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This Week in Senate History

December 3, 1847
Chandelier, Six-arm

Gaslight replaced candles and oil lamps as the Senate Chamber's principal means of illumination. Senator John Fairfield reported that this innovation provided "light enough to write by and read the finest print in any part of the chamber." In 1864 a new generation of gas lights were installed that turned on and off by a galvanic current. When turned on, the gas was lighted by the heating of a galvanic current of minute coils of platinum wire placed over the orifices of the burners. In 1886 the Architect of the Capitol introduced the newest innovation—electricity—to the Senate wing, making all earlier systems quite obsolete.

December 4, 1815
Image of Brick Capitol

When the Senate convened the 14th Congress on December 4, 1815, senators met in a brick structure hastily erected on the current site of the Supreme Court. In the midst of the War of 1812, British troops had marched on Washington on August 24, 1814, and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other government buildings. When the Senate convened in an extraordinary session a few weeks later, on September 19, President James Madison arranged for Congress to meet temporarily at the city's only available building, Blodgett's Hotel, on Eighth and E Streets, Northwest. Members debated whether or not to stay in Washington, D.C., and ultimately decided to rebuild. For five years, the Senate met in their temporary quarters, later known as the Old Brick Capitol, until restoration of the Capitol was completed in December of 1819. The newly remodeled Senate Chamber became the stage for the Senate's Golden Age.

December 5, 1927
Joseph T. Robinson by Nicholas Richard Brewer

Senate Democratic leader Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas began the tradition under which the two party floor leaders occupy the front-row, center-aisle desk in the Senate Chamber. Robinson had coveted that spot for some time. Finally, in 1927, the senior senator who had occupied the prominently placed desk on the Democratic side of the Senate Chamber retired, giving Robinson the opportunity to claim the space. Republican leaders had to wait another decade, however, before retirement opened up the corresponding desk on their side of the chamber. Finally, on January 5, 1937, Republican Leader Charles McNary took his seat across from Robinson.

December 6, 1790
Painting of Congress Hall in Philadelphia

The Senate met for the first time in its new quarters on the second floor of Philadelphia's Congress Hall. From March of 1789 until December of 1790, the Senate had convened in New York City, in a building known as Federal Hall. For the next decade, the U.S. Congress completed its legislative duties in Philadelphia. Finally, during the summer of 1800, the federal government packed its boxes and moved to its permanent home in the newly created District of Columbia. On November 17, 1800, the Senate convened its first meeting in the still-unfinished United States Capitol.

December 7, 1829

The Senate appointed its first page, 9-year-old Grafton Hanson (grandson of Sergeant at Arms Mountjoy Bayly), beginning a Senate tradition that continues today. For many years, Senate pages were young boys, typically 9 or 10 years old, who lived in Washington, D.C. Employment as a Senate page offered the children a chance to earn a small income to help support their families. In the 20th century, the Senate developed its page program into a professional school designed to educate high school students while giving them the unique opportunity to work in the legislative environment. The first female pages entered the program in 1971.

December 9, 1858
Stephen Douglas of Illinois

The Senate Democratic Caucus took the extraordinary step of removing Senator Stephen Douglas as chairman of the influential Committee on Territories. This action grew out of the Illinois senator's disagreements with President James Buchanan over the organization of the Kansas territory. After his reelection in 1858, following his much publicized debates with Abraham Lincoln, Douglas was seen as a threat to the Buchanan administration. Consequently, Buchanan's allies in the Senate successfully separated Douglas from his Senate power base, the Committee on Territories. Despite this loss of a powerful position, Douglas remained an influential senator and went on to gain his party's presidential nomination in 1860.