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Public Statements

The Old Senate Chamber


Location: Washington, DC

Like our government, the United States Capitol building has grown over time.

Two hundred years ago, Senators did not meet in the chamber that you see if you tune into C-SPAN. They met in the Old Senate Chamber.

The Old Senate Chamber was completed in 1810 and then reconstructed after the Capitol was burned in 1814. The Senate occupied the old chamber until 1859 when the current chambers for both the House and Senate were completed. In that time, the body grew from 34 to 64 members. During this time, some of the most famous debates on the fiercely divisive issues of the day were held. Issue such as territorial expansion, economic policy, and America's original sin, the terrible institution of slavery were debated by the likes of Clay, Calhoun and Webster.

In the old chamber, Senators spent all day at their desks. Their desks, in fact, were their offices--where they read newspapers, visited with constituents, and kept up with their correspondence. Senators knew each other well. They were often all together in the chamber, taking part in formal and informal discussions, trying to hash out differences, and hearing varying opinions before making decisions.

The comity of the Senate, however, could give way to breaches of decorum that pale in comparison to what some say is today's bitter partisanship.

In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, an ardent opponent of slavery, gave a two-day speech attacking members of Congress who had supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed those territories to decide if they wanted to permit slavery within their borders.

Senator Sumner was particularly uncharitable to Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He accused Senator Butler of having "a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight--I mean the harlot, Slavery."

Senator Butler's relative, Congressman Preston Brooks, would come to his defense. Congressman Brooks found Senator Sumner in the Senate chamber at the end of a day's session and began beating him with a cane. It would take years for Senator Sumner to recover. Congressman Brooks resigned and returned home to South Carolina, only to be reelected by his constituents.

A few years later, the Senate left the old chamber, and the Supreme Court then occupied it until 1935.

Today, the old chamber has a number of uses, both official and ceremonial. For example, on January 8, 1999, the Senate held an unprecedented bipartisan meeting in the old chamber to discuss the framework for conducting the impeachment trial of President Clinton, emerging with unanimous agreement on trial procedures.

The old chamber is also the setting where Senators hold ceremonial swearing-in activities with the Vice President when they assume office. And, Senators can hold "executive sessions" there to consider classified information outside the reach of C-SPAN cameras.

The old chamber is steeped in history. When Senators meet there, they recapture some of the ambience enjoyed by historic figures of the U.S. Congress. I hope that visitors to the old chamber experience that same effect.

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