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This Week in Senate History


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.

December 10, 1816

In order to establish greater institutional efficiency, the Senate created its first "standing" or permanent legislative committees. From 1789 to 1816 the Senate relied on three-to-five member temporary or select committees that were created to deal with a specific legislative issue. Once the legislative matter was completed, the committee went out of business. By 1816, however, legislative responsibilities had grown more numerous and complex, prompting the Senate to create "standing" committees that continued to operate on a permanent basis. Among those first 11 standing committees three are still in existence today—the Committees on Finance, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary.

December 11, 1833
Henry Clay by Allyn Cox

In 1833 the question of re-chartering the Bank of the United States sharply divided the Senate. Pro-bank forces, led by Henry Clay, held a majority over the allies of President Andrew Jackson, who steadfastly opposed the re-charter. On December 11, 1833, by a vote of 23 to 18, Clay's forces adopted a resolution directing the president to turn over a bank document that he had read to his cabinet. Jackson refused, claiming the Senate lacked the Constitutional authority "to require of me an account of any communication...made to the heads of departments acting as a cabinet council." Frustrated, the Senate responded to this claim of executive privilege by censuring the president.

December 13, 1836
Image of Asbury Dickins

Asbury Dickins began a 25-year career as the fourth secretary of the Senate. Dickins's tenure coincided neatly with the Senate's so-called Golden Age, a period that brought to the Senate Chamber a group of talented legislators and powerful orators. Within the secretary's office, the growth in the Senate's membership and national stature brought additional staff and more demanding job responsibilities. As secretary, Dickins professionalized the secretary's office, regularized hours of business, and presided over a burgeoning staff. Upon his retirement in 1861, the Senate rewarded the "faithful servant of the Senate" with an additional year's salary of $3,000.

December 15, 1795
Portrait of John Rutledge

The Senate rejected George Washington's nomination of John Rutledge to be Chief Justice of the United States. Rutledge had served previously as associate justice but resigned in 1791 to take a seat on a court in his native South Carolina. When Chief Justice John Jay's resignation seemed likely, Rutledge asked to be named his successor. Two weeks after Washington signed his nomination papers, Rutledge delivered a speech attacking the controversial Jay Treaty, which the Senate's Federalist majority supported. The Senate rejected Rutledge by a vote of 10 to 14, the first such refusal of a Supreme Court nominee.