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The Senate Celebrates 200 Years

April 6, 1989


In the early 1980s, Senate leaders began to think ahead to the body’s forthcoming 200th anniversary in 1989. Wishing to maximize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus national attention on the Senate’s history, traditions, and constitutional role, floor leaders Howard Baker and Robert C. Byrd arranged for the establishment of a special 15-member Study Group on the Commemoration of the Senate Bicentenary. Chaired by former Senate Republican leader Hugh Scott, the panel included current and former senators, the librarian of Congress, the archivist of the United States, and leading congressional scholars. In 1983 it issued detailed recommendations for a coordinated program of exhibits, symposia, ceremonial events, and publications.

Over the next six years, the recommended projects began to materialize. They included Senator Robert C. Byrd’s four-volume history of the Senate, Senator Bob Dole’s Historical Almanac of the U.S. Senate, the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, the Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, an exhibition entitled A Necessary Fence: The Senate’s First Century, a commemorative Senate postage stamp, and a series of gold and silver congressional bicentennial coins issued by the U.S. Mint.

The highlight of the Senate’s bicentennial program began at 11 a.m. on April 6, 1989, as members convened in special legislative session in the Old Senate Chamber. Two former members, in an honor without precedent, were invited to address the Senate. Missouri’s Thomas Eagleton counseled senators to appreciate the art of compromise. “It is the essence of our political existence—the grease for the skids of government. Without it, we screech to a halt, paralyzed by intransigence.” Tennessee’s Howard Baker, who had served as presidential chief of staff after leaving the Senate, urged members to strengthen their partnership with the presidency. “When the partnership has suffered, the nation has inevitably suffered; when [it] has prospered, so have we all.”

The Senate then proceeded to its current chamber, festively decorated in red, white, and blue bunting, to be greeted by the stirring music of a marine band and soloist. For the next 90 minutes, six senior senators addressed topics related to the Senate’s past, present, and future. The session concluded with the adoption of a resolution conveying the Senate’s good wishes to the senators of the future. “It is our hope that they will strive ceaselessly to meet the aspiration of Daniel Webster that the Senate be a body to which the Nation may look, with confidence, ‘for wise, moderate, patriotic, and healing counsels.’”