Sunday, March 29, 2020

Ideas on Civility for Congress - Publisher’s wife, Margaret Bayard Smith meets Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson by Thaddeus Kosciuszko

I abhor the lack of civility in our recent political activities. I remember that Thomas Jefferson was concerned about decorum and process in our Congress, most especially the Senate, over which he presided as Vice President. Sure enough, the Senate website had the story.

February 27, 1801

On a quiet December morning in 1800, a well-dressed gentleman knocked on the door at the Capitol Hill residence of publisher Samuel Smith.  When the publisher’s wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, greeted him, she had no idea who he was.  But, she liked him at once, “So kind and conciliating were his looks and manners.”  Then her husband arrived and introduced her to the vice president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had come to deliver a manuscript for publication.  Mrs. Smith admiringly noted the vice president’s “neat, plain, but elegant handwriting.”  Weeks later, on February 27, 1801, Jefferson returned to receive a copy of his newly printed book.  It bore the title, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States.

Three years earlier, in 1797, Jefferson had approached his single vice-presidential duty of presiding over the Senate with feelings of inadequacy.  John Adams, who had held the job since the Senate’s founding in 1789, knew a great deal about Senate procedure and—of equal importance—about British parliamentary operations.  Yet, despite Adams’ knowledge, senators routinely criticized him for his arbitrary and inconsistent parliamentary rulings.

In his first days as vice president, Jefferson decided to compile a manual of legislative procedure as a guide for himself and future presiding officers.  He believed that such an authority, distilled largely from ancient books of parliamentary procedure used in the British House of Commons, would minimize senators’ criticism of presiding officers’ rulings, which in those days were not subject to reversal by the full Senate.

Jefferson arranged his manual in fifty-three topical sections, running alphabetically from “Absence” to "Treaties.”  He began the section entitled “Order in Debate” with a warning to members based on his own observation of legislative behavior.  Even today, his admonition might suitably appear on the wall of any elementary school classroom.  “No one is to disturb another [person who is speaking] by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another.”

Although Jefferson’s original manuscript has long since disappeared, a personal printed copy, with notes in his own handwriting, survives at the Library of Congress.

Jefferson’s Manual, with its emphasis on order and decorum, changed the way the Senate of his day operated.  Years later, acknowledging Jefferson’s brilliance as a parliamentary scholar, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted his Senate Manual as a partial guide to its own proceedings.