The Isaac Bassett Papers consist of holographic material and newspaper clippings describing the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, the Capitol Building, the city of Washington and many historical events of the 19th century. Much of the material in this collection was written by Isaac Bassett, an employee of the Senate from 1831, until his death on December 18, 1895.
On December 5, 1831 12-year-old Isaac Bassett was selected by Senator Daniel Webster as the second person ever to serve as a page in the United States Senate. In 1838 Bassett was promoted to messenger, and in 1861 he was administered the oath as assistant doorkeeper to the Senate, a post he held until his death in 1895. Having a position on the floor of the Senate allowed Bassett to witness the great debates leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.
Bassett is most well known for performing the duty of "turning back the clock," actually moving back the hands of the clock in the Senate chambers to prevent the clock from researching midnight to prevent a Senate session from ending.
Scope and Content of Papers
Sometime after his 60th birthday, Captain Bassett (as he was frequently referred to) began to record his observations of day-to-day life in the Senate. Although written during the 1880's and 1890's, the recollections cover incidents and events from as early as 1832. According to several newspaper accounts, Bassett originally hoped to publish these writings, "at the close of his half century of service." (Isaac Bassett Papers, Box 10, p. 5) However, later newspaper articles note that Bassett planned to have his book published posthumously.
One circa 1893 account records: "Two or three decades ago Bassett conceived the idea of publishing a book about the Senators, and began taking copious notes. He began to write them out." The article continues: "One of his friends told me the other day that when the old man died the book would be immediately published; that it is completed up to date, and could be sent to press any day. I asked why he did not publish it now and reap some of the benefits of it.
"'Because,' replied the friend, 'if he were to print it now, it would probably result in his dismissal from his place and make him trouble.' "Then it is personal? "Very personal. It deals of that portion of the lives of public men that all of us want to cover with charity and darkness. There are a large number of Representatives mentioned in the manuscript, and the publication will be an interesting one."
The Bassett Papers contain 19th century newspaper articles. The clippings cover a variety of topics, including discussions of Senate debates in the Chamber, descriptions of Senators, House Members, the Capitol Building and the city of Washington, as well as issues and historical events. Over half of the newspaper articles are dated and identified.
Most of the clippings give Bassett's direct observations. It should be noted that, although Bassett wrote many of the sketches and accounts in this collection, other individuals were involved in editing the material. Different styles of handwriting are thus evident throughout the papers, as portions originally written by Bassett have been revised and rewritten.
The papers include memoirs on:
Attempted Assassination of President Jackson
Bassett wrote, "On Friday the 30 of January 1835, the president with members of his cabinet attended the funeral of Warren R. Davis of the state of South Carolina in the hall of the House of Representatives. Just as the president were issuing from the door of the Rotunda a person stepped from the crowd into an open space in front of the president leveled a pistol at him and fired. It was a percussion lock and the cap exploded without firing the powder in the barrel. Instantly the person dropped the pistol and took another which he held ready cocked, leveled it and pulled the trigger. It was also a percussion lock, and the cap exploded without firing the powder in the barrel. The president instantly rushed upon him with his uplifted cane, but did him no harm. He was secured and delivered over to the officers."
Attack on Senator Benton by Senator Foote
On April 17, 1850 the longstanding animosity between antislavery Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and Mississippi slaveholder Senator Henry Foote boiled over into a violent confrontation. During the debate on the Compromise of 1850 measures, which would decide the issue of slavery in the West, Foote made disparaging remarks about Benton to newspaper reporters. Previously, Benton had risen in the Senate Chamber and demanded that Foote never refer to him by name again. When an emotional Benton rose in the Senate to challenge these remarks, an angry Foote advanced on him with pistol drawn. Bassett wrote:
"Mr. Benton rose from his seat, threw his chair violently from him [and] made for Mr. Foote. Down the passage he was stopped by Senator Dodge and several other senators. He then jumped on top of one of the desks and laid open his breast and said, "Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire." In the meantime Mr. Foote had reached the aisle in front of the secretary's table. Mr. Foote drew his pistol as soon as Mr. Benton made a move towards him. Mr. Foote remained standing in the same position he had taken with his pistol in his hand. My impression was that it was a horse pistol, I was standing very near him. It was certainly a very long one. Mr. Dickinson a senator from New York, asked him to give up the pistol which he did. Mr. Dickinson then locked it up in his desk. Soon after both senators resumed their seats."
Caning of Senator Charles Sumner
In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered his famous "Crime Against Kansas" speech. In that speech Sumner insulted slave states and Southern senators, most notably Andrew Butler of South Carolina whose relative, Preston Brooks, served in the House of Representatives at the time. On May 22, 1856, on floor of the United States Congress, Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with his walking cane in retaliation for a speech given by Sumner two days earlier. Bassett wrote:
"I witness[ed] the attack on Senator Sumner by Mr. Brooks of South Carolina in 1856. Sumner was sitting in his seat, addressing the speech to his constituents when Mr. Brooks approached him from the front aisle (this was on the 22 of May) and said, "I have come over from the House to chastise you for the remarks that you made. I have read your speech, it is a libel on South Carolina and against my relative Senator Butler." At the same time raising his cane, and struck him three time on the head. Mr. Sumner arose from his seat and made an effort to take hold of Mr. Brooks, but the last blow brought him to the floor. It was all done in a minute. As soon as he fell Senator Cass, myself and Arthur Gorman and several lifted him up, and we led him out to the Reception Room of the Senate. I got towels and a basin of water. Washed his head. He walked back down to the front door of the Capitol, got a hack, and went to his lodgings. In the meantime, Brooks and his friends, Mr. Edmundson of Virginia and Mr. Keitt of South Carolina, returned to the House. The cane that Mr. Brooks used was broken in small pieces. I have a piece now in my possession. It was a gutta percha cane an inch thick, the cane broke into fragments. It was the speech that Mr. Sumner delivered on the 19 and 20 of May that caused Mr. Brooks to cane him."
Turning Back the Clock
Until the 20th Amendment in 1933, the terms of the president, vice president, and both houses of Congress all ended on the same day, March 4th. The result was a last-minute crush of legislation in the final hours of March 3rd in every election year. On those nights, the Senate's presiding officer often ordered Isaac Bassett to perform one of his most unusual duties, turning back the hands of the Senate Chamber clock to delay "midnight" until final bills could be passed. Basset wrote:
"I have nothing to say whether it was constitutional or not, but never in my life while in the service of the Senate disobeyed an order from the vice president. On a great many occasions where I have put the clock back a great many of the senators would call me to their seats and question me as to what authority I acted upon. I always answered with great dignity, "By order of the president of the Senate of the United States." They would say, "By what authority does he order you to do that?" I told them that it has always been the custom at the last hour of the session when they were waiting for important appropriations bills to come from the House to turn the clock back."
Other highlights include:
Senator Daniel Webster/Senator Robert Hayne 1830 Debate, Samuel Morse and the Installation of the Telegraph, 1859 Move from the Old to the New Chamber, Civil War, the Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Militia Providing Protection for Washington D.C., Abolition of Slavery, Electoral Vote Count after the Disputed Election of 1876.
About Isaac Bassett
Isaac Bassett was born in Washington on August 4, 1819, his father having earlier moved to work at the Capitol. At the age of twelve, Isaac Bassett was appointed a page by Senator Daniel Webster. Only the second page to be assigned to the Senate, Bassett was later promoted to messenger, and before the Civil War was appointed assistant doorkeeper of the Senate. Throughout most of his career, Bassett worked in the Senate Chamber, where he attended to the needs of the Members and earned the reputation as the indispensable Senate employee.
Sources: Office of the Senate Curator, National Archives & Records Administration, and the Library of Congress