When the Senate convened for the first time on March 4, 1789, it needed a majority of the then 22 eligible members before it could begin operations. Only 8 of the necessary 12 senators appeared on opening day in the Senate Chamber at New York City's Federal Hall. For nearly five weeks, the prompt members impatiently awaited their tardy colleagues. Finally, on April 6, the 12th member appeared. The Senate then elected a temporary presiding officer and convened with the House of Representatives to count the electoral votes that awarded the presidency to George Washington.
The first Senate held its sessions in secret. To ensure that only properly authorized persons were admitted to the chamber, it made one of its first orders of business the selection of a doorkeeper. On its second day of operation, the Senate elected James Mathers, who had held that position with Congress under the recently expired Articles of Confederation. Mathers remained on the job until his death in 1811. Also among the first orders of business for the Senate was electing a secretary, establishing temporary committees to prepare rules of procedure, and recommending a chaplain.
In a Senate floor speech on March 30, 1826, Virginia's John Randolph charged that Henry Clay had entered into a "corrupt bargain" when he helped to secure the election of President John Quincy Adams. Randolph believed Adams rewarded Clay with appointment as secretary of state. Clay reacted to Randolph's accusation with a challenge to a duel. The two men met on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, across from Georgetown, on April 8, 1826 at 4:30 in the afternoon. Standing 30 feet apart, both men fired and missed. Agreeing to fire a second time, each missed again.
On April 9, 1867, the Senate approved one of the great real estate bargains in history by agreeing to the Alaska purchase treaty. The Senate ratified the treaty with Russia by a vote of 37 to 2. Under the treaty's terms, the United States paid Russia $7.2 millionabout two cents an acrefor a territory twice the size of Texas. Dismissing the deal as a worthless investment, newspapers mocked the arrangement as "Seward's Folly" after former senator and Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated the purchase. Fortunately, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner convinced the Senate otherwise. Alaska became the 49th state in the Union on January 3, 1959.
During the Great Depression, the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, chaired by Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, began hearings to investigate Wall Street banking and stock exchange practices. The committee made little progress during its first 11 months, as bank executives repeatedly denied requests for documents, and witnesses easily evaded questions posed by counsel. In early 1933, Senator Norbeck hired a new chief counsel, former New York deputy district attorney Ferdinand Pecora, who proved to be a skilled interrogator. The work of the Pecora Committee led to major regulatory reforms, such as the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.