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This Week in Senate History

February 17, 1906

Treason of the Senate
U.S. Senate Historical Office

Following the conviction of two senators on charges of corruption, novelist David Graham Phillips began a nine-part series of articles titled "Treason of the Senate." Publishing his articles in Cosmopolitan magazine, Phillips argued that large corporations and corrupt state legislators played too large a role in the selection of senators. The articles attracted a wide audience, but Phillips' reliance on innuendo and exaggeration soon earned him the scorn of other reformers, including President Theodore Roosevelt who coined the term "muckraker" to describe this kind of sensationalist journalism. Nonetheless, the series intensified pressures to establish the direct popular election of senators.

February 19, 1868

Concluding a lengthy investigation that reflected the deep resentments following the Civil War, the Senate refused to seat Senator-elect Phillip Thomas. By a slim majority, the bitterly divided Senate decided that the Maryland Democrat had "voluntarily given aid, countenance, and encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility to the United States." The person named in the charges was Thomas' son. After trying unsuccessfully to dissuade the young man from joining the Confederate army, Thomas had given him $100, just in case he was captured and needed money in prison. Thomas later served the House of Representatives and in state government.

February 20, 1794

Painting of Congress Hall in Philadelphia
Congress Hall

Meeting at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Senate temporarily abandoned its practice of conducting business behind closed doors while it considered whether or not to seat one of Pennsylvania's senators. Although, Albert Gallatin already had taken his Senate oath, senators questioned whether the Swiss-born senator had been a U.S. citizen for the constitutionally required nine years. To avoid public criticism in Gallatin's home state, senators determined the case should be resolved in full public view. They also decided to permanently open legislative proceedings. On February 28, 1794, by a two-vote majority that included Pennsylvania's other senator, the Senate denied Gallatin his seat.

February 21, 1868

Photo of Andrew Johnson of Tennessee
Andrew Johnson (D-TN)

During a time of badly strained relations between the president of the Senate's majority party, senators adopted a rule of requiring referral of all nominations to committee prior to consideration by the full Senate. At the same time, President Andrew Johnson's decision to remove from office Secretary of War Edward Stanton, which angered the majority of Republicans, prompted the Senate to adopt a resolution denying the president such power without the consent of the Senate. Three days later, the House of Representatives impeached Andrew Johnson. On May 16, 1868, the Senate acquitted the president by falling one vote short of the required two-thirds majority to convict.

February 22, 1791

John Adams by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews

Vice President John Adams led the entire Senate in a visit to President George Washington to offer congratulations on his 59th birthday. Decades later, on February 22, 1862, as a morale-boosting gesture during the darkest days of the Civil War, the Senate and House of Representatives met in a joint session to hear Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney read Washington's famous 1796 farewell speech. Twenty-six years later, on February 22, 1888, the Senate began an annual tradition that continues today. Each year, on or near the first president's birthday, a senator reads Washington's Farewell Address in the Senate Chamber.

February 23, 1944

Photo of Alben Barkley of Kentucky
Alben Barkley (D-KY) Senate Historical Office

Senator Alben Barkley (D-KY) resigned his post as majority leader after President Franklin Roosevelt vetoed a tax bill against Barkley's advice. The majority leader charged that the president's characterization of the bill as tax relief for the greedy was a "calculated and deliberate assault on the legislative integrity of every member of Congress." Following Barkley's "farewell" speech, the Senate gave him a boisterous standing ovation. Within minutes of receiving his letter of resignation, the conference of Democratic senators unanimously reelected him as their leader. Barkley served 12 years as Democratic floor leader, from 1937 to 1948, when he became vice president.


Origins & Development

The framers of the United States Constitution deliberated at length over the Senate's role in the new federal government. Since that time, the Senate has evolved into a complex legislative body, while remaining true to its constitutional origins. This section provides historical essays describing the Senate's institutional developments including establishing direct election of senators, its constitutional powers such as the sole power to try impeachments, and many other unique elements that define the modern Senate.

August 1814: Saving Senate Records

When British forces attacked the city of Washington in August 1814 and set fire to the Capitol, a precious collection of Senate records was saved by the quick thinking and speedy actions of a young Senate engrossing clerk named Lewis Machen and his assistant, an African American Senate messenger named Tobias Simpson. With British invasion imminent, Machen and Simpson sprung into action. More


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