “They hoped that the new government could begin its work promptly, conveying an impression of the seriousness of their attention to duty to the expectant public." When a quorum failed to materialize over the next few days, those who had arrived pleaded with their missing colleagues in a letter. "We apprehend,” they wrote, “that no arguments are necessary to evince to you the indispensable necessity of putting the Government into immediate operation; and, therefore earnestly request, that you will be so obliging as to attend as soon as possible."5 Frustration and resentment grew as another week passed, and another, and still no quorum. “We earnestly request your immediate attendance,” they implored the absentees on March 18. Pennsylvania senator William Maclay complained in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, “I have never felt greater Mortification in my life[;] to be so long here with the Eyes of all the World on Us & to do nothing, is terrible.” In a later letter he added, “It is greatly to be lamented, That Men should pay so little regard to the important appointments that have devolved on them.” Members of the House of Representatives were likewise discouraged. “I am inclined to believe that the languor of the old Confederation is transfused into the members of the new Congress,” Massachusetts representative Fisher Ames wrote. “We lose credit, spirit, every thing. The public will forget the government before it is born.”6 The senators grew hopeful when Senator William Paterson of New Jersey appeared on March 19, followed soon thereafter by Richard Bassett of Delaware on the 21st and Jonathan Elmer of New Jersey on the 28th. Now 11 strong, they were still one man short of a quorum. Bassett earnestly wrote to his absent colleague, Delaware senator George Read, expressing concern that the House would reach a quorum before the Senate:
Where the Twelfth Member is to come from is not yet known, unless you can be prevailed on to Move forward—The Members of the Senate are very uneasy, and press me Exceedingly to urge the Necessity of your Making all Possible Dispatch in coming forward, as it is apprehended next week will bring forward a Sufficient Number of the other Branch to proceed, and they wish not to have the fault lain at our Door.7
Charles Thomson, who had been the secretary of the Continental Congress and was serving in a similar capacity during this interim period, also made a plea to Read, writing that he was “extremely mortified” that Read had not traveled to New York with Bassett, and expressing his fears that the delay would fuel opposition to the new government:
Those who feel for the honor and are solicitous for the happiness of this country are pained to the heart at the dilatory attendance of the members appointed to form the two houses while those who are averse to the new constitution and those who are unfriendly to the liberty & consequently to the happiness and prosperity of this country, exult at our languor & inattention to public concerns & flatter themselves that we shall continue as we have been for some time past the scoff of our enemies.…What must the world think of us?8
Despite the frustrations, blame, and admonishment, there were some well-founded and justifiable reasons for the delayed arrival of members, the most significant of these being the challenges of wintertime travel in the 18th century. The trip from Boston to New York City typically took six days, but during the winter, that journey could take two weeks or more. Senators navigated treacherous roads in wagons or sleighs and often were forced to seek refuge at nearby farms when conditions grew too dangerous. “There was no possibility of conveying [us] in February to new-york, by water or on wheels,” complained Massachusetts representative Elbridge Gerry. Senators from Maryland or Virginia endured weeks-long travel on horseback or in rickety coaches, braving cold and icy waters at five separate ferry crossings. Southerners, traveling mostly by sea, faced the greatest hazards of all. One southern member was delayed for weeks when his ship foundered off the Delaware coast.9 In addition to arduous weather and travel conditions, there were personal and political reasons for the delayed arrival of members of the new Congress. George Read, who finally arrived on April 13, was likely delayed due to sickness, as he later wrote that he had been unwell during this time. Correspondence from this period reveals that several others were delayed by illness, including Senator Elmer and Massachusetts senator Tristram Dalton. Politics also played a role. New York’s state legislature was deadlocked over candidates for months and did not send senators to Federal Hall until July 1789.10 On April 1, the attending senators’ fears were realized when the House became the first of the two chambers to achieve a quorum. Five days later, on April 6, the necessary 12th senator finally arrived, Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee. The Senate then turned to the important business of helping to formalize the new national government by declaring the winner of its first presidential election. “Being a Quorum, consisting of a majority of the whole number of Senators of the United States. The Credentials of the afore mentioned members were read and ordered to be filed,” the Senate Journal reads. “The Senate proceeded by ballot to the choice of a President [pro tempore], for the sole purpose of opening and counting the votes for President of the United States.”11 Thankfully, the inauspicious beginning of the First Congress’s first session would not be repeated, as subsequent sessions saw some improvement in punctuality. In January 1790, at the start of the second session, a more experienced Senate reduced its convening delay to only two days. Finally, at the beginning of the third session in December 1790, the necessary quorum appeared on time and the Senate got down to business as planned. With the new government firmly established and transportation and infrastructure gradually improving, summoning a quorum would prove less of a challenge for future Congresses.
1. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904–37), 34:523, September 13, 1788. 2. Robert Morris to Mary Morris, March 4, 1789, and New York Daily Advertiser, March 5, 1789, included in Charlene Bangs Bickford et al., eds., Correspondence: First Session, March–May 1789, vol. 15 of Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789–March 3, 1791, eds. Linda Grant De Pauw et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 15–16. 3. Senate Journal, 1st Cong., 1st sess., March 4, 1789. 4. Robert Morris to Mary Morris, March 4, 1789, and Massachusetts Centinel, March 14, 1789, included in Bickford, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 15:15–17. 5. Charlene Bangs Bickford, “‘Public Attention Is Very Much Fixed on the Proceedings of the New Congress’: The First Federal Congress Organizes Itself,” in Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress, ed. Kenneth R. Bowling and Donald R. Kennon (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 139; Letter to Absent Senators from the Senate, March 11, 1789. Various Papers 1789–1982, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. 6. Letter to Absent Senators from the Senate, March 18, 1789. Various Papers 1789–1982, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; William Maclay to Benjamin Rush, March 19, 1789 and March 26, 1789, and Fisher Ames to George R. Minot, March 25, 1789, included in Bickford, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 15:78, 126, 134. 7. Richard Bassett to George Read, March 21, 1789, included in Bickford, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 15:86. 8. Charles Thomson to George Read, March 21, 1789, included in Bickford, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 15:90–91. 9. A good description of the hazards of travel to New York at this time is included Bickford, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 15:19–22; Elbridge Gerry to James Warren, March 22, 1789, included in Bickford, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 15:92. 10. William Thompson Read, Life and Correspondence of George Read: A Signer of the Declaration of Independence, with Notices of Some of His Contemporaries (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Company, 1870) 473; "New York’s First Senators: Late to Their Own Party," National Archives' Pieces of History blog, accessed March 26, 2024, 11. Senate Journal, 1st Cong., 1st sess., April 6, 1789.
Page from the Senate Journal Showing the Expungement of a Resolution to Censure President Andrew Jackson, 1834 202304 4Treasures from the Senate Archives: Legislative-Executive Relations
April 4, 2023
Each year, during the first week of April, the Senate commemorates “Congress Week.” Tied to the date when the Senate established a quorum for the first time—April 6, 1789—Congress Week is an annual reminder of the importance of saving and preserving the records of Congress, including the selection of historic records featured in this month’s “Senate Stories,” which highlight the complex relationship between the Senate and the president.

Each year, during the first week of April, the Senate commemorates “Congress Week.” Tied to the date when the Senate established a quorum for the first time—April 6, 1789—Congress Week is an annual reminder of the importance of saving and preserving the records of Congress, including the selection of historic records featured in this month’s “Senate Stories,” which highlight the complex relationship between the Senate and the president. Among the foundational principles of the U.S. Constitution is the separation of powers. In establishing three distinct branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—the Constitution divides authority to create the law, implement and enforce the law, and interpret the law. At the same time, many powers exercised by one branch may be shared with another. This system of checks and balances invites both compromise and conflict among the branches, especially between the legislative and executive, and prevents the consolidation of power in any single branch. For example, the Senate’s “advice and consent” is required for executive functions such as nominations and treaties. Conversely, the president has the power to veto legislation; however, Congress may overturn the veto with a two-thirds majority of those present and voting in both houses.1 The constitutional structure that provides for checks and balances is expansive and complex by design, generating an interdependence between the Senate and the executive branch that, combined with transient political interests, has historically demonstrated moments of high conflict as well as examples of great cooperation. This collection of historic documents from the Senate’s archives highlights the collaborations and the struggles that have defined the relationship between the Senate and the president. Each document, while capturing a specific moment in time with unique political conditions at play, also provides a broader view of the constitutional system of government in action, specifically the foundational principle of separation of powers and the complex system of checks and balances.

George Washington's First Inaugural Address, 1789 When George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, he delivered this address to a joint session of Congress, assembled in the Senate Chamber in New York City’s Federal Hall. While this first occasion was not the public event we have come to expect, Washington's speech nevertheless established the enduring tradition of presidential inaugural addresses. Early presidential messages, including inaugural addresses and annual messages (now known as State of the Union addresses), are included in Senate records at the National Archives. Although noting his constitutional directive as president "to recommend to your consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient," Washington refrained from detailing his policy preferences regarding legislation. Rather, on the occasion of his inaugural, he stated his confidence in the abilities of the legislators, insisting, "It will be…far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me, to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them."

Message from President Thomas Jefferson to Congress Regarding the Louisiana Purchase, 1804 Treaty powers are among those shared by the president and the Senate. The Constitution provides that the president "shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur" (Article II, section 2). In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson's administration negotiated a treaty with France by which the United States purchased the vast Louisiana Territory. Questions arose concerning the constitutionality of the purchase, but Jefferson and his supporters successfully justified the legality of the acquisition. On October 20, 1803, the Senate approved the treaty for ratification by a vote of 24 to 7. The territory, which encompassed more than 800,000 square miles of land, now makes up 15 states stretching from Louisiana to Montana. In this congratulatory message to Congress dated January 16, 1804, President Jefferson reported on the formal transfer of the land to the United States and referenced the December 20, 1803, proclamation announcing to the residents of the territory the transfer of national authority.

Page from the Senate Journal Showing the Expungement of a Resolution to Censure President Andrew Jackson, 1834 The March 28, 1834, censure of President Andrew Jackson represents a notably contentious episode in the executive-legislative relationship. For two years, Democratic president Andrew Jackson had clashed with Senator Henry Clay and his allies over the congressionally chartered Bank of the United States. The dispute came to a head when President Jackson, who had opposed the creation of the Bank, ordered the removal of federal deposits from the Bank to be distributed to several state banks. When his first Treasury secretary refused to do so, Jackson fired him during a Senate recess and appointed a new Treasury secretary, who carried out his orders. Senator Clay and his allies, who supported the Bank, believed that President Jackson did not have the constitutional authority to take such action, and they found the explanation given for moving the federal deposits “unsatisfactory and insufficient.” Clay introduced the resolution to censure the president, charging that Jackson had “assumed the exercise of a power over the Treasury of the United States not granted him by the Constitution and laws.” After extensive debate, the censure resolution passed. Jackson responded by submitting to the Senate a 100-page message arguing that the Senate did not have the authority to censure the president. The Senate again rebuffed the president by refusing to print the lengthy message in its Journal.2 Over the next three years, Missouri Democrat and Jackson ally Thomas Hart Benton campaigned to expunge the censure resolution from the Senate Journal. In January 1837, after Democrats regained the majority in the Senate, Senator Benton succeeded. On January 16, the secretary of the Senate carried the 1834 Journal into the Senate Chamber, drew careful lines around the text of the censure resolution, and wrote, “Expunged by order of the Senate."

President Abraham Lincoln's Nomination of Ulysses S. Grant to be Lieutenant General of the U.S. Army, 1864 Like treaty powers, the Constitution requires that the Senate serve as a check on the president's nomination authority. The president nominates federal judges, members of the cabinet, and military officials, among others, whose nominations are confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate. This remarkable document dated February 29, 1864, representing a critical moment in the Civil War, is President Abraham Lincoln's nomination of Ulysses S. Grant to be lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, at the time the United States’ highest military rank. Previously, only two men had achieved that rank—George Washington and Winfield Scott—and Scott’s had been a brevet promotion. To facilitate Grant’s nomination and ensure his superior status among military officers, Congress passed a bill to revive the grade of lieutenant general and authorize the president "to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, a lieutenant-general, to be selected among those officers in the military service of the United States . . . most distinguished for courage, skill, and ability." The Senate confirmed Lincoln's nomination of Grant on March 2, 1864.

Letter from President Woodrow Wilson to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, 1919 A unique event in legislative-executive relations occurred on August 19, 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson offered testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the Treaty of Versailles, then under consideration by the committee. The meeting, convened in the East Room of the White House, stood “in contradiction of the precedents of more than a century,” the Atlanta Constitution reported, noting the rarity of a president offering testimony before a congressional committee.3 The Treaty of Versailles ended military actions against Germany in World War I and created the League of Nations, an international organization designed to prevent another world war. President Wilson had led the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and had been a principal architect of the treaty. For months, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Henry Cabot Lodge had encouraged the president to seek the advice of the Senate while negotiating the treaty’s terms, but Wilson chose to negotiate on his own. Personally invested in the treaty’s adoption, the president hand-delivered it to the Senate on July 10, 1919, and urged its approval for ratification in an unusual speech before the full Senate. Under Senate rules, the treaty went to the Foreign Relations Committee for consideration, which held public hearings from July 31 to September 12, 1919. Among the most vocal critics of the proposed treaty was Lodge, who was also the Senate majority leader. Lodge opposed several elements of the treaty, particularly those related to U.S. participation in the League of Nations. On behalf of the Foreign Relations Committee, Lodge asked Wilson to meet with the committee to answer senators’ questions. With this letter, President Wilson agreed to Lodge's request and proposed the August 19 date at the White House. Ultimately, Lodge’s committee insisted on a number of “reservations” to the treaty, but Wilson and Senate proponents of the treaty were unwilling to compromise on terms. Consequently, on November 19, 1919, for the first time in its history, the Senate rejected a peace treaty.

Attempted Override of President Richard Nixon's Veto of S. 518, 1973 Under the Constitution, the president is permitted to veto legislative acts, but Congress has the authority to override presidential vetoes by two-thirds majorities of both houses. This document provides a comprehensive example of these constitutional checks and balances in action. In 1973 Congress passed S.518, which sought to abolish the offices of the director and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and reestablish those positions with a new requirement that they be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The bill’s proponents argued that because these positions had evolved to wield significant power, they ought to be subject to Senate confirmation. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill on May 18, claiming it to be unconstitutional. “This step would be a grave violation of the fundamental doctrine of separation of powers,” Nixon stated. While the Senate achieved the necessary two-thirds majority to override the veto, the House did not, and Nixon’s veto was sustained. Congressional efforts to override Nixon’s veto were recorded by the secretary of the Senate and clerk of the House of Representatives on the reverse side of the bill.
The system of checks and balances set forth by the Constitution is a complex one, creating a legislative-executive relationship that is sometimes adversarial and at other times cooperative, but always interdependent. Illustrating the Senate's broad-ranging responsibilities and the integral role the Senate has played in this constitutional system, these treasured documents from the Senate’s archives help us to gain a better understanding of the conflicts and compromises that have historically defined the relationship between the Senate and the president.
1. Matthew E. Glassman, "Separation of Powers: An Overview," Congressional Research Service, R44334, updated January 8, 2016, 2. 2. Senate Journal, 25th Cong., 2nd sess., March 28, 1834, 197. 3. “Wilson Meets Senators in Wordy Duel,” Atlanta Constitution, August 20, 1919, 1.
Motion for the Appointment of Standing Committees, 1816 202204 4Treasures from the Senate Archives
April 4, 2022
Each year, during the first week of April, the Senate commemorates “Congress Week.” Tied to the date when the Senate established a quorum for the first time—April 6, 1789—Congress Week is an annual reminder of the importance of saving and preserving the records of Congress, including the historic records of Senate committees highlighted in this month's “Senate Stories.”

Each year, during the first week of April, the Senate commemorates “Congress Week.” Tied to the date when the Senate established a quorum for the first time—April 6, 1789—Congress Week is an annual reminder of the importance of saving and preserving the records of Congress, including the historic records of Senate committees highlighted in this month's “Senate Stories.” In December 1816, the Senate established its first permanent standing committees. Prior to that time, the Senate had relied on ad hoc or temporary committees to sift and refine legislative proposals, to consider nominations and treaties, and to fulfill other constitutionally designated rights and responsibilities. The demands of a growing nation and a war with Great Britain prompted the Senate to revise its procedures. On December 10, 1816, senators approved a resolution to establish 11 permanent standing committees with jurisdictions over designated areas such as finance, foreign relations, military affairs, commerce, and the judiciary. The records of these early ad hoc and standing committees, and all subsequent committees, represent the majority of official Senate records preserved and housed at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives and Records Administration. This large collection of archived Senate committee records offers ample evidence of the important work done by each committee. The Center for Legislative Archives preserves the oldest and most historically significant congressional records in its Treasure Vault, including records created during the First Congress, which convened in 1789. Along with the first Senate Journals, there are bills, war and censure resolutions, petitions, presidential messages, nominations, and proposed constitutional amendments. The simple, handwritten 1816 resolution creating the standing committees is among these precious documents. The fact that these documents were gathered and preserved long before the creation of the federal archives system makes their survival all the more extraordinary. The following Senate documents from the Treasure Vault highlight the work of three of the Senate's original standing committees: Pensions, Commerce and Manufactures, and Judiciary. Each document captures a moment in time while providing a window into the operation of Senate committees as constitutional government-in-action. Petition from Mary Colcord, 32nd Congress (1852) In 1818 Congress passed a pension bill to provide financial support to Revolutionary War veterans. The oversight of this support (sometimes the only form of income for veterans and their families) was managed by the Committee on Pensions, one of the standing committees created in 1816. The committee’s archival records include applications like this one submitted to the Senate in 1852 by 81-year-old Mary Colcord. To document the service of her father, Bradstreet Wiggin, during the Revolutionary War, Colcord submitted the handwritten diary of Samuel Leavitt, a contemporary of her father from the same New Hampshire town who had served in the same company. The diary records Leavitt's service in the New Hampshire militia in 1780. It was given to the committee by Colcord presumably as evidence of her father's service, although she indicates that her father served during a different year. Consequently, the Senate’s archival collection has been enriched by this rare and historic record detailing a common soldier’s experience during the Revolutionary War. Although Colcord's claim, submitted more than 70 years after the war ended, was ultimately rejected by the committee, Congress did continue to pay Revolutionary War pensions as late as 1906.1 Following a congressional reorganization in 1946, the Senate moved the management of all war pensions to the Committee on Finance. In 1970 the Senate formed a Committee on Veterans Affairs and consolidated the oversight of all veterans’ issues, including pensions, under the jurisdiction of the new committee. Memorial of Inhabitants of Los Angeles County, California, praying for establishment of a port of entry in that county, 31st Congress (1850) The importance of commerce in national affairs led to creation of the Committee on Commerce and Manufactures in 1816. Regulating commerce is an expressed congressional responsibility, so it is not surprising to find among the committee’s papers this memorial, a form of petition, of the residents of Los Angeles County, California, part of the newly acquired Mexican Cession region, asking for the establishment of a port of entry in that county. This document, dated July 1850, was referred to the Commerce Committee amidst the debate over the Compromise of 1850, which resulted in establishing statehood for California that same year. Rapid progress in technology, communication, and commercial development in the 19th and 20th centuries prompted the Commerce Committee to split into various smaller committees to handle an ever-expanding legislative and oversight caseload. Two legislative reorganizations, in the 1940s and 1970s, consolidated most of these committees under the jurisdiction of today’s Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s message regarding national health, 76th Congress (1939) On January 23, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a four-page presidential message to Congress calling for the creation of a “national health program … to make available in all parts of our country and for all groups of our people the scientific knowledge and skill at our command to prevent and care for sickness and disability.” Presidential messages, including the annual State of the Union Address, serve as vehicles for the president to raise urgent matters with Congress. The subjects of public health and health care assistance reflect the expansion of the role of the federal government in response to the national crisis of the Great Depression. Perhaps because of the references to science and economic loss, as well as the interstate nature of the proposed program, the message was referred to the Committee on Commerce.

Petition from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others, 42nd Congress (1871) The First Amendment grants individuals the right to petition Congress to redress grievances or to seek the assistance of the government. Petitions allow ordinary citizens to express their views to their elected representatives. Managing these petitions became the responsibility of Senate committees, including the Judiciary Committee, which was established as a permanent committee in 1816 to oversee the courts, judicial proceedings, and constitutional matters. This petition is typical of thousands received by the committee supporting woman suffrage. It is particularly noteworthy because it includes the signatures of leading suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who ask that they “be permitted in person, and on behalf of the thousands of other women who are petitioning Congress … to be heard … before the Senate and House.” Suffragists first testified before a Senate committee in 1878 and continued to do so until the Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, which granted female suffrage upon ratification in 1920.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's nomination of Thurgood Marshall to be associate justice of the Supreme Court, 90th Congress (1967) The Senate has the constitutional power to advise and consent on presidential nominations, and Senate committees play an important role in that process. Before the 1860s, the Senate considered most nominations without referring them to a committee for review or investigation, although the Judiciary Committee did consider some nominees as early as the 1830s. In 1868 the Senate adopted rules to provide for more routine referral of nominations to "appropriate committees," but investigations of judicial nominees were rare. By the early 20th century, the Judiciary Committee had become much more integral to the nomination process, and by the mid-to-late 20th century, nominees were regularly testifying before the committee. This featured record of the Judiciary Committee, President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1967 nomination of Thurgood Marshall to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, documents the historic appointment of the first African American Supreme Court justice.

First Issue of MAD magazine, from the investigative files of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, 82nd Congress (1952) The creation of standing committees enabled the Senate to better pursue its implied constitutional powers of oversight and investigation to inform legislation or to bring attention to important matters. Since World War II, congressional investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, fiscal mismanagement, national security, corporate malpractice, and social and economic issues of concern have resulted in better legislation, taxpayer savings, consumer protections, and stronger ethics laws. In most cases, standing committees serve as the Senate's principal investigative arm, but the Senate also has entrusted this responsibility to special and select committees. The broad and extensive nature of these investigations has created an archival record that includes an interesting and unusual assortment of documents and artifacts. Among these is a collection of early 1950s comic books and youth publications, including 12 of the first 13 issues of MAD magazine. Popular films like Nicholas Ray’s 1955 Rebel Without a Cause dramatized public concern about wayward youths and juvenile violence, prompting a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee to launch an inquiry. That investigation explored the role of popular culture, including publications like MAD magazine, in shaping adolescent behaviors and attitudes. The subcommittee continued to investigate the issue of juvenile delinquency for many years. Illinois senator Everett M. Dirksen once remarked that “floor debate on a bill can be likened to an iceberg…the top shows, but the major part is underneath. The work of the committee is the large part that is not seen by the public.”2 The archived records of Senate committees reflect the behind-the-scenes work of senators and staff. They demonstrate the routine, the historical, the touchingly personal, and even the whimsical nature of committee work. Through these records we gain a better understanding of the history of the Senate and the ever-evolving work of Congress.
1. History of the Finance Committee, United States Senate, S. Doc. 97-5, 97th Cong., 1st sess., 1981, 47. 2. "What a United States Senator Does, by Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, Republican Minority Leader," undated, included in the biographical files of the Senate Historical Office.
Senate Records Storage in the U.S. Capitol, April 1, 1937 202104 1Saving Senate Records
April 1, 2021
Today, records of Senate committees and administrative offices are routinely preserved at the Center for Legislative Archives, a division of the National Archives. This wasn’t always the case. For more than a century, precious documents were stashed in basement rooms and attic spaces. In 1927 a file clerk named Harold Hufford discovered a forgotten cache of records in the basement. Cautiously opening a door, he disturbed mice and roaches to find a document signed by Vice President John C. Calhoun. “I knew that the nation’s documents shouldn’t be treated like that,” Hufford remarked, and the modern era of Senate archiving was born.

Staff and visitors to the Senate may occasionally see carts containing gray manuscript boxes in the hallways of Senate office buildings. Very likely they are viewing Senate committee records on their way to or from the Center for Legislative Archives (CLA) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Within NARA, the CLA is the custodian of thousands of linear feet of Senate textual records and terabytes of electronic data. Noncurrent Senate committee records are boxed up and sent to NARA when the committee no longer needs immediate access to the materials. And, once archived, these records are also loaned back to the Senate when needed for reference, and made available to scholars and researchers after a closure period of at least 20 years. While these and other Senate records have long been cared for and kept secure, in the long history of the Senate, it wasn’t always this way. In the Senate’s earliest days, the person responsible for safeguarding the ever-expanding collection of records—including bills, reports, handwritten journals, the Senate markup of the Bill of Rights, and George Washington's inaugural address—was Secretary of the Senate Samuel A. Otis. Sam Otis died in April 1814, just months before a contingent of British troops invaded the capital city and set fire to the White House, the Capitol, and other federal buildings. Fortunately, when word reached Washington on August 24, 1814, that British troops would soon occupy the city, Lewis Machen, a quick-thinking Senate clerk, and Tobias Simpson, a Senate messenger, hastily loaded boxes of priceless records onto a wagon and raced to the safety of the Maryland countryside. Nearly five years later, when the Senate returned to the reconstructed Capitol from temporary quarters, a new secretary of the Senate moved the records back into the building. With space at a premium in the Capitol, however, these founding-era documents, as well as those created in the remaining decades of the 19th century, ended up being stored in damp basements, humid attics, closets, and even behind Capitol walls. And those were the records that had been saved; countless documents had been lost or damaged over time, some falling victim to autograph hunters who snipped the signatures of presidents from their messages to Congress.1 The Senate’s records remained in this state until Secretary of the Senate Edwin P. Thayer, whose term began in 1925, found an original copy of the Monroe Doctrine in the Senate financial clerk's safe. This discovery sparked his interest in preserving additional Senate records that were scattered throughout the basement storerooms of the Capitol. In 1927 Thayer hired Harold E. Hufford, a young George Washington University law student, as a file clerk to find these dispersed and neglected materials and put them in order. Hufford famously recounted going down into the brick-lined rooms of the Capitol basement in search of documents. After cautiously opening a door, disturbing mice and roaches in the process, and walking across the room to turn on a light, he looked down and found a document underfoot; on it was the imprint of his shoe and the signature of Vice President John C. Calhoun. “I knew who Calhoun was,” Hufford said, “and I knew that the nation’s documents shouldn’t be treated like that.” Hufford spent the next six years at the Senate working tirelessly to locate, organize, and index these valuable records, including the first Senate Journal from 1789 and the Senate markup of the Bill of Rights—some of the very same records that Machen and Simpson had saved more than a century earlier.2 Meanwhile, as Hufford labored over the Senate’s neglected documents, construction began on a building to house federal records. Legislation authorizing and funding a national archives had been years in the making, finally culminating in the 1926 Public Buildings Act. The groundbreaking for the National Archives building took place on September 5, 1931, on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 9th Streets Northwest. As one of his last acts as president, Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone on February 20, 1933.3 Building the National Archives was one thing, but filling it up and running it was quite another. In March 1934 a bill to establish the National Archives as the agency that would manage, preserve, and make available the nation’s federal records was referred to the Senate Committee on the Library, chaired by Tennessee senator Kenneth McKellar. Reporting the bill back to the Senate in May, McKellar called it “one of the most important matters that has been before the Senate for some time.” By June the House and Senate conferees had agreed unanimously on the final report. The bill passed both houses of Congress and on June 19, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Archives Act into law. The legislation created the Office of the Archivist of the United States, with an archivist appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, to oversee all records of the government—legislative, executive, and judicial.4 On October 10, 1934, President Roosevelt appointed Robert D. W. Connor as the first archivist of the United States. In his first annual report to Congress, in June of 1935, Connor recalled the many efforts that led to the creation of his office. He noted that while the idea of a “Hall of Records,” which would simply provide a warehouse function, had been circulating through Congress since the early 1800s, it took much longer for scholars and historians to convey to Congress the importance of a national archives in researching and understanding American history. In 1910 the American Historical Association adopted a resolution stating its concern “for the preservation of the records of the National Government as monuments of our national advancement and as material which historians must use in order to ascertain the truth.” The Association petitioned Congress to build a “national archive depository” to properly care for and preserve the records. Connor believed that “the idea of service to Government officials and to scholars as a primary function of a national archives establishment” gave emphasis to “the movement and stimulated a livelier interest in the proposal,” ultimately leading to its success.5 This concept of the National Archives as a place for research and education utilizing our nation’s primary documents has continued, and the Senate participates in those efforts by sending its noncurrent committee and administrative records to the archives—work that began on March 25, 1937, when the Senate authorized the secretary of the Senate to transfer certain records to the custody of the archivist. “From the standpoint of historical as well as intrinsic interest,” remarked the examiner who surveyed the Senate’s collection, “this is perhaps the most valuable collection of records in the entire Government. It touches all phases of governmental activity, and contains a vast amount of research material that has never been used.” Three years earlier, Senate Librarian James D. Preston commented that the imperfect storage of the historic records of the Senate would require their ultimate caretaker to be prepared for a long, hard job and be an expert at document evaluation. Luckily for the Senate, not only did those rescued Senate records move from attics and basements to the newly constructed building, so did Harold Hufford, who left the Senate to join the National Archives staff, becoming director of the legislative section. Hufford didn’t just preserve and catalog Senate records that came to the archives, he also provided excellent service to Senate committees and their staff by loaning back records efficiently and ensuring their safe return to the archives.6 Nearly 50 years later, in an address on Senate history, Senator Robert C. Byrd stated that “many on Capitol Hill said that they could receive faster service on their noncurrent records from the National Archives than they could by keeping and servicing the records themselves.” Senator Byrd’s statement remains accurate today, as staff at the Center for Legislative Archives facilitate the transfer of records to and from the Senate. The Senate archivist in the Senate Historical Office advises senators, committees, and administrative staff on disposition of their noncurrent office files and maintains information detailing locations of former members' papers. Both the Senate Historical Office and the Center for Legislative Archives staff assist students, researchers, scholars, and the general public with reference requests and access to these invaluable historical resources. All of these records, whether housed in gray archive boxes or held electronically on computers, are critical to our ability to research and understand the history of the Senate and our nation.7
1. Lewis Henry Machen to William C. Rives, September 12, 1836, William Cabel Rives Papers, Box 54, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Ben Cole, “Document Sleuth,” Indianapolis Star Magazine, March 11, 1956, 137. 2. “Edwin P. Thayer, Secretary of U.S. Senate 10 Years, Succumbs Here,” Indianapolis Star, February 4, 1943. 3. See, “A History of the National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.,” National Archives and Records Administration, accessed March 17, 2021, 4. Congressional Record, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess., May 28, 1934, 9707; National Archives Establishment Act, Public Law 73-432, 73rd Cong., 2nd sess., June 19, 1934, 48 Stat. 1122. 5. “First Annual Report of the Archivist of the United States for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1935,” Annual report on the National Archives and Records Service from the annual report of the Administrator of General Services, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1936. 6. S. Res. 99, Congressional Record, 75th Cong. 1st sess., March 25, 1937, 2735; Frank McAllister to Thomas M. Owen, Jr., February 12, 1937, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; “Senate Librarian Would Make Archives Post Lifetime Job,” Washington Post, September 23, 1934, B7. 7. Robert C. Byrd, “Archives and Records” in The Senate, 1789–1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, vol. 2, ed. Wendy Wolff, S. Doc. 100-20, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1991), 361–73.
Book Jacket of Journal of William Maclay 202010 16Senate Diaries
October 16, 2020
The stories that historians craft are only as good as the sources available. Historians of the Senate draw on a variety of records created by Congress, such as the Senate Journal, debates in the Congressional Record, and transcripts of committee hearings. The National Archives is filled with memos and reports. Senators establish archives of their personal papers in home-state repositories. There are also vast collections of newspaper articles, what many have called the “first draft of history.” Perhaps the greatest insight into the past comes from more personal musings—diaries kept by individuals.
Categories: Archives and Research

The stories that historians craft are only as good as the sources available. Historians of the Senate can draw on a wide variety of published records created by Congress, such as the Senate Journal, speeches and debates in the Congressional Record, and committee hearings and reports. The National Archives is filled with memos, reports, and correspondence. Senators establish large archives of their personal papers in home-state libraries and universities. There are also vast collections of newspaper articles penned by Senate contemporaries, what many have called the “first draft of history.” Perhaps the greatest insight into the past comes from more personal musings— diaries kept by individuals. Consider the First Congress that met in New York City in 1789. That Congress created the first three executive departments, approved the Judiciary Act of 1789, and passed the Bill of Rights. It also established the permanent location of the federal capital, funded the Revolutionary War debts, and created the first national bank. The Senate’s doors were closed to the public during this precedent-setting period, but we have a key source that sheds light on what went on in the Chamber: the diary of Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania. Maclay’s diary is the lone insider account of Senate proceedings during his two-year tenure, 1789 to 1791. Maclay, who wrote every evening with the day’s events fresh in his mind, conveyed George Washington’s frustration during his visit to the Chamber to confer with senators about a treaty. He recorded colorful descriptions of individuals and remarked on what it was like to mingle with members from other parts of the country. He noted, for example, that New Englanders “dwell on trivial distinctions . . . and ceremony.” Vice President John Adams was the subject of Maclay’s ridicule for what the Pennsylvania senator perceived as Adams’s haughty attitude. “He . . . has a very silly kind of laugh,” wrote Maclay. He also noted that from the very first session some senators were already willing to use prolonged debate to delay action on a bill, a tactic later dubbed the filibuster. “The design of the Virginians and of the South Carolina gentlemen was to talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed,” Maclay wrote in 1789. Maclay’s descendants kept the diary private for decades. Published by his family in abridged form in the 1880s, the full diary was commercially published in 1890. It has been an indispensable reference for historians ever since.1 John Quincy Adams kept a diary ( throughout his life, including while he served a single term in the Senate from 1803 to 1809. Adams’s writings provide behind-the-scenes details of the Senate. For example, although the Senate Journal in 1803 attributed a three-day recess to necessary repairs for the Chamber's leaky roof, Adams records that "another motive, not mentioned, might be that the annual horse races of the city are held this week." Adams was critical of Vice President George Clinton for what he saw as poor judgment and ignorance of basic Senate procedure. The Massachusetts senator derided Clinton for asking senators to warn him when they planned to make a long speech so that he could turn over the duties of presiding to someone else and "take the opportunity to warm himself by the fire."2 As did Maclay and Adams, other senators have left records of their observations, interactions, and experiences. New Hampshire senator William Plumer first put quill to paper to start his diary on October 17, 1803. Decades before the Senate made any regular effort to report its proceedings verbatim, Plumer kept a complete record of Senate sessions until his term expired in 1807. His diary—he called it his “memorandum”—provides unique information on the Louisiana treaty debate, for example, including his outburst at President Thomas Jefferson for taking the Senate’s approval for granted. The president, by publicly supporting the treaty before the Senate had a chance to take it up, was, in Plumer's words, destroying the Senate's "freedom of opinion."3 Lawyer and publisher Horace Chilton of Texas is another senator who served for a brief time but left voluminous commentaries on the Senate. While sitting in the Chamber in the 1890s, Chilton would listen to speeches and jot down detailed descriptions of his colleagues. From Chilton we get a description of how senators of that era delivered speeches from their small desks: “His desk is arranged according to [a] custom very general in the Senate by putting six or eight large books on his desk building up a sort of pulpit twelve or fifteen inches high, and laying his notes on that pulpit or pile of books.” Chilton had intended to use his notes as the basis for a memoir and wanted to present his unvarnished assessments of colleagues. “I have concluded to note from time to time reflections concerning public men of my acquaintance,” he wrote. “The purpose will be to deal in candor. To avoid any mere gossip of evil, but to avoid equally the tone of adulation . . . which characterize[s] nearly all biography.” While listening to a speech by Senator William Chandler of New Hampshire on February 16, 1897, concerning the monetary question, Chilton wrote that Chandler “is a very prominent man in this country, [but] in the Senate not an influential man. Not a man on whose judgment people will rely. But active, always throwing himself into debate.”4 As anyone who has tried keeping a diary knows, it takes discipline. Ten years later, Chilton looked back on his notes and lamented, “What a small amount of matter of the kind intended to be recorded was actually put down.” He never published his memoir. Two senators from Vermont brought the habit of keeping a political diary into the 20th century. Frank Greene served in the Senate from 1923 to 1930. He kept a diary of one of the most fascinating periods in U.S. history—the years between the two world wars. In the 1970s, Senator George Aiken compiled and published his modern-era diary. He first joined the Senate in 1941 but did not begin keeping a diary until 1972. He dictated his thoughts every Saturday for 150 weeks until his retirement in 1975. One notable entry describes the senator’s meeting with President Richard Nixon on the evening of August 8, 1974, just before the president announced his plan to resign the following day. “I had constantly opposed resignation on the President’s part, preferring the impeachment process,” Aiken wrote. He hoped, above all, that his diary would show “how events can change their appearance from week to week and how the attitude of a Senator can change with them.”5 Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, the first woman elected to the Senate, kept a diary in the early 1930s. Appointed in 1931 to fill a vacancy caused by the death of her husband, Senator Thaddeus Caraway, she subsequently won a special election in January of 1932 for the remainder of the term. Soon after joining the Senate, friends encouraged her to keep a diary about life in Washington—from a female perspective. As a widowed mother of three sons, Caraway hoped the eventual publication of her diary might provide needed financial support to her family. As her senatorial duties took up more of her time, however, she put her diary aside. A slim volume titled Silent Hattie Speaks was published, but not until 1979.6 For many years, historians dismissed Caraway’s diary as the scribblings of a widow lost in the wilderness of politics, but a more careful examination paints a different picture. In the midst of commentary about fashion and hairstyles—presumed to be the observations that would most interest her potential readers—Caraway included some useful, pithy nuggets about her history-making service in the Senate. For example, when she surprised nearly everyone by announcing that she would seek election to a full term in 1932, she wrote in her diary, “I pitched a coin and heads came [up] three times,” adding, “I really want to try out my own theory of a woman running for office.” After the announcement was made, she wrote, the “die is cast” and “all I can do is sit tight and take whatever . . . comes from such a blow to tradition.” She won that election, and was reelected in 1938. During her early years in the Senate, Caraway felt ignored by her male colleagues, a complaint echoed by other women senators who followed. Fellow Arkansas senator and Democratic leader Joe T. Robinson, for example, “came around only for a moment at the instigation” of his chief of staff. Later, when Caraway initiated a conversation with Robinson, she wrote: “I very foolishly tried to talk to Joe today. Never again. He was cooler than a fresh cucumber and sourer than a pickled one.” As years passed, however, Caraway gained a good deal of respect from her colleagues and her constituents and broke down some significant barriers to women in the Senate. Historians now wish she had kept up that diary throughout her 14 years as a senator. These are but a sample of notable Senate diaries. Simon Cameron, who served as secretary of war in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and represented Pennsylvania in the Senate during the antebellum and Reconstruction eras, left a chronicle of his experiences during the nation’s crisis of disunion. Harold Burton has the distinction of being the last sitting senator to be appointed to a seat on the Supreme Court. He represented the state of Ohio during World War II and left a private diary as part of his personal papers in the Library of Congress.7 One time-honored way to shape the historical record of the Senate, and ensure your place in that record, is to keep a diary. Fortunately for the historians of the Senate, many senators did just that.
1. Edgar S. Maclay, ed., Journal of William Maclay (New York: Appleton and Co., 1890). Available online at A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, Library of Congress, accessed October 6, 2020, 2. "The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection," Massachusetts Historical Society, accessed October 6, 2020, 3. William Plumer Papers, Diaries 1805–1836, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 4. Horace Chilton Papers, Diaries 1888–1894, 1897, Briscoe Center for American History, University at Texas-Austin. 5. George Aiken, Aiken: Senate Diary, January 1972–January 1975 (Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Greene Press, 1976). 6. Diane D. Kincaid, ed., Silent Hattie Speaks: The Personal Journal of Senator Hattie Caraway (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979). 7. Simon Cameron Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Constitution Cake 202009 17Celebrating Constitution Day
September 17, 2020
In 2004 Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia introduced legislation designating September 17 of each year as Constitution Day and requiring public schools and government offices to provide educational programs to promote a better understanding of the Constitution. The Senate’s annual Constitution Day event, sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of the Senate and presented by the Senate Historical Office, has become a favorite Capitol Hill tradition.

More than two centuries after its ratification, the United States Constitution remains a fundamental document. Strengthened by amendments, it continues to guide our public officials and the people they serve. It has endured through civil war, economic depressions, assassinations, and even terrorist attacks, and remains a source of wisdom and inspiration. To encourage Americans to learn more about the Constitution, Congress established Constitution Week in 1956, to begin each year on September 17—the date in 1787 when delegates to the federal convention signed the Constitution. In 2004 Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia took it a step further, sponsoring legislation designating September 17 of each year as Constitution Day and requiring public schools and government offices to provide educational programs to promote a better understanding of the Constitution. Appropriately, Senator Byrd kicked off the Senate's first Constitution Day celebration in 2005 with a speech in the historic Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building. He shared his personal devotion to the Constitution (a copy of which he always kept in his pocket) and stressed the importance of educating Americans about their founding document. "Just as the birth of our nation depended on the quality, knowledge, and experience of the men who gave it life, its continued vitality depends on the efforts of our generation, and of future generations, to keep the vision of its Framers alive," Byrd stated. "It depends on the personal commitment of each and every one of us to learn, to understand, and to preserve the governing principles that are set forth so clearly and powerfully in the text of our remarkable Constitution." For the Senate Historical Office, Constitution Day has been an opportunity to explore the ways in which the Constitution has shaped the Senate, the role of the Senate in amending the Constitution, and how the Senate has exercised its constitutional prerogatives and fulfilled its constitutional duties. The annual event has examined the debates of the federal convention in 1787 that led to the creation of the Constitution, the heated arguments of the state ratification process, as well as the nature of federal elections under the Constitution and how Congress has changed the electoral process over time. These events also have examined how the Constitution has been amended, from the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791 to the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment providing for the direct election of U.S. senators in 1913 and the Nineteenth Amendment providing for female suffrage in 1920. Other topics have included the Senate's constitutional role in the treaty-making process and the various constitutional crises confronted by the Civil War Senate, including defining a quorum in the wake of secession, Civil War amendments to the Constitution, and the readmission of states to representation after the war. In recent years, Constitution Day programs have expanded to include guided exhibits featuring facsimiles of historic documents, maps, and images. In 2016, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the creation of the Senate’s first permanent standing committees in 1816, Senate historians and archivists created four archival exhibits that demonstrated how committees aid the Senate in exercising its powers under the Constitution. Highlighting the work of four committees established in 1816 (Foreign Relations, Finance, Judiciary, and Commerce), these exhibits illustrated how Senate committees provide a forum for constitutional government in action. Using case studies from different eras, the documents revealed how Senate committee work has changed since 1816 and highlighted the growing role of committee staff. In the 20th century, as the nation grew to superpower status, the Senate reformed and modernized its committee structure, allowing for increased professional staff who brought their expertise to the legislative and oversight process. For the many staff members attending the event, this served as a reminder of the vital role they play in Senate history and the continuing importance of archiving committee records. In 2017 the Senate’s Constitution Day event focused on the contentious debate during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 over representation that culminated in the Great Compromise of 1787, the agreement that established state equality rather than population-based representation as a defining characteristic of the Senate. Following a brief historical presentation, those attending the event explored archival exhibits illustrating the debate that produced this compromise, how the compromise was received during the ratification process, and its enduring legacy. Constitution Day 2018 examined how the constitutional provision for equal state representation in the Senate led to fierce battles over the admission of new states. Article IV of the Constitution specifies that "New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union." The Constitution also gave Congress the power "to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory . . . belonging to the United States." The Constitution, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, and later treaties under which the U.S. acquired new territories—such as the Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803—governed Congress's practices for organizing territories and setting conditions for statehood. Only after territories had served a period of tutelage and built up the requisite population and economic resources could they apply to Congress for equal status as a state. As Assistant Historian Daniel Holt explained in his Constitution Day 2018 presentation, the Senate frequently “took center stage in the often-contentious battles over admission of new states. Each additional state has held the potential to upset the existing balance of power in the Senate." To accompany this event, the Historical Office created an online feature entitled "On Equal Footing: The Constitution, the Senate, and the Expanding United States," which included historical information and the archival exhibits from this presentation. The Constitution of 1787 established the framework for the United States government, but it has fallen to succeeding generations to interpret and implement its principles. Every year, Constitution Day provides the opportunity for citizens to revisit the nation’s founding document and examine how it shapes this nation more than two centuries after its ratification. The Senate Historical Office welcomes this annual opportunity to continue its explorations into the origins of the Constitution and its role in the history of the United States Senate.
TimePetition to the Senate for a Suffrage Amendment, 1918 202004 2Discovering the Role of the Senate in Women’s Fight for the Vote
April 2, 2020
Congress Week—celebrated each April to commemorate the week in 1789 when the House of Representatives and the Senate first achieved a quorum—was established to promote the study of Congress and to encourage a wider appreciation of the vital role of the legislative branch in our representative democracy. This year, in recognition of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, we celebrate Congress Week by exploring how Senate historians used congressional collections to develop the online feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote.”

Congress Week—celebrated each April to commemorate the week in 1789 when the House of Representatives and the Senate first achieved a quorum—was established to promote the study of Congress and to encourage a wider appreciation of the vital role of the legislative branch in our representative democracy. This year, in recognition of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, we celebrate Congress Week by exploring how Senate historians used congressional collections to develop the online feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote.” Formally proposed in the Senate for the first time in 1878, the Nineteenth Amendment was finally approved by the Senate 41 years later, on June 4, 1919. Ratified the following year, the amendment extended to women the right to vote. To tell the story of the suffragists’ protracted campaign to win that right, Senate historians delved into a variety of primary sources, including petitions, congressional hearings and reports, and the personal papers of U.S. senators. Records of Congress The Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives (where congressional records are stored) houses a vast collection of woman suffrage records. The bulk of these records consists of petitions created by tens of thousands of suffragists who exercised their First Amendment right. Their petitions come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are as brief as a telegram, while others include hundreds of signatures pasted or stitched together and rolled up in large bundles. Senate historians combed through scores of petitions to understand not only the suffragists and their demands but also those who opposed woman suffrage. Senate historians also consulted speeches printed in the Congressional Record and committee hearing transcripts and reports to understand senators’ evolving attitudes toward woman suffrage. When California senator Aaron Sargent introduced the woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution in 1878, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections agreed to allow women to testify in support of the amendment. After hearing from witnesses, including suffrage pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Reverend Olympia Brown, the committee’s majority remained unconvinced and recommended that Sargent’s proposal be “indefinitely postponed.” A few senators voiced their dissent. “The American people must extend the right of Suffrage to Woman or abandon the idea that Suffrage is a birthright,” concluded Senators George Hoar (R-MA), John H. Mitchell (R-OR), and Angus Cameron (R-WI). In 1913, following a historic suffrage parade in the nation’s capital, a Senate subcommittee investigated the chaotic and hostile conditions endured by suffragists along the parade route. The voluminous testimony and photographs published in these hearing volumes provide compelling evidence of lewd comments, physical assaults, and intimidation, as well as the volatility of the massive crowds of people that converged along the parade route. In the wake of these dramatic hearings, the committee concluded that the police had acted with “apparent indifference and in this way encouraged the crowd to press in upon the parade.” Senators’ Papers To delve deeper into this rich and engaging story, the historians also ventured outside the Senate’s official holdings at the National Archives to explore the personal papers of individual senators and suffragists, as well as the records of suffrage organizations housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Correspondence between senators and their constituents often revealed the motivation behind a senator’s decision to support or oppose the amendment. Idaho senator William Borah, for example, who opposed the national suffrage amendment, insisting it was an issue best left to the states, justified his opposition to the amendment in letters to concerned constituents. “I am aware . . . [my position] will lead to much criticism among friends at home,” he wrote. “I would rather give up the office,” he continued, “[than] cast a vote . . . I do not believe in.” Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette succinctly explained his support for the proposal in a letter to Anne Fitzhugh Miller: “A government of equal rights cannot justly deny women the right of suffrage. It will surely come.” Like the petitions in the National Archives, such letters offer a palpable sense of the engagement of citizens with their senators. Organizational Archives and Other Primary Sources Senate historians reviewed archival materials housed at the National Woman’s Party (NWP) at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, including materials related to the organization’s complex lobbying operation and a political cartoon collection by artist Nina Allender. Many of Allender’s cartoons prominently featured the Senate. A deep dive into the extensive photographic collection at the Library of Congress turned up a host of illuminating images to illustrate suffrage campaign activities at the Capitol and the Senate Office Building, as suffragists assembled to deliver their petitions and to demand the right to vote. An exhaustive review of historical newspapers and periodicals revealed personal testimonials and editorials. Particularly informative was the series of articles written by suffragist Maud Younger and published in McCall’s magazine in 1919, just after congressional passage of the amendment. Entitled “Revelations of a Woman Lobbyist,” Younger’s intimate account provides an insider’s view of the extensive lobbying campaign suffragists waged to win House and Senate approval of the Nineteenth Amendment. Primary sources such as photos, petitions, speeches, published hearings, correspondence, historical newspapers, and periodicals are all essential to the historian’s work. Our special feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote,” which drew upon all of those resources and more, demonstrates the value and importance of congressional archives. Without these records, the important role played by suffragists and their allies in the Senate’s long battle over the suffrage amendment would be lost or forgotten.