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This Week in Senate History

December 10, 1816

In order to establish greater institutional efficiency, the Senate created its first "standing" or permanent legislative committees. From 1789 to 1816 the Senate relied on three-to-five member temporary or select committees that were created to deal with a specific legislative issue. Once the legislative matter was completed, the committee went out of business. By 1816, however, legislative responsibilities had grown more numerous and complex, prompting the Senate to create "standing" committees that continued to operate on a permanent basis. Among those first 11 standing committees three are still in existence today—the Committees on Finance, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary.

December 11, 1833

Henry Clay by Allyn Cox

In 1833 the question of re-chartering the Bank of the United States sharply divided the Senate Pro-bank forces, led by Henry Clay, held a majority over the allies of President Andrew Jackson, who steadfastly opposed the re-charter. Clay's forces adopted a resolution directing the president to turn over a bank document that he had read to his cabinet. Jackson refused, claiming the Senate lacked the Constitutional authority "to require of me an account of any communication...made to the heads of departments acting as a cabinet council." Frustrated, the Senate responded to this claim of executive privilege by censuring the president.

December 13, 1836

Image of Asbury Dickins
Asbury Dickins Senate Historical Office

Asbury Dickins began a 25 year career as the fourth secretary of the Senate. Dickins' tenure coincided neatly with the Senate's so-called Golden Age, a period that brought to the chamber a group of talented legislators and powerful orators. Within the secretary's office, the growth in the Senate's membership and national stature brought additional staff and more detailed job descriptions. As secretary, Dickins professionalized the secretary's office, regularized hours of business, and presided over a burgeoning staff. Upon his retirement in 1861, the Senate rewarded the "faithful servant of the Senate" with an additional year's salary of $3,000.

December 15, 1795

Portrait of John Rutledge
John Rutledge Senate Historical Office

The Senate rejected George Washington's nomination of John Rutledge to be Chief Justice of the United States. Rutledge had served previously as associate justice but resigned in 1791 to take a seat on a court in his native South Carolina. When Chief Justice John Jay's resignation seemed likely, Rutledge asked to be named his successor. Two weeks after Washington signed his nomination papers, Rutledge delivered a speech attacking the controversial Jay Treaty, which the Senate's Federalist majority supported. The Senate rejected Rutledge by a vote of 10 to 14, the first such refusal of a Supreme Court nominee.


Senate Traditions

The U.S. Senate relies heavily on tradition and precedent. Change comes slowly. Many of its current rules and procedures date from the First Congress in 1789. In conducting late 20th-century Senate impeachment trials, the Senate closely followed procedures established in the 1790s and updated in the 1860s. Senate officials still carry 18th-century titles such as “secretary,” “clerk,” “keeper of the stationery,” and—until recently—“wagon-master.”

Senate Rules & Procedures

“All legislative bodies need rules to follow if they are to transact business in an orderly fashion,” wrote Senator Robert C. Byrd, “and if they are to operate fairly, efficiently, and expeditiously.” The legislative process on the Senate floor is governed by a set of standing rules—first adopted in 1789 and revised on seven separate occasions—along with a body of precedents, a variety of established and customary practices, and ad hoc arrangements the Senate makes to meet specific parliamentary and political circumstances.


E-mail a Senate historian
Questions about Senate History?

E-mail a Senate historian. historian@sec.senate.gov

Golden Gavel Award
Freshman senators who preside for 100 hours during any session earn the Golden Gavel award.

Civil War Senate, 1863

Historical Minutes
In 1789 members took the Senate's first oath: "I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States."
In 1789, anticipating the impeachment trial of William Blount, the Senate adopted its first impeachment rules.

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