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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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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.
Notes
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, https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwmj.html. 2. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society, accessed October 6, 2020, http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/. 3. William Plumer Papers, Diaries 1805-1836, Manuscripts 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, Manuscripts 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, 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 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.