The Senate Chamber

A Presidential Visitor, 1917-1919

On January 22, 1917, for the first time in the nation's history, a president of the United States came to the Senate chamber to address members of the upper house. More than a century earlier, Presidents George Washington and John Adams had delivered formal remarks to joint Senate-House sessions in previous Senate chambers, but a speech to the Senate alone signalled a very special purpose.

Since the start of his first administration in March 1913, Woodrow Wilson had sought to be a "legislative" president, working closely with the Senate to achieve a clearly defined agenda. On April 8, 1913, Wilson became the first president since John Adams to personally deliver his annual message before a joint session in the House chamber. On the following day, he returned to the Capitol for a strategy meeting with Democratic senators in the President's Room, adjacent to the Senate chamber, where he expected to hold many such meetings.

Reelected in 1916 on a theme of avoiding involvement in World War I, Wilson decided the Senate chamber would be an ideal stage from which to proclaim his plan to lay the foundations for a lasting "peace without victory" among the warring nations. His January 22, 1917, address sparked hope that men of good will might come together to end the hostilities that threatened to destroy European civilization. Subsequent military actions quickly erased that hope, but Wilson pressed on in his desire to serve as peacemaker, even after the United States entered the conflict eleven weeks later.

On July 10, 1919, eight months after the armistice had effectively ended the war, Wilson made his final visit to the Senate chamber to urge speedy approval of the Treaty of Versailles. Much had changed since his January 1917 appearance. Wilson had become the major figure in the peace process, making negotiating trips to France with a delegation that failed to include senators. Meanwhile, Republicans had won control of the Senate, and Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, also chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had emerged as a determined enemy of the treaty and the president.

In the following months, the Lodge-controlled Senate dashed the president's hopes for quick ratification. During a cross-country trip intended to stir public pressure against the treaty's Senate foes, Wilson suffered a severe stroke. With the stricken president more determined than ever to resist compromise, Lodge brought the treaty before the Senate. On November 19, 1919, with the world's attention on this chamber, the Senate decisively rejected the treaty and the League of Nations that it established. Again, on March 19, 1920, the Senate refused to approve the treaty. Wilson thus paid a heavy price for abandoning his earlier inclinations to cooperate with the Senate and for ignoring the body's collateral role in treaty making at this decisive moment in world history.