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Senate Stories | Archives and Research


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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.


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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, the 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 CongressThe 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’ PapersTo 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 SourcesSenate 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.