How Has The United States Senate Changed Since the 19th Century by Gregory Hilton

Henry Clay is depicted speaking to the Senate about the Compromise of 1850. This lithograph shows: 1. Henry Clay (W-KY), 2. Daniel Webster (W-MA), 3. Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO), 4. Lewis Cass (D-MI), 5. William Seward (W-NY), 6. Vice President Millard Fillmore (W-NY), 7. William Dayton (W-NJ), 8. William M. Gwin (D-CA), 9. John C. Calhoun (D-SC), 10. James A. Pearce (W-MD), 11. Robert F. Stockton (D-NJ), 12. Henry S. Foote (D-MS), 13. Stephen A. Douglas (D-IL), 14. Pierre Soule (D-LA), 15. Truman Smith (W-CT), 16. Salmon P. Chase (F-OH), 17. William R. King (D-AL), 18. John Bell (W-TN), 19. James Mason (D-VA), 20. James Cooper (W-PA), 21. Willie Mangum (W-NC), 22. Sam Houston (D-TX). W = Whig, F= Free Soil.

Since 1789 there have been 1,910 Americans who have served as United States Senators. The average length of service is 12.82 years, which is about two terms. In the 19th century many Senators were unable to serve a full six year term, and only a small number of lawmakers were re-elected.
Senator Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO) served for three decades before being defeated over the Compromise of 1850, but that was very unusual. Benton’s record was not matched until 1890. In 2010, 47 Senators had served at least 30 years. Among other significant changes are:

  • If you were elected to the Senate in 1854, 84 of your colleagues would die in the next 21 years. If you were elected in 1990, only 22 colleagues would die in the next 21 years.
  • Practically every Senator in the 19th century was either a smoker or chewed tobacco. Today smokers on Capitol Hill are rare. The expression “smoke filled room” belongs in the past.
  • Once again, the Senate was not filled with career politicians in the 19th century, and many of them had no desire to be re-elected. Traveling to Washington, D.C. by stagecoach was a burden. The lawmakers elected by state legislatures in the 19th century were older then the average age of 21st century freshman.
    In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was just 49 years old. The average American baby born today will live to be 78. The average 35 year old will live to about 80, and the average 65 year old will live past 83. Infant mortality was high in the 19th century and people accepted the fact that not all of their children would survive. Over 80% of Americans were working class and you needed at least one servant to be middle class.
  • Women did not have the right to vote and there were no female Senators. Divorce was rare and women had few rights. Child labor was frequently denounced by Senators, but no action was taken to stop it.
  • Finally, there was significant upheaval in the mid-19th century which contributed to the Senate turnover. The major factors were the Civil War, the collapse of the Whig, Free Soil and Know Nothing parties, and the birth of the new Republican Party.
  • The 22 Senators who served in 1991 or after and are now deceased include: Ted Stevens (R-AK), Alan Cranston (D-CA), Howell Heflin (D-AL), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Robert Byrd (D-WV), Paul Coverdell (R-GA), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Jesse Helms (R-NC), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH), Quentin Burdick (D-ND), H. John Heinz III (R-PA), John Chafee (R-RI), Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX), Paul Simon (D-IL), Claiborne Pell (D-RI), J. James Exon (D-NE), Terry Sanford (D-NC), William V. Roth, Jr. (R-DE), Paul Wellstone (D-MN), Brock Adams (D-WA) and Craig Thomas (R-WY).

One response to “How Has The United States Senate Changed Since the 19th Century by Gregory Hilton

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