Historical Almanac of the U.S. Senate

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Author: Robert J. Dole  | Date: March 20, 1845

Executive Session Adjourns

On March 20, 1845, the Senate approved the nomination of Frederick T. Bush as consul to the port of Hong Kong and then adjourned. This ended session that lasted only twelve days. Aside from brief Journal entries outlining Senate activities, no record of that session’s secret proceedings exists. At the other end of the Capitol, dust gathered in the House chamber, and its members were not expected in town until December.

Why did this session conclude so quickly? Why was it held in secret? Where was the House? These questions, reasonable to us today, would not have occurred to mid-nineteenth century senators.

An answer lies with procedures established at the time the Constitution was adopted and ratified. Under the Constitution, Congress was required to meet at least once a year on the first Monday in December, although members’ terms began on the previous March 4. The Constitution also gave the Senate the unique power to advise and consent to presidential nominations.

These constitutional requirements help explain what the Senate was doing in town for that brief session in March 1845. The term of President James K. Polk started on March 4. On that date, the president submitted his cabinet nominations to the Senate for action.

To exercise these constitutional responsibilities, the Senate customarily met for a few days at the start of each new presidential term, while the House could wait until December to convene. Under procedures in effect from 1789 until 1929, the Senate conducted all of its so-called executive business behind closed doors, allowing its members to speak freely to avoid incurring presidential wrath for opposing certain nominees. Between 1789 and 1933, the Senate held thirty-six of these special sessions. Ratification of the Constitution’s Twentieth Amendment made them unnecessary, for it moved the beginning of the congressional term from December back to January, more than two weeks before the start of the presidential term.

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Chicago: Robert J. Dole, "Executive Session Adjourns," Historical Almanac of the U.S. Senate: A Series of Bicentennial Minutes Presented to the Senate During the One Hundredth Congress (Washington, D.C.: U.S Government Printing Office, 1989), in Original Sources, accessed April 19, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DJRPI13YVEFWGHF.

MLA: Dole, Robert J. "Executive Session Adjourns." Historical Almanac of the U.S. Senate: A Series of Bicentennial Minutes Presented to the Senate During the One Hundredth Congress, Washington, D.C., U.S Government Printing Office, 1989, in , Original Sources. 19 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DJRPI13YVEFWGHF.

Harvard: Dole, RJ 1989, 'Executive Session Adjourns' in Historical Almanac of the U.S. Senate: A Series of Bicentennial Minutes Presented to the Senate During the One Hundredth Congress, U.S Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.. cited in , . Original Sources, retrieved 19 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DJRPI13YVEFWGHF.