Fathers/Deans of the House

In the modern U.S. House of Representatives the Member with the longest continuous service is known as the “Dean of the House.” The practice of recognizing this individual—initially, and for many years, called the “Father of the House”—dates to the early nineteenth century and has changed over time.

Like so many aspects of the American legislative tradition, the idea derived from English Parliament. For two centuries, the British House of Commons has recognized its Father of the House. The use of that largely honorific title in Commons may extend as far back as the 1770s, though it seems not to have been an officially recognized position until the nineteenth century. The earliest Fathers in Commons were chosen based on changing qualifications: sometimes as the oldest, or as the member with the most aggregate service, or as the individual who entered Commons earlier than any other peer. But by the 20th century the term was applied consistently to the member who had the longest continuous service.1

The title “Father” found its way into usage in the U.S. House of Representatives several decades after the First Federal Congress convened in 1789. The earliest-known use of the term occurred in 1816, when John Randolph of Virginia acknowledged Richard Stanford of North Carolina during floor debate as the “father of the House, as being the oldest member.”2

House Chamber Postcard/tiles/non-collection/h/henderson_bingham_postcard_2006_032.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This 1902 postcard shows "Father of the House" Representative Henry Bingham of Pennsylvania swearing-in Speaker David Henderson of Iowa in the well of the House Chamber on December 2, 1901, the opening of the 57th Congress (1901–1903).
Decades earlier than the House of Commons, however, the Father of the U.S. House was defined as the individual with the longest continuous service. At the opening of the 19th Congress in 1825, the Register of Debates, then the official record of floor proceedings, for the first time referred to such an individual as the Father of the House: He was Virginia’s Thomas Newton, Jr., who first entered Congress in 1801, long before any of his other colleagues.3

Newton’s tenure as Father, followed by that of Lewis Williams of North Carolina in the 1830s, solidified the tradition. In 1842, while eulogizing Williams who had died mid-Congress, John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts clearly stated that the title Father recognized service rather than age. “Mr. Williams was and had long been, in the official language which we have adopted from the British House of Commons, the Father of the House,” Adams said, “and though my junior by nearly twenty years, I have looked up to him in this House, with the reverence of filial affection, as if he was the father of us all.”4

Throughout the 19th century, official sources and newspaper accounts widely used the term Father of the House. Increasingly, though, the House Journal and various records of debate described these individuals as being the “oldest consecutive member” or the “member longest in continuous service.” During the 1920s and 1930s, the term Dean of the House supplanted the use of Father. The precise reason for this innovation remains unclear.5

Swearing-in the Speaker

House Journal from December 6, 1819/tiles/non-collection/j/journal_1819126_highlighted.xml House Journal, 16th Cong.,1st sess. (6 December 1819): 7. The House Journal records Thomas Newton, Jr., of Virginia, swearing in Speaker Henry Clay on the opening day of the 16th Congress on December 6, 1819. It was the first instance of the longest-serving Member of the House swearing in the Speaker.
In modern practice, the Dean administers the oath of office to the Speaker.

This tradition has long roots and it took hold gradually in the early U.S. House. In the First Federal Congress (1789–1791), the chief justice of the New York supreme court, Richard Morris, swore-in Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, becoming the only non-House Member ever to do so.6 In the Congresses that followed, House Members with prior experience as jurists or who were distinguished lawyers swore-in the Speaker.7

The criteria for swearing-in the Speaker became less clear in the late 1790s, and for more than a decade that honor likely was based on factional politics or personal friendships. Eventually, the eldest Member or the Member with earliest service performed the duty. By the 1810s, Representative William Findley of Pennsylvania fit both criteria—then entering his eighth decade of life and also having served in the 2nd Congress (1791–1793). In 1811 and 1813, at the opening of the 11th and 12th Congresses, respectively, Findley administered the oath to Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky (as well as to Clay’s successor mid-Congress in 1814, Langdon Cheves of South Carolina).8

At the opening of the 16th Congress in 1819, as the House reoccupied the renovated Capitol after the War of 1812, Thomas Newton, Jr., swore in Speaker Clay—marking the first time that the individual with the longest continuous service had ever done so. Newton did not swear-in Speaker Philip Barbour in the succeeding Congress, but he did administer the oath to Speaker Clay at the opening of the 18th Congress on December 1, 1823. Though it would be another two years before official House records formally referred to Newton as Father, from that point onward Fathers of the House generally swore-in the Speaker.10


1Mark Sandford, “Father of the House,” 14 May 2015, House of Commons Library: 4–5, accessed at http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06399 (October 16, 2015). Only since the mid-1970s, the House of Commons’ “Father’s” responsibilities have included taking the chair and presiding over the election of a Speaker. The Father of Commons’ role in the selection of a Speaker is an adaptation of a long-standing tradition in the French National Assembly. Moreover, since 1789, the French National Assembly has appointed a “father” to preside over the opening of a new session. From the beginning, the designation of that individual has been determined solely upon their age—as the oldest member of the Assembly.

2Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 1st sess. (9 February 1816): 947; Daily Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 12 February 1816, Issue 966. Since the record of debate in that era, the Annals of Congress, summarized floor speeches rather than provide verbatim accounts, it’s unclear that Randolph actually used the word “oldest” or whether a reporter used it as shorthand. It seems clear though that Randolph alluded to the length of Stanford’s service, given that the House’s oldest Member, William Findley of Pennsylvania, an Irish immigrant born in either 1741 or 1742, was decades older than Stanford.

3Register of Debates, 19th Cong., 1st sess. (5 December 1825): 795.

4Hinds Precedents, Volume 2, section 1140: 751; Congressional Globe, 27th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 February 1842): 264.

5It seems plausible that “Father” may have been deemed obsolete as women (beginning with Jeannette Rankin of Montana in 1917) were elected as Members, transforming what had been for nearly 130 years an all-male institution.

6House Journal, 1st Congress, 1st sess. (7–8 April 1789): 11.

7In the 2nd Congress, Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire, who swore in Speaker Trumbull, had prior service as chief justice of the New Hampshire supreme court. In the 3rd Congress, Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts, swore-in Speaker Muhlenberg; he later served on the Massachusetts supreme court. In the 4th Congress, Isaac Smith of New Jersey, who swore-in Speaker Dayton, had prior service on the New Jersey supreme court. In the 5th Congress, Theophilus Bradbury of Massachusetts swore-in Speaker Dayton; Bradbury left Congress to serve on the Massachusetts supreme court.

8Findley, however, had a break in service in the early 1800s and at no point in his career had he ever been the member with longest continuous service.

9The rather technical exceptions to this statement occurred when Samuel Livermore swore in Speaker Jonathan Trumbull in the 2nd Congress and Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts swore-in Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg in the 3rd Congress both were “Fathers” in the sense that they were part of a large group of Members with continuous service since the First Federal Congress opened in 1789. At the opening of the 15th Congress in December 1817, Representative Newton was indisputably the Member with the longest continuous service. Still, he did not swear-in the Speaker at the opening of that Congress; Burwell Basset of Virginia performed that task though he did not stand out for age, length of service, or earliest service date.

10There have, however, been some notable exceptions where the Father or Dean has not been the individual who swore-in the Speaker. For instance, when the Speaker has been the actual father or Dean, then generally the second-longest serving member swears him in (see the example of Carl Vinson of Georgia administering the oath to Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1955, 1957, 1959, and 1961). At other times, the person designated to swear-in the Speaker has clearly not been the longest-serving Member but rather the longest-serving member of the Speaker’s party or state delegation (see the swearing-in of Speakers Frederick Gillett or Joseph Martin in 1947 and 1953; both were from Massachusetts). In at least one instance, an individual designated to swear-in the Speaker substituted for the actual Dean who was absent on opening day. For example, Wright Patman of Texas swore-in Carl Albert of Oklahoma as Speaker on opening day of the 92nd Congress in 1971. In Emanuel Celler’s absence, Albert referred to Patman as the “acting dean.”