Read CHAPTER II of History of the Thirty-Ninth Congress of the United States , free online book, by Wiliam H. Barnes, on


The localities and surroundings of men have an influence on their actions and opinions. A matter which, to the casual observer, seems so unimportant as the selection and arrangement of the seats of Senators and Representatives, has its influence upon the legislation of the country. Ever since parties have had an existence, it has been considered of vital moment that those of one political faith in a deliberative body should occupy, as nearly as possible, the same locality.

It is sometimes of service to a reader, in attempting to understand the reported proceedings of Congress, to know the localities of the members. Each seat has a sort of history of its own, and becomes in some way identified with its occupant. Members are frequently alluded to in connection with the seats they occupy. Sometimes it happens that, years after a man has gone from Congress, it is convenient and suggestive to refer to him by his old place in the chamber. As an illustration, Mr. Trumbull, in his speech on the veto of the Civil Rights Bill, desiring to quote Andrew Johnson, Senator, against Andrew Johnson, President, referred to “a speech delivered in this body by a Senator occupying, I think, the seat now occupied across the chamber by my friend from Oregon (Mr. Williams).”

A necessary and important part of the adjustment of the machinery, at the opening of each Congress, is the selection of seats. As the Senators serve for six years, and many of them have been reelected more than once, there are comparatively few changes made at the opening of any Congress. The old members generally choose to retain their accustomed seats, and the small number that come in as new Senators choose among the vacant seats, as convenience or caprice may dictate.

In the House of Representatives the formality of drawing for seats is necessary. That this may be conveniently and fairly done, at the appointed time all the members retire to the antechambers, leaving the seats all unoccupied. The Clerk draws at random from a receptacle containing the names of all the members. As the members are called, one by one, they go in and occupy such seats as they may choose. The unlucky member whose name last turns up has little room for choice, and must be content to spend his Congressional days far from the Speaker, on the remote circumference, or to the right or left extreme.

There are in the Senate-chamber seventy seats, in three tiers of semi-circular arrangement. If all the old Southern States were represented by Senators on the floor, the seats would be more than full. As it was in the Thirty-ninth Congress, there were a number of vacant desks, all of them situated to the right and left of the presiding officer.

In a division of political parties nearly equal, the main aisle from the southern entrance would be the separating line. As it was, the Republican Senators occupied not only the eastern half of the chamber, but many of them were seated on the other side, the comparatively few Democratic Senators sitting still further to the west.

Seated in the gallery, the spectator has a favorable position to survey the grand historic scene which passes below. His eye is naturally first attracted to the chair which is constitutionally the seat of the second dignitary in the land the Vice-President of the United States. That office, however, has no incumbent, since he who took oath a few months before to perform its duties was called to occupy a higher place, made vacant by a most atrocious crime. The event, however, cost the Senate little loss of dignity, since the chair is filled by a President pro tempore of great ability and excellence Lafayette S. Foster, Senator from Connecticut.

The eye of the spectator naturally seeks out Charles Sumner, who sits away on the outer tier of seats, toward the south-east corner of the chamber; and near him, on the left, are seen the late Governors, now Senators, Morgan and Yates, of New York and Illinois. Immediately in front of them, on the middle tier of seats, is an assemblage of old and distinguished Senators Trumbull, Wilson, Wade, and Fessenden. To the right of the Vice-President’s chair, and in the row of seats neares this desk, sits the venerable and learned lawyer, Reverdy Johnson, of Maryland. Just in his rear sits the youthful Sprague, of Rhode Island, to whose right is seen Sherman, of Ohio. To the rear of these Senators, in the outer segment of seats, sits, or perhaps stands, Garrett Davis, of Kentucky, the most garrulous of old men, continually out of temper with the majority, yet all the time marked by what he calls his “usual courtesy.” To the left of Davis, beyond Nesmith, of Oregon, and the other and more silent Senator from Kentucky, sits Saulsbury, of Delaware, unless he should be traversing the carpeted space in the rear of his seat, like a sentinel of the Senate.

Far different is the sight presented to the spectator who looks down from the galleries of the House of Representatives. The immense area below is supplied with two hundred and fifty-three seats, with desks arranged in semi-circular rows, having a point in front of the Speaker’s desk as a focus. On the right of the spectator, as he looks from the gallery in front of the Speaker, is the Republican side of the House. But this prosperous organization has grown so rapidly since its birth, ten years ago, that it has overstepped all old and traditional party limitations. One-half of the House is not sufficient to afford its representatives adequate accommodations. Republican members have passed over the main aisle, and occupy half of the Democratic side, having pressed the thin ranks of their opponents to the extreme left.

As the spectator scans the House, his eye will rest on Thaddeus Stevens, whose brown wig and Roman cast of countenance mark the veteran of the House. He sits in the right place for a leader of the Republicans, about half-way back from the Speaker’s desk, on the diagonal line which divides the western side of the House, where he can readily catch the Speaker’s eye, and be easily heard by all his friends. Immediately in his rear is his successor in the chairmanship of the Committee of Ways and Means Mr. Morrill, of Vermont. To the right, across the aisle, is Elihu B. Washburn, of Illinois, the oldest member in continuous service in the House; and to his rear is Henry J. Raymond, of the Times. To the right, and partly in the rear of Mr. Stevens, are a number of noteworthy men: among them are General Schenck, General Garfield, and “Long John” Wentworth, of Chicago. Far around to the right, and much nearer, the Speaker’s desk, is seen a man distinguished in civil and military history, who once occupied the Speaker’s chair General Banks, of Massachusetts. In physical contrast with him, sits in the adjoining desk, a tall, dark, bearded Californian General John Bidwell, a new member of the House. On the opposite side of the House, among the Democrats, is the seat of John A. Bingham, who now returns to Congress after an absence of one term, whom his friends describe as the “best-natured and crossest-looking man in the House.” James Brooks, most plausible and best-natured of Democrats, notwithstanding the inroads of the Republicans, sturdily keeps his seat near the main aisle. His seat, however, he is destined to lose before many months in favor of a contestant, who will occupy the other side of the chamber.

In looking down upon so large an assemblage, a large part of which is so distant, the eye of the spectator will weary in the attempt to discover and recognize individuals, however familiar, amidst the busy throng.

In preparing for the work of legislation, a matter of more importance than the arrangement of the seats is the cast of the committees. Most of the labor of legislative bodies is done by committees. As it is impossible for any one Congressman to give that minute and particular attention to all the numerous interests demanding legislation, essential to a wise determination as to what bills should be presented, and how they should be drawn in every case, the various subjects are parceled out among those whose opportunities, interests, or inclinations have led them to give particular attention to the matters committed to their charge. The perfection of legislation on particular subjects depends not more on the wisdom of the entire body of legislators than on the good sense of the committees that deliberate upon them. Much of the efficiency and success of the legislative acts of Congress will depend upon the structure of the committees that do the laborious work of preparing business for the body. Tracing the stream of legislative enactment still nearer to its source, it will be found that the work of a committee takes a decided tinge from the character of its chairman.

It consequently becomes a matter of great interest to the country, at the opening of each Congress, to know who constitute the committees. One of the most arduous and responsible duties of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is the selection of committees and filling their chairmanships. Fitness and special adaptation are supposed to constitute the rule by which choice is made. Many elements, however, enter into the work which are not a part of this philosophy. It is impossible that the presiding officer should know unerringly who is absolutely the fittest man for any position, and if he possessed such superhuman knowledge he would still be trammeled by long-established rules of precedence and promotion. There is often a regular gradation by which men arrive at positions which is not in direct ratio to their fitness for their places.

Notwithstanding all the errors which were unavoidable elements in the work, committees were never better constituted than those of the Thirty-ninth Congress.

The Senate being comparatively small in numbers, and, moreover, by usage, doing most of the details of this business in caucus, the announcement of the committees in this body was made on Wednesday, the third day of the session. On the other hand, the size of the House, the large proportion of new and unknown members appearing every term, the number and magnitude of the committees, and the fact that the duty of appointment devolved upon the Speaker, combined to render the reading out of committeemen in the latter body impossible before the following Monday, one week after the assembling of Congress.

Of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Charles Sumner was appointed chairman. This is a very important committee, being the direct channel of communication between the State Department and the Senate. It being the constitutional duty of the Senate to pass upon all treaties, and to decide upon qualifications of all persons nominated by the Executive to represent the United States in foreign countries, the labors of this committee are arduous and responsible. The chairmanship of this committee was filled by a Senator of most eminent fitness and ability. His literary culture, and attainments as a scholar, his general legal ability and familiarity with the laws of nations, his residence abroad for several years, and his long membership in the Senate, now of fourteen years’ duration, all marked him as wisely chosen for his important position.

On account of the immense National debt accumulated in the war, and the complication of the financial affairs of the nation, the Committee on Finance has an important bearing upon the interests of the country, unknown until recent years. William P. Fessenden was the Senator chosen chairman of this committee. His success in his private business, his appointment, in 1864, as the head of the Treasury Department, and his service in the Senate since 1853 as member of the Finance Committee, and since 1859 as its chairman, all indicated the propriety of his continuance in this position. Second on the list of this committee stood Senator Sherman, of Ohio, who has been described as “au fait on National Banks, fond of figures, and in love with finances.”

The Committee on Commerce was constituted with Senator Chandler, of Michigan, as its chairman. Himself most successful in commercial life, in which he had attained distinction before coming to the Senate, and representing a State having a greater extent of coast and better facilities for commerce than any other inland community in the world, Senator Chandler was eminently suitable as head of the Committee on Commerce. His associates being selected from Maine, New York, Vermont, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oregon, left unrepresented no important commercial interest in the nation.

The Committee on Manufactures was headed by William Sprague, Senator from Rhode Island, a State having the largest capital invested, and most persons employed in manufactures, in proportion to population, of any in the Union. Senator Sprague himself having been educated in the counting-room of a manufacturing establishment, and having control of one of the largest manufacturing interests in the country, was the appropriate person for such a position.

The agricultural States of Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky furnished the members of the Committee on Agriculture, with Senator Sherman at its head.

Of the Committee on the Judiciary, a Senator has given a description. In a speech delivered in the Senate, December 12, 1865, Mr. Doolittle, of Wisconsin, said: “From its very organization the Senate designs to make that committee its constitutional adviser not that its opinions are to be conclusive or controlling on the vote of any member of this body, like the opinion of the bench of Judges in the House of Lords; but its members are chosen in consideration of their high professional ability, their long experience, and well-known standing as jurists, in order that their report upon constitutional questions may be entitled to the highest consideration. And, sir, if you look into the organization of the Judiciary Committee appointed by the Senate at the present session, what is it? There is the Senator from Illinois, [Mr. Trumbull], for years Judge of the Supreme Court of that State before he entered this body, who, for ten years and more, has been a faithful, laborious, distinguished member of that committee, and for the last four years its chairman. And there sits my honorable friend from New York [Mr. Harris], for twenty years before he came here known and distinguished among the able jurists and judges of that great State. And there is the honorable Senator from Vermont [Mr. Poland]. He has, it is true, just entered this body, but his reputation as a jurist preceded his coming, and he comes here to fill the place in this chamber, and is put upon this Judiciary Committee to fill the place of him of whom I will say, without disparagement to any, that he was the ablest jurist of us all the late distinguished Senator from Vermont [Mr. Collamer]. And there is the Senator from New Hampshire [Mr. Clark], from the far East, and the Senator from Nevada [Mr. Stewart], from the Pacific coast, and the Senator from Indiana [Mr. Hendricks], from the central region, each of whom stands eminent in the profession in the State which he represents, and all of whom are recognized here among the ablest jurists of this body.”

Some of the great political questions destined to engage the attention of the Thirty-ninth Congress invested the Committee on the District of Columbia with a national interest, although its duties pertained chiefly to the local concerns of the immediate neighborhood of the capital. Its chairman, Mr. Morrill, of Maine, as well as its members, among whom were Wade, Sumner, and Yates, gave it character and ability, and afforded assurance that the great questions involved would be calmly met and honestly answered.

In the House of Representatives, the Committee of Ways and Means has ever been regarded of first importance, and its chairman has been considered leader of the House. Its duties, though of a somewhat miscellaneous character, relate chiefly to devising the ways and means of raising revenue. The fact that the Constitution provides that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,” gives the Committee of Ways and Means a sort of preeminence over all other committees, whether of the Senate or the House.

The work of the Committee of Ways and Means, as it had existed before the Thirty-ninth Congress, was, at the opening of this session, divided among three committees; one retaining the old name and still remaining the leading committee, a second on Appropriations, and a third on Banking and Currency.

Of the new Committee of Ways and Means, Justin S. Morrill, of Vermont, was appointed chairman a Representative of ten years’ experience in the House, who had seen several years of service on the same committee. While his abilities and habits, as a student and a thinker, well adapted him for the work of conducting his committee by wise deliberation to useful measures, yet they were not characteristics fitting him with readiest tact and most resolute will to “handle the House.”

Thaddeus Stevens, the old chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means, was appointed the head of the new Committee on Appropriations. His vigilance and integrity admirably fitted him for this position, while his age made it desirable that he should be relieved of the arduous labors of the Committee of Ways and Means. Of this committee he had been chairman in the two preceding Congresses, and had filled a large space in the public eye as leader of the House. His age over seventy years gave him the respect of members the majority of whom were born after he graduated at college the more especially as these advanced years were not attended with any perceptible abatement of the intellectual vivacity or fire of youth. The evident honesty and patriotism with which he advanced over prostrate theories and policies toward the great ends at which he aimed, secured him multitudes of friends, while these same qualities contributed to make him many enemies. The timid became bold and the resolute were made stronger in seeing the bravery with which he maintained his principles. He had a habit of going straight to the issue, and a rugged manner of presenting his opinions, coupled with a cool assurance, which, one of his unfriendly critics once declared, “sometimes rose almost to the sublime.” He alone, of all the members of the Pennsylvania Convention, in 1836, refused to sign the new State Constitution, because it robbed the negro of his vote. It was a fitting reward that he, in 1866, should stand in the United States House of Representatives, at the head of a majority of more than one hundred, declaring that the oppressed race should enjoy rights so long denied.

The Committee on Banking and Currency had as chairman Theodore M. Pomeroy, of New York, who had served four years in Congress. Perhaps its most important member was Samuel Hooper, a Boston merchant and financier, who, from the outset of his Congressional career, now entering upon the third term, had been on the Committee of Ways and Means, of which he still remained a member, the only Representative retaining connection with the old committee and holding a place in one of the new offshoots from it.

Hiram Price, of Iowa, was appointed chairman of the Committee on the Pacific Railroad. The Speaker of the House, in his recent visit to the Pacific coast, had been impressed with the importance of this work, and wisely chose as members of this committee Representatives from Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Missouri, Kansas, California, and Oregon.

A committee of much importance to Congress and the country that of Commerce had for its chairman Elihu B. Washburn, of Illinois, who had been in the previous Congress the oldest member in continuous service, and hence was styled “Father of the House.”

The Committee on Elections subsequently lost some of its importance in the public estimation by the creation of a special committee to consider subjects of reconstruction and the admission of Southern members; yet the interests confided to it demanded ability, which it had in its chairman, Henry L. Dawes, of Massachusetts, as well as in the Representatives that constituted its membership.

The legislation relative to our vast unoccupied domain, having to pass through the Committee on Public Lands, renders this committee one of much importance. The honesty and ability of its chairman, George W. Julian, of Indiana, together with his long experience in Congress, gave to the recommendations of this committee great character and weight.

Of the Committee on the Judiciary, James F. Wilson, of Iowa, was appointed for the second time as chairman. George S. Boutwell, of Massachusetts, and other Representatives of ability, were appointed as members of this committee. Since the duty devolved upon it of taking testimony in regard to the impeachment of the President, this committee attracted public attention to a degree never known before.

The interests of manufactures were not likely to suffer in the hands of a committee in which the first place was held by James K. Moorhead, tanner’s apprentice, and pioneer of cotton manufactures in Pennsylvania, and the second by Oakes Ames, a leading manufacturer of Massachusetts.

Agriculture the most gigantic material interest in America was intrusted to a committee having John Bidwell, of California, as its chairman, and members chosen from Iowa, Indiana, Vermont, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York.

The chairmanship of the Committee on Military Affairs was bestowed upon a major-general of volunteers from Ohio, Robert C. Schenck; while membership on the committee was given to a Connecticut colonel, Henry C. Deming; a New Hampshire brigadier-general, Gilman Marston; a Kentucky major-general, Lovell H. Rousseau; a New York Colonel, John H. Ketchum, and four civilians.

Nathaniel P. Banks, Henry J. Raymond, and other men of much ability, were appointed on the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Special committees were appointed on the important subjects of Bankruptcy and the Freedmen. Of the committee on the former, Thomas A. Jenckes was appointed chairman. Thomas D. Eliot, of Massachusetts, was made chairman of the Committee on the Freedmen.

Many other committees were appointed whose labors were arduous and necessary to our legislation, yet, as they had to do with subjects of no great general interest, they need not be named.

There was another committee, however, of great importance whose members were not yet designated. The resolution by which it should be created, was yet to pass through the ordeal of discussion. The process by which this committee was created will be described in the following chapter.