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Historical Highlights

Historical Highlights, formerly called Senate Stories, is a collection of brief essays on Senate history.

Seven-year Senate Terms?

Image of the U.S. ConstitutionOn June 19, 1787, the framers of the U.S. Constitution decided that the term of a senator should run for seven years. They also tentatively agreed that House members should serve three years, that Congress should elect the president, that the president should serve for a term equal to that of a senator, and that the Senate should appoint Supreme Court justices. Obviously, the framers had a lot of work ahead of them over the following three months to shape the delicately balanced Constitution we know today.

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No Hissing

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas SullyOn a quiet December morning in 1800, a well-dressed gentleman knocked on the door at the Capitol Hill residence of publisher Samuel Smith. When the publisher’s wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, greeted him, she had no idea who he was. But, she liked him at once, “So kind and conciliating were his looks and manners.” Then her husband arrived and introduced her to the vice president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

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Capitol Cornerstone Dedicated

Daniel Webster Delivering a Fourth of July Oration in Front of the Capitol at Washington.On the Fourth of July, 1851, sunny and unseasonably mild weather attracted large crowds to the Capitol’s east front plaza. The festive multitudes looked forward to a day of parades, speeches, and fireworks. These events were to celebrate the laying of a cornerstone as the beginning of a major Capitol construction project.

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Former Slave Presides over Senate

Blanche Kelso Bruce by Simmie Lee KnoxOn February 14, 1879, a Republican senator from Mississippi presided over the Senate. In this instance, the Senate's customary practice of rotating presiding officers during routine floor proceedings set an important milestone. The senator who temporarily assumed those duties had a personal background that no other senator, before or since, could claim—he had been born into slavery.

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The Senate Passes the Smoot-Hawley Tariff

Reed Owen SmootA memorable scene from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has a high school teacher vainly struggling to get some response from his dazed students. He says: “In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone?... the Great Depression, passed the... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act. Which, anyone? Raised or lowered?... raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone?... Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression.” This amusing scene managed to omit the U.S. Senate, but it was on June 13, 1930, that the Senate passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, among the most catastrophic acts in congressional history.

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First Woman Elected to Both Houses of Congress

Margaret Chase SmithIs the Senate any place for a woman? This question dominated the 1948 Senate primary in the state of Maine. Seeking the Republican nomination were the current governor, a former governor, and a four-term House member named Margaret Chase Smith.

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Civil Rights Filibuster Ended

Photo: Post-cloture GroupAt 9:51 on the morning of June 10, 1964, Senator Robert C. Byrd completed an address that he had begun 14 hours and 13 minutes earlier. The subject was the pending Civil Rights Act of 1964, a measure that occupied the Senate for 60 working days, including seven Saturdays. A day earlier, Senate whips Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) and Thomas Kuchel (R-CA), the bill's floor managers, concluded they had the 67 votes required at that time to end the debate.

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