Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Introduction

General Introduction

The Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition is a major component of the National Archives celebration of the bicentenary of the United States Congress. The project was conceived in 1982, at a meeting of the Study Group for the Commemoration of the Senate Bicentennial, sponsored by the Secretary of the Senate William Hildenbrand, to plan activities for the 200th anniversary of the Senate. One of the participants at this meeting was Dr. Robert M. Warner, then Archivist of the United States. He proposed that the National Archives revise National Archives Preliminary Inventory 23, its principal finding aid for Record Group 46, Records of the United States Senate, which had been published in 1950; the Archivist's proposal was included among the recommendations of the study group in its December 1982 report.

The National Archives had long been aware of the inadequacy of Preliminary Inventory 23 and of finding aids to the records of the Senate in general. Preliminary Inventory 23 describes by Congress records of legislative proceedings and the Secretary of the Senate prior to 1946 and records of executive proceedings to 1901 only. Some information in this inventory, published nearly 40 years ago, is no longer accurate because certain series of records have been rearranged to facilitate access and use. Supplementing this inventory are several other published inventories of select and special committees and subcommittees that were prepared over 30 years ago and a number of unpublished finding aids to other similar records; these are listed in Appendix G of this volume. Approximately two thirds of the records in Record Group 46 have not been described in any previous finding aid. Records of the Joint Committees of Congress (Record Group 128), which contain many important records of the Senate, also had never been described in an inventory.

Preliminary Inventory 23 also lacks adequate subject citations. For example, descriptions of the series known as committee papers merely list for each Congress the committees for which there are records, without regard to subject or measurement, thus making it difficult for researchers to determine if the records may be of use to them. The absence of subject terms has been viewed by researchers as an obstacle to use of the records. Nevertheless, Preliminary Inventory 23 is still valuable for some purposes and will remain available to researchers.

Following the issuance of the study group report, the National Archives staff carried out a comprehensive survey of Record Groups 46 and 128, and experimented with various ways of describing the records that would provide a more useful reference tool for researchers. Ultimately, the staff determined that the most useful finding aid would be one that approached the records not Congress by Congress, but by committee. Consequently, this guide provides a brief history of each committee and a discussion of its records with the emphasis on subject content.

Describing subject content of the records of the Senate proved to be a tricky task because the Senate has been involved in virtually every aspect of Federal governance. As the Federal Government increasingly extended its authority over the lives of individual Americans, so too did the Senate expand its jurisdiction into new areas, bringing within its purview an almost unlimited number of potential subjects. This volume, targeted as it is for a diverse audience, is intended to be a broad survey designed primarily to give researchers a sense of the magnitude and scope of the records and to suggest both traditional and novel ways to use the records in a variety of historical research fields. In addition to describing the basic records series and their main subjects, this guide also highlights individual documents concerning prominent historical figures and notes documents or subjects that were found in unexpected locations.

While it is not often stated explicitly in the guide, the authors have attempted to emphasize the fundamental relationship between the records of the Senate and House and the records of the executive and judicial branches of Government that are also in the National Archives. It is hoped that researchers who use other records at the National Archives will, as a result of this guide, become aware of the value of legislative records as a primary research source, and that conversely, researchers using legislative records will be influenced to seek additional information in records of executive agencies and judicial offices. It is also hoped that the guide will stimulate interest in the history of the Senate and its committees and increase use of the unpublished records of Congress as well as the other records at the National Archives.

Limitations to the scope of this guide should be noted. The guide describes only those records of the United States Senate that have been transferred to the National Archives; it does not include information on records that remain in the physical custody of Senate offices and committees. It also does not describe personal papers of individual Senators, although in a few instances some personal correspondence was incorporated into the records of the committee or subcommittee that a Senator chaired. It is not a history of the Senate or its committees, one of its main purposes being to encourage research in the histories of the Senate and its components.

The guide is divided into six sections. The first, Chapter 1, guides the researcher through the procedures many have found useful, even necessary, to follow when doing research in the records of the Senate and the Congress. Many researchers who write or visit the National Archives are unfamiliar with published sources of information, the published records of Congress, and the published finding aids to these sources. Often information sought is available to researchers locally in Government depository libraries. Chapter 1 describes the published records of Congress and related published research tools. In addition to highlighting the relation of the published records to the unpublished records in National Archives custody, the chapter provides general information about the National Archives Senate file classification system and arrangement of the unpublished textual (paper) records, briefly discusses the cartographic, audiovisual, and machine-readable records of the Senate that are in the custody of the Special Archives Division of the National Archives, and explains the access rules to Senate records. Chapter 1 also describes the history of the recordkeeping practices by both Houses of Congress, explains how to approach some common research questions, and illustrates the proper format for citing the records of Congress in publications.

Chapters 2 through 17 describe the records of each Senate standing committee for which the National Archives has records from the beginning of the standing committee system in 1816 to 1968. The general approach and organization of this section follows the committee system as it existed in 1968. There is one chapter for each of the standing committees (except as noted below). Each chapter is divided into chronological periods, most commonly covering the 19th century, 1901 to 1946, and 1947 to 1968, although in several instances the time periods are different because such factors as the history of the committee or the dates of the existing records dictate a variance in chronology. Many chapters also include descriptions of committees (mostly minor defunct standing committees) which at one time had jurisdiction over legislative matters that by 1968 were assigned to the major standing committee. By describing the records in this manner, the guide illustrates how each modern standing committee evolved to its state of organization and jurisdiction by the end of the 90th Congress in 1968.

The approach to each committee chapter is fundamentally chronological, with liberties taken where appropriate to follow certain themes suggested by the records. Two major exceptions to this organization were deemed editorially necessary. Records of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, a relatively short-lived standing committee in its prime in 1968, are described within the chapter on the records of the Committee on Commerce, which inherited the former committee's jurisdiction in 1977. A second exception concerns the various claims committees, none of which existed after 1946, but which are nonetheless very important in the 19th century history of the Senate; the records of the claims committees are described in a separate chapter.

The method of citation of special documents or subjects of Senate records through the 79th Congress (1945-46) uses the Senate file classification system that is described in Chapter 1. These citations appear in parentheses following the description of the document or subject, such as (21A-D2). Thge researcher's file citation for Senate records should be preceded by the abbreviation SEN. However, since virtually all citations in this volume begin SEN, frequent use of this abbreviation in the guide would have been redundant and was eliminated. This system of file citation is not used in the guide for records after 1946 because a large portion of the records, formerly described simply as committee papers, constitute numerous distinct records series after this date.

Chapters 18 and 19 describe records of the Senate select and special committees and the joint committees of Congress, respectively. Some overlap exists between the descriptions of select and special committee records and those of standing committees in preceding chapters because a number of standing committees began as select committees; for example, in 1909, following approval of a motion by Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, all existing select committees were upgraded to standing committee status and remained as such until 1921 when the committee system was overhauled. No file classification system comparable to the one described above was devised for records of Joint Committees, which are divided into Senate and House collections; the citations used in this volume merely identify the appropriate records collection and the Congress, e.g., S.C. 76 for Senate Collection, 76th Congress.

Chapters 20 and 21 concern the noncommittee records and executive proceedings of the Senate. Chapter 20 describes most of the noncommittee records, such as Senate journals, original bills and resolutions, original Presidential messages and executive documents, original reports and communications transmitted to the Senate, original Senate reports and documents, petitions and memorials that were tabled, records of the Secretary of the Senate, campaign expenditure reports, lobbying reports, and unpublished records relating to private and public bills and resolutions (especially from 1901 to 1946). Unpublished records relating to private and public bills and resolutions are in fact committee records, in that they were referred to committees for consideration. However, according to the rules and practice of the Senate at that time, this type of record was retired by each committee clerk at the end of each Congress to the Secretary of the Senate, who in turn created a single series of records irrespective of the committee of origin. Chapter 21 describes records of executive proceedings pertaining to nominations and treaties and records relating to impeachments.

Chapter 22 discusses the committee and noncommittee records of the Senate since 1969. 

The guide also includes as appendixes lists of majority and minority leaders, a list of Secretaries of the Senate, beginning and ending dates for each Congress, a glossary of legislative and archival terms used in the guide, a selected bibliography, a list of published and unpublished finding aids to Senate records, and a list of National Archives microfilm publications of Senate records.

Researchers interested in additional information about the records of the United States Senate should write to: Center for Legislative Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Ave, NW Washington, DC 20408. Researchers can also email at legislative.archives@nara.gov.

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.

This Web version is updated from time to time to include records processed since 1989.

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