Sergeant At Arms of The United States Senate - Evolution of The Office

Evolution of The Office

While the doorkeeper was first empowered to keep senators in the Chamber, he also kept others out. The Senate’s sessions were closed to the public for its first six years. When the sessions were opened to the public, the doorkeeper controlled access to the Senate, and maintained order in the Senate Chamber and in the galleries. In 1798, the Senate appended the title “sergeant at arms” when it authorized then-Doorkeeper James Mathers to compel former Senator William Blount to return to Philadelphia, where the Senate met, to face an impeachment trial. This broadened the position’s scope of duties. The added designation mirrored the title that is still used by the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives. Soon after the retitling, the Senate gave the sergeant at arms authority to “summon and command the absent Members” to appear in the Chamber to establish a quorum—the language was later modified to “... request the attendance of absent Members.” The Senate has occasionally voted to have the sergeant at arms “arrest”absent members and bring them to the Chamber, usually to try to end filibusters. The sergeant at arms’ duties grew to include protecting the Capitol grounds and keeping the stables, later they expanded to include parking and automobile leasing. In 1867, the sergeant at arms was given authority to make regulations to preserve and protect the Capitol and the Senate Office Buildings and to police the grounds. In the nineteenth century, the sergeant at arms became the Senate’s wagon master and keeper of the Senate stables, so when the Senate purchased its first automobile in 1913 —used by the vice president— the sergeant at arms assumed responsibility for automobile leasing and maintenance, traffic control, and parking around the Capitol.

As head doorkeeper, the sergeant at arms has responsibility for the Senate Press Gallery. The scope of this role expanded in 1897, when James D. Preston, a doorkeeper in the Senate Press Gallery under the sergeant at arms, started collecting legislative bills and other information for reporters and facilitating interviews with senators. Preston eventually assumed the title of superintendent of the Press Gallery. In the 1930s and 1940s, Superintendents headed new Press Galleries for radio and television, periodical press, and press photographers. Sergeant at arms’ supervision of pages started with the appointment of the first page, nine-year-old Grafton Hanson, appointed at the urging of Senator Daniel Webster in 1829. Since then, pages have run messages to and from the floor to senators and helped set up the Chamber in the mornings.

In 1854, the Senate created the position of Senate postmaster. The Senate’s first Post Office operated out of the sergeant at arms’ own office. The development of new technologies again increased the responsibilities of the Sergeant at Arms Office. In the mid-1900s, the Office started providing telephones, typewriters, mimeographs, and dictaphones to Senate offices. In the 1970s and 1980s, the tools changed to fax machines, computers, copiers and automated systems.

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