The Most Exclusive Club

A History of the Modern United States Senate


By Lewis L Gould

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The Senate was originally conceived by the Founding Fathers as an anti-democratic counterweight to the more volatile House of Representatives, but in the twentieth century it has often acted as an impediment to needed reforms. A hundred years ago, senators were still chosen by state legislatures, rather than by direct elections. Now, in the wake of the 2004 elections, and the consolidation of Republican control, the Senate is likely to become a crucible of power shifts that will have enormous impact on American politics in the twenty-first century. In The Most Exclusive Club , acclaimed political historian Lewis Gould puts the debates about the Senate’s future into the context of its history from the Progressive Era to the war in Iraq. From charges of corruption to the occasional attempt at reform, Gould highlights the major players, issues, and debates (including the League of Nations, the McCarthy hearings, and the Iran-Contra affair) that have shaped the institution. Beyond the usual outsized figures such as Lyndon Johnson, Strom Thurmond, and Barry Goldwater, Gould also tells the story of the lesser-known Senate leaders who have played a vital role in America’s upper house. Filled with colorful anecdotes, this is a long-awaited history of one of the most powerful political bodies in the world, written by a master. Gould’s sweeping narrative combines deft storytelling with a fresh look at the crucible of contemporary political debate and decision-making.




Wyoming: A Political History, 1868–1896

Progressives and Prohibitionists:
Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era

The Presidency of William McKinley

Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment

The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt

1968: The Election That Changed America

Reform and Regulation:
American Politics from Roosevelt to Wilson

Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady

America in the Progressive Era, 1890–1914

The Modern American Presidency

Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans

Alexander Watkins Terrell:
Civil War Soldier, Texas Lawmaker, American Diplomat


A History of the Modern United States Senate



AS AN IDEA, THE UNITED STATES SENATE CAME INTO EXISTENCE IN 1787. The Framers of the Constitution created a second house for Congress in order to provide a legislative check against the potential tyranny of unrestrained majority rule. Unlike members of the House of Representatives, who were popularly elected and held two-year terms, senators would be selected by state legislatures, not by the people directly, and would serve in six-year terms. From its founding, the Senate was conceived as both a counterweight to excessive executive power and a source of restraint on popular but perhaps unwise policy initiatives. As James Madison put it, in addition to its role as a check on the executive, the Senate would “protect the people against the transient impressions in which they themselves might be led.”1

The Senate started its proceedings in April 1789. At the outset, the House of Representatives seemed to be the more powerful branch. But over the course of the nineteenth century, because their terms were longer and their number smaller, senators came to look down on members of the House as lesser beings. Because of the bicameral nature of the Congress and the legislative process, which requires cooperation between the houses of Congress for legislation to be enacted, tensions between the House and Senate have been a persistent feature of the history of Congress. One former House member told an interviewer in the 1980s, “I hated the Senate from the very first day I was in the House.”2

By the start of the twentieth century, in the eyes of the public the Senate had eclipsed the lower chamber as the more prestigious and celebrated body in the legislative process. And indeed, the Senate plays a number of crucial roles within the political system. Treaties have to receive the upper chamber’s advice and consent to go into effect. As a result, the upper house exerts (and even more often claims to exert) an influence equal to that of the White House in the shaping of foreign policy. Likewise, all nominees to federal offices and judgeships must gain Senate confirmation. That has created a codependence between the legislative and executive in how these important appointments will be determined. In recent years, however, the Senate’s role in the approval and rejection of judicial nominees has become a source of greater friction within the chamber and between it and the White House.

The unique and powerful role of the Senate is reflected in the way it has been written about over the years. Biographies of senators abound; books on individual members of the House are harder to come by. Senators can leave their mark on the life of their institution, whereas even talented House members find it difficult to make their names stand out among those of hundreds of their contemporary colleagues. In the historical memory, as in the life of Washington, D.C., senators have just seemed more important in the life of the nation.

For this reason it is not surprising that a tone of reverence has often characterized accounts of the Senate by both scholars and journalists. These narratives have fostered a sense of enduring legislative greatness in the upper house. In that vanished past, giants stalked the floor of the institution. Their eloquent speeches attracted adoring audiences, collegiality reigned, and bipartisanship ensured judicious compromises. History has blended into legend because so much of the writing about the Senate has been concentrated on discrete incidents of major historical importance or key actors in the legislative drama. And of course, veneration of the Senate goes back to the origins of the word and the concept of Senate in the Roman republic and the Latin language. The word “Senate” comes from the Latin word for Senate, Senatus, which derives from senex, Latin for “old man.” The first U.S. president, George Washington, refused a crown, refused empire, and thus set the nation on the path of republican and democratic values.

The U.S. Senate’s pivotal role in the government ensures that it remains one of the most examined and studied legislative bodies in the world. Its proceedings appear on cable television; its committee hearings are open to press and public. With on-line resources, a citizen can follow debates and track votes with the click of a mouse. Political scientists and historians conduct interviews, pore over archives, and look for trends and significance in how the chamber has developed.

Yet no book exists that treats the twentieth-century history of the Senate as a cohesive unit. During that time, a small, individualistic chamber of 1900 became a complex, sophisticated institution that now employs thousands of people, attracts intense media scrutiny, and stands second only to the president as a focus of life in Washington. It seemed time to do for the Senate what has been done for presidents, the Supreme Court, and other key institutions—provide a narrative that looks at the chamber over the span of the last century.

When I embarked on the research for this book, it was with the belief that the upper house had compiled a record that, with some notable exceptions, brought enduring credit on the institution. My goal was to discern and narrate the qualities that had made the Senate such a vital part of congressional history. What had made the Senate—“the most exclusive gentlemen’s club in Washington,” as it was called during the 1950s—so valuable to the country?3

Indeed, there have been periods of intense activity and high drama. During the first term of Woodrow Wilson, for example, the Democrats, under their leader, John Worth Kern of Indiana, enacted such laws as the Federal Reserve Act, the Underwood Tariff, and legislation to restrict child labor. Later in the Wilson presidency, the dispute about the League of Nations in 1919 and 1920 provided a high-minded debate about the future of foreign policy.

At the height of the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, members worked with their House counterparts to create Social Security, engage pressing problems of relief during the Depression, and accord organized labor the right to bargain collectively in the Wagner Act. The 1950s brought significant struggles over the issues of anti-Communism and the Cold War as the chamber reacted to the initiatives of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the Mike Mansfield era, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not to mention other Great Society measures. At the other end of the political spectrum, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, in 1981–1982, Congress moved promptly to enact the new administration’s program of tax cuts and increased defense spending.

The Senate’s failings over the last century are, however, even more striking. The lawmakers must be rated poorly on such major social questions as race, economic inequality, the role of women in society, and health care. For protracted periods—at the start of the twentieth century, in the era of Theodore Roosevelt, during the 1920s, and again for domestic issues in the post–World War II era—the Senate functioned not merely as a source of conservative reflections on the direction of society but as a force to genuinely impede the nation’s vitality and evolution. The power of the southern bloc in the Senate from the early 1920s to the early 1960s meant that a substantial portion of the nation’s population, its African-American citizens, lacked political representation. Likewise on such matters as health care and the rights of labor, the Senate stood as a bulwark of vested economic power rather than as an advocate for the interests of American citizens.

The Senate’s record in “advising” the executive branch on foreign policy has been similarly mixed. Some traditional criticisms in this area are misplaced. It was President Wilson’s mistakes, more than Senate intransigence, that accounted for the defeat of the League of Nations. Following on that episode, the members of the chamber reflected the isolationist sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s to hold back presidents from undue overseas involvement that might repeat the perceived errors of American neutrality from 1914 to 1917. The Senate’s isolationism blocked Franklin D. Roosevelt from meeting the challenge of the dictatorships in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific with more effectiveness.

Nowhere have the obstructionist impulses of the Senate been more clearly manifest than in the troubled history of the filibuster in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Always available to a determined minority, the principle of unlimited debate and the possibility of its use shaped how sponsors of controversial legislation framed their appeals and considered the chances of ultimate success.

The filibuster attained its greatest notoriety after World War II, when Strom Thurmond, Richard B. Russell, and other Southerners used the technique to block civil rights measures. It became a chronic weapon during the 1970s when the post-cloture filibuster ensured that senators could keep on talking even after debate had been closed by calling for a vote (the meaning of “cloture”). Since 1995, the use of the filibuster against judicial nominations has again excited partisan passions. Though it is always possible to cite specific cases where the filibuster could be justified as a means of stopping bad legislation, the reliance on this anti-majoritarian device has been an unhealthy development for the Senate. The existence of two legislative chambers and the procedural slowness of the Senate provide enough time for mature deliberation about proposed laws. Requiring super-majorities— more than 51 percent—for democratic action is contradictory and unwise.

While becoming somewhat disillusioned about the overall record of the Senate as a legislative body in the course of my research, I also grew increasingly skeptical about the historical verdict on some of the celebrated giants of the upper house. Such figures as Robert La Follette, William E. Borah, Robert Taft, and Lyndon Johnson had achieved mythic status among historians and the reading public. Many books have been devoted to their careers, and contemporary senators often model themselves on these putative giants. Some senators, such as Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, went on to hold the office of president; their subsequent reputations in that role have often influenced opinions about their performance as lawmakers.

Yet under scrutiny, the qualifications of some of these senators for greatness came into question. This was scant surprise for a figure such as John F. Kennedy. Although he remains a hero in the popular imagination, scholars have long known that Kennedy was a part-time senator more committed to his own sexual and political ambitions than to the tedium of creating legislation. More surprising were the facts that emerged about other senators who had previously seemed so central to the unfolding of Senate history.

The career of the Idaho Republican William E. Borah as an advocate for progressive causes and isolationism in foreign policy seemed to consist mostly of windy speeches and abandoned initiatives. Despite all the attention historians have given him, when viewed close up, Borah seemed an empty suit, albeit one of a far-western cut. Robert A. Taft, who has a memorial to his prowess as a lawmaker in Washington, also came to seem less imposing. Aside from the Taft-Hartley Law of 1947, the Ohio Republican’s impact on legislation seemed marginal and his judgments on foreign policy erratic at best.

The subject of notable biographies by Robert Dallek and Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson has exerted an extraordinary hold over the public imagination in recent years. Closer scrutiny of his record reveals that he did indeed overawe his colleagues and increase the authority of the office of majority leader. In the long history of the upper house, however, Johnson’s intensity impressed his colleagues not as a model for future leaders but as an example to be avoided. As a result, Johnson’s successor, Mike Mansfield of Montana, had a greater effect on how the Senate operated and how the role of majority leader developed.

Just as some of these famous senators appeared to be less crucial to the history of the Senate than I had once thought, other legislators emerged out of obscurity to assume a larger place in the narrative. John Worth Kern, an Indiana Democrat, led his party during Woodrow Wilson’s first term. Through his deft management of his caucus, Kern enabled the president to get his New Freedom program enacted despite Republican taunts that the Democrats lacked the capacity to govern. Though he served only a single term, Kern had more effect on the history of the Senate and the nation than many who stayed in Washington through three or four election cycles.

Later in the century, a conservative southern Democrat named James B. Allen, who served from 1968 to 1978, helped formulate new techniques for extending the life of filibusters even after his colleagues had voted to close down debate. A master of the Senate rules, Allen frustrated attempts to enact liberal legislation during the 1970s and instructed other senators of all ideological hues how they might imitate his example. Similarly, other lawmakers of historical importance, such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., Alben Barkley, and Mike Mansfield, came to impress me as even more constructive figures.

One striking—and recurring—theme of Senate history that emerged in the course of my research was the prevalence of alcoholism. There are some clear-cut examples of a senator’s alcoholism affecting job performance. But more often, the culture of alcoholism that pervaded the Senate through much of the twentieth century took its toll in the form of diminished judgment, erratic behavior, and recurrent health problems.

In many ways, the history of the Senate can be viewed as the history of small clubs or groups within the much larger club of the chamber itself. The Senate began the twentieth century with its fate in the hands of a small group of Republicans called “The Four.” Led by Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, the Four included William Boyd Allison of Iowa, Orville H. Platt of Connecticut, and John Coit Spooner of Wisconsin. At first they cooperated with President Theodore Roosevelt, but they resisted his program of railroad regulation and greater government supervision of corporations. During the next decade the power of these individuals ebbed under the pressure of progressive reformers such as Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana. For the next two decades, leadership fluctuated among parties and individuals from Kern and the Democrats between 1910 and 1917 to Lodge and other Republicans in the 1920s.

The onset of the Great Depression and the emergence of the New Deal helped bring into existence the Club, whose members were Southerners and conservative Republicans. Fears about civil rights, government regulation, and social change held together a group led by Richard Russell of Georgia, Harry Byrd of Virginia, and Robert A. Taft of Ohio that would shape the Senate’s course through the mid-1960s.

By the late 1960s the grip of the Club loosened. Its members were getting old, the rise of the civil rights movement undercut its power, and more liberals were coming to the Senate during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Concerns that an inner circle dominated affairs in the chamber gave way to complaints that senators were freelancers no longer respectful of the customs of the institution. In the next forty years, the Senate responded to the pressures of television, the rising costs of campaigning, and increasing partisanship. In the process, the Senate gradually came to behave more like the House of Representatives. Since the 1890s, the House had been a place where majorities worked their will and had their way. Long-standing procedures and institutional barriers to majority power in the Senate such as filibusters, the power of committee chairs, and the ability of senators to delay judicial nominations came under attack as undemocratic and outmoded. Republican senators, more often in the majority after 1980, valued victory in specific cases more than respecting the continuity of Senate practices, as their attitude toward the filibuster demonstrated: The Republicans and southern Democrats had supported it when it suited them but turned against it when Democrats began using it to block nominations of conservatives as judges.

Central also to the evolution of the Senate over the past century has been the effect of the increasing costs of senatorial elections. Direct election of senators, a salutary reform that was brought about by passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1914, carried with it the unintended consequence that individual candidates increasingly had to pay for statewide campaigns. After World War II, with the rise of television and its expensive demands, candidates and eventually incumbents found themselves ever more dependent on incessant fund-raising. The mass media thus became for senators both a means to enhance their reach with the public and a burden that required time away from making laws in favor of collecting donor checks. Being a member of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” provides access to important power, but the price of admission is high. Election campaigns in large states can cost more than $20 million and demand prodigious individual effort from the candidate.

Despite the significant changes in the way the Senate operates, unfortunate continuities persist. Throughout the twentieth century the chamber remained almost exclusively white and male. It wasn’t until the 1990s that women appeared for the first time in more than token numbers—reaching a peak of fourteen in 2005. During the twentieth century only two African Americans, one Native American, and a handful of Hispanics and Asian Americans won election to the upper house. Of course, the Senate mirrored the marginalization of women and minorities in American life, and the absence of diversity in the makeup of the chamber also contributed to the body’s inability to address these injustices.

A profound sense of crisis now surrounds the Senate and its members. Critics allege that it is an undemocratic place where the national interest receives only fitful attention. There are allegations that members of both parties spend more time on getting reelected and dispensing pork-barrel subsidies to well-heeled constituents than they do on debating and discussing the major issues before the nation. Where does this sense of an embattled, partisan Senate come from? What were its origins in the history of the institution? Can the Senate’s continued existence as part of American government be justified?

The Senate is a fascinating human institution. Its history in the twentieth century is rich in compelling personalities, dramatic moments of lawmaking, and several seasons of silliness. Despite the many qualms I have developed in writing this book about the Senate’s performance in the past one hundred years, I believe that the upper house provides something crucial to the political system. If the Senate were to be abolished, as some of its sternest critics have advocated, something unique would disappear from the way in which Americans govern themselves.


Great Old Personages: The Senate in 1900

THE DAY BEGAN WITH FLOWERS. WHEN THE UNITED STATES SENATORS assembled for the start of legislative business on December 3, 1900, they found their chamber transformed into a great “fragrant bower.” The abundance of blossoms and sprays, personal tributes to senators from friends and family, adorned one of Washington, D.C.’s grandest social occasions. From the gallery of the Senate an invited audience of foreign military attachés in their resplendent uniforms, handsomely gowned women, and the diplomatic corps in formal dress observed the renewal of congressional work. At exactly noon, William P. Frye of Maine, the president pro tempore—by custom the senator of the majority party with the longest record of continuous service— gaveled for order. For the ninety members of the upper house from all the forty-five states, another session was under way. It would last until their mandated adjournment on March 3, 1901, and so would bridge the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the new century, this most exclusive club in the world would find itself grappling with great questions of empire and democracy, war and peace, capital and labor, race relations and women’s rights, fascism and Communism, terrorism and human rights.1 Amid the flowers and festivities of this December 3, 1900, the senators also came prepared to work. Senator Frye had alerted members of the Republican majority that he hoped “to see each Senator in his seat on the morning of the first day of the session” in order to take up the first order of business: shipping legislation to promote the American merchant marines, which had been in a depressed state since the Civil War.2

The senators met in the chamber that the Senate had been using since 1859. The room was 113 feet long, 80 feet wide, and 36 feet high. On the north side was the platform on which the vice president’s desk rested, along with the desks and tables of the secretary and the staff. Arranged in semicircles in front of the presiding officer were the chairs for the individual senators. Ever since the two major parties had emerged as partisan rivals in the 1850s, the Republicans had been to the left of the presiding officer and the Democrats to his right.3

The Senate chamber looked imposing with its ornaments and busts of vice presidents and other worthies from American history, but George H. Haynes, a distinguished historian of the Senate writing in 1938, called it “one of the most unimpressive national legislative chambers on the face of the earth.” In the years before air-conditioning was installed, in 1929, it was certainly one of the most unpleasant places to produce legislation or indeed do anything at all. The sweltering, swamplike Washington summers made the Senate a cauldron in which exhaustion and illness became endemic. Orville H. Platt, a prominent Republican, said in the 1880s: “While we remain we must live in a dungeon. This Chamber is an architectural failure.”4

On that festive December 3, 1900, no one would have been rude enough to criticize the inadequacies of the Senate’s physical setting. Party warfare had paused for a moment and collegiality reigned. The tough politicians who understood what it took to win their way to the Senate appreciated each other’s struggles. Most senators “appeared in what the fashion journals describe as full afternoon costume.” Backslapping, hearty laughs, and masculine fellowship were the order of the day.5


On Sale
Apr 20, 2009
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Lewis L Gould

About the Author

Lewis L. Gould is the Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Texas and the author of The Modern American Presidency, Reform and Regulation, and Grand Old Party. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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