Washington DC – The Old Halls Of Congress

MANY able men gave strength and character to the national legislation for half a century, and made the old halls of Congress memorable. John Quincy Adams, who enjoys the distinction of being the only son of a President of the United States who has ever occupied the Presidential chair himself, began his congressional career in 1803 as a Senator. After his term as President he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1831, and became one of its leading members. He was bold, experienced, and learned, but exceedingly frigid in his manner, and was never on terms of familiarity with any member. The ” old man eloquent,” as he was styled, was seldom absent from his seat in the House, and day after day was fully prepared to discuss every matter that came up. It was his delight to start a stormy de-bate, and then he would throw off his frigidity, and become very ex-cited. One who knew him well wrote as follows of his manner of speaking : ” He rises abruptly, his face reddens, and in a moment throwing himself into the attitude of a veteran gladiator, he prepares for the attack ; then he becomes full of gesticulation — his body sways to and fro — self-command seems lost. His head is bent forward in his earnestness till it almost touches the desk ; his voice frequently breaks, but he pursues his subject through all its bearings. Nothing daunts him — the House may ring with the cry of ‘ Order’ ; he stands amid the tempest, and like an oak that knows its gnarled and knotted strength, stretches his hand forth and defies the blast.”

It is related that when he was canvassing his district in Massachusetts for election to the House, his cold, apathetic way of dealing with influential people often created for him a great deal of unpopularity. On one occasion he was introduced to a farmer of consider-able political influence, who cordially shook his hand and said, ” Mr. Adams, I am very glad to see you. My wife, when she was a girl, lived in your father’s family ; you were then a little boy, and she has often combed your head.” Well,” replied Mr. Adams in a harsh tone, I suppose she combs yours now.”

On the 21st of February, 1848, Mr. Adams was stricken with apoplexy while sitting in his seat in the House. He was removed to the Speaker’s room, and in about an hour regained consciousness for a few moments. Looking at those around hire, he said in a whisper, ” This is the last of earth, but I am content.” Then he closed his eyes and never spoke again. He died on February 23.

John Randolph, the ” Lord of Roanoke,” as he was generally called, was a member of the House from Virginia before Congress began its sessions in Washington. He served until 1825, and then was a Senator for two years, but afterward returned to the House for one term. It was his boast that he had descended from Pocahontas. He was very tall and thin, and had a small, round head and sallow face. His eyes were black, keen, and expressive, his nose and chin long and sharp, and his hair, which was brushed back and tied in a queue, was as black, straight, and coarse as that of the race from which he claimed descent. On his daily trips to the Capitol he always rode a fine, high-blooded horse, whose sleek, plump body was in marked contrast to his own leanness. He was usually dressed in a long surtout coat of drab English broadcloth, buckskin knee-breeches and top-boots.

Randolph always attracted great attention in the House, and it is said that his speeches were reported more fully than any other member of Congress.” His powers of sarcasm and invective were remarkable, and as he had ” a tongue with a- tang,” his wrath was avoided as much as possible. He was selfish, exclusive, contemptuous ; he had no popular sympathies, and was never known to approve of anything favored by other men. He was full of ” quarrel and offence,” and spared no one from the copious shower of his epithets. Garland, his biographer, says, He was like an Ishmaelite, his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him.”

In 1806, Henry Clay, the great Kentuckian, began his long career in Congress. He first served in the Senate for one session to fill a vacancy, and again in 1809 he became a Senator for two years. He entered the House of Representatives at a special session on the 4th of November, 1811, and on the very day he made his first appearance on the floor he was elected Speaker by a vote of 75 out of 128 cast—the only instance on record in which the confidence of Congress has been yielded in so marked a manner to any person on his entrance as a member.” He retained the speakership during five Congresses, and was a member of the House for about fourteen years. He was elected to the Senate in 1831, and served until 1842, when he resigned his seat, and retired to private life for seven years. In 1849 he was again elected as Senator. His last speech in the Senate was delivered on the 1st of December, 1851, and on the 29th of June, 1852, he died in the National Hotel in Washington. His large experience in state craft, his preeminent intellectual strength, and his wonderful gift as a popular orator, admirably fitted him to play an important part in the legislative arena. He was of commanding height, and had a pleasant face lighted by sparkling gray eyes. He was courtly in manner, and thoroughly understood the difficult art of being easy at all times and in all places. When he spoke, a winning smile would give effect to his words. Few orators of his day could so enchant an audience, and his speeches in Congress and on the platform were listened to with deep interest, and always made a marked impression. He was the ecognized leader of the Whig party, and ruled its affairs with an iron hand.

Clay was sincere and liberal, and ardent in his devotion to the things he considered right and just. He was the champion of the system of protection to American industry, and made many powerful speeches and assiduously labored for it. Sometimes for weeks when he was in the Senate he would take very little part in the proceedings, but would sit quiet in his seat, day after day, eating candy and taking snuff, and jocosely commenting in a low tone on the speeches of others. He relished a good joke, and nothing pleased him better than a bright repartee, even if it was against himself. When he was ready to engage in debate he would spring to his feet and hold his auditors fascinated by his eloquent language and graceful delivery.

Daniel Webster entered the House of Representatives in 1813, as a Representative from New Hampshire, his native state, and served until 1817. About this time he took up his residence in Boston, and thereafter Massachusetts claimed him as her foremost orator and statesman. He was elected to the House in 1823, and to the Senate in 1827. He continued as a Senator until 1841, and then went into President Harrison’s Cabinet as Secretary of State, which position he held until May 9, 1843. In 1845 he was again chosen to the Senate, serving until 1850. He had a massive form, and his large, finely developed head was covered with hair ” as black as the raven’s wing.” His face was full of character, and his eyes were deep set, large, and melancholy in expression. He was always carefully dressed, and, as a writer has said, ” in the old Whig colors of blue and buff.” For years he was a leader in the great debates, and his speeches gave him national fame and influence. Visitors to the Senate Chamber would eagerly watch his movements, and listen to his words with rapt interest. Whenever it was announced that he intended to speak upon any question the crowd to hear him would fill every part of the chamber, and hundreds would be unable to gain admission. His speeches were always prepared with great care, and he would never permit them to be published until he had thoroughly revised them. Many of his eloquent sentences were composed after days and even weeks of study. He had a good deal of humor, which now and then would be displayed in the Senate, although generally he was very dignified while engaged in his legislative duties.

Quite often in his private hours he would be gloomy and despondent about his political career. At one time when he was feeling de-pressed a friend said to him that he should not feel so, as his fame was made.

“Fame,” replied Mr. Webster: “and much for fame ! Let me give you a striking llustration of this fact. I was traveling in a railroad car a short time ago, and it so happened that I was located by the side of a very old man. I soon found that this old man was from my native town in New Hampshire. I asked him if he was acquainted with the Webster family up there. He answered that he and old Mr. Webster, in his life-time, were great friends. He then went on to speak of the children. He said Ezekiel was the most eminent lawyer in New Hampshire, and his sisters, calling each by her christian name, were married to most excellent men. I then inquired if there was not another member of the family. He said he thought not. Was there not one, I asked him, by the name of Daniel ? Here the old man put on his thinking-cap for a few moments, and then replied : ‘ O, I recollect now. There was one by the name of Daniel, but he went down to Boston, and I have not heard of him since.”

Thomas Hart Benton, of Missouri, entered the Senate in 1821, and served for twenty-nine years and seven months continuously — the longest continuous service ever given. He was not a pleasing speaker, being noted for long, bombastic speeches, delivered in a loud, imperious manner. In debate he was passionate, and would often ” launch thunderbolts of hatred, jealousy, and rage ” at the heads of those who opposed him. His stalwart body was always at-tired in a long, double-breasted frock-coat of antique fashion, and as he walked to and fro on the floor of the Senate, he would assume a martial bearing, and his eyes would flash with arrogance. Although a man of marked ability, his displeasing manner and lack of tact and grace in speech prevented him from obtaining popularity.

One of the group of great statesmen was John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, who began his congressional career in 1811, as a member of the House of Representatives, serving for six years in that body. He was elected Vice-President in 1825, when John Quincy Adams was President, and in 1831 went into the Senate, where he remained for twelve years. He took a leading position, and was fully the peer of the remarkable men who composed the Senate of his day. In 1843 he became Secretary of State, but returned to the Senate in 1845, and served until his death in 1850. He was tall and slender, and had a sombre face, on which a smile was rarely seen. As an orator he was logical and forcible, and in all the prominent debates his voice was often heard. Very ambitious, with his ” whole mind and soul given to politics,” he yet would never descend to trickery or baseness to accomplish his purpose, and he has gone into history as one of the purest of public men.

Martin Van Buren, who was President in 1837, was for some time in the Senate. He was a wily politician — shrewd, capable, and ingenious. He was rather under medium height, and had a high forehead and comely features. He was exceedingly courteous, and made as much study of ” deportment” as Mr. Turveydrop, and he is said to have diligently practiced all his graceful attitudes before a large mirror in his room.

Then there were Silas Wright, the influential Democrat, who invariably carried conviction by his sound logic ; Henry A. Wise, who could startle the House by a perfect hurricane of passionate words s Edward Everett, noted for his captivating speech and great learning ; Charles Sumner, polished and graceful as an orator, sincere and sagacious as a statesman ; John Forsyth, a superb debater, and remarkable for his accomplishments ; Tristam Burges, called the man of the iron heart”—strong and brave, whose keen wit and eloquent tongue made even the ” Lord of Roanoke ” tremble ; David Crockett, from the mountains of Tennessee, always ready with his rifle to shoot for prizes, and noted for quaint, common-sense speeches ; George McDuffie, Thomas Corwin, Lewis Cass, and innumerable others of great ability and marked individuality.

The present hall of the House of Representatives was occupied on the 16th of December, 1857, and the present Senate Chamber on the 4th of January, 1859.