Behind Closed Doors 1789–1795
Why meet in closed session? The Constitution does not require Congress to meet in public. The House of Representatives, elected directly by voters, immediately opened its doors to the public and press. Senators, originally chosen by state legislators, decided to meet in private, believing they could work more efficiently without public scrutiny and interference.
The earliest Senate Chambers, in New York City and Philadelphia, did not have visitors’ galleries. The Senate decided to build a viewing area in 1794 after many state legislatures and newspapers demanded more openness. Beginning in 1795, the Senate debated legislative business (lawmaking) in open session but continued to discuss executive business (treaties and nominations) in closed sessions until 1929. Today, both houses of Congress conduct all debates in public sessions, except when discussing information that could risk national security.
Letter from Maryland Legislature
In the early 1790s, the Maryland legislature instructed the state’s two U.S. senators to support a resolution requiring public access to the Senate’s legislative sessions.
Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives, Special Collections (Early State Records Collection), Votes and Proceedings of the House of Delegates, December 16, 1791, MSA SC 4872, M3197
William Maclay’s Diary, 1789
This diary kept by Senator Maclay of Pennsylvania provides a rare glimpse into the Senate during the First Congress. Here he describes President Washington’s visit to the Senate on August 22, 1789, to seek advice and consent on an Indian treaty.
... the Door Keeper soon told Us of the Arrival of the President .... he rose and told us bluntly that he had called on Us for our advice and consent to some propositions respecting the Treaties to be held with the Southern Indians .... our President hurried over the Paper .... and put the Question do you advise and consent &ca. There was a dead pause. Mr. Morris whispered me, we will see who will venture to break silence first.
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress