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Preserving Senate History

Over the past 50 years, Senate leaders have demonstrated a special commitment to promoting projects designed to strengthen public understanding of the Senate’s history and traditions.

In 1955, Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) decided that the closely divided and contentious Senate needed a history lesson. Sponsoring the first modern-era research project on the Senate’s past, he and Minority Leader William Knowland (R-Calif.) arranged for the Senate to create a temporary committee to identify five outstanding former Senators, no longer living, whose service would be honored with portraits permanently displayed in the ornate reception room outside the Senate chamber.

The committee, chaired by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), agreed to judge candidates “for acts of statesmanship transcending party and State lines” and to define “statesmanship” to include “leadership in national thought and constitutional interpretation as well as legislation.” The panel ultimately selected the 19th-century “Great Triumvirate” of Henry Clay (Ky.), Daniel Webster (Mass.) and John C. Calhoun (S.C.). For the 20th century, they added Robert LaFollette of (R-Wis.) and Robert Taft (R-Ohio).

Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), Johnson’s successor as Majority Leader in 1961, displayed his own active interest in projects associated with the Senate’s history. When Johnson, then president, came to the Capitol in 1965 to sign the Voting Rights Act, he sat behind a small desk from the Capitol’s old Supreme Court Chamber. The president decided that this historic desk should return with him to the White House.

That move irritated Mansfield, who concluded that the Senate needed its own curatorial and historical programs so that its history, both material and human, would not continue to slip away. Along with Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), he arranged for the creation of a permanent Senate art commission with a curatorial staff to inventory and properly preserve the Senate’s treasures.

In 1974, Mansfield and Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) decided to complement the curatorial program by establishing a Senate historical office, similar in purpose to historical programs in agencies throughout the executive branch.

In the wake of the Watergate scandals and concerned with preservation of presidential papers, the two leaders believed that the Senate should be able to offer its Members and committees professional guidance on preservation of office files and personal papers, and that the Senate should develop programs to make its older records available to the public. With the Senate’s 200th anniversary little more than a decade ahead, they expected the new office to document the history of the institution and its nearly 1,600 former Members.

Secretary of the Senate Francis Valeo developed broad specifications for the office and hired me to recruit a professional staff, which today includes seven historians with graduate degrees in American history.

The experience of the past 30 years supports the not-so-surprising thesis that Senators who become the institution’s leaders generally become the most active promoters of programs to explore Senate history. Here are a few examples of projects inspired during the tenures of past leaders.

Byrd’s History: Searching for a comprehensive published history of the Senate in 1980, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) discovered that the only volume coming close to serving that purpose had been published 42 years earlier.

Believing that a more timely account of the Senate’s development might interest Members and staff, he began a series of Senate floor speeches, delivered at times when no other business was before the Senate. Over the next eight years, Byrd offered more than 100 addresses on topics ranging from the Compromise of 1850 to how the Senate has been portrayed in literature and film.

As the years passed, Members who had taken to clipping his remarks from the Congressional Record urged that his addresses be published as a book. On the eve of its 200th anniversary, Congress passed legislation that made “Byrd’s History” a cornerstone of the bicentennial commemoration.

Dole’s Bicentennial Minutes: On the first day of the 100th Congress, in January 1987, Republican Leader Bob Dole (Kan.) inaugurated his own series, promising to deliver a short historical statement on each day that the Senate was in session for the remainder of the Congress.

Dole’s nearly 300 historical vignettes focused on significant people, unusual customs and memorable events associated with the development of the Senate during its first two centuries. These essays appeared in 1989 in an illustrated book titled “Historical Almanac of the United States Senate.”

Two-hundred-year-anniversary: In addition to the Byrd and Dole books, the Congressional bicentennial inspired the creation of guides to Senate records at the National Archives, a revised edition of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, special exhibits, commemorative coins and postage stamps, and a 90-minute documentary film by Ken Burns on the history of Congress.

Web site offerings: From 1998 through 2002, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) hosted a series of nine “Leader’s Lectures” on the nature and experience of Senate leadership. These talks, featuring former Senate party floor leaders and vice presidents, were held in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber before an audience of current Senators and broadcast nationwide by C-SPAN.

All nine lectures in this insightful series are available on the Senate Web site. Other Web-based historical projects include chapter-length profiles by former Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) of all vice presidents through 1992, and a series of 200 “Historical Minute Essays” that I prepared at the Senate leadership’s request between 1997 and 2004.

Outstanding Senators revisited: In the spirit of Johnson’s 1955 project, then-Senate leaders Lott and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) decided in 1999 to seek two more outstanding former Senators whose portraits would be added to the Senate Reception Room collection.

At the direction of the Rules and Administration Committee, the Historical Office prepared lists of Senators no longer living, whose Senate careers, lasting at least 12 years, had ended before 1980. Ultimately, the committee focused on the mid-20th century, a period in which the Senate played a particularly significant role in addressing the problems of the nation as an industrial society and an emerging world power.

In October 2000, the Senate approved the Rules Committee’s recommendation of Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) and Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.). The portraits were dedicated in September 2004.

Capitol Visitor Center: Participation in the development of a script for the Capitol Visitor Center’s 16,500-square-foot exhibition gallery has been, without question, the most challenging and satisfying project of my 30 years as Senate Historian. Guided by a leading museum exhibit design firm and in league with counterparts in the House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, we have had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help tell the story of the Congress of the United States.

Fifty years ago, when I first visited the Capitol as an awe-struck high school student, I would never have believed I could have gotten so lucky.

Richard A. Baker is the Senate Historian.

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