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This is the story of one of the world's great experiments in government by the people.
For more than two centuries, a new Congress has convened every two years following elections that determine all the seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate. While the individuals change, the institution has endured-through civil and world wars, waves of immigration and great migrations, and continuous social and technological change.
After the civil war, the country faced dramatic change as a landscape of farms and villages yielded to factories and sprawling cities. An abundance of labor and plentiful raw materials brought prosperity to many, and the image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and opportunity encouraged immigration from all parts of the world. Many workers, including immigrants, racial minorities, and children, however, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay. By the turn of the century, reformers in Congress were pressing for new ways to make government more responsive to the needs of poor farmers, laborers, and urban dwellers.
Letting the Voters Choose
For Congress’s first 125 years, senators were elected by state legislatures. This system proved troublesome almost from the beginning. Political party conflicts frequently delayed the selection, causing some states to go without full representation in the Senate for extended periods.
The resulting deadlocks seriously disrupted state business. Political bosses frequently manipulated Senate elections to advance their own economic interests. Reformers responded by campaigning for a constitutional amendment that would take the selection of senators out of the hands of corruptible state legislatures and give it directly to the people. With ratification in 1913 of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Senate, like the House, could truly call itself "the people’s branch."
A More Businesslike Body
As America grew more complicated in the early 20th century, the Senate tried to make governing more efficient. The Industrial Revolution created a complex economy and brought vast social changes. The arrival of the activist Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson brought new challenges to congressional authority. The Senate responded by centralizing and streamlining operations. Party caucus chairs (representing members of each party) and committee leaders increasingly controlled the agenda. They were less successful in limiting debates. As constituents demanded more services, senators gained small support staffs and space in a permanent office building.
Congress hoped to improve the lives of American Indians with the Dawes Act of 1887, but what was meant as reform instead disrupted the Indians' cultural traditions without improving their economic conditions. Previously, the government had established reservations for Native Americans, which tribes ran as sovereign nations. Massachusetts Republican Henry L. Dawes, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, sponsored legislation to transfer these communally owned lands from tribes to individuals and to grant citizenship to those who participated. The Dawes Act aimed to encourage Indians to become farmers and to assimilate into American society, but it also permitted the Indians to sell their surplus land. By 1900, Indian-held land had decreased significantly from the 138 million acres under Native American control in 1887. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 restored tribal authority over reservations and returned remaining lands to tribal ownership. By the beginning of the 21st century, about 54 million acres were held by American Indians.
After the Civil War, Senate activity shifted from individuals to groups of members formed into committees. This gave tremendous power to important committee chairmen. By 1900, four senators known as the "Senate Four" dominated the most important Senate committees: Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island (Finance); William Allison of Iowa (Appropriations); John C. Spooner of Wisconsin (Rules); and Orville Platt of Connecticut (Judiciary).
These close friends met regularly to share information and plan strategy. As one newspaper reporter wrote, "These four men can block and defeat anything that the president or the House may desire." Their links to special interests, and their resistance to policies favored by President Theodore Roosevelt, provoked public concerns that led to calls for reform, including a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators.
“These four men can block and defeat anything that the president or the House may desire.”
— A newspaper reporter of the time, February 19, 1903
How could it happen? That’s what people asked after the Titanic went down with many prominent Americans among the approximately 1,500 who died. The Senate asked too. Although the ship was British, there were lessons to be learned by all seafaring nations. In 1912, a special Senate subcommittee convened to investigate the Titanic disaster.
Surviving passengers and crew, and company officials, testified to the subcommittee with vivid and dramatic accounts that drew eager attention from the press and public. The hearings were the first to be held in the Senate’s ornate new Caucus Room. Though the Titanic investigation did not lead to criminal prosecutions, the subcommittee did recommend laws to improve ship safety.
Isaac Bassett walked the Senate halls for 64 years. Appointed a page in 1831 by Daniel Webster, Bassett served later as messenger and then as Assistant Doorkeeper before his death in 1895. In his later years, reporters and visitors often sought out the old man, eager to hear stories of the Senate's "golden era."
Bassett is famed for turning back the clock—literally—to let senators pass last-minute laws. His true legacy, however, is on paper. Planning to write a memoir, Bassett kept careful notes, clipped news items, and wrote short vignettes of people he'd met and events he'd seen. Bassett died before finishing it. Fortunately, the manuscript survives, a rare firsthand account of the 19th-century Senate.