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The Era of Debate: 1801-1850

This collection of brief essays describes important events and personalities in Senate history and highlights recurring themes in the Senate's institutional development and the important debates of the years leading to the Civil War.

February 27, 1801

Vice president Thomas Jefferson decided to compile a manual of legislative procedure as a guide for himself and future presiding officers. He believed that such an authority, distilled largely from ancient books of parliamentary procedure used in the British House of Commons, would minimize senators’ criticism of presiding officers’ rulings, which in those days were not subject to reversal by the full Senate. In 1801, Jefferson received a copy of his Manual of Parliamentary Practice.

October 17, 1803

In recent years senators and other public officials have been reluctant to keep diaries, out of fear that their contents might be used against them, but the tradition and great value of senatorial diaries dates back to the very first Senate.

October 20, 1803

On October 20, 1803, the Senate approved for ratification a treaty with France by which the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory. As a result of this treaty, the nation doubled in size, adding territory that would become the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and parts of Minnesota, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. The vote was 24 to 7.

October 21, 1803

John Quincy Adams is well known for his term as United States president, followed by 17 years as a member of the House of Representatives. Long before he held either of those positions, however, the 36-year-old Adams served in the U.S. Senate.

November 30, 1804

In its third impeachment trial, that of controversial and partisan Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase, the Senate had to debate the meaning of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

March 2, 1805

In July of 1804 Vice President Aaron Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Indicted for murder in New York and New Jersey, Burr returned to his duties as President of the Senate to preside over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. At the conclusion of the trial, Burr bid goodby to the Senate with a famous farewell speech.

July 19, 1807

Before the creation of Arlington National Cemetery after the Civil War, the much smaller Congressional Cemetery served as the chief national burying ground in Washington, D.C. Uriah Tracy of Connecticut holds the distinction of being the the first senator buried in the local graveyard, later joined by other dignitaries such as Vice President Elbridge Gerry, the Senate's first secretary, Samuel Otis, photographer Mathew Brady, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

April 25, 1808

In April of 1808 the Senate nearly expelled Senator John Smith of Ohio, who had naively been caught up in Aaron Burr's conspiracy to invade Mexico.

August 1814

When the British destroyed the Capitol in 1814, the documentary record of the Senate’s earliest years might have gone up in flames, too, had it not been for the quick action taken by a 24-year-old Senate clerk named Lewis Machen.

August 24, 1814

In August 1814, British troops sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and up the Patuxent River, then fought their way towards Washington. On August 24, using torches and gunpowder paste, they burned the Capitol, the president’s house, and other government buildings. By the time a summer rainstorm doused the flames, the Capitol was barely more than a burned-out shell.

September 19, 1814

In a defining moment of the War of 1812, the British army invaded Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814, setting ablaze the White House and the Capitol. With their meeting place torched and gutted by fire, senators were forced to meet in emergency headquarters in Blodgett's Hotel in northwest Washington until a temporary facility could be built.

October 10, 1814

When the invading British army torched the Capitol in August of 1814, it not only destroyed the Senate and House Chambers, but also all the books contained in the congressional library. To rebuild the library, retired president Thomas Jefferson sold to Congress his own extensive book collection, providing the foundation for the new Library of Congress.

October 11, 1814

The new Secretary of the Senate Charles Cutts inherited the thankless job of directing two relocations in the aftermath of the War of 1812, 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.

February 16, 1815

On February 16, 1815, the day President James Madison sent the Treaty of Ghent to the Senate, senators approved it unanimously. With ratification of this treaty, the War of 1812 came to an end. Senators were relieved that the conflict was over, even though the treaty accomplished none of the war’s original objectives.

March 19, 1816

Few issues have been as contentious as congressional salaries. The first Congress voted to compensate its members with six dollars a day plus travel expenses. In 1816, arguing that an annual salary would make Congress more efficient, members voted for an annual salary of $1,500.  Public outrage forced members to reconsider their decision, however, and congressional rate of pay scale returned to six dollars a day.

December 10, 1816

Prior to 1816 there were no permanent Senate committees, but rather small "select committees" created on an ad hoc basis to fulfill a specific legislative need. After nearly three decades of experience with this system, the Senate opted to create permanent committees in 1816, each with five members, to ensure that an existing committee would be available to handle immediate legislative proposals as well as ongoing problems.

June 23, 1818

Following the Capitol's near destruction by invading British forces in 1814, the House and the Senate needed to arrange for new chamber furnishings. New York City cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine was chosen to design the 48 armchairs and 48 mahogany desks for the Senate Chamber.

November 16, 1818

In 1818 John Eaton of Tennessee, at just 28 years old, became the youngest senator ever sworn into office. Despite the constitutional requirement that a senator be 30 years of age, Eaton and three other members were elected to the Senate before reaching that constitutional age.

March 3, 1820

The Missouri Compromise represents a major milestone in American history. Passed by Congress on March 3, 1820, the compromise temporarily settled a divisive national debate over whether new states would permit or prohibit slavery. Perhaps less known, but equally important, is the fact that this landmark legislative compromise also set the stage for a new era in Senate history

February 14, 1824

The U.S. Constitution includes no provision for nominating presidential candidates. Its framers failed to anticipate the development of political parties. They assumed that states would assign their electoral votes to individuals with strong local and national reputations. The candidate with the most votes would become president and the runner up would be vice president. Thwarting this plan, political parties developed almost immediately.

March 4, 1825

In 1823 the Senate decided to allow its presiding officer to appoint committee members. This seemed a safe decision since the Senate's president pro tempore, acting in the absence of a vice president, was often an older member easily bent to the will of the majority. When Vice President John C. Calhoun took over his constitutional duties as the president of the Senate, however, the Senate came to regret its decision.

January 26, 1830

On January 26, 1830, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts rose in the Senate Chamber and used all his oratorical power to deliver a speech known as his "Second Reply to Hayne," a stirring defense of the Union.

December 13, 1831

Question: Who was the first U.S. senator to win the presidential nomination of his political party? Answer: Henry Clay. Since 1831, 18 incumbent senators have been nominated by their parties. Of those 18, only three have gone on to win the presidency: Warren Harding in 1920, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Barack Obama in 2008.

March 28, 1834

When President Andrew Jackson clashed with Senator Henry Clay over the issue of rechartering the Bank of the United States, Clay successfully led the movement to censure the president—the first and only time an American president has been disciplined in such a way.

June 24, 1834

Historically, the Senate has given the president great freedom in choosing his cabinet. Of the more than 700 cabinet appointments to date, only a handful have been rejected by the Senate. The very first rejection came in 1834, when the Senate refused to consent to Andrew Jackson's nominee for secretary of the treasury.

January 30, 1835

On a cold, wet January day in 1835, a man named Richard Lawrence hid behind a pillar at the entrance to the Capitol Rotunda awaiting the arrival of President Andrew Jackson. As the president approached, Lawrence stepped forward, raised a derringer single-shot pistol, took careful aim at Jackson’s heart, and fired. The cap exploded, noise and smoke filled the air, but the powder failed to ignite. Misfire!

March 16, 1836

In response to a growing number of petitions to Congress demanding the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun proposed that the Senate accept no anti-slavery petitions. On March 16, 1836, the Senate rejected his plan, opting instead for an obscure delaying procedure.

January 16, 1837

Just three years after Henry Clay led the Senate to censure President Andrew Jackson following a contentious dispute about the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, another senator—Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri—convinced his colleagues to expunge that very censure from the Senate Journal.

February 8, 1837

According to the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, if no candidate for the vice presidency receives a majority of votes, the Senate chooses the vice president. Only once has the Senate been called upon to fulfill this constitutional duty, electing the controversial Richard Mentor Johnson in 1837.

March 11, 1839

The 1960s baseball team that we remember as the Washington Senators spent most of its history officially named the Nationals. It was their fans who called them the Senators, in honor of a United States senator who had once played for the Nationals.

March 14, 1841

The trouble began when Senator William King of Alabama rose on the Senate floor to defend a fellow Democrat against a verbal attack by Senator Henry Clay, a leader of the Whig Party. For years, the two men had clashed over the era's great polarizing issues. This time, the confrontation nearly ended in violence.

July 31, 1841

In 1841, a marble statue of George Washington, modeled after the Greek god Zeus, was placed in the Capitol Rotunda. Controversy erupted almost immediately due to the statue's placement and design. Few on Capitol Hill seemed ready for a half-naked father-of-the-country with well-developed and fully exposed shoulder muscles. After two years, the statue was moved to the center of the Capitol's eastern plaza, until 1908, when it was again moved, this time to the Smithsonian Institution.

May 24, 1844

Beginning in 1838, inventor Samuel Morse spent several years trying to convince Congress to fund his invention--the telepgraph machine. After Congress appropriate $30,000 towards the effort, Morse successfully sent the first telegraphic message from the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore, Maryland, on May 24, 1844.

March 24, 1846

Unanimous consent agreements bring order and structure to floor business and expedite the course of legislation. They can be as simple as a request to dispense with a quorum call or as complicated as a binding contract resulting from prolonged and often spirited debate. Senators have been conducting routine business by unanimous consensus since 1789, but the more formal UC agreement dates to the 1840s when Senator William Allen of Ohio sought a method to end debate.

May 12, 1846

On May 12, 1846, the United States Senate voted 40 to 2 to go to war with Mexico. The House had already adopted the war resolution by a similarly lopsided margin. Despite this seemingly overwhelming support, the vote in the Senate masked great uneasiness and deep partisan divisions over the war.

November 13, 1847

Nine former senators have won the Senate's highest honor in having their portraits affixed to the walls of the Senate Reception Room. Two of the nine partly earned their fame for asserting Congress's constitutional prerogatives during times of war.

March 26, 1848

The Senate arrested journalist John Nugent in 1848 for publishing leaked information about the impending peace treaty with Mexico. Despite a month-long investigation, however, the Senate was unable to force Nugent into revealing his source and it reluctantly freed its stubborn prisoner.

March 4, 1849

Until the day he died, Senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri claimed to have been president for a single day—March 4, 1849.

January 29, 1850

On January 29, 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced a set of resolutions designed to quiet sectional strife and avoid civil war. Clay's resolutions, which offered concessions to both the North and the South, were combined into one "omnibus bill" that became known as the Compromise of 1850. When the omnibus bill failed to pass, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois took up the cause, breaking the comprehensive measure down into five separate and ultimately successful bills.

March 7, 1850

"Mr. President, I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American…" Thus began Daniel Webster's most famous, and perhaps most influential speech, a stirring call for compromise to save the Union. The subsequent uproar among his fellow New Englanders, unwilling to compromise with supporters of slavery, prompted Webster's final resignation from the Senate.

April 3, 1850

The decade the of the 1850s brought turbulent times to the U.S. Senate, often resulting in contentious debates and even physical violence. In one such incident in April of 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi drew a pistol—in self defense—and to aim at fellow senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.

July 22, 1850

He was arguably the Senate's most famous member—Daniel Webster the statesman, the orator, the lawyer, the senator. After more than two decades of leading debates and stirring crowds to tears in the Senate Chamber, Webster resigned his Senate seat in 1850 to become secretary of state, a post he held until his death just two years later.