The framers of the Constitution created the United States Senate to protect the rights of individual states and to safeguard minority opinion in a federal system designed to give greater power to the national government. To balance power between the large and small states, the framers agreed that states would be represented equally in the Senate and in proportion to their populations in the House of Representatives. Equal representation in the Senate has provided all of the states, and their senators, the opportunity to exert great influence over national issues. States in the Senate provides an in-depth look at each state’s contribution to Senate history.
The United States Senate played a crucial role during the Civil War. Throughout the course of the war, the Senate endured numerous constitutional crises as it fulfilled its legislative duties and provided oversight to executive action. Working with colleagues in the House of Representatives, the Senate passed landmark legislation that continues to shape our nation today. When the long, bloody war ended in April of 1865 and the nation mourned the death of its president, senators looked ahead to Reconstruction. In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this feature explores the Senate's wartime experience.
The Idea of the Senate provides insight into the Senate’s rules and procedures, its history and traditions, and its personnel and prerogatives, from keen observers, supporters, and critics over time. The Senate has been viewed as a protector of minority views, as a source of stability and continuity, and as a product of politics. As these selections indicate, the debate over the Senate’s role in our constitutional system is as old as the Senate itself, and has often stirred thoughtful commentary and critique.
On December 5, 1831 12-year-old Isaac Bassett was appointed as a page in the U.S. Senate. Eventually promoted to messenger and then assistant doorkeeper, Bassett remained at his post in the Senate Chamber until his death in 1895. He witnessed many of the great debates that produced the historic compromises of the Senate's "Golden Age." Late in life, Bassett decided to write a memoir for publication. Although he never completed the task, his descendants faithfully preserved his manuscript and transferred it with many associated artifacts to the Senate. The exhibit, "Isaac Bassett: A Senate Memoir," is a colorful sampling of Bassett's recollections.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked a milestone in the long struggle to extend civil, political, and legal rights and protections to African Americans, including former slaves and their descendants, and to end segregation in public and private facilities. The Senate played an integral part in this story. This feature explores the Senate’s long history with civil rights legislation, going back to the 19th century, and details the behind-the-scenes effort to organize a bipartisan coalition to break a filibuster and pass this landmark bill. Enhancing the narrative is a collection of audio and video clips, images, primary documents, oral history interviews, and biographical profiles of key senators.
A mainstay of the Senate’s fine art is the Vice Presidential Bust Collection. The Joint Committee on the Library, acting under a resolution of May 13, 1886, began commissioning busts of the vice presidents to occupy the niches in the new Senate Chamber. When busts of early vice presidents filled the 20 niches at the gallery level of the Chamber, new additions were placed throughout the Senate wing of the Capitol. The collection chronicles the individuals who have served as vice president and pays tribute to their role as president of the Senate. It also provides a unique survey of American sculpture from the 19th century to the present.
In the 19th century, major speeches by well-known senators drew large crowds into the Senate Chamber. Sometimes stretching over two or three days, these speeches expressed national aspirations, framed important debates, and were often controversial. Although rhetorical styles have changed, debate on a crucial national issue in today’s Senate can still stimulate an impassioned and closely reasoned speech designed to sway listeners and attract votes on legislation. This collection includes speeches of substantial historical significance marked by moments of high drama.
The Senate Chamber desks are symbols of the Senate's past and present. During the War of 1812, British troops burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the Senate Chamber and its contents. In 1819, in an effort to replace what was lost, the Senate ordered the construction of 48 desks still used by senators in today's Senate Chamber. Additional desks were built over the years to accommodate the senators from each new state. This exhibit details the evolution and history of these historic desks and includes seating charts and lists of past occupants. The exhibit is updated with each new Congress and with every change in desk occupancy.
Explore Senate Art
Featured here: Daniel Webster Addressing the United States Senate / In the Great Debate on the Constitution and the Union 1850., by James M. Edney.
Explore the Senate's collection of paintings, sculpture, graphic art, and decorative art, which comprises over 2,500 objects that represent the history of the institution, the Capitol, and the nation. Included on this website are interactive exhibits and informative essays that add context to these works.
Explore Senate History
Featured here: A Senate page at work in the Senate Chamber.
Explore the history of the Senate through colorful stories, featured biographies, statistical lists, oral history interviews, photographs and other primary sources, as well as in-depth essays about the Senate’s institutional development and constitutional powers and responsibilities.