There are several rooms in the Capitol that are currently used as museums but periodically see a bit of modern action. I love that the Old Supreme Court Chamber is such an appropriate space for the justices to gather prior to the Inauguration or the State of the Union Address. The Old Senate Chamber likewise is normally a stop on the regular Capitol tour, but on a few rare occasions over the years, it has gone back to being a meeting space to bring all the senators together to deal with thorny problems.
The Senate began meeting in what is now known as the Old Senate Chamber in 1810. That tenure was interrupted in 1814 when the British burned the Capitol (using the books belonging to the Library of Congress as fuel as you might remember). Meetings were held in a building across the street until the Capitol was rebuilt, bigger and better, and the Senate could reoccupy the space in 1819. Every time a state was added to the Union, two more desks needed to be squeezed in to the room, so by 1859, the body had outgrown their old quarters and moved to the current Senate Chamber. The room was reconfigured for the Supreme Court, who met in this space until they got their own building in 1935, and eventually the room was restored to its original look in time for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations.
You may actually have seen photographs of the Old Senate Chamber if you see pictures of senators being sworn in. Because there are no photographs allowed in the current Senate Chamber, after the official swearing in of new senators, the ceremony is re-enacted in the Old Senate Chamber for official photographs. Senator-elect Markey from Massachusetts is to be sworn in this morning, so if there is a photograph in the newspaper, you will actually be seeing the Old Senate Chamber.
The two chambers have largely the same arrangement of functions, with the desk for the Vice President in the center, although in the 1800’s senators did not sit by party affiliation. As in the new chamber, there is a second floor gallery above for visitors. A curtain was quickly added across the front railing to prevent the men on the floor from looking up the ladies’ dresses, and male visitors were under strict orders not to put their feet on the railing lest they drop mud onto the senators below. Apparently Sen. Sam Bowie whiled away his time on the Senate floor by whittling, and when a piece was completed, he would send it up to the gallery as a gift to one of the visiting ladies.
When I’ve asked the staff who monitor that room for their favorite story, they inevitably choose to tell the tale of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. In the lead up to the Civil War, Sumner, a fiery and extremist abolitionist, gave a five hour speech on the Senate floor known as “The Crime Against Kansas,” and denounced a number of Southern leaders in somewhat graphic terms, speculating about the intimate relations between some of the individuals and their slaves. During the speech, Stephen Douglas of Illinois predicted, “This damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool.” It didn’t quite work out that way, but several days later, Rep. Preston Brooks, the cousin of one of the men derided in Sumner’s speech, entered the Senate chamber with several like-minded Congressmen and proceeded to beat Sumner viciously with his cane. At that point in time, the Senate desks were all bolted to the floor, which prevented Sumner from escaping, and Brooks’ companions prevented any of the other senators from coming to Sumner’s aid. The cane eventually broke, and Brooks finally left the chamber. Sumner spent three years convalescing from severe head injuries and suffered from chronic pain for the rest of his life. As a sign of how high tensions were running at the time, numerous South Carolinians expressed their support for Brooks’ actions by sending him replacement canes for the one that had been broken. A subsequent motion to remove Brooks from the House was unsuccessful, but he resigned anyway a short time later, eventually to be re-elected to his post. After Brooks passed away from croup at a relatively young age, Sumner seemed to blame slavery for his injuries more than the man who wielded the cane.
The Sumner-Brooks story makes for good telling, but the Old Senate Chamber actually has a much stronger history of housing the Senate during its “Golden Age,” when the Senate gained its reputation as the greatest deliberative body in the world. Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun famously debated the issue of slavery in this room, and the Missouri Compromise, bringing in Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state was hammered out here as well. Looking back, the Civil War was almost inevitable. The amazing part is that Union held together for four decades before the war, in large part because of the debates and compromises in the Senate.
In modern times, the Senate has periodically sought to re-capture that spirit of tradition and compromise by meeting in the Old Senate Chamber, where they may convene in the absence of the press, the public, or even the staff. It was to this space that the Senate retreated to have frank discussions about the procedures for the impeachment of President Clinton, and as a result of those conversations, impeachment was avoided.
This week, the Senate has again retreated to have a joint caucus meeting in the Old Senate Chamber in an attempt to come to some agreement about the progress of Presidential nominees moving through the approval process. I hope that the chamber may again work its magic and that the senators may find a way to continue navigating a path forward together. (Yes, after a year on Capitol Hill, I can still be an optimist.)