Mar 012013

On February 27, 1801, less than one week before he assumed the office of President, Thomas Jefferson retrieved the first printed copy of his newly printed “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States” from publisher Samuel Smith. The manual was also announced that day in Smith’s own newspaper, The National Intelligencer. The manual is considered by many to be Jefferson’s most significant contribution while serving as Vice President. Jefferson began to compile material for the manual when he first began to preside over the Senate in 1797. John Adams was often criticized for the arbitrary nature of his rulings over the Senate, and Jefferson wished to instill rules that allowed minority members to voice their opinions without fear of tyranny of the majority. The manual included the rules of the Senate at that time, references to the U.S. Constitution, and common practices and rules from the British Parliament as noted in volumes created by Richard Wooddeson, Anchitell Grey, and John Hatsell.

Jefferson began the manual by discussing why a set of rules were important. He cited Hatsell’s assertion that “It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by, than what that rule is; that there may be an uniformity of proceeding in business, not subject to the caprice of the Speaker, or captiousness of the members. It is very material that order, decency and regularity, be preserved in a dignified public body.”

The wide spread tension in the new republic, and in particular the legislative branch, are evidenced in some of the rules that Jefferson chose to include in the manual. Here are a few, of what I consider to be, the most interesting rules in the manual. The notations (e.g., 6 Grey 332) reference the original work where Jefferson found the rule.
• When two members rise at the same time, the President shall name the person to speak; but in all cases, the member first rising, shall speak first. No member shall speak to another, or otherwise interrupt the business of the Senate, or read any printed paper while the Journals or public papers are reading, or when any member is speaking in any debate.
• No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, 6 Grey 332. Scob. 8. D’Ewes 332. col. 1. 640. col. 2. speaking or whispering to another; Scob.6. D’Ewes. 487. col. 1. nor to stand up or interrupt him; Town. col. 205. Mem. in Hakew. 31. nor to pass between the Speaker and the speaking member, nor to go across the House; Scob. 6. or to walk up and down it, or to take books or papers from the table, or write there. 2 Hats. 171. 
• For instances of assaults and affrays in the House of Commons, and the proceedings thereon, see 1. Pet. Misc. 82. 3 Grey 128. 4 Grey 328. 5 Grey 382. 6 Grey 254. 10Grey 8. Whenever warm words, or an assault, have passed between members, the House, for the protection of their members, requires them to declare in their places not to prosecute any quarrel; 3 Grey 128, 293. 5 Grey 289. or orders them to attend the Speaker, who is to accommodate their differences and report to the House: 3 Grey419. and they are put under restraint if they refuse, or until they do. 9 Grey 234, 312. 

Jefferson revised the manual in 1812. The House later adopted a portion of Jefferson’s manual to guide its own proceedings. The Senate no longer relies on the manual as its official guide, but published a special edition of it in 1993 to honor Jefferson’s 250th birthday. The accompanying photo is of Jefferson’s draft of the manual as found on the Library of Congress’ website. You can view an expanded version of the draft by visiting:


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