The Senate

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John Caldwell Calhoun, photograph ca. 1855, after the daguerreotype by unidentified artist, 1845

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At the start of his political career, Calhoun favored a strong National Government. But he became an outspoken defender of states’ rights. His position changed as Northern States grew more populous and added congressional representatives. To protect the interests of the South, he believed States should be able to nullify Federal law within their borders.

NPG.77.258 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Daniel Webster, daguerreotype by Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1850

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Webster’s 1830 defense of the sovereignty of the National Government was probably the finest moment of the “Great Orator” in debate. Twenty years later, he sacrificed his Senate career for the cause of national unity by endorsing the Compromise of 1850. Provisions of the compromise that prohibited Northern States from harboring runaway slaves outraged Webster’s political base.

Henry Clay, daguerreotype by Josiah Johnson Hawes and Albert Sands Southworth, ca. 1850

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Known as the “Great Compromiser,” Clay led the Whig Party in the Senate after being Speaker of the House. His compromises aimed to stimulate the national economy, end disputes over slavery, and avoid civil war. Frustrated in his attempts to become President, he proclaimed he “would rather be right than be President.”

14.0 x 10.8 cm (5 1/2 x 4 1/4 in.). Gift of I.N. Phelps Stokes, Edward S. Hawes, Alice Mary Hawes, and Marion Augusta Hawes, 1937 (37.14.15).

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Thomas Hart Benton, daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, ca. 1844–1858

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Benton served in the Senate as a Jacksonian Democrat for 30 years, although as a young man he fought Andrew Jackson in a duel. Benton also changed his mind about slavery. At first, he supported its expansion into Western territories. But later, he concluded that slavery hindered Western settlement and undermined national unity.

Thomas Hart Benton, daguerreotype by Mathew Brady, ca. 1844–1858

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

United States Senate Chamber, engraved by Thomas Doney after J. Whitehorne, mezzotint published by Edward Anthony, 1849

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From the late 1820s into the 1850s, dramatic oratory attracted large crowds to the theater-like chamber that Kentucky Senator Henry Clay dubbed “this noble room.”

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Senate Chamber Desk Used by Daniel Webster (reproduction)

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First Image:

In 1819, Thomas Constantine made 48 desks for the Senate Chamber at a cost of $34 each. The desks are still in use today.

Second Image:

In a venerable tradition, senators inscribe their names in the drawers of their Senate Chamber desks, symbolically linking themselves to their predecessors

Collection of the U.S. Senate

For the Union: The Compromise of 1850

Three great Senators dominated what has come to be called the Senate's "Golden Age of Oratory," from the 1830s to the 1850s. The legendary orator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts spoke for industrial New England. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the "Great Compromiser," represented the Western frontier. The Southerner John C. Calhoun of South Carolina defended states' rights and the institution of slavery. Yet all three represented the United States. Alternately feuding and cooperating, this "great triumvirate" helped forge major legislative agreements, culminating with the Compromise of 1850.

Keeping Secrets

In Congress, one person may have reasons to keep information private, while another has equally compelling reasons to make it public. In 1844, as the volatile issue of slavery inflamed emotions, Senator Benjamin Tappan of Ohio gave a secret treaty to a journalist. He wanted to publicize sections of the treaty that would allow slavery in Texas.

The Senate censured Tappan and threatened to expel future members who "leaked," or revealed, secrets.

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