Indian Land Dilemma, 1877 - 1877
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.
Seniority and Power: The Senate Four 1897-1909 - 1897
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
The Power of Investigation: The Titanic Disaster 1912 - 1912
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.
Eyewitness to History 1831-1895 - 1831
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.