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Not Horsing Around: Speaker Sedgwick Attempts to Rein in the Press | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives

On December 22, 1800, the U.S. House of Representatives held a somewhat routine debate on whether to examine the conduct of Mississippi’s territorial Governor Winthrop Sargent. Sargent, a Revolutionary War veteran from a well-to-do Massachusetts family, had been appointed to the job two years earlier, and during his tenure had been accused of abusing his office. But the House—empowered by the Constitution to open investigations into issues it deemed appropriate—remained divided on whether to explore the matter further.As debate dragged on, Democratic Republican William Charles Cole Claiborne of Tennessee declared that he had heard enough, and recommended the House move swiftly to punish the governor, surmising that “a delay of justice is often equal to a denial of it.” Claiborne’s remarks struck a chord with a man named James Lane who watched the proceedings from the gallery. In a show of support, Lane began clapping.Lane’s disruption sparked an immediate rebuke from Speaker Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, who ordered the House Sergeant at Arms to remove Lane from the chamber. The clapping may have lasted a split second, but it set in motion a lengthy series of events that underscored the power of the Speaker and House leadership’s contentious relationship with the press. It also, apparently, caused James Lane to lose his horse.A New HomeThe fall and winter of 1800 was a transitional period for Congress. The fledgling U.S. government had recently moved from Philadelphia to the banks of the Potomac, and the federal city—population: 3,000—looked more like a regional backwater than the capital of a country which had defeated the British Empire for its freedom. The Capitol Building boasted only one wing—what would become the Senate side—and dense forests surrounded the nearby boarding houses where lawmakers lived while Congress was in session.Because the House Chamber had yet to be built, the 100-odd Representatives of the 6th Congress (1799–1801) met in the library on the second floor above the Senate chamber. The shape and size of the public galleries in the House’s makeshift chamber is unknown, but architectural historians suspect they offered tight quarters.That public galleries existed at all was itself something of a revolution in governance. The Continental Congresses had met behind closed doors to shield their members from persecution and scrutiny. Even after the federal government under the Constitution launched in 1789, the Senate met in secret for half-a-dozen years until 1795 when it finally allowed visitors.The House, which had from its beginning been accessible to the public, required two things of guests who came to the chamber to observe its proceedings: “the most profound attention and perfect decorum.” But the public at times struggled to meet those expectations. At times, visitors clapped or otherwise interrupted proceedings, which some Members believed hindered independent deliberation. When Congress met in Philadelphia, disruptions during debate frequently caused the Sergeant at Arms to clear the galleries and shut the doors to the public. On the other hand, one early Speaker took a different approach, and locked everyone in attendance inside of the House Gallery for a period of time.Not everyone agreed that the solemnity of legislative deliberation required silence from the public. In 1792, the Gazette of the United States, a newspaper with prominent Federalist sentiments, argued that visitors in the gallery were entitled to their opinions, and posited that audience engagement even improved congressional debate. “Who will not prefer this mode of doing business by the House and the gallery in conjunction, to the dull nutcracking, apple-paring, drowsy hum of their ordinary proceedings?” the Gazette asked.But by the time James Lane took his seat in the gallery eight years later, lawmakers and the public were no nearer to resolving the issue.Trading DetainmentsJames Lane’s decision to applaud during debate bothered the one person he couldn’t afford to bother: Speaker of the House Theodore Sedgwick, the man responsible for interpreting and enforcing the House’s rules of order and decorum.Today, the House relies on a rich history of parliamentary procedure—the requirements and guidelines for the legislative process shaped by years of rulings from the chair. In 1800, however, the House had existed for just 11 years. At the time, it had general rules in place, but lacked a deep catalogue of precedents on which to rely. Often, the Speaker had to decide questions of order and decorum during debate on the spot.As soon as Sedgwick heard Lane clap, the Speaker immediately dispatched the Sergeant at Arms, Joseph Wheaton, to the gallery to “see to that man.” Wheaton removed Lane—later described as “a young man of genteel appearance”—from the chamber and held him in a Capitol office for approximately two hours. Lane later claimed that, after leaving the Capitol, Wheaton tracked him down, took his horse, and brought him back to the House for further confinement. At some point during the day, Lane said his horse simply disappeared.After finally leaving Capitol Hill, Lane made his way to nearby Bladensburg, Maryland—presumably on someone else’s horse—to consult with Richard Forrest, a local magistrate, about his missing horse. According to Forrest, Lane called upon him late in the afternoon on December 22 and presented what he described as a convincing story of false imprisonment by the Sergeant at Arms. The justice of the peace thought that the circumstances, as related to him by Lane, justified issuing a warrant for Wheaton’s arrest. Two days later, on December 24, the Sergeant at Arms found himself in custody before the judge in Maryland. Wheaton spent a few hours in detainment on Christmas Eve until officials released him after Lane failed to appear before the court to pursue his complaint.A Complicated InvestigationThe incident with James Lane in 1800 was such an apparent violation of protocol that the House organized a five-Member Committee of Privileges, dominated by Federalists aligned with the Speaker, to investigate what happened. The committee reported its conclusion to the House a few weeks later. Much of the committee’s findings relied on a written statement from Wheaton about his memory of the event. The committee accused James Lane of being inebriated in the gallery, described his behavior as “indecent and disorderly conduct,” and concluded that Lane had deceived the judge in Maryland. The committee recommended that the House take no further action on the matter, and commended Wheaton for swiftly carrying out the Speaker’s orders.After the report was read on the floor, Democratic Republicans, the opposition party in the House, began to question the committee’s version of events. At one point, John Nicholas of Virginia argued that the committee had not conducted a full enough investigation, which other Members saw as a veiled criticism of Speaker Sedgwick. Federalists rushed to Sedgwick’s defense. Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts compared the “outrage” of clapping in the House Chamber to similar incidents in France that “had produced much bloodshed” during the French revolution. Otis went so far as to conclude that clapping in the chamber should be “more feared than open assault on the [M]embers.”Speaker Sedgwick defended his decision, stating that he possessed the power of arrest while the House was in session. He also took the opportunity to criticize the prominent Washington newspaper, the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, which had published a summary of the events on December 22. Sedgwick accused the National Intelligencer, which had Democratic-Republican sympathies, of grossly misrepresenting what had occurred in the House.As partisan lines were drawn, competing versions of the events emerged. Federalists argued that the Speaker and Sergeant at Arms had acted reasonably to preserve order in the House. Democratic Republicans, meanwhile, used the episode to criticize House leadership. Federalist John Rutledge Jr. of South Carolina swore that Lane had escaped from custody before being re-apprehended and taken to a committee room for the rest of the day’s session. Willis Alston of North Carolina, a Democratic Republican, said that he and about a dozen other Members conducted a fireside interview with the Sergeant at Arms on the evening of the incident. Alston believed that Wheaton had initially allowed Lane to go free after being removed from the gallery. Then, encouraged by Members who suggested that it had been improper to release him, Wheaton arrested Lane again after finding him “some distance from the Capitol, upon his horse.”Following the long debate and series of procedural votes on the committee’s report, the House agreed to set the entire ordeal aside. Every Democratic Republican voted against the report, and all but two Federalists voted in support.Fighting for a SeatThat anyone outside the House Chamber knew what happened on December 22 was thanks to Samuel Harrison Smith, the editor of the National Intelligencer, who reported on the House’s activities that day. But Smith’s decision to write about the incident placed him in remarkable conflict with the man who controlled access to the chamber: Speaker Sedgwick. The ramifications of the conflict between the Speaker and the journalist threatened to upend how the press reported on the House, and determine what Americans knew about their government.Smith, the 28-year-old son of Jonathan Bayard Smith, a Delegate to the Continental Congress, had left behind a struggling newspaper in Philadelphia to take up residence in the new capital city in 1800. Smith had taken the advice of his friend Thomas Jefferson and established a paper sympathetic to Democratic-Republican principles in the new federal district.When Congress moved into the unfinished Capitol Building in November of 1800, Smith and others lobbied the House to set aside permanent space for reporters on the floor. When the House put the issue up for consideration, Speaker Sedgwick voted no to break a tie and limit reporters’ access to the chamber. Instead, Smith was required to stand at the back of the chamber when the House was in session. On January 14, 1801, three weeks after Smith reported on the Lane incident, Wheaton gave him a message from the Speaker directing Smith to leave the floor. Smith retreated to the public galleries, but a day later Wheaton told him that Sedgwick had banned him from there as well.The next morning, Smith met with the Speaker to discuss his expulsion. The two disagreed significantly in their politics, but Sedgwick also stated that he had Smith removed because he believed the public did not need a day-by-day account of the House’s proceedings. The American public should only be informed once the House concluded its deliberations. “For instance,” Sedgwick said, “a [M]ember may make a motion that refers to a particular subject. It may be made inadvertently. . . . To publish it in this immature state, before the [H]ouse has decided upon it . . . might essentially injure the respect of the people for the government.” Smith said he disagreed, and believed citizens under a republican government should be kept well-informed of the legislature’s actions. Their meeting ended when Sedgwick confirmed that Smith could at least receive copies of printed congressional documents from the House Clerk.Over the next few weeks, Democratic-Republican lawmakers, including Thomas Terry Davis of Kentucky, attempted to restore Smith’s access to the House. Davis believed that the Speaker had deprived Smith of a Constitutional right. But on February 20, the Federalist majority in the House backed Sedgwick and rejected multiple resolutions that would have limited the Speaker’s power to expel visitors from the galleries or lobby. In fact, Smith remained banned from the floor until Democratic Republicans gained control of the House in 1801.The fallout from the dispute between Sedgwick and Smith lingered for the remainder of the Congress. At the end of the session, Democratic Republicans, frustrated with how Sedgwick managed the House, refused to support the customary vote thanking the Speaker for his service. Sedgwick, meanwhile, seemingly deflated from his stint as Speaker, noted in his farewell address that he not only looked forward to retiring from the House, but from “public councils forever.” Wheaton, the Sergeant at Arms, continued to serve in his same role under Speaker Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina through the 9th Congress (1805–1807), until he was accused of mishandling government funds and lost the support of the House. Whatever happened to James Lane and his horse remains a mystery.Smith stayed in Washington, and eventually entered government service following an appointment to the Treasury Department. He died in 1845. But his push for journalistic access to the House long outlived him. Today, the press has its own gallery—located in the House Chamber directly above the Speaker’s Rostrum.Sources: Annals of Congress, House, 6th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 December 1800): 816; Annals of Congress, House, 6th Cong., 2nd sess. (23 December 1800): 851; Annals of Congress, House, 6th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 January 1801): 881–890; Annals of Congress, House, 6th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 February 1801): 1042; Annals of Congress, House, 6th Cong., 2nd sess. (3 March 1801): 1080; Gazette of the United-States, 22 April 1789, 17 March 1792; National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, 14, 16, 19 January 1801, 7 August 1809; “Closed Sessions of the House,” 14 March 1794, National Archives, Founders Online, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-15-02-0180; William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2001); William E. Ames, A History of the National Intelligencer, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972); Glenn Brown, “The United States Capitol in 1800,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 4 (1901); Gaillard Hunt, ed., The First Forty Years of Washington Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906): vi; Calvin Jillson and Rick K. Wilson, Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination & Choice in the First American Congress, 1774–1789 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994); Donald A. Ritchie, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Pamela Scott, Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Louisa Thomas, Lousia: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams (New York: Penguin Press, 2016); United States Senate, “The Senate Opens Its Doors,” https://www.senate.gov/about/historic-buildings-spaces/chamber/senate-opens-doors.htm.