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November 17, 1954
The Senate's New Gavel


A visitor sitting in the Senate Chamber gallery on November 17, 1954, could have been excused for wondering what exactly was happening on the floor below. Just after 2 p.m., the Senate declared a recess. Instead of members heading away from the floor, many arrived and took their seats. Through the center doors appeared Majority Leader William Knowland and Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, followed by the vice president of India. The leaders guided their guest to the rostrum and introduced him to the vice president of the United States, Richard Nixon.

In his remarks, the Indian vice president noted that his recently independent nation had modeled its democratic institutions on those of the United States. As presiding officer of his nation's upper house, he welcomed the opportunity to present to the Senate an instrument without which a presiding officer would be ineffectual—a gavel. He hoped the gavel would inspire senators to debate "with freedom from passion and prejudice."

In replying, Vice President Nixon explained that the donated gavel would replace the Senate's old gavel—a two-and-one-half-inch, hour-glass-shaped piece of ivory, which, he said, had begun "to come apart" recently. What Nixon failed to mention was that the gavel had begun "to come apart" thanks to his own heavy hand.

Vice President John Adams may have used that gavel in 1789, although he seems to have preferred the attention-getting device of tapping his pencil on a water glass. By the 1940s, the old gavel had begun to deteriorate; in 1952 the Senate had silver pieces attached to both ends to limit further damage. During a heated, late-night debate in 1954, Nixon shattered the instrument. Unable to find a replacement through commercial sources, the Senate turned to the embassy of India. The replacement gavel duplicated the original with the addition of a floral band carved around its center.

There may have been no more effective wielder of that legislative instrument than Charles Fairbanks, vice president from 1905 to 1909. According to one witness, "He wouldn't hit it very hard, but when things started to get noisy on the floor, he'd lean over the desk and just tap-tap-tap a few times on the thin part of the desk. He used to say," according to the observer, "it wasn't loud noise that attracted the senators' attention, it was just a different noise."

Reference Items:

Bedini, Silvio.  “The Mace and the Gavel: Symbols of Government in America.”  Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 87 (1997): 63-70.


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