United States Senate
United States Senate Senators HomeCommittees HomeLegislation & Records HomeArt & History HomeVisitors Center HomeReference Home

Origins & Development of the United States Senate

The framers of the United States Constitution deliberated at length over the Senate's role in the new federal government. Since that time, the Senate has evolved into a complex legislative body, while remaining true to its constitutional origins.

Original Ledger Found

Image of Senate Ledger Spine

"Probably the oldest book of consecutive accounts kept by government officers," noted an 1885 newspaper article, "is a time-worn volume kept in the office of General Anson G. McCook, secretary of the senate." Marked S-1, this financial ledger records nearly a century of salary and mileage payments to senators, from 1790 to 1881. McCook, recognizing the ledger's importance, had it restored and rebound in 1884. Future employees were not so careful. In the early 1960s, S-1 and nearly sixty other financial ledgers were stored in the basement of the Capitol, and then forgotten. Rediscovered in late 2002, this collection is a unique treasure of Senate history. S-1 has been digitized by the Library of Congress and is now available online.

This Week in Senate History

January 2, 1811

The Senate voted (20-7) to censure Senator Timothy Pickering (MA) for disclosing confidential documents. Pickering thereby became the first senator to face such a formal rebuke by his colleagues.

January 3, 1934
U.S. Constitution

Under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution's newly ratified Twentieth Amendment, Congress for the first time convened on January 3. Until adoption of the amendment, the Constitution had required Congress to "assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by law appoint a different day."

January 4, 1859
Image of Senator John Crittenden
John Crittenden (KY)

John Crittenden (KY), the Senate's senior member, rose to speak  in a chamber packed to capacity. "This place, which has known us for so long, is to know us no more forever as a Senate." Vice President John Breckinridge, following his fellow Kentuckian, offered his own farewell. The vice president then led a solemn file of senators out of that room (now known as the Old Senate chamber) and down the hall forty-five paces to the newly constructed chamber that the Senate continues to occupy today.

January 5, 1937
Photo of Charles McNary, Life Magazine
Charles McNary (R-OR)

Senate Republican floor leader Charles McNary (OR), for the first time, occupied the front-row, center-aisle desk on the eastern side of the Senate Chamber. Democratic floor leader Joseph T. Robinson (AR) had inaugurated a comparable tradition on his side of the center aisle ten years earlier. Since then, floor leaders of both parties have consistently chosen to operate from these well-placed desks.

January 6, 1801

As the Senate prepared to consider a highly controversial diplomatic agreement with France, it established rules requiring that all relevant executive communications and treaty documents be kept "inviolably secret" until specifically made public. On January 6, 1801,  the Senate clarified and toughened its procedures for managing treaties by specifying that the constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote on final agreement to ratification would also apply to amendments to that resolution. The Senate later eased this requirement, adopting the current practice of allowing a simple majority vote on treaty amendments.

January 8, 1790
George Washington

As required by the Constitution, President George Washington delivered his first annual "state of the union" address to a joint session of Congress meeting in the Senate chamber of New York City's Federal Hall.

January 9, 1924
Photo of Senator Ellison Smith of South Carolina
Ellison Smith (D-SC)

On this day in 1924, members of the Senate's majority party helped the minority party gain the chairmanship of one of the body's most important committees. Progressive Republicans vigorously opposed reelection of Albert Cummins (IA) as chair of the Committee on Interstate Commerce. Conservative Republicans, with equal tenacity, fought the candidacy of progressive Republican Robert La Follette (WI). Unable to secure enough votes for La Follette, progressive Republicans joined with minority party Democrats to award the chair to Ellison Smith (SC), a conservative Democrat.


Senate and the Constitution
Senate is Created
Senate Moves to Washington
Permanent Committees Created
Annotated Senate Time Line
Majority & Minority Parties
Institutional Bibliography (pdf)

Historical information provided by the Senate Historical Office.