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The Senate Elects a new Secretary

October 11, 1814

Image of Samuel Otis of Massachusetts

Imagine the chaos. Seven weeks earlier, an invading army had set fire to all but one of Washington's public buildings. The Capitol lay a smoldering ruin. August 24, 1814, had been one of the darkest days in the war with Great Britain. By September, however, the marauding British forces had withdrawn and President James Madison had called Congress into emergency session at the Patent Office.

On October 11, the Senate prepared to elect a new secretary—its principal administrative, legislative, and financial officer—to help manage the chaos. Samuel Otis, secretary of the Senate for the previous 25 years had recently died. As the first person to hold that office, Otis had firmly stamped the position with his own style and personality. But the 73-year-old Otis had also made a few enemies in recent years among senators who questioned the aging man's competence.

The election of his successor proved to be a contentious affair. After considering nine candidates through ten separate ballots, the Senate selected former senator Charles Cutts of New Hampshire.

Cutts inherited the thankless job of directing two relocations, as the Senate moved through the mud and chaos of a shattered city to larger temporary quarters the following year and then, in 1819, to the restored Capitol.

The Senate took this occasion to strengthen the secretary's accountability for its administrative and financial operations. Early in 1823, members approved legislation requiring the secretary to submit, at the end of each congressional session, a statement of the names and compensation of all persons employed and all expenditures from the contingent fund. (Today, this volume is known to Senate staffers as the “Green Book.”)

Secretary Cutts presented his first annual report in 1823. Soon the Senate adopted a rule that suggested unhappiness with Cutts. At the start of the next congressional session, the secretary would be required to stand for reelection at the start of each Congress, rather than continuing to serve "during good behavior." (The indefinite term reflected the need to have officers carry over from one Congress to the next at a time of rapid turnover among members.)

Predictably, at the first opportunity, the Senate retired Cutts in favor of another unemployed former senator. That senator had had the misfortune of representing constituents who believed no senator should serve more than a single term.

Perhaps it was not only the secretary who had the thankless job!