The Nomination Papers of the United States Senate, 1789–1946

Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No. 4 | Genealogy Notes

By John P. Deeben


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Article II, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution gives the President the power to nominate public officials with the Advice and Consent of the Senate. (General Records of the United States Government, RG 11)

It appeared to be a routine appointment. On December 12, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt nominated William Insco Buchanan to be envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the United States to the Republic of Panama. Buchanan was a career diplomat, having served previously as U.S. minister to the Argentine Republic from 1894 to 1899, as well as director general of the 1901 Pan American Exposition at Buffalo, New York. He had also supervised the World"s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and was generally regarded a competent expert on Latin America. The Senate immediately referred the nomination to its Committee on Foreign Relations. Four days later, Republican Senator Shelby M. Cullom of Illinois favorably reported the nomination back to the full Senate, and Buchanan was confirmed on December 17, 1903.

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The very next day, however, Democratic Senator John T. Morgan of Alabama filed a motion to reconsider the nomination. The Senate took up the matter on January 8, 1904. During the ensuing debate, Senator Morgan presented a written argument vehemently opposing Buchanan"s appointment. Although declaring no personal objections to the candidate, Morgan categorically denied the constitutionality of the nomination. Coming as it did on the heels of a revolution in November 1903 that severed Panama from the South American country of Colombia, the appointment appeared to be a hurried, extralegal maneuver by Roosevelt to recognize Panamanian sovereignty (and thereby acquire exclusive rights to an isthmian canal zone) without congressional participation. Such recognition, Morgan argued, required a formal treaty that established consular authority for a U.S. representative to Panama. The American minister to Colombia currently held such diplomatic jurisdiction. Morgan thus warned the Senate not to set a dangerous precedent that would allow the President "to appoint a minister plenipotentiary to any country, or to any state, or any government, de facto, or de jure, civil or military, that in his discretion he may choose to recognize as a power." Despite Morgan"s objections, the Senate tabled his motion on January 11, 1904, and upheld Buchanan"s confirmation.

For the most part, William I. Buchanan has been forgotten as a public servant in America"s diplomatic corps. The existence of a file among the papers of the United States Senate relating to presidential nominations, however, reveals some detail about Buchanan"s career. There, one may find the statement of Senator Morgan, preserved by the Senate more than 100 years ago, that eloquently documents Buchanan"s involvement in one of the foremost events of early 20th-century American diplomacy. The nomination files of the U.S. Senate thus offer a useful source of information for genealogical research regarding presidential appointments.

The Nature and Arrangement of the Records

The Constitution of the United States (Article II, section 2) requires the Senate to provide advice and consent for presidential nominations to major and minor federal offices, the federal judicial courts, and diplomatic personnel. In the confirmation process, senators typically considered the credentials of the nominee, the importance of the position, and the prevailing political climate. Unless a nominee proved glaringly unqualified, the Senate generally upheld presidential choices regarding appointments, especially for cabinet or other high-level positions. Sometimes, however, they invoked "senatorial courtesy," or the right of any senator who represented a nominee"s home state to reject certain appointments when jurisdiction for the position fell within that state. This practice allowed individual senators, in effect, to select nominees, turning the appointment process at times on its head. In a custom similar to that which allowed the President to make nominations without explanation, the Senate staunchly reserved the right to reject any nominee without obligation to specify reasons.

The confirmation of presidential nominations, along with the ratification of treaties, constituted an executive duty the Senate shared with the President. Both tasks were therefore performed in confidential sessions separate from regular legislative proceedings. The Senate only admitted the public and press on occasion if a nomination or treaty proved of special interest. Secrecy regarding executive sessions remained formally in place until 1929, although the results of proceedings were published regularly. Years later, during the 96th Congress (1979–1980), the Senate passed Resolution 474 closing nomination records for 50 years to protect the privacy of nominees.

Presidential nominations covered a wide array of federal positions over the ensuing years. In addition to cabinet-level posts, civilian nominations concerned such diverse positions as customs and revenue collectors; postmasters; territorial administrators; foreign service personnel such as envoys, consuls, and ambassadors; and judicial appointments including U.S. attorneys, marshals, and judges. Military nominations typically involved promotions in the army and navy or appointments of military personnel to civilian boards and commissions. Nineteenth-century nomination files quite often reflected appointments of a local or regional nature, while 20th-century files became more national and worldly in scope, comprising more diplomatic nominations as well as appointments relating to New Deal legislation in the 1930s and world bodies such as the United Nations.

Records in the nomination files vary considerably, both in quantity and content. It is important to remember that files were usually generated when appointments stimulated controversy and debate; a file may not exist for routine appointments. From 1789 to 1867, nominations were often debated and approved on the Senate floor on the same day they arrived from the President and produced no records beyond the President"s nominating message.

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Some gaps appear in the records of the early Congresses. No nomination papers exist for the Second through Fifth Congresses (1791–1799) or the Eighth Congress (1803–1805.) In 1868 the Senate adopted a rule to refer all nominations to an appropriate committee for consideration, although it is possible to find occasional referrals from as early as 1800. Once committees became routinely involved in the process, the official records of nominations were more reliably preserved.