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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 11, 1884

Shortly after the Senate convened for the first time in 1789, it adopted a code of twenty rules of procedure. As the Senate grew increasingly complex in the decades that followed, it revised and expanded its rules on five occasions (1806, 1820, 1828, 1868, and 1877). On January 11, 1884, Senate rule-makers tried to impose order and coherence on the 1877 code, reducing its seventy-eight rules to forty. A measure of their success is that the 1884 code remained largely intact for nearly a century, longer than any previous code. Although it was revised in 1979, much of its language appears in the rules that guide today's Senate.  

January 12, 1922
Photo of Senator Truman Newberry
Truman Newberry

The 1918 election to fill one of Michigan's seats in the U.S. Senate proved to be one of the most bitter and costly contests of that era. Although Republican industrialist Truman Newberry narrowly defeated Democratic automaker Henry Ford, Newberry's claim to his seat remained in doubt for the next three years. The Senate provisionally seated Newberry in May 1919, pending investigation of charges that he had violated campaign-spending laws and intimidated voters. A year later, a federal court found him guilty of these charges, but the Supreme Court in May 1921 overturned his conviction. On January 12, 1922, by a close vote, the Senate affirmed that Newberry had been duly elected, but "severely condemned" his excessive campaign expenditures as "harmful to the honor and dignity of the Senate." Facing continuing controversy, Newberry resigned from the Senate later that year.

January 13, 1993
Judge Walter Nixon Impeachment
Walter Nixon

In a case concerning the November 1989 impeachment trial of Judge Walter Nixon, the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1993 ruled (Nixon v. United States) that the Senate's constitutional power to try impeachments is not subject to judicial review. This decision also set aside the September 1992 finding by Federal District Judge Stanley Sporkin that the Senate had improperly conducted the October 1989 trial of Federal District Judge Alcee Hastings by receiving testimony before a committee rather than the full Senate. Sporkin had remanded the Hastings case to the Senate "for a trial that comports with constitutional requirements," but had stayed his order pending the Supreme Court's review of the Nixon case.

January 16, 1832
Senate Chamber, Washington

French political and social observer Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Senate in session. Later, he described the 1832 Senate as "composed of eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates, and statesmen of note, whose arguments would do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates of Europe."


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.