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Origins & Development of the United States Senate

The framers of the United States Constitution deliberated at length over the Senate's role in the new federal government. Since that time, the Senate has evolved into a complex legislative body, while remaining true to its constitutional origins.

Original Ledger Found

Image of Senate Ledger Spine

"Probably the oldest book of consecutive accounts kept by government officers," noted an 1885 newspaper article, "is a time-worn volume kept in the office of General Anson G. McCook, secretary of the senate." Marked S-1, this financial ledger records nearly a century of salary and mileage payments to senators, from 1790 to 1881. McCook, recognizing the ledger's importance, had it restored and rebound in 1884. Future employees were not so careful. In the early 1960s, S-1 and nearly sixty other financial ledgers were stored in the basement of the Capitol, and then forgotten. Rediscovered in late 2002, this collection is a unique treasure of Senate history. S-1 has been digitized by the Library of Congress and is now available online.

This Week in Senate History

November 28, 1924
Photo of Senator Smith Brookhart of Iowa
Smith Brookhart (R-IA)

The Senate Republican Conference, in a rare move to discipline party members, penalized three senators for failing to support Republican presidential candidate Calvin Coolidge in the 1924 election. North Dakota's Edwin Ladd lost his chairmanship of the Committee on Public Lands and Surveys, while Lynn Frazier, also of North Dakota, and Iowa's Smith Brookhart lost their committee seniority and assignment to Republican vacancies on committees.

November 30, 1804
Image of Samuel Chase
Samuel Chase

The Senate, composed of twenty-five Jeffersonian Republicans and nine Federalists, began an impeachment trial for Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. A bitter partisan, Chase showed no interest in toning down his pronouncements after Republicans gained control of Congress in 1800. His fiery and impulsive pronouncements finally caused President Thomas Jefferson to suggest that the House of Representatives might want to examine his injudicious behavior. The House responded by impeaching Chase. Chase attended his Senate trial and eventually gained a measure of sympathy in the face of repeated interruptions by the trial's presiding officer, Vice President Aaron Burr. As the trial proceeded, senatorial disapproval of Chase's behavior softened, distinguishing between his political views and misconduct that would justify removal from office. The Senate acquitted him of all charges on March 1, 1805.

December 1, 1828
Senate Chamber, Washington

Beginning in the 1820s, the Senate chamber increasingly became the principal arena for heated debates on issues associated with the nation's westward expansion. As sightseers and lobbyists crowded into every available space, hassled senators agreed that the original public gallery, located on the room's east side above the presiding officer's dais, was inadequate. A second and higher gallery had been added between 1815 and 1819, but it was hot and confining, and it obstructed the room's gallery-level windows, depriving the chamber of much-needed daylight. In 1828, workmen removed the upper eastern gallery and replaced it along the western wall with a graceful semi-circular balcony, designed by architect Charles Bulfinch. Crowded conditions would continue to plague the Senate until it moved to its current chamber in 1859.

December 2, 1954
Photo of Senator Joseph McCarthy
Joseph McCarthy (R-WI)

From 1950 to 1954, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI) exploited a national mood of anxiety over Communist advances throughout Europe and Asia by accusing individuals and organizations of Communist party sympathies or activities. A man of restless and compulsive energy, McCarthy grew bolder with each charge. In 1953 and 1954, as chair of a major Senate investigating committee, he turned his attention to alleged security breaches in the army. Wildly maligning all who stood in his way, including many of his Senate colleagues, McCarthy quickly discredited himself. No longer willing to tolerate his gross abuse of the institution and its members, the Senate on December 2, adopted (67 to 22) a resolution of censure, condemning his behavior as "contrary to senatorial traditions."

December 3, 1847

For the first time, gaslight replaced candles as the Senate chamber's principal means of illumination. Senator John Fairfield (ME) reported that this innovation provided "light enough to write by and read the finest print in any part of the chamber."

December 4, 1815
Image of Brick Capitol
Brick Capitol

After British troops burned the Capitol in August 1814, the Senate sought temporary quarters. At the beginning of the Fourteenth Congress, on December 4, 1815, senators convened in a brick structure hastily erected on the current site of the Supreme Court. Both the Senate and House remained at that site until restoration of the Capitol was completed in December 1819.



Senate and the Constitution
Senate is Created
Senate Moves to Washington
Permanent Committees Created
Annotated Senate Time Line
Majority & Minority Parties
Institutional Bibliography (pdf)

Senate Historical Office

Historical information provided by the Senate Historical Office.

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