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This Week in Senate History


February 19, 1868

Concluding a lengthy investigation that reflected the deep resentments following the Civil War, the Senate refused to seat Senator-elect Phillip Thomas. By a slim majority, the bitterly divided Senate decided that the Maryland Democrat had "voluntarily given aid, countenance, and encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility to the United States." The person named in the charges was Thomas' son. After trying unsuccessfully to dissuade the young man from joining the Confederate army, Thomas had given him $100, just in case he was captured and needed money in prison. Thomas later served the House of Representatives and in state government.

February 20, 1794
Painting of Congress Hall in Philadelphia

Meeting at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Senate temporarily abandoned its practice of conducting business behind closed doors while it considered whether or not to seat one of Pennsylvania's senators. Although, Albert Gallatin already had taken his Senate oath, senators questioned whether the Swiss-born senator had been a U.S. citizen for the constitutionally required nine years. To avoid public criticism in Gallatin's home state, senators determined the case should be resolved in full public view. They also decided to permanently open legislative proceedings. On February 28, 1794, by a two-vote majority that included Pennsylvania's other senator, the Senate denied Gallatin his seat.

February 21, 1868
Photo of Andrew Johnson of Tennessee

During a time of badly strained relations between President Andrew Johnson and the Senate's majority party, senators adopted a rule requiring referral of all nominations to committee prior to consideration by the full Senate. At the same time, President Johnson's decision to remove from office Secretary of War Edward Stanton, which angered the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress, prompted the Senate to adopt a resolution denying the president such power without the consent of the Senate, claiming such action violated the Tenure of Office Act. Three days later, the House of Representatives impeached Andrew Johnson. On May 16, 1868, the Senate acquitted the president.

February 22, 1888
Cover of the Farewell Address Notebook

On February 22, 1791, Vice President John Adams escorted the entire Senate to the president’s house, where they congratulated President George Washington on his 59th birthday. Decades later, on February 22, 1862, as a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War, the Senate and House of Representatives met in a joint session to hear Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney read Washington's famous 1796 farewell address. Twenty-six years later, on February 22, 1888, the Senate began an annual tradition that continues today. Each year, on or near the first president's birthday, a senator reads Washington's Farewell Address in the Senate Chamber.

February 23, 1944
Photo of Alben Barkley of Kentucky

Senator Alben Barkley (D-KY) resigned his post as majority leader after President Franklin Roosevelt vetoed a tax bill against Barkley's advice. The majority leader charged that the president's characterization of the bill as tax relief for the greedy was a "calculated and deliberate assault on the legislative integrity of every member of Congress." Following Barkley's "farewell" speech, the Senate gave him a boisterous standing ovation. Within minutes of receiving his letter of resignation, the conference of Democratic senators unanimously reelected him as their leader. Barkley served 12 years as Democratic floor leader, from 1937 to 1948, when he became vice president.

February 24, 1905
Image of Senate Chamber, 1877

The Senate instructed its sergeant at arms to ban all flowers from the Senate Chamber. One newspaper, describing the House of Representatives Chamber on the first day of a new session in 1900, noted "the profusion of floral pieces gave the vast hall more the appearance of a garden than a legislative assembly....The air was so laden with perfume as to be a degree unpleasant." Not surprisingly, floral tributes from hopeful lobbyists ended up on the desks of committee chairmen and other senior members. This aroused suspicion that junior senators, not to be left out, arranged for their own displays.