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Senate Stories | Senate Firsts


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.

Guest Senate Chaplain Wilmina Rowland, July 8, 1971 202303 8Enriching Senate Traditions: The First Women Guest Chaplains
March 8, 2023
The chaplain of the U.S. Senate opens daily sessions with a prayer and provides spiritual counseling and guidance to the Senate community. An elected officer of the Senate, the chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian. The practice of inviting guest chaplains to deliver the Senate’s opening prayer dates to at least 1857, and for more than 100 years, guest chaplains had all been men. That changed in July 1971, when Reverend Dr. Wilmina M. Rowland of Philadelphia became the first woman to participate in this century-long tradition.

The chaplain of the U.S. Senate opens daily sessions with a prayer and provides spiritual counseling and guidance to the Senate community. An elected officer of the Senate, the chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian. All Senate chaplains have been men of Christian denomination, although guest chaplains, some of whom have been women, have represented many of the world's major religious faiths. The practice of inviting guest chaplains to deliver the Senate’s opening prayer dates to at least 1857. That year, with many senators complaining that the position had become too politicized, the Senate chose not to elect a chaplain. Instead, senators invited guests from the Washington, D.C., area to serve as chaplain on a temporary basis. In 1859 the practice of electing a permanent chaplain resumed and has continued uninterrupted since that time, but the practice of inviting a guest chaplain to occasionally open a daily session also continued. While it is possible, and perhaps likely, that the Senate selected guest chaplains prior to 1857, surviving records from the period are insufficient to make that determination. By the mid-20th century, guest chaplains were frequently offering the Senate’s opening prayer. Clergy visiting the nation’s capital often communicated their desire to serve as a guest chaplain to their home state senators who would nominate them for the role. In the 1950s, this practice became so popular among senators that Chaplain Frederick Brown Harris, who served nearly 25 years as Senate chaplain, complained to Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas that guest chaplains had replaced him 17 times over the course of just a few weeks. Leader Johnson assured Harris that he would ask senators “to restrict the number of visiting preachers,” but the frequency of the guests persisted.1 During the 1960s, Harris suffered from a series of medical issues and was less engaged in his official duties. Consequently, Harris’s unplanned absences prompted new problems for the Senate majority leader, now Mike Mansfield of Montana, whose staff was forced to arrange for last-minute guest chaplains. Infrequently, they called on senators to offer the prayer. Further irritating the majority leader, Harris unwittingly hosted guest chaplains who used the “forum to present their own particular litanies” and political viewpoints, thereby violating the Office of the Chaplain’s tradition of nonpartisan, nonpolitical service.2 Such issues prompted Senate leaders to reevaluate policies related to the appointment of guest chaplains. When Reverend Harris passed away in early 1969, Majority Leader Mansfield and Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois created an informal, bipartisan committee on the “State of the Senate Chaplain.” Upon concluding their study, the leaders informed Harris’s successor, Chaplain Edward L. R. Elson, of a policy change: “It would be our judgement that under ordinary circumstances a regular practice of inviting two guest chaplains per month is now in order.” Also, “In instances when you are ill or unavoidably absent, we would expect you to ask a brother clergyman to fill in temporarily in your stead.” The new policy was intended to standardize and bring order to the guest chaplain practice.3 For more than 100 years, guest chaplains had been men, but that changed in July 1971, when Reverend Dr. Wilmina M. Rowland of Philadelphia became the first woman to participate in this century-long tradition. A 1942 graduate of the Union Theological Seminary, Rowland became a minister in 1957, after the Presbyterian Church allowed for the ordination of women. She was an author and associate minister in Cincinnati, Ohio, before joining the United Presbyterian Board of Christian Education in Philadelphia, where she directed its educational loans and scholarships program. When Chaplain Elson invited her to lead the Senate’s opening prayer, Rowland recognized the historical significance of his offer. “It’s an honor to pray with and for such an august body,” she explained to the press. “I’m not unmindful of the women’s lib[eration] angle to my performance. But the prayer, like any other I have offered, is still to God. I’ve kept that in mind while I’ve been working on it.”4 Generally, the opening of the Senate’s daily session is sparsely attended. Six senators were present in the Chamber on July 8, 1971, for this historic event, including the Senate’s only woman senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Senate President pro tempore Allen Ellender of Louisiana called the Senate to order at noon, then introduced Dr. Rowland as “the very first lady ever to lead the Senate in prayer.” Rowland began:
O God, who daily bears the burden of our life, we pray for humility as well as forgiveness. As our nation plays its part in the life of the world, help us to know that all wisdom does not reside in us, and that other nations have the right to differ with us as to what is best for them.
Rowland later reflected on the event: “I’m pleased not for myself but for the fact the Senate has reached the point where they feel it is normal to invite a woman to do this.”5 But it wasn’t normal yet, and three years would pass before another woman delivered the Senate’s opening prayer. On July 17, 1974, Sister Joan Doyle, president of the Congregation of Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary headquartered in Dubuque, Iowa, became the second woman and the first Roman Catholic nun to offer the opening prayer in the Chamber. Her sponsor, Iowa senator Dick Clark, introduced her. At the conclusion of Doyle’s prayer, Minority Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania praised her “gentler touch” for preparing senators to enter “into the brutal conflicts of the day.” Senator Margaret Chase Smith had retired in 1973, and Senator Clark reflected on the lack of women senators in the Chamber that day. “I hope it won’t be three more years before another woman is here, not only for the opening prayer, but as a member of the Senate.” It took more than five years, in fact, for the next woman senator to take a seat in the Chamber. On January 25, 1978, Muriel Humphrey was appointed to fill the seat left vacant when her husband, Senator Hubert Humphrey, passed away.6 Since 1974 other women have followed in the footsteps of Reverend Rowland and Sister Doyle, although the number of female guest chaplains remains small. In 2008 the Reverend Dr. Patricia Bryant Harris made history as the first African American woman to give the Senate’s opening prayer. “It had a lot of meaning to me personally, to be a part of that history,” Reverend Harris said in an interview. “That is now history as part of the Congressional Record.”7 The chaplain has been an integral part of the Senate community since the election of the first chaplain, Samuel Provoost, on April 25, 1789. Today, chaplains and guest chaplains, now men and women, deliver the opening prayer each day that the Senate is in session. As Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana remarked in 2012, "It is good that we take a moment before each legislative day begins in the Senate to still ourselves and ask for God's grace and guidance on the work that we have been called to do."8
1. Congressional Record, 91st Cong., 2nd sess., August 20, 1970, 29611. 2. “Chaplain Absent, Senator Gives Prayer,” Hartford Courant, September 20, 1963, 25B; “Senator Takes Chaplain’s Place,” Washington Post, Times Herald, September 2, 1964; Memorandum from Richard Baker to Mike Davidson, September 19, 1985, in the files of the Senate Historical Office. 3. Mike Mansfield and Everett Dirksen to Dr. Edward L. R. Elson, Chaplain, April 29, 1969, in the files of the Senate Historical Office. 4. “Barrier to Fall: Woman Will Lead the Senate in Prayer,” Sunday Star (Washington, D.C.), July 4, 1971, A-10; “A Woman, Praying for the Senate,” Washington Post, July 9, 1971, B2. 5. Congressional Record, 92nd Cong., 1st sess., July 8, 1971, 23997; “Barrier to Fall: Woman Will Lead the Senate in Prayer.” 6. “Nun Gives Prayer in Senate,” Catholic Standard, July 25, 1974. 7. Nicole Gaudiano, “Del. Pastor makes history in U.S. Senate,” News Journal (Wilmington, DE), July 11, 2008, B1. 8. “At Sen. Landrieu’s Invitation, Louisiana Chaplain Offers Opening Prayer for U.S. Senate,” Targeted News Service, Feb. 28, 2012.
Cartoon Depicting the Seating of the First Woman Senator, Rebecca Felton (D-GA), 1922 202211 21Rebecca Felton and One Hundred Years of Women Senators
November 21, 2022
On November 21, 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia took the oath of office, becoming the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Though her legacy has been tarnished by her racism, the significance of this milestone—now 100 years old—remains. Felton’s historic appointment opened the door for other women senators to follow. One hundred years later, 59 women have been elected or appointed to the Senate, and many more women have supported Senate operations as elected officers and staff.
Categories: Senate Firsts | Women

On November 21, 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia took the oath of office, becoming the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Though her legacy has been tarnished by her racism, the significance of this milestone—now 100 years old—remains. Felton’s historic appointment opened the door for other women senators to follow. One hundred years later, 59 women have been elected or appointed to the Senate, and many more women have supported Senate operations as elected officers and staff. Appointed to fill a vacant seat on October 3, 1922, Felton formally took the oath of office in the Senate Chamber on November 21 and served only 24 hours while the Senate was in session. For Felton, that historic day marked the culmination of a lifetime of political activism as a feminist, journalist, and suffragist. Like many of her contemporaries, however, Felton was also a white supremacist whose views on race both reflected and reinforced racial inequality for generations. Her complicated legacy sheds light on both the progressive and the reactionary politics that she influenced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born Rebecca Latimer in 1835, she was the daughter of a wealthy Georgia planter. She married Dr. William Felton in 1853, moving to his home near Cartersville. Although the state of Georgia prohibited women from owning property at that time, as the mistress of her husband’s plantation, Felton managed a household that included 50 enslaved people. In 1860, as Civil War approached, the Feltons initially opposed the secession of Southern states from the Union, but like other white Southerners of their social class, they supported the Confederacy during the war to protect their “ownership of African slaves.” Felton later explained, “All I owned was invested in slaves.” She joined the local Ladies Aid Society to support the Confederate army. A physician and a preacher, William Felton tended Confederate soldiers at a nearby military camp, frequently leaving Rebecca alone to defend their property. Physical assault by marauding soldiers was a common wartime experience for rural women like Felton, and their trauma informed Felton’s political advocacy as she later fought for financial security and protection from sexual violence for all women.1 When the war concluded, the Feltons were emotionally depressed and financially destitute. They lost their farm and livelihood during the war and suffered the loss of two young children to wartime diseases. They founded a school, but politics soon came calling. After a report of the brutal sexual assault of a Black girl in a chain gang, Rebecca petitioned the Georgia state legislature to enhance protections for all female labor convicts—Black and white—and she would fight for prison reform for the remainder of her life. William pursued electoral politics, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Georgia state legislature. Felton participated in all aspects of her husband’s career, serving as his campaign manager and speechwriter, atypical roles for a woman in the 19th century. Political opponents criticized their unusual partnership. “We sincerely trust that the example set by Mrs. Felton will not be followed by southern ladies,” complained the Thomasville Times. “Let the dirty work in politics be confined to men.” By serving as her husband’s partner, and at times as his political surrogate, Felton helped to redefine the “traditional” role of southern white women.2 In the 1880s, Rebecca Felton broadened her activism, joining the temperance movement and emerging as a prominent and dynamic public speaker for the rights of poor, rural white women. A prolific and engaging writer, she co-founded a small newspaper in 1885 and later wrote a semi-weekly column for the Atlanta Journal. By the 1890s, Felton had emerged as a prominent public figure whose rousing speeches drew large crowds and whose columns and letters to the editor were widely distributed and debated nationwide. Felton used her influence to push for progressive policy reforms on behalf of white women and children, including universal public education, prison reform, better employment opportunities for women, and female suffrage.3 Felton’s views on race, however, were far from progressive, and throughout her life she held and perpetuated racist attitudes about African Americans. Decades after the Civil War, she continued to promote the myth of the happy enslaved person. She dehumanized Black men, calling them “debased, lustful brutes.” In her memoirs, published in 1919, Felton acknowledged that white supremacy served as an organizing principle for white southerners during and after the war. “The dread of negro insurrection and social equality with negroes at the ballot box held the Southern whites together in war or peace.” By the 1890s, many former Confederate states had adopted new constitutions to restrict African Americans’ civil rights, particularly voting rights. Prominent political figures, including Felton, inflamed racial tensions by promoting unfounded allegations of Black men assaulting white women. Such allegations fueled the heinous practice of lynching.4 In a widely reported speech in 1897, Felton criticized white men for their indifference to women’s rights and their failure to protect white women from assault, promoting her vision of equality for farm women. In the final moments of the speech, however, she pivoted to reactionary race politics: “As long as your politicians take the colored man into their embrace on election day…so long will lynching prevail.…If it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.” Although the purpose of her speech had been to promote the empowerment of white rural women, in the weeks and months that followed, it was Felton’s virulent support for lynching that was widely reported and used as justification for this barbaric practice.5 Shortly after her husband’s death in 1909, Felton joined the suffrage movement and canvassed the state to promote voting rights for women. Racism played a prominent role here as well, with many leading white suffragists insisting that extending voting rights to white women would help to dilute the voting power of Black men. When Felton testified before the all-male Georgia state legislature in 1914, for example, she asked: “Why can’t [women] help you make the laws the same as they help you run your homes and churches? I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote … while I myself [cannot].” In 1920 Felton and fellow suffragists celebrated the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to many, though not all, women. Her suffrage work enhanced her popularity among newly enfranchised women voters in Georgia and beyond.6 In September 1922, when Georgia senator Thomas Watson died in office, he left a vacancy to be filled by gubernatorial appointment until the upcoming special election. Georgia governor (and former senator) Thomas Hardwick planned to appoint a “place-holder” and then run for that seat himself. Because he had opposed the Nineteenth Amendment, Hardwick feared newly enfranchised women would deny him the coveted Senate seat. On October 3, 1922, hoping to quell their opposition, Hardwick chose 87-year old Rebecca Latimer Felton of Cartersville for the historic appointment. Hardwick ceremonially presented Felton with her appointment at Bartow County Courthouse on October 6. Women packed the courthouse, eager to show their support for the first woman senator. Because the Senate had adjourned sine die until December, and her replacement would be elected on November 7, Hardwick’s action was viewed as a symbolic attempt to gain women’s votes. Though Felton would receive a Senate salary and the administrative support of a secretary, as one newspaper reported, it was “only remotely possible” that she would appear on the Senate floor.7 Not content with a remote possibility, Felton’s allies launched an effort to have her seated in the Senate. Helen Longstreet, the widow of Georgia’s Confederate general James Longstreet, petitioned President Warren G. Harding in person on October 5, requesting that he call a special session before the November election so that Felton could be sworn in. Others followed Longstreet’s lead. “I voice the desire of multitudes of women voters,” explained one prominent suffragist in a letter to Harding, “who will shortly be approaching the polls.” Harding ignored the political pressure for a time, resisting calls for a special session. Meanwhile, on October 17, Governor Hardwick lost the Democratic primary to Judge Walter George, who won the general election on November 7. Felton now had an elected successor, but that didn’t halt the pressure to provide her the opportunity to take a Senate seat. Felton lobbied Harding to call Congress back for a special session as many of her supporters petitioned the president for action. On November 9, the president relented, announcing a special session to begin November 20 to consider several Republican legislative priorities. Attention again turned to Felton. Would she be seated?8 Less than a week before the special session was scheduled to convene, Georgia secretary of state S. G. McLendon, Felton’s political ally, declared that Walter George’s election likely would not be certified before the special session began. The ballots of 14 Georgia counties remained to be counted, he explained, and the state canvassing board had yet to be called to certify those results. According to state law, only the governor had the authority to convene the canvassing board, and Governor Hardwick was vacationing in New York. To resolve the situation, Hardwick returned to Georgia and convened the board, which promptly certified the election results. When the Senate convened on November 20, Senator-elect Walter George would be certified and ready to present his credentials. To many, Felton’s chances of taking the oath of office in an open session seemed to be dwindling.9 Undeterred, Felton personally asked George to delay presenting his credentials to the Senate. “I have no objections to interpose,” George astutely proclaimed at a press conference after their meeting. “The Senate is the exclusive judge of the eligibility of its members.… I will be glad to see the distinction come to [Felton], if the Senate can and will find a way to make this legally possible.” After George’s public announcement, Felton’s goal seemed within reach. She packed her bags and boarded a train to Washington, D.C. Both she and George would be present when the Senate convened for the special session. The Senate would decide her fate.10 On Monday, November 20, Felton arrived at the Senate early, her credentials tucked under her arm. Escorted into the Chamber by former Georgia senator Hoke Smith, she took a seat at an empty desk. Senators surrounded her, extending her a warm welcome. When the Senate convened at noon, it approved a resolution recognizing the death of her predecessor Thomas Watson and then—as was Senate custom—adjourned for the day. The question of Felton taking the oath would have to wait another 24 hours. Felton again arrived early on November 21 and received a raucous ovation from visitors in the galleries as she took a seat at Watson’s vacant desk. After recessing for a joint session, the Senate reconvened, accepted the credentials of two new members, and then turned to deciding Felton’s case. Thomas Walsh of Montana addressed the chair. First describing the law that seemed to prevent Felton from being seated, Walsh then provided precedents in her favor. “I did not like to have it appear, if the lady is sworn in—as I have no doubt she is entitled to be sworn in—that the Senate … extend[ed] so grave a right to her as a favor, or as a mere matter of courtesy, or being moved by a spirit of gallantry,” he said, “but rather that the Senate, being fully advised about it, decided that she was entitled to take the oath.” Without objection, the clerk proceeded to read the certificate as presented by Felton, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge administered the oath of office shortly after noon.11 As a duly sworn senator, Felton answered one roll call and delivered a single speech. "When the women of the country come in and sit with you,” she told her Senate colleagues, “ will get ability, you will get integrity..., you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness." She served for 24 hours before relinquishing the seat to Senator-elect Walter George. A gallery full of women erupted into cheers and applause as Senator Felton bade farewell.12 Following her appointment, Felton had predicted that women’s era had dawned, but women’s time in the Senate had begun to dawn even before Felton’s historic appointment. The Senate had already benefitted from a small but talented group of pioneering female staff, including Leona Wells, who joined the Senate's clerical staff in 1901 and became one of the first women to serve as lead clerk on a committee. By the early 1920s, women held half of the Senate’s committee staff positions. Today, women hold many of the most important and influential posts in the Senate, including secretary of the Senate and sergeant at arms.13 As Felton predicted, however, her historic appointment did pave the way for other trailblazing women senators. Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman to win election to the Senate in 1932 and subsequently the first to chair a committee. In 1938 Senator Gladys Pyle of South Dakota became the first Republican woman to serve in the Senate. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine took the oath of office in 1949, becoming the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, having prevailed in the general election of 1992, was the first African American woman senator. In 1995 Barbara Mikulski of Maryland set a milestone by becoming the first woman elected to Democratic Party leadership, and in 2000 Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas achieved that goal for the Republican Party. Other milestones followed. In 2013 Mazie Hirono of Hawaii became the first Asian and Pacific Islander woman to take the oath, while Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay senator. The first Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, joined the Senate in 2017. When Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office in 2021, she became the first woman to serve as president of the Senate and the first Asian American and African American to hold that position. On November 5, 2022, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California became the longest serving woman senator, with more than 30 years of Senate service. To date, 59 women have followed the trail blazed by Felton in 1922, with 24 serving in the 117th Congress. While historians continue to reckon with the troubling aspects of Felton’s life and career, her legacy as the first woman senator remains a significant milestone—now 100 years old—in the history of the Senate.
1. Rebecca Latimer Felton, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (Atlanta, GA: Index Printing Co., 1919), 80, 86; Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 7–36. 2. John E. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1960), 79; Feimster, Southern Horrors, 34–35. 3. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton, 125; LeeAnn Whites, “Rebecca Latimer Felton and the Wife’s Farm: The Class and Racial Politics of Gender Reform,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 372. 4. Felton, Country Life in Georgia, 87; Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 197, 213; Rebecca Felton to the Editor, Boston Transcript, “Mrs. Felton Not for Lynching,” Atlanta Constitution, August 20, 1897, 4. 5. “Woman Advocates Lynching: Sensational Speech by the Wife of ex-Congressman Felton,” Washington Post, August 14, 1897, 6; Felton, Country Life in Georgia, 87; Feimster, Southern Horrors, 126–28, 133–35. 6. Feimster, Southern Horrors, 200–201. 7. “Commission Given Mrs. W.H. Felton by the Governor,” Atlanta Constitution, October 7, 1922, 3; Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton, 140–42; “Mrs. W.H. Felton Named Senator; Hardwick in Race,” Atlanta Constitution, October 4, 1922, 1. 8. “Ask Special Session to Seat Senator Felton,” Baltimore Sun, October 13, 1922, 1. 9. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton, 143; “George’s Commission Held Up,” Baltimore Sun, November 16, 1922, 1; “George has time to be Qualified for Senate Seat,” Atlanta Constitution, November 18, 1922; 1. 10. “Judge W. F. George and Mrs. Felton to Confer Today,” Atlanta Constitution, November 17, 1922, 1. 11. “Senate to Decide Today on Seating Woman Senator,” Atlanta Constitution, November 21, 1922, 1; Congressional Record, 67th Cong., 3rd sess., November 21, 1922, 14. 12. Congressional Record, November 22, 1922, 23; “Mrs. Felton to Tax Senate Gallantry,” Baltimore Sun, November 19, 1922, 9. 13. “Women of the Senate,” United States Senate, accessed November 7, 2022,
Nomination of Benjamin Fishbourn and Others, 1789 202207 5Origins of Senatorial Courtesy
July 5, 2022
On August 5, 1789, the Senate rejected for the first time a presidential nominee. At the urging of Georgia senator James Gunn, the Senate failed to confirm Benjamin Fishbourn, President George Washington’s nominee to serve as federal naval officer for the Port of Savannah. The Senate’s rejection of Fishbourn has been regarded as the first assertion of “senatorial courtesy.”

On August 5, 1789, the Senate rejected for the first time a presidential nominee. At the urging of Georgia senator James Gunn, the Senate failed to confirm Benjamin Fishbourn, President George Washington’s nominee to serve as federal naval officer for the Port of Savannah. The Senate’s rejection of Fishbourn has been regarded as the first assertion of “senatorial courtesy,” the practice whereby senators defer to the wishes of a colleague who objects to an individual nominated to serve in his or her state. Senatorial courtesy also has been interpreted to mean that a president should consult with senators of his or her party when nominating individuals to serve in positions in their home states. Such a practice was not envisioned by the framers. In fact, in The Federalist, No. 66, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “There will, of course, be no exertion of choice [in executive appointments] on the part of Senators. They can only ratify or reject the choice of the President.”1 Like other office seekers, Fishbourn had written to Washington in hopes of securing a federal appointment in the new government. Fishbourn had served in the Georgia legislature and had been appointed earlier that year as state naval officer of Savannah by the state’s governor. He hoped to fill the same role for the federal government. Washington had informed Fishbourn that he would assume the presidency “free from engagements of every kind and nature whatsoever,” and would make appointments only with “justice” and “the public good” in mind. Fishbourn benefitted, however, from the support of General Anthony Wayne, under whom he had served as aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War. Wayne had a close bond with Washington and had recommended Fishbourn for a position in the government. As a result, Fishbourn’s name was added to President Washington’s long list of nominees to serve as customs collectors, naval officers, and land surveyors throughout the country that was presented to the Senate on August 3, 1789. The Senate confirmed most of the nominees on the list the next day. Two other nominees from Georgia were confirmed on August 5, but the Senate, at the urging of Senator Gunn, rejected Fishbourn.2 Why did Senator Gunn object to Fishbourn? The drama surrounding the nomination can be traced back to a duel challenge and personal rivalries. Affairs of honor, in which men in the public eye were willing to exchange gunfire and risk death in defense of their reputations, were an important element of politics in the early American republic. In 1785 James Gunn, while serving as an army captain, feuded with Major General Nathanael Greene over a rather arcane military policy. At some point during the Revolutionary War, James Gunn’s horse was killed in battle. He was able to select a government-procured horse to use during the remainder of the war, as was custom. The problem arose when Gunn traded the horse, which was considered to be quite valuable, for two other horses and an enslaved individual. General Greene objected to the transaction, not for the atrocity that an enslaved person was considered property equivalent to a horse, but because Gunn had dispensed with government property as if it was his personal property. Greene called for a military court of inquiry to investigate. The court ruled that Gunn was justified in trading the horse, but Greene was not satisfied. He ordered Gunn to return the horse and referred the matter to the Continental Congress. Congress adopted resolutions supporting Greene’s actions and ordered Gunn to replace the horse with “another equally good.”3 After the war, both Gunn and Greene settled in Georgia. Gunn, still smarting from what he saw as Greene’s attack on his character, challenged Greene to a duel. Greene refused the challenge, claiming that a commanding officer could not be accountable to a subordinate for his actions while in command. Gunn reportedly declared that “he would attack [Greene] wherever he met him” and began to carry pistols in the event of an encounter. The confrontation never occurred, and Greene received support from Washington himself, who assured him that his “honor and reputation will stand” for refusing to accept Gunn’s challenge.4 What does all of this have to do with Fishbourn and senatorial courtesy? Fishbourn had publicly sided with Greene during the dispute, and Gunn never forgot that. When asked by another senator to explain his reasons for objecting to Fishbourn, Gunn responded simply with “personal invective and abuse.” This was enough to sway other senators to vote down the nomination.5 Angry about the rejection of his nominee, Washington wrote in a message to the Senate, “Permit me to submit to your consideration whether on occasions where the propriety of Nominations appear questionable to you, it would not be expedient to communicate that circumstance to me, and thereby avail yourselves of the information which led me to make them, and which I would with pleasure lay before you.” Washington, according to one source, even went to the Chamber to ask the Senate’s reasons for the rejection, to which Gunn informed him that the Senate owed him no explanation.6 Fishbourn was stung by the rejection. His supporters attempted to undo the damage to his reputation. Anthony Wayne wrote to Washington to assure him that the “unmerited and wanton attack upon [Fishbourn's] Character by Mr. Gunn” was groundless and that he would never have recommended Fishbourn for the position if the charges were true. Wayne published a defense of Fishbourn signed by notable men from Savannah.7 A month later, Fishbourn sent a letter to Washington in hopes of repairing his reputation after such a public embarrassment. He asked the president to write him indicating that he held no prejudices against him based on “representations having been made against me in the Senate.” As he left Georgia and public life, he hoped “I may have it to say I have the sanction as well as the good wishes of his Excellency the President of the United States.” Fishbourn was probably disappointed to receive a reply only from an aide to Washington, stating “I am directed by him to inform you that when he nominated you for Naval Officer of the Port of Savannah he was ignorant of any charge existing against you—and, not having, since that time, had any other exibit (sic) of the facts which were alledged (sic) in the Senate . . . he does not consider himself competent to give any opinion on the subject.”8 Senator James Gunn’s objection to Fishbourn for what he saw as an affront to his public honor—even if Fishbourn was but a minor player in the affair—established an enduring precedent in the Senate. Despite periodic efforts by presidents to push back on senators’ attempts to control executive appointments, the custom of senatorial courtesy became firmly established by the late 19th century. In 1906, two years prior to his run for president, William Howard Taft observed that presidents were “naturally quite dependent on . . . advice and recommendation” of senators, such that “the appointing power is in effect in their hands subject only to a veto by the President.” When considering a nomination in executive session—held behind closed doors until 1929—senators merely had to rise and announce that a nominee was “personally obnoxious” or “personally objectionable” to them, without any further explanation. They could depend on the deference of Senate colleagues in rejecting the nominee. The Senate Judiciary Committee formalized a version of senatorial courtesy through use of the “blue slip,” a blue sheet of paper on which a senator could register support for or opposition to a judicial nominee to serve in his or her state. In 1960 William Proxmire of Wisconsin called senatorial courtesy “the ultimate senatorial weapon,” a “nuclear warhead intercontinental ballistic missile of Senate nomination action.” While there have been changes to the rules and customs governing Senate advice and consent over the past half century—for example, senators no longer announce on the floor that a nominee is “personally obnoxious” to them—individual senators continue to exert a great deal of power over the nomination and confirmation process.9
1. Robert C. Byrd, 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, DC: Government Printing Office, 1991), 31; Hamilton, The Federalist, No. 66, quoted in George H. Haynes, The Senate of the United States: Its History and Practice (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1938), 2:736. 2. Mitchel A. Sollenberger, “Georgia’s Influence on the U. S. Senate: A Reassessment of the Rejection of Benjamin Fishbourn and the Origin of Senatorial Courtesy,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 93, no. 2 (2009): 182–90; “From George Washington to Benjamin Fishbourn, 23 December 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 22, 2022, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 24 September 1788 – 31 March 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 198–200.]; “To George Washington from Anthony Wayne, 10 May 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 22, 2022, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 April 1789 – 15 June 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 261–64.] 3. Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the Early Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); George R. Lamplugh, “The Importance of Being Truculent: James Gunn, the Chatham Militia, and Georgia Politics, 1782–1789,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 80, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 228–29; Sollenberger, “Georgia’s Influence,” 185–87. 4. Sollenberger, “Georgia’s Influence,” 187; Lamplugh, “Importance of Being Truculent,” 232. 5. Fergus M. Bordewich, The First Federal Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 132; Lamplugh, “Importance of Being Truculent,” 240–43. 6. “From George Washington to Benjamin Fishbourn, 23 December 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 22, 2022, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 198–200.] Washington’s visit to the Senate was recounted years later by the son of Washington aide Tobias Lear. Notably, William Maclay was absent on that day, but he committed to his diary the comments of a fellow senator about Washington’s intemperate response to the rejection, though it is not clear if that occurred in person in the Senate chamber. Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds., Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates, vol. 9 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: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 121. 7. “To George Washington from Anthony Wayne, 30 August 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 22, 2022, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3, 15 June 1789–5 September 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 569–70.] 8. “To George Washington from Benjamin Fishbourn, 25 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 22, 2022, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 81–83; fn1.] This was quite a change in tone from December 1788, when Washington wrote in a letter to Fishbourn: “For you may rest assured, Sir, that, while I feel a sincere pleasure in hearing of the prosperity of my army acquaintances in general, the satisfaction is of a nature still more interesting, when the success has attended an officer with whose services I was more particularly acquainted.”; “From George Washington to Benjamin Fishbourn, 23 December 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 22, 2022, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 198–200.] 9. William Howard Taft, Four Aspects of Civic Duty (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 98–99, quoted in Haynes, Senate of the United States, 1:736; Congressional Record, 86th Cong., 2nd Sess., April 19, 1960, 8159; Michael J. Gerhardt, The Federal Appointments Process (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 143–53.