The Senate archival collections document floor activities, committee activities, and general Senate administration. The United States Constitution provides that "each House shall keep a Journal of its proceedings and from time to time publish the same." Accordingly, the earliest records of the Senate date from 1789 and include the manuscript rough minutes of chamber proceedings and the smooth copy of the Journal. At the end of the first session of the First Congress, Secretary of the Senate Samuel A. Otis took possession of the minutes and other records for safekeeping, thus beginning the tradition of responsibility that adheres to the Secretary's office to this day.
The records of the First Congress traveled by flatboat from New York City to Philadelphia where Congress met for a decade prior to moving to Washington, DC in November 1800. They were removed from Washington only once when the British invaded and burned the Capitol building on August 24, 1814. Miraculously, they were saved, when a quick-thinking clerk in the Secretary's office commandeered a farmer's wagon and removed them to the safety of his farm in the Virginia countryside.
In March 1937, the Senate agreed to send nearly 3,600 cubic feet of its records to the newly established National Archives for preservation and provision of reference services. This material includes records on measures referred to committees that were required by Senate rules to be returned to the Secretary of the Senate at the close of each session. At this time, there was no provision for disposition of materials that committees received directly from the executive, the agencies, or the public.
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 greatly changed the nature and contents of the Senate's historical records. For the first time, committees were required to maintain records of their proceedings. Senator's personal records and committee records were to be maintained separately. The Secretary was given greater responsibility for all committee records. The statute states that:
"The Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives, acting jointly, shall obtain at the close of each Congress all the non-current records of the Congress and of each congressional committee and transfer them to the National Archives for preservation, subject to the orders of the Senate or the House of Representatives, respectively." (60 Stat 812)
Today, the Senate transfers approximately 1500 cubic feet of records per year to the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives. The vast majority of this material consists of records of Senate committees, from Agriculture to Veterans' Affairs. It includes legislative bill files, treaty files, presidential nominations files, government oversight files, committee investigative records, and records relating to impeachment proceedings. The archives also includes records of the Secretary's office, bills, resolutions, amendments, reports and executive communications, the same kinds of material that have been preserved among the Senate's archives for over two-hundred years.
Public access to the records of the Senate in the National Archives is governed by S. Res. 474, 96th Congress. This covers the majority of Senate records, except the records of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities which is governed by S. Res. 393, 96th Congress. Under S. Res. 474, most records are open for research when they have been in existence for twenty years. Investigative files relating to individuals and containing personal data, personnel records, and records of executive nominations are normally closed for fifty years to ensure protection of personal privacy. National security classified information remains closed until it is declassified.
For detailed information about the Senate archival collections, you may consult the Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989, (S. Doc. 100-42), which is available from the National Archives.
A printed copy of this publication may be obtained from the Senate Historical Office, Washington, DC 20510 -7108. To speak directly with a Center for Legislative Archives Reference Archivist, call 202-357-5350.
For access to Senate web harvests see the National Archives' Federal Web Harvests.