Senate Sergeant At Arms: History Of The Police Officer That Protects The U.S Senate Floor

By | January 13, 2021

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Mace of the U.S. House of Representatives. (United States House of Representatives)

You may not realize it, but the sergeant at arms and doorkeeper of the United States Senate has one of the most important jobs in the country. The person in this role may not make any decisions for the country, but they protect the people who do.

The Most Important Hall Monitor

On April 7, 1789, James T. Mathers stepped up to the position at the head of the Office of the Doorkeeper for the first United States Congress, but not for the duties the job entails today. At the time, the government had major trouble keeping senators in the Capitol for long enough to meet quorum and get anything done, so Mathers's job was essentially making sure they showed up for work and didn't try to weasel out once they got there. He was also tasked with preventing anyone from interrupting the private sessions so the senators didn't get distracted. Basically, he was the country's most important hall monitor. He was on the job for six years before the sessions became public and the security of senators and aides in the Capitol was added to his job description.

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A group of Senate pages with Vice President Thomas R. Marshall on the steps of the Capitol, c. 1913-1921. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Mandates And Mail

We don't hear about senators getting impeached all that often, but in 1798, Mathers gained the title of sergeant at arms when he was given authorization to compel former senator William Blount to appear in Philadelphia for an impeachment trial after he ghosted the Senate. Following this successful use of power, the sergeant at arms was given additional abilities, such as the power to summon members of the Senate when ending filibusters and compel tardy senators to attend sessions. It's believed that if anyone gets truly out of control in the Capitol, they can be locked up in a detention room that's never been identified in the records of the Architect of the Capitol but may be modern-day room H-159.

By 1829, the sergeant at arms was given dominion over Senate pages, and the office of the sergeant briefly contained the first postmaster. Mathers died in office in 1811, so he never oversaw the mail. That was left to his replacement, Mountjoy Bayly. The Senate's post office still operates under the sergeant at arms's jurisdiction to this day.