October 21, 2011

Desks, Benches, and Chaos in the House of Representatives

Wichita Daily Eagle, Jan. 13, 1891
The House of Representatives originally had a seating arrangement of assigned desks.  These desks were not only where members participated in the daily agenda, but also served as their personal office space where they wrote letters, conducted research, and talked with other members.  This arrangement resulted in a lot of general confusion.  The most popular solution to this problem was to replace the desks with benches to keep the members from carrying on all manner of business on the House floor. It was thought this would reduce noise and increase collective participation. Two unsuccessful propositions for benches were made in 1842 and 1847.  A third proposition in 1859 succeeded, to begin in 1860.  The benches were changed back to desks after only twelve weeks due in part to an increase in fighting among members in the days before disunion.  However, criticism of the desks continued, and subsequent propositions to change to benches were made in 1878, 1883, 1889, and 1901, until the measure finally succeeded in 1913.

Below are a five newspaper articles (or excerpts of articles) which fill in some of the more colorful details of how desks augmented the chaos of congress. 
Source for this introduction: Pgs 1106-1107 of Volume 5 of Hinds' Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States by Asher C. Hinds, Clerk at the Speaker's Table, published 1907 and available on google books here. Also, due to the length of this blog post, all screencaps of articles have been placed at the very end with captions indicating their origin.

A Visitor From Canada Writes of the House of Representatives.
 [Toronto Globe republished in Macon Telegraph of Macon, GA on Feb 20, 1899]
From the Toronto Globe.
To the visitor in the house of representatives who has been accustomed to the severe discipline and strict decorum of British legislatures the degree of liberty indulged in by the members seems somewhat strange.  There is a continual hum of conversation, a constant moving about the floor, the frequent formation of groups of members for consultation and, what would doubtless be regarded as treason by the attendants in the gallery of the mother of parliaments, applause from the spectators at times.  The American politician is often accused of over-vehemence and a disposition to shout when ordinary tones would better serve the purpose.  After an hour in the big chamber of the popular house, with its continued din, one can well understand that the member of congress comes naturally by his strident tones and strenuous manner.  Without them he would never be heard by his chattering colleagues, and to the galleries he would speak only by gesticulation.  The official reporters suffer greatly from the noise.  Instead of sitting at their desks in front of the speaker's chair, they find it necessary to skip about to whatever section of the house a speaker may be in, dropping into a vacant seat if convenient, but more frequently leaning against a desk, pad in hand.  Unhappy indeed is that mortal in the middle of whose 'take' there is a change of speakers.  He may have crept close up to 'the member from Michigan' on the extreme left of the huge semicircle in which the seats are arranged, and may have to make a run like a baseball player for his home base to the other side to catch the opening remarks of 'the member from Arkansas' as he rises to interpose an objection. 
Plan of the 59h Congress.
From The New York Tribune, of New York, NY on Oct. 20, 1907.
It sometimes happens that members lose their tempers in the heat of debate.  The bowie knife and the revolver, contrary to the belief of many of our kinsmen across the seas, are no longer the weapons with which these quarrels are settled.  They have been replaced by the statutes in calf and the inkstand, which are much more convenient and less deadly.  When a row breaks out on the floor and the combatants come to close quarters, it is the duty of the sergeant-at-arms to interpose the mace between them.  The mace is the emblem of the civil power, but it is somewhat different in appearance from ours.  It consists of a bundle of ebony rods bound together with ligaments of silver and having on top a silver globe surmounted by a silver eagle.  It resembles the faces borne by the lictors[?] before the Roman magistrates.  It is known familiarly as "the bird."  Just before the declaration of war with Spain "the bird" did duty in quelling a row.  An excited member had enforced his remarks by throwing the law in the concrete form at his opponents head.  The latter made a rush at his antagonist, mutual friends held them back, while from all sides of the house came the cry, "Sergeant, bring the bird!"  The bird was sent forward to the fighting line as rapidly as possible and hostilities ceased.  The man who would dare to strike a blow over "the bird" has not yet entered congress.

Fists Are Shaken.
[excerpt from "Fistfights in the Halls of Congress" by the New York Herald published in The Ogden Standard of Ogden, Utah on July 2, 1910.]
Wichita Daily Eagle, Jan 13, 1891
The most hotly contested Speakership election featured the opening of the Thirty-sixth Congress, in December, 1859.  The bitterness of preceding contests paled before this struggle, which lasted from December 5, 1860.  The tenseness was exaggerated by the seating arrangement in the House.  Instead of the seats and desks of an earlier and a later day, benches were installed, so that the House was drawn into a small compass.  During these days of turmoil and strife the members were thus in closer contact and were more easily impelled by the prevailing passion.  As a consequence there was much shaking of fists under noses, much hurling threats of personal violence and much assuming of insulting and defiant attitudes.

How the States Have Raced for Position as to Representation in the House.  The Meeting Place of the American House of Commons.
[Wichita Daily Eagle of Wichita, Kansas on Jan. 13, 1891.]
(Special Correspondence.)
Washington, Jan. 5. -- The popular branch of our national legislature in becoming so large that another decade will be sure to bring a radical change in the method of seating members, if not in the whole legislative machinery.  No form of statistical expression gives a better notion of the growth of the United States than the ratio of representation and number of representatives in congress.  It is interesting to trace out the evolution of our house of commons, beginning in the colonial days and coming down to the apportionment bill, which passed a few days ago, providing for a house of 356 members.  Our federal congress is only a little more than a century old, its first session having been held at New York in March, 1780.  But for nearly twenty-four years before that we had a continental congress and a colonial congress. 
The colonial congress met in New York Oct. 7, 1765, and had only about twenty-five members representing nine colonies.  The continental and confederation congresses continued from 1774 to 1788, when, the constitution having been ratified, the federal congress superseded the latter. ... Now, every reader of this letter knows how the old continental congress was beaten about from pillar to post by the exigencies of those troublous times.  It held sessions successfully at Philadelphia, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Lancaster, York, Philadelphia, Princeton and Annapolis. 
The first federal congress, which first met at New York, on April 4, 1789, had only sixty-five members representing the thirteen original states.  ... One of the difficulties in the way of increasing the number of members was the small size of the old hall of representatives, now Statuary hall, which was crowded to its utmost capacity.  Already there had been talk of enlarging the Capitol by the erection of new wings, and its was deemed advisable to wait for this improvement before adding to the membership. ... About 1862 the house of representatives took possession of its new hall, the one now occupied, and the ratio of representation was kept at such a low figure that the number of members jumped to 298. ... In 100 years the ratio of representation has been multiplied more than five times, so that a congressman now has five times the number of constituents his great-grandfather had, if his great-grandfather was in one of the early federal congresses, and yet the total number of representatives is three and one-half times greater. 
When the present hall of the house of representatives was constructed the wise men said it would answer all requirements made upon it for two centuries.  Yet it is now much crowded.  Two views are held as to the best future policy.  One is that constituencies are becoming too large, an the ratio of representation must not be increased, so that the number of congressmen may increase as the country gains population.  Should this course be adopted, the house twenty or thirty years hence will consist of 500 or more members, and will be so large and unwieldy a body that its methods will have to be changed radically.  Those who advocate enlargement of the house say the number of constituents is already so great that the member who attends carefully is the s to their wants is nothing but an agent or department attorney for his people, and that our house of representatives is smallest in the world in proportion to the number of inhabitants represented. 
Among those who take the other view, and hold that the house is already unwieldy, is the veteran Judge Holman, of Indiana.  Mr. Holman is one of three or four men now in congress who can remember when the members of the house sat on benches, and no desks were used in the hall.  That was in 1859 or 1860, when the present hall was first used.  In the rear of the benches large tables were placed for the accommodation of members who desired to write letters, and the business of those who occupied the benches was to speak or listen. 
Judge Holman's opinion is that the house will very soon find it necessary to return to the old benches, and abolish the desks at which members now attend to their correspondence, address books and maps, and add to the hubbub in a thousand ways, so that even in its calmest moments the hall is filled with a roar in which weak voiced men are at a terrible disadvantage.  With the desk abolished the members could be seated much nearer the speaker than they now are, and with the improved order business could be transacted much more speedily. 
Wichita Daily Eagle, Jan. 13, 1891.
Judge Holman says every member has a committee room with a table and drawer in which to keep his papers, and that the desks now used are an abomination and a harm to the public business.  He recalls that in the old days the little drawers under the benches were largely used as receptacles for pistols and other weapons, and says more than one member, among them Gen. Singleton, of Mississippi, came into the house every morning and deposited his revolver in the drawer before him. 

Boutell Arraigns Congress for Combining Business and Debate.
[Fort Worth Star Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas, 17 Oct. 1907]
Special to The Telegram.
WASHINGTON, D.C., Oct. 17.--"Our congress is the only legislative body in the world, so far as I am informed, where an attempt is made to combine business with debate," said Representative Boutell of Chicago.  "Such a physical effort is necessary to make one's self heard upon the floor that great confusion exists and only the most experienced can carry on an argument: there is every reason why we should remove the desks and substitute benches.  With a new office building where each member will have a room in which to write his letters and dispose of his official business the hall of the house may well be given over to executive business.  The galleries could then be enlarged."

Benches Instead of Desks in House of Representatives. 
(From The Tribune Bureau.)
Washington, Oct. 19--The plan to make the national House of Representatives less cumbersome and more useful by replacing with benches the desks now used has met with hardy commendation here in Washington and throughout the country since its first publication in an interview with Representative Boutell in last Sunday's Tribune.  Mr. Boutell came to Washington this week to confer with the architect of the Capitol regarding the detailed plans which are made public for the first time in The Tribune. 
When the colleagues of the Illinois man see the drawings at the assembling of Congress in December.  It is expected that many who might otherwise oppose it will vote for it, especially as the completion of the House office building, within easy distance of the hall, will give the members all the desk room they need.  It is also felt that the House is growing larger and must be reapportioned on a larger scale after the next Congress three years hence.  In December there will be thirty-one more members than in 1900.  If a similar increase is made in 1910, and it is always difficult to reduce any state's representation, it will be a physical impossibility to accommodate the larger membership under present conditions.  Mr. Boutell proposes to meet this necessity by reducing the size of the House one half and putting in benches. 
The idea of such a scheme started back in Speaker Reed's time, in the 53rd Congress, after the Speaker had made a visit to the British House of Commons, and returned to Washington enthusiastic over the idea of using the bench system in the American House.  He had an investigation made by the Committee on Acoustics, which submitted a report.  But the subject was dropped for the time being because the greater number of members desired desk room, which they could not at that time have unless they happened to be chairmen of committees. Mr. Reed thought it might be necessary to reduce the size of the quorum, also, so that members who desired to take part in the discussion might not be interrupted by filibusters demanding two hundred votes to carry on business. Speaker Reed left the House and passed away.  His plan seemed forgotten, but Mr. Boutell comes forward with a proposition whcih has in a week received commendation everywhere.  
Under the Boutell plan the present hall would be shortened from a length of 139 feet, including galleries, to a length of 80 feet, including galleries.  The present floor would be shortened from a length of 113 feet to 60 feet.  The width of the present chamber north and south would remain unchanged.  The Speaker's desk, the clerk's desk and the desk of the official reporters would remain as they are.  The present galleries would be brought forward to conform to the hall as shortened.  The height of the chamber and the lighting would remain unchanged.  The hall, as reduced in size, would have benches or seats running parallel with the east and west walls of the chamber, half of the facing westward and half eastward, except the benches in the northwest and northeast corners of the chamber, which would face southward.  An open space 15 feet by 40 feet would extend from the Speaker's desk northward, and aisles at appropriate intervals would extend from those between the seats.  The floor would rise at each open space.  the chamber would have a seating capacity of 406.  No desks for members would be provided.  It is intended that the hall as rearranged should be for legislative business exclusively, an have a seating capacity to accommodate the entire membership of the House. 
The space subtracted from the present hall at the end by the alteration would be made into two large retiring rooms for members, fitted with tables and chairs, lockers and other furniture for their convenience.  These rooms would have the same height as the chamber, and from them easy access would be given to the chamber through fly doors fitted with glass panels.  Each of the retiring rooms would be 80 feet long and 39 feet wide.  The galleries would be supported by rows of pillars extending north and south across the retiring rooms.  The entrance to the galleries on the east and west sides would be through a central entrance to each gallery.  Each entrance would be reached by a bridge passageway.  The central door space to the House from the lobby leading to the Senate would remain as now.  
"In my opinion it is entirely feasible to change the hall of the House of Representatives so as to replace the desks with benches," said Elliot Wood, Superintendent of the Capitol, when asked to express an opinion of the plans.  "The main objection that was made when a similar plan was discussed by Speaker Reed in the 53rd Congress was that the members needed desk room.  With the completion of the new office building plenty of desk room will be provided in the offices, so that it will no longer be necessary in the hall itself.  It is certainly a fact that something must soon be done to accommodate the larger membership." 
Official plans prepared by Elliott Woods, Superintendent of the Capitol.

From The New York Tribune, of New York, NY on Oct. 20, 1907.

A substitute plan for this was at one time suggested by which the House chamber would retain its present width, but be extended back to the south wall by removing the present members' lobby.  This would permit the retention of the desk scheme as now, with accommodation for 550 desks--enough to seat members of the House for several decades to come.  But as the idea of the bench scheme is not to merely get more room for the larger membership of the House, but to also make it less noisy an more of a debating body, it is more likely that it would be preferred, especially as the House office building will hereafter provide all needed office space.  More attention would in this way be given to the details of legislation while a bill is discussed on the floor, and the influence of the committees as an almost final authority on important measures would be considerably lessened.  The size of the hall would be about that of the Senate, and the provision for hearing Senators while taking in even a low conversational tone would be similar.
For some reason there has been an undercurrent of protest against the cramped quarters at present occupied by the Speaker of the House.  These comprise a small room just off the southeast corner of the hall.  While the present Speaker, "Uncle Joe" Cannon, has not voiced any audible dissatisfaction.  It is understood that some of the influential members have occasionally expressed their disapprobation of the crowded condition of the Speaker's room, in which the Speaker, his secretary and the parliamentary clerk all have desks.  It has been suggested that when the new House office building is completed in December the Ways an Means Committee move to one of the large rooms and small retiring room thus vacated.  The Ways and Means Committee would thus gain an excellent place for hearing during consideration of any bill to revise the tariff, for instance. 
When Mr. Boutell arrives in Washington early in December for the meeting of the 60th Congress he mean to push the plan of putting benches in the House to committee consideration and a vote.  He believes that the time the members are moving into their new offices will be the psychological moment to create a new condition in the House itself.


The Woods plan depicted above was not the one ultimately accepted.  The House presently sits in a semi-circle seats similar to how they sat in 1860.

Photo Gallery (click a thumbnail to enlarge):

Toronto Globe via Macon 
Telegraph of Macon, GA, Feb 20, 1899

from "Fistfights in the Halls of Congress" by the New
York Herald
 via The Ogden Standard of Ogden,
Utah on July 2, 1910

Wichita Daily Eagle Wichita, 
Kansas on Jan. 13, 1891

Fort Worth Star Telegram
Oct. 17, 1907

The New York Tribune, of New York, NY on Oct. 20, 1907.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...