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–by Joanna Hallac

When I began working here just over a year ago, the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol was undergoing renovations that began earlier in 2011, and it was not until just a few months ago that the room was reopened to the public and that I finally got my first glimpses of the historic chamber. Having undergone a restoration in 1976 in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, this most recent one also brought the room back to its mid-19th century look and feel. Given that it is considered one of the oldest, as well as most hallowed rooms in the Capitol, I thought it would be fun to examine a bit of its rich history.

In 1790, the Residence Act was passed as a compromise to move the capital to an area along the Potomac River, and so began the ten year span of finding the right spot and the right person to tackle the job of constructing what would eventually become the Capitol. Dr. William Thornton, the architect hired to take on this massive responsibility, designed the original senate chamber that was located on the main floor in the north wing of the new structure, the first part of the building that was constructed; however, after a mere six years, the room was literally falling apart.

A picture of the Old Senate Chamber (Architect of the Capitol)

Benjamin Latrobe, who had taken over as Architect of the Capitol, examined the dilapidated state of the chamber and the north wing and concluded he should gut it and reconstruct it all, which he did. Latrobe raised the chamber up a level to be even with the old House chamber (what is now National Statuary Hall), with the lower chamber reconstructed and used to house the Supreme Court from 1810 to 1860. Once construction on Latrobe’s new Senate chamber was complete in 1810, the men moved in, although their tenure there would suffer a serious interruption as a result of the burning of the Capitol by the British in August 1814 during the War of the 1812. The chamber had to once again be renovated and reconstructed, this time by Charles Bulfinch, who expanded the room to its current size and finished the repairs in 1819, allowing the Senate to once again reconvene in their chamber until 1859, at which point they moved into their current chamber. The current chamber was constructed, along with a new, bigger House chamber as well, as a result of the quickly growing size of the United States due to westward expansion. The Supreme Court would move upstairs in 1860 and occupy the Old Senate Chamber until 1935 when it finally got its own building across the street from the Capitol.

A view of the dais of the Old Senate Chamber (Architect of the Capitol)

Aside from the history of the room itself, of far greater import was what happened in it and who served there between 1810 and 1859, a period known as the “Golden Age” of the Senate, in which three of the greatest senators and orators in our country’s history served there: Henry Clay (Kentucky), Daniel Webster (Massachusetts), and John C. Calhoun (South Carolina). Clay, known as the Great Compromiser, had also served as Speaker of the House, a role which he transformed from one of largely formality, into the modern speakership we know the role to be today, which is the leader of the majority party and House agenda setter, not to mention the third in line to the presidency (a more recent occurrence, however). As a senator, Clay would also help orchestrate two of the most important compromises in American legislative history—the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850—both of which helped to preserve the Union, putting off, temporarily, the seemingly inevitable Civil War until 1861, when all three men were no longer alive to see the fracture of the Union (both Clay and Webster died in 1852, while Calhoun passed away in 1850) or work to prevent it.

Calhoun was known for many things, including being the architect of a policy called “nullification,” an idea many southern legislators became enamored of, which asserted that any law the federal government passed that a state deemed was not in their best interests could be ignored by that state without penalty. Despite his very states’ rights oriented view of things, Calhoun was also willing to work to compromise with his colleagues in the Senate, a lesson not always adhered to in our current political climate.

On the ideological flip side from Calhoun was Webster, the anti-slavery Northerner. Webster in fact delivered, over two days, what is still called the “greatest speech in Senate history,” in his rebuttal to a statement by South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne, a Calhoun surrogate, beginning on January 26, 1830. In what is known formally as the Second Reply to Hayne, Webster rebutted Hayne’s claim that the United States is really just a collection of sovereign states of which one can leave at any time, by saying that the Union was rather a “popular government, erected by the people; those who administer it are responsible to the people; and itself capable of being amended and modified, just as the people may choose it should be.” Needless to say, the gallery was packed during Webster’s speech, as it was so many times during the great debates that took place in that Old Senate Chamber.

A portrait of Daniel Webster (U.S. Senate)

At this point, I would argue that this is more than long enough (some of you may have already stopped reading, which I can’t really blame you for), and due to this, be sure to stay tuned for a follow up post on the caning of Charles Sumner, one of the most well-known stories in Senate history, which also took place in the Old Senate Chamber, and that I did not get a chance to cover today. With such a rich and elaborate history to delve into, from both the architectural and historical aspects, there was much to choose from and not all of it could make it in here.

I must say that I was truly excited the first time I was able to get a glimpse of the renovated chamber, even before I knew what to expect, and now I know why. I hope you all get a chance to visit the Capitol and check it out soon, if you haven’t already.

Sources consulted:

Senate Art and History Website

Architect of the Capitol Website